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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Sept. 19, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz

The Riverside is one of just a few movie palaces that survive in Milwaukee.

In Milwaukee Buzz

The theater is part of the Empire Building, erected in 1928 on the site of a previous Empire Building.

In Milwaukee Buzz

The theater got a full renovation in 1984 and another touch-up 10 years later.

In Milwaukee Buzz

The theater seats 2,460, considerably more than the nearby Pabst, which can seat about 1,330.

In Milwaukee Buzz

The small elevator has a vintage look and this door contraption with a bicycle chain.

In Milwaukee Buzz

Here's the eighth floor catering room, where Paul Simon munches on marrow when he's in town.

In Milwaukee Buzz

Pass through a door and you meet this giant wheel that works the mechanicals.

In Milwaukee Buzz

I like the little remnants of the past, like this neatly hand-lettered sign on the fan room door.

In Milwaukee Buzz

Through another door and down a short ladder and you're above the ceiling of the theater.

In Milwaukee Buzz

It's fun exploring up here.

In Milwaukee Buzz

The old film projectiom room is now the lighting booth.

In Milwaukee Buzz

There's still old film storage compartments up here.

In Milwaukee Buzz

There's also a lot of graffiti left by traveling road crews.

In Milwaukee Buzz

Look at the little windows of the lighting booth next time you're at a show and you'll see this guy.

In Milwaukee Buzz

There's an old Waldheim's Furniture ghost sign on the building next door.

In Milwaukee Buzz

You can also look out over the theater room from the small roof above the dressing rooms and stage.

In Milwaukee Buzz

This spiral staircase on the stage wends its way up into the darkness.

In Milwaukee Buzz

The view on the way down is cool but a little vertigo-inducing.

In Milwaukee Buzz

The giant old cooling unit in the basement, now unused ...

In Milwaukee Buzz

... and the much smaller current unit, which uses river water.

Urban spelunking: Riverside Theater


In some ways the Riverside, 116 E. Wisconsin Ave., has always been the theater that almost never was.

Erected in 1928 as part of the new Empire office building – which replaced a previous Empire Building on the site – The Riverside Theater (which was designed by Kirchoff and Rose) opened just before America plunged into the Great Depression.

Somehow, the theater – the bread and butter of which was vaudeville – survived.

But vaudeville also took its final bow in the first half of the 1930s and still the Riverside survived.

Long since recast as a film house, the Riverside fell on tough times and by the dawn of the 1980s, there was a move to close the theater once and for all.

"It was literally one crazy man that was saying, 'no, we have to save it,'" says Andrew Nelson spokesman for The Pabst Theater Organization, which now runs the venue. That crazy man, says Nelson, was Joseph Zilber, whose Towne Realty bought the theater in 1962 and still owns it today.

"Even internally, his staff was arguing against Joseph Zilber, saying, 'you can't make money here, there's nothing to do, it's way too big.' They wanted this made into additional offices. There was talk also of making it a beer garden, which is interesting.

"It was either fix it or gut it and do something else with it. They were going to remodel it and do offices or whatever."

Other ideas floated at the time were for a retail center or a parking structure.

Zilber won and fix it he did. An intensive renovation was undertaken in 1984 and for the next decade, the Riverside hosted performances by the likes of Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.

"They had all the big names in the late 1980s and early '90s," says Nelson, including, he adds, "my favorites, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince in 1990 and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch in '92."

Concerts continued under another operator for another decade but the theater seemed to dip into limbo again before Michael Cudahy's Pabst team stepped in in 2006. Since then, the 2,460-seat entertainment palace has been livelier than perhaps ever, hosting the likes of Neil Young, Paul Simon, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby.

"It's had a tumultuous life span," says Nelson. "It struggled right from day one. It was kind of off and on."

But there were long runs of incredible activity. In the vaudeville and post-vaudeville era, Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton, Judy Garland and the Three Stooges appeared on its stage.

By the '50s, folks could see Chuck Berry and Frankie Avalon at the Riverside.

"When vaudeville ended ... it became mostly a film house until the '70s," says Nelson, who has taken an interest in the history of the venues his group runs and has been delving into archives to learn more.

"When I asked my parents if they had any memories of the theater their memories were of film. They saw 'Ben-Hur' here and stuff like that."

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