SAXE'S WISCONSIN THEATRE (1924 - 1986)
Neither rain and sleet above nor slush below dampened the enthusiasm of the 1,000 uniformed marchers and the 3,500-odd citizens who gathered to pay homage to Milwaukee's newest monument to civic progress, the new Wisconsin theater, Friday night.
A full half-hour before the time set for the opening number on the program, every seat in the house was filled and hundreds stood in a mass formation before the Grand Avenue entrance waiting a chance to use their admissions and to view the magnificent show place of the northwest.
Many features combine to make the theater worthy of all the praise which has gone before it including deep carpets in a red tone and soft-cushioned seats for comfort which work together to make the theater an object of pride and satisfaction to all who attend it." The Milwaukee Journal, March 29, 1924
Saxe's Wisconsin was the largest theatre built in the state, seating 3,275 patrons. Built by architects Rapp & Rapp of Chicago, with the direction of Charles Brewster, this theater was located in the six-story Carpenter Building at 6th St. and Wisconsin Avenue. It opened March 28th of 1924 with long lines extending outside the theatre waiting to get in. Note the elaborate original marquee, which was typical of the era.
The lobby was white marble with a split grand staircase carpeted in green, which lead to the mezzanine and balcony. The lobby had oil paintings and statuary serving as a place for people to wait to get into the auditorium for the next show. Three huge chandeliers lit the lobby with smaller chandeliers along the mezzanine promenade. Once inside the French Baroque auditorium a recessed orchestra pit extended out into the seating area and under the stage beyond the line of the gold gilt proscenium arch. The design allowed for a much larger orchestra. In addition it had two organ consoles both used to play the 3/17-rank Barton theatre pipe organ. At an opening of a movie there would have been with a full orchestra plus the organ following a score that came with the silent film.
Here I need to digress a bit to explain the difference between a theatre pipe organ and a church pipe organ. The theatre pipe organs had all sorts of special sound effects that they could generate – tuba, xylophones, strings, glockenspiel, orchestral bells, chimes, harp, cymbal, sleigh bell, electronic brush, and locomotive bell. In addition they also could mimic the sounds of the trumpet, oboe horn, saxophone, clarinet, flute, tambourine and castanets. Next it could generate the sound of wood block, snare drum, base drum and kettledrum. For special effects the organ could duplicate a bird whistle or a steamboat whistle. The pipe used to create a bird whistle was half filled with water. As the air went through the pipe it "gurgled" creating the chirping bird whistle sound. Open up the rank and it really could get the low rumble of thunder.
The wood block sound from the organ would have been used during a cowboy movie. The hero was furiously riding his horse pursued by banditos. Five minutes later Tom Mix had shot all the bad guys and was kissing the girl (or his horse). The clippety-clop of the beating hoofs came from the wood block. The sounds of the gunshots are a theatre technique. When we snap a wood block clapper together behind the curtain it really does sound like a gunshot. Throw in the orchestra and any concept of a silent movie was gone. The reason that the old movie palaces worked so well had much to do with the theaters design for sound. Plaster has an entirely different sound reverberation than sheet rock used today. The last draw of the plaster was over a sheet of cloth holding the sound waves. You could sit in the 50th row of a theatre and talk in a normal voice to some one on stage. Architects knew how to build a theatre to accomplish this.
The theatre used air-cooling that pre-dated today’s air-conditioning systems. Under the seats, the air handlers pushed the air return over massive banks of pipes running cold water. It was a complicated expensive system to operate. One of the noted features at the theatre was the highly trained usher and the building took a large crew of them to operate.
Screens used for silent movies were smaller then. The original projectors used a low intensity Peerless Carbon Arc as a light source in the lamp house. The lamp house did not originally have a mirror at the back. The projectors were unusually long because the carbon arc lamp was located at the rear in order to keep the heat away from the nitrocellulose film, which was highly flammable and potentially explosive. The projection booth walls had a four-hour asbestos pyro-block structure for fire safety. The projection booth had small windows opening to the theater through which they projected the image onto the screen. In the event of a fire, a fuse link melted, dropping a plate over the window opening. With the advent of color film, it was necessary to switch to a Peerless High intensity lamp house. The original Peerless did not have enough lumens to project color. The Wisconsin Theatre would later switch to Xenon lamp houses with 70 mm projectors, then running on a much larger screen.
Typical of the times, the theatre ran both shows and movies. The Four Ink Spots was one of many nationally known artists to appear on the stage of the Wisconsin theater. Harry Holloway headed up the Milwaukee Sentinel Talent Quest as one of the stage shows.
The Wisconsin Theater was housed in the Carpenter building, which had a large roof top dance hall. It could handle a thousand people doing the Texas Tommy, Foxtrot, Animal Dances, Waltz, Tango, and Maxixe. In the summer, you could dance the night away in the open air for a dime. The large French Baroque bandstand on the roof could handle an orchestra of 25 to 30 musicians. Young people could go there to mix and meet, join the dancing and perhaps succumb to cupid’s arrow. A large neon sign on the roof was visible from the street spelling out “Roof Dancing.” For years after the roof was closed a large painted sign with the words DANCING – WISCONSIN ROOF was still visible on the east side of the building.
Movie theatres were constantly under pressure to upgrade in order keep customers coming in the door. By the 1940s, all traces of the Wisconsin’s "gingerbread” (elaborate exteriors) were gone. The era of orchestras and pipe organs were over – trashed. By the 1960s the Wisconsin theater was rapidly heading into death throes – while the city population too was rapidly dropping. The freeways that were supposed to have brought people into the city, instead moved them out. In 1963 the theater tried to change to stay in business. The theater was split into two theaters (Wisconsin Cinemas I & II) with a new modern marquee. Out went the chandeliers in the lobby. A double escalator went up four stories through the ceiling into the balcony foyer. The gold leaf was spray painted over to a tan color. Remember this rule: “To the child black and white is old and old is bad.” They were looking for a sleek new modern look. A new stainless steel concession stand was added in the lobby. Popcorn, soda, snacks are now the driving forces keeping theaters alive. The update worked to some limited effect, while running 70mm movies in the main lower theatre. By this time the rules had shifted with most of the ticket sale revenue going to the studios. By 1986 it was over. One of the large alabaster statues from the theater ended up at the Milwaukee Central Library.
Editors note: Part of the information on the Barton 3/17 organ came from an article on the Patio Theatre’s Barton 3/17 www.catoe.org/patio.html Back to topics