Early Film at the Davidson
In 1890 John and Alexander Davidson built the Davidson Hotel, located at 621 N. Third Street, in Milwaukee, Wis. Housed within the building was the Davidson theater, whose entrance was through the front of the hotel.
John and Alexander Davidson, wealthy Chicago brothers, built their theatre on land where their father had made a fortune in quarrying. They hired Sherman Brown, a stylish 22-year-old impresario from nearby Oshkosh, as the first manager. Brown, a generous and genial man and an ardent lover of good theatre, remained active for the next 40 years and is still recalled fondly by many old-timers.
“Its theatrical history was interrupted occasionally by films.” In August and September 1898, the Alhambra and the Davidson Theater showed "all the pictures of the late War" (Spanish-American war) projected by "the great biograph." with “Thrilling Pictures of U.S. Battleship Maine." War films were popular enough to play concurrently at both theaters. In March 1889, the Davidson Theater also advertised for the "'FATAL CINEMATOGRAPH' and its 'VICTORIOUS ARMIES, NOVEL EFFECTS, BRILLIANT SCENERY and NEWSPAPERDOM!,'" explicitly presenting film as a newspaper-like attraction. The Birth of a Nation was shown at the Davidson in 1915, at prices ranging from a quarter to a dollar.”
The Davidson Theater’s repertoire was primarily directed toward live theatre pulling in countless stage greats: Sarah Bernhardt, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Irene Dunne, Boris Karloff and Fred Allen. Milwaukee’s own Pat O’Brien played there too, in James Gleason’s stock company. Milwaukee Journal, Remember When.
Live Theater at the Davidson
Among all legitimate houses on the road, Milwaukee’s Davidson was held in peculiar affection by touring theatre folk prior to its closing in 1954. It had a friendly, neighborly atmosphere that pervaded the whole city. It was only a half block from the busiest corner in town, Third Street and Wisconsin Avenue; consequently, dark or not, it was always brightly lighted. Most of the actors’ hotels were within easy walking distance. The union station was only a block and a half from the site, and that made it handy for travelers. Its spaciousness was in the architectural style of the 1890s. Half an acre of lounge and office space extended behind the second floor balcony; the manager had a huge room, which was adjoined by one, equally large, for the press agents and company managers, who had ample space for desk work and for dozing after their labors.
The Davidson’s life span was 63 and half years – some mediocre, but most of them good years, presenting plays, vaudeville, film and musicals. It held the Klaw and Erlanger franchise, which was synonymous with most of the good plays on the road. The Shuberts leased a rival house on the other side of the Milwaukee River, but when hard times compelled the competitors to book cooperatively, the Davidson got almost all the plays. The Theatre Guild, in its lone-wolf role of the 1930s and ‘40s, gave its business to the Pabst Theatre, the traditional home of symphony, opera and German repertory.
“A Night of Splendor” was the Milwaukee Journal headline from the opening night, September 8, 1890. The main speaker at the dedication was Mayor George W. Peck, later the governor of Wisconsin and author of the widely read Peck’s Bad Boy stories. “This building, which has cost a quarter of a million dollars, will endure for ages,” he assured a capacity audience of 1,600. “When Milwaukee shall have acquired a population of a million, let us hope that our great-grandchildren are as enthusiastic friends of this theatre as we are tonight.” But this was a vain, delusive hope since Milwaukee had a long way to go to reach a million and the Davidson would end up a shabby, vacant storefront and a parking lot. Luckily, this could not be foreseen by that first-night throng of Nunnemachers, Auers, Landauers, Pfisters, Vogels, Mitchells (the family of the famed General Billy Mitchell) and so on. The first-night offering was an odd choice: the opera “L’Africaine” presented by the famed Emma Juch and her company. It lasted until after midnight, and many seats were by then unoccupied.
From the start, however, the Davidson got the pick of the world’s theatre luminaries. Modjeska with young Otis Skinner, Salvini, Mansfield, Sothern and Marlowe (who were not then a team), Willie Collier, Sol Smith Russell, Francis Wilson, Bernhardt – what an institution was the road then!
Four years after its opening, the Davidson suffered a disastrous fire that killed nine firemen and injured fifteen. The fire began at 4 a.m., so no patrons were endangered. A troupe of midgets, quartered in an adjoining hotel, was carried to safety by volunteers, one of whom was Charles K. Harris. He was already a widely known songwriter, having brought out “After the Ball” two years previously.
For the next generation, the Davidson’s annals make impressive reading. When the elegant John Drew wowed them in “The Masked Ball,” Maude Adams was playing opposite him. John’s sister, Georgie Drew Barrymore, starred in “Mr. Wilkinson’s Widow,” hardly foreseeing that her three children, Lionel, Ethel and John, would be on that same stage many times in the years ahead. Her husband, Maurice, along with Holbrook Blinn, was only a supporting player to Marie Burroughs in “The Battle of the Strong.” As the 20th century moved along, the Davidson’s stars and dramas formed a galaxy. There were 30 to 40 road shows a year, and a summer-stock company, too. Pauline Lord was a particular favorite of the stock audiences. A glance through the programs reveals William Gillette in “Sherlock Holmes,” Olga Nethersole in the wicked “Sapho,” James (father of Eugene) O’Neill in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” De Wolf Hopper, Ditmar Poppen in "The Student Prince," Dustin Farnum, the four Cohans, Henry B. Walthall, David Warfield, Minnie Maddern Fiske, and so on, right up to Katharine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, Edward G. Robinson and Van Heflin (the latter four returning to the stage from Hollywood). The wheel had come full cycle before the wreckers moved in on March,1954. A department store and hotel firm, which owned the site, found a more profitable use for it. The Davidson’s final attraction was the Canadian National Ballet Company” Theatre Arts (magazine) , April 1958, Famous American Theatres by Walter Monfried, Theatre and Music Editor of the Milwaukee Journal. Back to HISTORY topics