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The Warner Theater

212 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, WI, U.S.A.

by Jim Rankin

When the memorable Butterfly Theatre of 1911 was demolished in 1930 along with two other buildings, it was to make way for what would become the fanciest theatre in Milwaukee and one of the most beautiful in the nation.

The Warner Brothers chain was looking for a first class opening in the city and spent $2.5 million to build this 2,400 seater. It is part of a 12-story office building veneered in marble and bronze spandrels and ornamented throughout in monel silver metal in Art Deco design. The lobby is a three story high dazzler in towering etched mirrors that were framed in deep maroon draperies with fringless tassels (drops) in silver silk and fringe.

An overview from the balcony grande staircase landing originally held a baby grand and a duet of violins to entertain the waiting throng on the patterned terrazzo floor below (fully carpeted not long after opening). This almost pure Art Deco space is illuminated by two giant chandeliers of concentric sheaths of etched glass, with matching five-foot-tall sconces on the marbled piers under the silver-leafed plaster of the geometrically molded ceiling.

On entering the auditorium one sees a vista in Louis XIV garnished with some lines and details from the Art Deco French. This room is not the reserved silver and maroon of the lobby, but an exuberant gold and wine with accents in antique verde and teal. Both side walls have three murals "after Fragonard" with scenes of courtly capers and above each is a gilded sunburst patterned grille back lighted by hidden cove lights above, in three colors.

Carrying the eye downward, the flanking organ screens are unusual in being free-standing arches within an arched bay that is also topped with another lighted grille, and the back of the archway is covered in draped velvets and a glittered scrim adorned with jeweled star shapes in aluminum.

Centering the bottom of the arch is a five-foot tall golden amphora on pedestal with a back lit stained glass mural on its front of the Muses at play. Just as the top rear of the archway is graced with a stylized sunburst (Louis the XIV was the 'Sun King' and the sunburst motif was a signature of architects Rapp & Rapp) in gold leafed stylized rays, the chandeliers fronting the screens are also a stylized sunburst with etched glass 'rays' bejeweled with stained glass roundels, even though the wall sconces were hybrid designs having etched glass panels fronted by chains of glass beads with pendeloques.

The proscenium arch took up that entire wall, but the rectangular arch was relieved by clever enrichments in a central cartouche flanked by cornucopias and volutes and even a mask or two to break up the gilded lines. Half the arch was filled by the enormous Grand Drapery, a combination of five swags of maroon velour fringed in gold upon a lambrequin of crushed honey velvet, the whole adorned with four, eight-foot-tall pendants of padded silver silk fronted with a pattern of small squares of mirrors set into tiny brass frames, and this in addition to 15, 2-foot-long tassels and 18 similar fringeless drops of three molds each.

When the grilled dome above and the proscenium cove lights turned on with the footlights, this all took on a wonderful glow, as the 3 manual, 28 rank Kimball theatre pipe organ rose upon its lift to begin the overture. With only an 18-foot-deep stage, the theater was not really designed for stage shows, but mostly for film.

The blueprints show that provision was made for a motorized orchestra pit elevator, but along with other amenities, it was omitted as a cost conservation as the Great Depression made itself felt.

They did find money, however, for a display fountain in the basement lounge as well as on the next three levels above. The foregoing is a description of the former Warner at opening and is not entirely reflective of the state of affairs as of 2002.

The organ is now in Milwaukee's Oriental Theater ever since the former Warner was split in two in 1973 and became the Centre Cinemas, and in 1982 was renamed the Grand Cinemas (in honor of the Grand Avenue Mall then opening across the street) until it closed in 1995.

We can only hope that the Symphony buys it for their secondary concert hall (their primary venue being the Marcus Performing Arts Center), but what the unfortunate adaptations to their needs might do to this venerable showpiece showplace, we can only wait and see. Let us hope that they and their money backers will like grand theater architecture as much as grand music, for plans have been drawn by the current owner to demolish it if the Symphony declines.

Acoustic tests have declared the undivided theater to be excellent, and the Symphony is encouraged, but the price tag of renovations, and probably some form of parking structure next door could be as much as $50 million, a steep price for a regional orchestra, even though the community did find $100 million to open its art center this year.

If it is saved, we hope for a sympathetic treatment for this, probably the finest of Rapp & Rapp's medium scale works.

Thoughts on the Warner Theatre
by Jim Searles

Under the Warner Theatre’s lobby there is a 100 seat viewing room. It was used for previews to determine film distribution.

Near the end of its life, a water main burst flooding the theatre up to the first floor. That happened when they turned off the heat in the building to save money. By the time a crew arrived to shut off the water, the damage was extensive. The electrical service rooms flooded. The master electrical breakers inside the city's power vault under the sidewalk behind the stage (another reason it is difficult to extend the stage with only modest expense) blew open cutting off most of the theatre’s power.

The office building above the theater was not affected. None of the auditorium and projection room lights worked and the African zebrawood and mahogany paneling of the basement lounge was badly warped. Needless to say, all paint, gilt and much of the ornamental plaster on that level was ruined, and the major restrooms down there were not accessible. The dividing floor of 1973 that created the Centre I & II Theatres had been removed. The open space from the alteration now would be easy to repair. The entire balcony front below the first crossover aisle was removed in those days, so that concrete and steel, as well as the original ornamental plaster front with its dozen spotlight holes had to be rebuilt and reseated. When the dividing floor was installed, steel beams were thrust through the proscenium arch to connect to the steel columns inside the back stage wall, and this makes the staging equipment unusable.

The ornate organ screens were completely removed and now are only black acoustic material plainly nailed to a wooden superstructure over the old swell shutter holes; this must be restored somehow, even though the then wonderful 28-rank Kimball organ was removed and reinstalled in the ORIENTAL Theatre long ago (1973). Reportedly, the projection equipment had been removed and sold, limiting the theater’s use. Gone also was the movie screen and the draperies.

The city steam equipment was now only partially working, and just barely kept the place above freezing in our sometimes sub-zero climate. There was some damage to the murals due to mildew, and some water damage from rain leaks.

For what it’s worth, the Milwaukee Symphony paid Altec for sound testing in the building. The Symphony’s acoustics consultant said it is excellent acoustically and far better than the PAC. —Adapted from an article originally written by Jim Rankin

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