Will Downtown’s Grand Theater Come Back from the Dead?

A new life for the theater would be a historic achievement

Dec. 19, 2016
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The lobby of the Grand Theater in 2011, still displaying posters from 1995’s “Fair Game,” which was the last film to show at the Grand.

As it has been reported all over town, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra wants to move into the long-shuttered Grand Theatre in downtown. The news has been met with quite a bit of excitement and certainly has local theater-philes like myself interested in the ongoing story. Of course, the announcement is only the first step in what will be a long process, but it is certainly a step in a hopeful direction.

There have been rumors and rumblings of the theatre’s rebirth before. Some hoped that it could once again be used as a movie theater. This was always, to my view, a completely ridiculous idea. Since the Grand closed in 1995, no venue downtown has held regular film screenings and – given the state of the Grand when it was shut down – it has probably been a quarter-century since an outfit made money running films downtown. Some thought it could become another concert venue. While more practical than the movies, it would most likely not be worth the required investment given its proximity to several other large show venues (one of which is the Milwaukee Theater, which is already of questionable viability).

But with the MSO as an anchor tenant, and if a fundraising drive can cover the extensive renovation and rehabilitation costs, the prospect of the Grand reopening appears very real. As I noted back in September of Bay View’s Avalon Theater, it is a rare thing for a movie theater to return from the dead. Only a handful of theaters have ever closed and reopened as movie houses, the Avalon being the most notable example. A number of theaters transitioned from running films to hosting live music – including the Uptown on 49th St, the State on West State St., and the Modjeska on West Mitchell. But each of those used live acts as a kind of artificial respiration, a way to pay the bills when their spaces had badly declined.

What the MSO hopes to do with the Grand is much more similar to the transition of the Riverside Theater in the early 1980s. The Riverside seemed destined for the same fate as the above mentioned theaters in the late 1970s, when it was worn-out and relegated to hosting musical acts between its sparsely-attended film screenings. After the theater finally closed in 1982, a “Save the Riverside” campaign got the attention of philanthropist Joseph Zilber, whose Towne Realty owned the building. Zilber poured over a million dollars into a renovation of the theater, which reopened in 1984 as a first-class live venue.

Early estimates for the Grand, however, put the cost of renovation at over $100 million. Unlike the Riverside, which was only shuttered for a few months before plans to save it were announced, the Grand has been dark for over 20 years. No other single venue in Milwaukee history has ever had such a long period of inactivity and reopened. Few theaters were able to stay vacant so long without being demolished. The task before the MSO is a substantial one, but it will have a history-making payoff if they can succeed.

I’d also like to ruminate for a moment or two on the name of the theater. As a dork on theater history, I cringe whenever I need to refer to this place as the “Grand.” It was rechristened as the Grand Cinemas in 1982 after the opening of the cross-street Shops at Grand Avenue… so yeah, it’s a movie theater named after a mall. Prior to that, it had been known as the Centre Theatre, renamed as such (for reasons I’ve never been able to determine) when the Marcus Corp acquired it in 1966 and dropped the original Warner title – which dated back to its 1931 premier as a Warner Brothers property. The historically prudent thing to do, once the theater is ready to reopen, would be to rededicate it as the “Warner” with a period-appropriate marquee – similar to the beauty the Riverside installed last year. But, in the era of corporate branding, this is wishful thinking – especially given that the historic name itself was a form of branding and holds no connection to the building today. Theater buffs can only hope that, if the time comes to rename the theater, it is done in a tasteful and historically respectful manner.


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