A Month in the Life of a Classic Milwaukee Moviehouse: October 1935 at the Ritz Theater.
One of my favorite Milwaukee topics is the city’s old movie theaters. Recently, I was able to acquire a rare and fascinating artifact from Milwaukee’s motion picture past – a 1935 business ledger from the old Ritz Theater on West Villard. Located in Old North Milwaukee, the house opened in 1926 and was the northernmost of the city’s classic-era theaters. It was operated by Michael Brumm who, according to Larry Widen’s Silver Screen: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee’s Movie Theaters, was known for his gimmicks, including hanging posters upside-down to draw attention from passersby.
By 1935, the movie business was suffering, and the Ritz’s bottom line showed it. For the year, the theater lost about $320, the mildly profitable summer weeks not nearly enough to offset the lousy cold-weather attendance. I’d like to take a look back at the goings-on at the Ritz for this month in 1935 and get an idea of how a mom and pop movie house operated during the lean years of the 1930s.
First off, I need to say that the ledger itself is a minor work of art. In tidy lines and columns, the theater’s operating expenses – payroll, advertising, films rental, and miscellaneous is listed. On the opposite page, the house’s daily income is listed, along with a brief description of the weather. With each film is a note of the picture’s star. The entire book is written in the same hand, quite possibly that of Michael Brumm.
October opened at the Ritz with a double feature of Paris in Spring, starring Mary Ellis, and Behind the Green Lights, with Norman Foster. The program also featured some unnamed shorts. Paris was a Paramount comedy, Lights a crime drama made by Mascot Pictures (who actually went out of business that year). Neither were new releases or particularly desirable films. But they follow a pattern that exists throughout the book. Back in the days of block-booking, an independent operator like Brumm actually had very little say in what his theater could play. As recounted in Silver Screens, Brumm described the practice as “the packaging of one good picture with twenty lousy ones.” In an era when theaters changed their programs constantly (the Ritz did every two or three days), an enormous amount of material was needed to fill the nation’s theaters. And with the studios controlling the business, a small timer had no choice but to take whatever they were offered. “Film salesmen were aggressive guys,” Brumm recalled. “they would do almost anything to control your screen for 52 weeks at a time.” The Paris-Lights package cost the Ritz $39.50 to rent and generated just over $83 in ticket sales.
Sunday, October 6 – noted as “fair” – was the first good day of the month. Sunday was almost always the biggest day of any week for the neighborhood house like the Ritz. Matinee shows drew the whole family after church and the folks were more likely to splurge on snacks (a relatively new addition to many theater). That Sunday, the Ritz ran Love Me Forever starring Grace Moore and Men Without Names with Wisconsin native Fred MacMurray. Forever was a decent production, but Men was a bit of stinker. Nonetheless, the package – which cost the Ritz just over $20 per day – brought in nearly $215. The Ritz ran the same program on Monday, but made less than $40. Still, from the strength of the good Sunday show and a decent take that Saturday for a Clark Gable film, the Ritz turned a profit for the week of $69.01.
In a given week, film rental fees were only one of a number of major expenses for the Ritz. The house kept a small staff, the highest paid of which were the “operators,” or projectionists. Back when theaters still required the old two-projector system, a movie projectionist was a skilled tradesman and Milwaukee projectors had their own union. The weekly pay for projectionists at the Ritz was about $60 – over $1,000 in 2016 money. A unknown number of ushers totaled about $40 per week and a lone janitor made $15 weekly. Also listed each week was two of the operator’s children, Arnold and Madeline (who worked as the house cashier), who also made $15 per week. With but a few exceptions, staff payroll was a greater expanse than the film rental.
The Ritz also reserved a small amount each week for advertising. Their main expense in this column is with the Milwaukee Journal, who charged $11 per week for inclusion in their expansive movie lists page. They also bought less-frequent ad space in the Wisconsin News and Milwaukee Sentinel. The trailers, or coming attractions, that ran before each show are also listed here, as is any promotional material for the lobby. Note the “Call of the Wild Sign” that cost the house a buck, but helped to draw people in for the weekend feature.
Rent on the theater itself was $300 per month. Like many operators, Brumm did not actually own the theater building, but owned the business and leased the space. And this space came at a premium. In today’s money, the rent was nearly $5,300. That month also saw a number of miscellaneous expenses: two repairs to the marquee totaling $125, a $12 water bill, two cases of new carbon projector bulbs ($21.66), and a $4.50 repair to the office typewriter. The marquee repair was especially hurtful, as it essentially wiped out all of the profit from the month’s best week – the stretch of good weather days between the 13th and 19th when another strong showing from Clark Gable helped to give the house a $760 box office take and a margin of $141.61. By the end of October, the Ritz was well on its way to a year in red.
Near the end of the month, a projectionists’ strike closed the house for five days. The rest of the year shows no noticeable jump in their pay, so there is no clear answer as to what the disruption was about. But the neighbors must have missed their movie house. On October 30, the day the house reopened, She with Randolph Scott and the W. C. Fields comedy The Man on the Flying Trapeze brought in over $100 – one of a handful of times that year the Ritz had made so much on a non-holiday weekday.
I might share some more stories and images from the ledger in the future and if anyone has any memories of the Ritz, which actually remained open (later known as the Villa) until 1986, please let me know in the comments!