The Bomb That Closed the Grand Theater

And other movies that premiered in Milwaukee

Feb. 28, 2017
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Posters for Fair Game, still up at the old Warner Theater in 2011, 16 years after the film premiered there.

Even though it now seems that some pretty significant changes will be required to get the old Warner Theater ready for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the project continues to move forward… a very good sign for local theater buffs. The theater, which was known as the Grand when it closed over 20 years ago, had a fairly ignoble final few years as a movie house. Although it never became an adult theater like so many of its downtown contemporaries, by the 1980s, it had mostly stopped running typical, big-budget Hollywood fare in favor of low-grade Kung-Fu and Blaxploitation pictures. By the time Marcus shuttered the house in June of 1995, it was only drawing about 70,000 customers per year – what it would have drawn in about two months during its boom years in the ’30s. The Gene Hackman/ Denzel Washington thriller Crimson Tide was the final film to show at the theater to the general public.

But six months later, the house was reopened for one evening only to host a charity premiere for the Cindy Crawford/ William Baldwin action film, Fair Game. Which begs the question: How did a closed-down movie theater in downtown Milwaukee come to host a premiere for a film that had nothing at all to do with the city?

The Milwaukee area had actually hosted movie premieres before Crawford and company came to town. The 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz debuted at the Strand Theater in Oconomowoc. MGM was so concerned that their very expensive new musical might flop that they opted for a low-key rollout and settled on Oconomowoc as a typical, middle American town to gauge reaction to the picture. In 1946, the Warner Brothers comedy Two Guys from Milwaukee, which actually starred two guys from the area: eastsider Jack Carson and Carroll College alum Dennis Morgan, opened with a gala affair at the then-Warner Theater. The premiere was a part of the city’s centennial celebration and drew 15,000 people to downtown to watch a coast guard boat “rescue” the comedians Carson and Morgan and they paddled a rowboat up the Milwaukee River. In 1989, Major League semi-premiered in Milwaukee (the official premiere was held in Cleveland) as a thank-you for the city’s hospitality during filming. During a pre-film audience rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” led by Mayor John Norquist, ballpark concessioners tossed bags of peanuts to the crowd.

Fair Game’s road to Milwaukee started at a cocktail party in Florida. Members of the Ross family, who owned Milwaukee’s JH Collectables clothing company, were in attendance. As was Crawford, who was friendly with the Rosses as a former JH model and Stephen Marcus of the Marcus Corporation, which owned the Grand. The Rosses, who had just lost family patriarch Kenneth Ross as he was awaiting a heart transplant, and Crawford came up with the idea of using the premiere of her upcoming debut film as a fundraiser for Milwaukee Heart Project, which was dedicated to designing the world’s first artificial heart. Marcus also wanted to get involved and volunteered his company’s downtown movie place to host the event.

It was not the intention of anyone to have to reopen the Grand for the premiere. However, after a number of delays from Warner Brothers in the release of the film – the studio knew it was likely to bomb and ordered multiple edits and re-shoots – Marcus was forced to shutter the Grand with the premiere still pending. The premiere was eventually held on November 2, with spotlights, limousines, and the some of the best-dressed people the old movie house had ever hosted. For $250, guests were admitted to a pre-film cocktail party at the Pfister, a gala screening with Crawford in attendance hosted by Brewers president Bud Selig, and dinner at the Hilton Hotel on Fifth Street.

While it was all for a very worthy cause, it is a shame that the last time such a beautiful theater was used was to screen such a formulaic and stupid movie (13% on Rotten Tomatoes). The film was the last starring role Crawford ever took on and lost nearly $40 million at the box office. It isn’t inconceivable that the full house at the Grand was the largest crowd the picture ever drew – or that the Warner/Grand was the only movie theater in history to ever close its doors with a premiere. Hopefully, the curtain will rise again on this Milwaukee treasure – and offer audiences something a bit more refined than Cindy Crawford and Billy Baldwin grunting one-liners at each other. 


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