The Long Rebirth of a Neighborhood Movie Palace
When ground was broken for the Avalon Theater in 1927, Milwaukee had more than 80 theaters within the city limits and virtually every Milwaukeean was within a short walk or streetcar ride from their neighborhood cinema. It was also a grand period for theater building in the city. Between 1926 and 1929, 15 new theaters opened, including such architectural gems as the Uptown, Zenith and Garfield, and such long-running houses as the Riverside and Oriental.
When the Avalon closed in 2000 after a 71-year run as Bay View’s neighborhood movie house, it left just three classic-era theaters still operating in the city (the East Side’s Downer and Oriental and the West Side’s Times Cinema) and it seemed that the utility of the old neighborhood theater might never see a revival.
But over the past few years, the Avalon has experienced a comeback that, in the context of Milwaukee’s movie-going history, is something like a final-act Hollywood miracle ending. As it prepares to host several prime attractions in this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival, the Avalon stands as the incredibly rare example of a local theater reopened and thriving.
Incidentally, the Avalon was nearly scuttled before it even opened. Jack Silliman, owner of a chain of local cinemas, commissioned the theater in 1927 and hired Russell Barr Williamson, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, to design what was to be the jewel of his holdings. But Silliman’s grand dreams for the theater—including a basement bowling alley and an upstairs dance hall—ran the project over budget. For two years, the steel skeleton of the building stood bare while Silliman tried to find financing for his gem. In 1929, he finally secured the funding, but only after selling eight of his other theaters and agreeing to rework the plans to include a row of storefronts and 20 upstairs apartment units. It was the income from rent on these spaces that reassured the lenders.
When the house finally opened on May 1, 1929, Bay View moviegoers found that it was well worth the wait. The Avalon featured a mix of Spanish and Mediterranean styles throughout the building. Moorish archways led into and from the lobby, which was trimmed with wrought-iron railings and featured a statue of Athena, the Greek goddess of inspiration and the arts. The auditorium was designed to feel like a Mediterranean garden with an open-air view of the night’s sky. The ceiling itself was outfitted with 140 twinkling lights, a replication of the stars above Granada, Spain. The Avalon was one of six Milwaukee theaters to use this “atmospheric” style.
With a seating capacity of about 1,600 on the floor and in a small balcony, the Avalon was one of several “neighborhood palaces” that brought the glamour of Downtown movie-going to smaller commercial strips throughout Milwaukee. These theaters did not run new releases—those were still exclusive to the Downtown houses—but offered movies a few months past their debut dates at a discounted price. With a central location in a cozy neighborhood of working-class families, the Avalon earned a loyal customer base and managed to survive through the 1950s and ’60s, when so many other city theaters fell victim to suburbanization. By 1970, with the Avalon given a mod Day-Glo makeover and renamed the Garden Theater, only 25 theaters remained in operation in the city.
As the Garden, then again as the Avalon, the theater survived on second-run films and live music through the 1980s and ’90s. But after a prolonged slump in the summer of 2000, and a failed attempt to secure a liquor license from the city, the curtain fell on the second oldest operating movie theater in Milwaukee.
At first, it seemed as though the shuttering of the Avalon would be short-lived. In 2002, a group of investors purchased the building and planned on reopening it after a series of renovations. But financial troubles ended the reboot before it even began. In 2003, the building’s owners announced a plan to convert the theater into office space if a new buyer could not be found. The next year, the Avalon was on the “Top Ten Endangered Properties” list of the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation and local theater buffs feared that the end for the theater was near.
But the story of the Avalon still had many surprise turns and twists to come. In 2005, investor Lee Barczak, who had frequented the theater as a boy, bought the building for $1.1 million and announced plans with a targeted reopen date of 2007. But the work in remodeling and updating the house was slow and progress was stymied by the sluggish economy. As the years passed, the challenges facing the theater’s relaunch mounted as the movie marketplace, which had already rendered neighborhood houses like the Avalon nearly obsolete, was further tightened by streaming video services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Meanwhile, the same storefronts and apartments that had allowed the building to be completed in the first place provided an income stream that kept the dream of a reopened Avalon alive.
Finally, in December 2014, Bay View welcomed back its long-shuttered neighborhood theater. After $2 million worth of renovations that took nearly a year to complete, the Avalon was both returning to its roots and looking to the future.
Central to the theater’s rebirth was the preservation of the original awe and wonder of the movie-going experience. With a restored lobby and auditorium, the carefully crafted motifs and themes of Russell Barr Williamson’s design once again became a part of the show. “We want to give people a different experience that doesn’t look like a multiplex,” Avalon General Manager Terry Tayler told the Shepherd Express. Tayler cited the restoration of the auditorium’s ceiling and the modernization of its twinkling star effect (the ceiling now features the occasional shooting star among the 1,400 bulbs) as a major part of the carefully planned Avalon experience. “The atmospheric theater is purposely there to take you away. You can’t get that at your house. You can’t get that at the multiplex.”
Tayler has been in the exhibition business for more than a decade and has worked at the Avalon since its reopening. He recalled many times in their first months back when long-time or former Bay View residents who had frequented the theater during its heyday were moved to tears upon reentering the house. Classic film screenings have brought out multiple generations of moviegoers—people who had come to the theater with their parents, now bringing their children and grandchildren. And new release family films have started the process anew, with nearby families coming out who have never had the experience of having a neighborhood movie house.
In many ways, it is the neighborhood that makes a neighborhood theater. Tayler says that the theater seeks and uses the feedback of the community in deciding their bookings and promotions. In kind, the Bay View community—both past and present—has embraced the theater. “A [neighborhood] just isn’t about movies…it’s where childhood memories are made,” Bay View Neighborhood Association past President Nichole Williams told the Shepherd. “I believed as a little girl that movies are where magic begins. To have a local theater continue that tradition in younger generations…that’s the heart of Bay View creativity and community.”
But no amount of nostalgia or old Hollywood glamour is enough for a theater to survive in the on-demand era. Upon reopening, the theater slashed its capacity to make way for luxury seating with built-in folding tables. A full kitchen was added and moviegoers can order from a full food and drink menu during the shows. One of the buildings old storefronts was gutted and converted into the Avalon Lounge, a bar that’s open both to moviegoers and the general public. Food and drink sales have been incredibly important to the theater’s bottom line. With nearly all the proceeds from ticket sales on new releases going back to the studios, Tayler acknowledges that the Avalon is dependent on food and drink revenues to stay afloat and says the theater devotes a level of attention to their concessions that would have been unheard of a decade ago.
Perhaps the theater’s most notable act of modernization is unseen to the general public, but has allowed the Avalon an unprecedented kind of freedom with its programming. Aside from some spare parts in the projection booth, a 35-millimeter film projector—the industry standard for nearly a century—is not to be found at the theater. Digital projection technology has greatly expanded the theater’s booking possibilities. Blue-ray discs can now be converted and sent to the projector with ease and, so long as license fees are paid, the Avalon can offer numerous revival and classic film series without the hassle of tracking down physical film prints. “It’s as simple as an iTunes playlist,” Tayler says of the process. “You’re pretty much dragging and dropping at this point.”
Earlier this year, the Avalon ran Wet, Hot, American Summer—a film that was available at the time on streaming services—as a part of their “Summer Film Camp” series. The show sold out, in no small part due to the philosophy of the reborn Avalon. Specialty drinks and camp-style sack lunches set the tone and a few hundred people who had probably seen the film a dozen times laughed together, shouted out their favorite quotes, and participated in the new way of neighborhood movie going in the city. “You’re here with like-minded people,” Tayler said of the appeal of the revival showings. “It’s fun. It’s a party.”
While the film festival crowds at the Avalon will probably be a bit more subdued, the larger idea of what the theater offers remains the same—and is mostly the same idea that the movies have used since their infancy. Give ’em something that they can’t get at home.