Back to HISTORY topics

SEARCH Astor Theater Site

The Toy Building (1915 - 1946)

The Toy Building, also known as the Shanghai Building, was located in Milwaukee’s downtown at 736 N. Second St. It housed the Toy (Crystal) Theater, the Toy Chinese Restaurant, the Hascall Billiard Parlor and a few small commercial businesses. Looking at the picture of the front of the building, the Chinese calligraphy written across the building at the forth and fifth floor are ancient Chinese characters which translate saying: Shanghai Building. The entire front of the building was covered with fired ceramic tiles. The roof tiles and overhang tiles were red. The vertical writings on each side are poetic and hard to interpret. Starting at the top of the right side the characters translate as follows: upper garden, writers, celebrity, together. On the other side the characters translate starting at the top: house outside, knowing you better than you know yourself. The characters can have different interpretations. Note the two Chinese dragons at the top of the roof and they also appear on the second floor loggia. The entire design is one reflecting Shanghai, China. 

TOY Theater 1915-1924, First Floor

        Designed by architect Alexander Guth, the TOY Theatre was a small 460 seat theater on the first floor of the Toy Building. (see theater newspaper ad) In the front of the building a skeleton letter light bulb sign projected from the façade. “Open channel letters, meaning 3-D but open/hollow in front with light bulbs in the letter. Each letter then was mounted on a steel "skeleton" frame/structure, typical of pre-neon (pre 1925) electric signs.”  —Tod Swormstedt, American Sign Museum.
The sign on the top of the roof a sign read "Chop Suey" and the theater sign on the second floor overhang read "Toy." It had space at the bottom to put in the name of the movie playing at the theater, in this case it was The Blindness of Virtue, based on Cosmo Hamilton's play of the same name.
        This silent, 1915 six-reeled film by the Essanay Film Manufacturing Co., is synopsized thusly: Expelled from college, Archibald Graham (Bryant Washburn) is shipped off to England by his wealthy father, who has arranged that Archie become an apprentice to kindly Reverend Harry Pemberton (Thomas McLarnie). The experience is supposed to "straighten out" the unruly Archie, but the boy is more interested in the local female population than in serving God. Eventually, however, our hero cleans up his act and tries to live his life within the proper moral boundaries. Unfortunately, he is caught in an innocent but compromising situation in a London hotel room, whereupon Rev. Pemberton angrily washes his hands of the boy. But the truth prevails, and in the final scene Archie is shown marching down the aisle with Pemberton's pretty daughter Edna Mayo. —Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide.
        The entry to the theater was under a red tile loggia with upturned eaves projecting  from the second story. Brass Oriental lanterns lit the loggia on each side. Copings flanked the steep mansard at the top of the building with terminal dragons in terra-cotta advancing the theme.
        Typical of early movie theaters, the ventilation was almost non-existent. They had a reputation for being hot and stuffy. Note the electric fans along the walls on each side of the theater. The rotating fans were the only ventilation method used to move the air. 
        Many of the city's early film exchanges were located in the top three floors of the building. The early movies were often of poor quality – grainy. No one cared. It was new and exciting. Later film exchanges were all clustered in the State Street area. MGM’s (Metro-Goldwin-Mayer) Milwaukee office was located at 832 W. State. All of the major studio’s film distribution offices were located within one block.
        The films came in by train and were picked up by the distribution offices. Movies were shipped in Vitaphone hex-shaped film cases that held 4 to 6 reels. I weighed one of my old Vitaphone 35mm film cases with four reels in it at about 50 lbs. From the film distribution offices the movies were dropped off in the morning in front of the theater or in the lobby. A feature length film would have had six reels. The projectionist had to haul the film cases up four flights of stairs to get to the projection room. After the show ended, the reels were left in front of the theater for pick up the next day. The reels were not re-wound. The film distribution office would re-wind the reels repairing tears, bad splices or missing footage before sending to the next location. Films sometimes did get to the theaters with a bad splice. The projectionist was supposed to inspect each reel before running it. A bad splice hitting the gears could do lots of damage to the projector.
        Up until 1960, movies were shown using two projectors. The projectionist (all men) had to make sure that they ran the films in correct reel order. The projectionist started reel #1 on the first projector. About 10 seconds from the end of the reel, a small circle flashed briefly in the corner of the screen. In addition a reel alarm bell started to ring on the top of the projector. This alerted the projectionist to get ready to fire up the other projector. The projectionist fired the second projector up with the next reel just as the other ran out. If the projectionist taking a nap, the screen went bright white when the film ran out. The audience started to yell. Soon the next reel was running. While the second reel was running, the projectionist removed the first reel on the other projector threading the next reel in sequence. In addition the projectionist had to control the house lights and run the 50V 100 amp travel spots if they were running a show. The carbon arc lights used in theaters were always a fire risk. 
        In 1924 the TOY Theater closed. The population of Milwaukee since 1900 had almost doubled. The new movie palaces coming upon the scene made modest cinemas like this one obsolete. The era of hot stuffy theaters was rapidly being replaced by movie palaces with “water chilled” central ventilators. Without the "theater", the Toy Building remained on Second St., with the Toy Restaurant as the primary tenant until around 1950.

TOY Restaurant Second Floor, Toy Building

The restaurant was located on the second floor of the Shanghai Building at 736 N. Second Street. The restaurant was the principle tenant in the six story commercial building. Charlie Toy was the entrepreneurial owner who gave his name to the establishment. Toy originally worked for Karl Ratzsch as a waiter before starting his own business here. The restaurant became famous for its Chop Suey among other Chinese menu items. Also contributing to its fame were the dance bands that played there, among them was the Sig Heller band of local notoriety. The Toy restaurant had an unusual façade including large fierce winged dragons all around the top of the dark wood support columns. Dark wood beams ran between the columns. The entrance had a rather wide staircase with a mural of a large dragon that snaked up the staircase as you ascended.
        The Toy Restaurant remained in business at the Second Street location until about 1950, when it was relocated at 300 W. Wisconsin Ave., above Walgreen's, which is the location of the Toy's Chinatown Restaurant most of us remember. (Walgreen's was known locally as the 300 club.) Later on in 1968, because of downtown renovation and a new Federal Building slated for its spot, Toy's Chinatown Restaurant was then moved from its Wisconsin Ave. location to 830 N. Old World Third St. by Moy Toy, the then owner of the business. The Chinese waiters (wearing black) were all men. When taking orders, nothing was written down. Toy's family was among the first Chinese restaurant owners in Milwaukee. Moy Toy died in 1980, and his son and daughter-in-law, Edward and Laura Toy, took ownership.

Memories of the Toy Restaurant

“I remember that it was a big deal for me when someone's aunt in my Wauwatosa neighborhood volunteered to take a group of us pre-teen girls to lunch downtown at Toy's on Wisconsin Avenue above Walgreens. It was a big expedition. We had to take the bus downtown and I was frightened of getting lost in the big city, because I'd only been downtown with my parents a couple of times. I was so frightened that I don't remember much about the lunch. I was intimidated by the foreignness of it all. Even after Toy's moved, I remembered that experience every time I saw their sign.” —Donna Pogliano 
        “Spent my 18th birthday at Toy's with Bill Schroeder of Schroeder's Books... had my first Singapore Sling and pressed duck... Toys became a favorite spot... very reasonable. Downtown was full of sailors. The sailors came in on the train from the Great Lakes Naval Base in Waukegan, Ill... came into the Northwest Depot they loved Toy's.”
—Taffnie Bogart 
        When I was a kid we lived out near Hales Corners, which, after the speedrail (inter-urban light rail) folded in the early 50's, required an hour's walk and a good two hours by bus to get into downtown. That meant a trip into town was a major production. Every year at teacher's convention when we had school off, my Mom would take my brother and I into town to shop, catch a movie, and we always ate at Toy's, which was really exotic to a kid from the country. My strongest memory was the incredible dragon that was painted on the wall of the staircase that led from the street to the second floor. To a kid it was the biggest, most colorful thing he had even seen – and when I found out my last name was derived from "draco" (the constellation of the dragon), I forever became a fan of the exotic and of adventure.”
—David HB Drake

Hascall  Billiard Parlor, TOY Building, Third Floor

        Looking carefully at the front of the building, each window on the third floor had either HASCALL or BILLIARDS lettered on it. This floor housed the Hascall Billiard Parlor. Billiards were a popular pastime in those days and it wasn’t hard to find a billiard parlor not too far from wherever people congregated. Note that the billiard table did not have pockets. Billiards or three cushion is played with two white balls one of which has a black dot. In addition a red ball is on the table.  Each player has a white ball. The object is to hit three cushions plus one of the other balls (after the last cushion). The ball can have “English” (spin) put on it by hitting the ball slightly off center with the cue stick. The spin affects the bounce off the cushion. Trying to figure out the angles and the “English” needed is a high skill game once popular. Billiards was a game played by gentleman. Pool was quite a different story.
         “Well, either you're closing your eyes to a situation you do now wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community. Ya got trouble, my friend, right here, I say, trouble right here in River City. Why sure I'm a billiard player, certainly mighty proud I say, I'm always mighty proud to say it. I consider that the hours I spend with a cue in my hand are golden. Help you cultivate horse sense and a cool head and a keen eye. Never take and try to give an iron-clad leave to yourself from a three-rail billiard shot? But just as I say, it takes judgment, brains, and maturity to score In a balkline game, I say that any boob kin take and shove a ball in a pocket.”  — The Music Man  

Commentary: “The Toy Building was razed in 1946” —  Veronica Takahashi  

Back to HISTORY topics