"Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" Book Feature
This feature by Tom Daykin appeared in the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" on January 2, 2007
Times changing hands: Theater's new owner to add live music, beer, wine
The Times Cinema, an art house theater in Milwaukee's Washington Heights area, will undergo major changes, including live music performances and an expanded concessions stand with wine and beer, the cinema's new owner said Tuesday.
The Times, 5906 W. Vliet St., is being sold to Larry Widen, a freelance writer, film buff and former marketing director at Covenant Healthcare. Widen is buying the business from long-time owners Eric and Sue Levin, and he will employ Eric Levin as the cinema's general manager.
Widen declined to say how much he's paying for the business, or for the 9,000-square-foot building. The real estate is being sold separately to Widen's brother-in-law, real estate broker David Glazer, who will eventually sell the building to Widen. Both the real estate sale and sale of the business are to be completed today.
Widen said his entire investment, including the planned improvements, will total around $500,000.
The Times, a single-screen theater known for showing independent films and the occasional classic movie, is "a real neighborhood gem," Widen said.
But the business has been underused, he said. Widen said the planned improvements are designed to help showcase a wider variety of films, as well as live events, including three blues concerts already booked for this spring.
"I think the audience is there," Widen said. "It's just a question of providing a variety so we can be more things to more people."
The first project will be an expanded concession stand, including a pizza oven and coolers for wine and specialty beers, Widen said. He said the cinema has applied for a tavern license.
Ald. Michael Murphy, whose district includes Washington Heights, said he supports the tavern license application, pending a meeting with nearby residents to get their views. Murphy said he doesn't anticipate any objections from the cinema's neighbors.
The expanded concessions, especially wine and beer sales, will help boost the cinema's profit margins, Widen said.
The tavern license also will make it possible to stage live music performances. Blues harmonica player Corky Siegel has been booked for an April 28 concert, with bluesmen Sam Lay and David "Honeyboy" Edwards set for separate shows in May and June, Widen said.
Widen plans to install new seats with cup holders. The aisles will be wider, and some of the front rows will be removed to make room for easy chairs and sofas, he said. Those changes will reduce the cinema's seating capacity from around 440 to 350.
Also, a digital video projector will be installed. That will allow the cinema to show documentaries, animated shorts and other limited-release items that film studios are making available only on DVDs, Widen said.
Along with the videos and live performances, the Times also will be booking more classic films to complement its lineup of new independent releases, Widen said. He said a recent showing of "It's a Wonderful Life" drew a very strong audience.
Eric Levin, who partnered with his mother to buy the Times in 1993, said it was difficult to accept "that loss of autonomy" that comes with selling the cinema. Before acquiring the Times, the Levins operated the Avalon Theatre, in Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood, for seven years.
But Levin also said selling the Times creates an opportunity to expand the business.
"Larry does have access to the capital to make improvements," Levin said.
Widen said his funds to buy and improve the cinema come from savings and investments. He is not borrowing any money for the project.
Widen is a former longtime advertising and marketing executive. His positions included serving as marketing director at Covenant Healthcare from 1992 to 2002. He also is a freelance writer and author, whose books include the recently published "Silver Screens: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee's Movie Theaters."
The building that houses the Times is being sold separately by Jay Hollis, who operates the Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse, at 6823 W. North Ave., in Wauwatosa. The Rosebud primarily shows first-run mainstream films, has sofa seating, and serves beer, wine and cocktails.
Hollis decided in August to sell the building. Hollis made that announcement after failing in his legal effort to oust the Times Cinema in hopes of creating a new business in its place.
Widen said he considers Hollis a "friendly competitor." Even though the Rosebud and Times are relatively near one another, the Rosebud's focus on mainstream films caters to a different audience than what the Times Cinema targets, Widen said.
"There's room for both," said Hollis, who recently partnered with restaurant owner Michael Feker to open Il Mito Enoteca, an Italian eatery at 6913 W. North Ave.