By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jul 21, 2023 at 9:27 AM

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Like most cities, Milwaukee, as you likely know, was once dotted with movie palaces – stunningly ornate structures that served to entertain a hard-working public with moving pictures and live performers during the vaudeville era.

The Garfield in 1927. (PHOTO: Milwaukee Public Library)

Very few of these survive today – the Oriental, the Avalon, the MSO’s Bradley Symphony Center.

But, somewhat amazingly, until now, all three of the movie palaces designed by local architects Gustave Dick and Alex Bauer in 1926-27, have remained on the landscape.

box office
The box office in 1927. (PHOTO: Milwaukee Public Library)

While the Oriental, which opened in July 1927, is still up and running, surviving for a variety of reasons, including its division into a triplex, and the empty Tower Theater (1926) awaits redevelopment, the last of the bunch to be built – The Garfield Theater, 2933 N. King Dr – which opened in November 1927, has reached the end of its life, although not entirely.

While the auditorium and lobby of the theater is coming down as part of an ambitious residential and library development on King Drive and Locust Street, the facade and foyer of the theater, as well as the long row of retail spaces with offices above, will remain.

They will be converted to townhouse-style residences.

To the south, the King Library will be demolished and replaced with a new library with apartments above, and to the north, a vacant lot and empty tavern building will be replaced with another apartment building.

The site occupied by the auditorium will become parking for the library and residents.

Dick and Bauer also designed Racine’s 1928 Capitol Theater, which was demolished in 2021.

The auditorium and lobby in 1927. (PHOTOS: Milwaukee Public Library)

Among the numerous other theaters they drew were the National, the Colonial and the Milwaukee, Oshkosh’s Orpheum, the Appleton in Appleton, and Elkhorn’s Sprague.

After years of trying, I was finally able to get a chance to explore the Garfield Theater before work began to take it down. But before we go inside, let’s look at its history.

terra cotta
Exterior terra cotta.
terra cottaX

The Garfield was built by the Saxe Brothers Amusement Enterprises and developer Oscar Brachman, who had also built Walter Schroeder’s Astor Hotel in 1920. Among his other theater projects were the now-demolished Uptown Theater (1927) and the Downer Theater (1915)

Saxe was a local theater chain founded in 1902 by two brothers, mechanics Jack and Tom Saxe.

By the time the Garfield opened, the Saxe Brothers possessed an empire of 44 cinemas, a number that would grow to nearly 60 within another year or so.

The theater under construction, February-June 1927. (PHOTOS: Milwaukee Public Library)

In 1927 (a busy year for theater construction; 16 went up in Milwaukee that year), Saxe controlled a baker’s dozen Brew City venues, including the Uptown, the Modjeska, the Savoy, the Tivoli, the Tower, the Oriental, the Strand, the Miller, the Princess, the Merrill, the Mirth, the Plaza and its local flagship, the Wisconsin on 6th and Wisconsin.

November 1927 ad.

Construction on the theater and its row of retail and office buildings along King Drive began at the start of 1927 and there was a steel frame rising by March. By April, the retail portion was taking shape and the following month, more of the auditorium began to rise. By June, the exterior of the theater box was veneered in brick.

Early in July, the Oriental opened, and soon after, the Uptown followed.

By October, the retail and office spaces were ready for tenants and work proceeded inside the theater, where National Theater Supply Co. was installing the rigging and stage lighting, Heywood-Wakefield was installing the seats and Chicago’s Albert Pick & Co. was painting, decorating and installing drapery.

On Nov. 5, the million-dollar theater opened to great fanfare.

“The attendant throng of thousands of persons from all parts of Milwaukee who attended the opening performances gave the rapidly growing upper Third Street a holiday appearance,” wrote the Sentinel the following morning. “Predictions were made that the new theater will be a leading factor in the development of of real estate values in the community.

“The event marked the completion of the 45th theater in he chain of playhouses throughout the state of the Saxe Amusement Enterprises. Those immediately connected with the new theater believe that the Garfield is one of the most beautiful and modern theaters in the midwest and that it will be the forerunner of even greater strides in building and other developments in that section of the city, it was stated.”

The foyer/ticket lobby.

The theater, the Sentinel added, “exemplifies a decidedly French architecture of the early 18th century, which is characterized by its elegance and piquant motifs.”

Patrons were treated to screenings of “Adam and Evil,” starring Lew Cody and Aileen Pringle, as well as vaudeville performances by Betty Ouimet, dancer Olga Mishka, and Ford & Harrison.

An undated interior (above) and the lobby in 1947 (below). (PHOTOS: Milwaukee Public Library)

Ouimet was the daughter of Frances J Ouimet, who in 1913 was the first amateur to win the U.S. Open golf tournament. Her son John Zielinski would go on to become a big league prospect with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Mishka – despite her exotic name – was an American dancer and Vaudevillian whose real name was Gladys Buckley.

Three views of the main lobby.

Ford & Harrison may have a connection to the somewhat eponymous actor Harrison Ford, who has a family link to vaudeville.

During its first week, the Garfield would screen a number of films, including “Shanghai Bound” Sunday and Monday with Mary Brian and Richard Dix, followed Tuesday-Thursday by “What Price Glory” with Victor MacLaglen, and then Richard Barthelmess in “The Drop Kick” Friday and Saturday.

Arriving at the theater, patrons would surely have noticed the gorgeous terra cotta decoration on the facade above the marquee and entrance.

The front of the balcony, showing the dropped ceiling.

In the foyer – the 50x50-foot area where the ticket booth was located – and in the lobby beyond there were lavish decorations, including mirrors, terrazzo floors, a regal staircase up to the balcony level and even a white marble fireplace.

The carytids in the auditorium.

The 50x70-foot lobby was illuminated by a trio of large chandeliers, made by Milwaukee’s Charles Polacheck & Bro.

Five sets of double doors each opened to an aisle inside the 1,800-seat auditorium. Patrons entered beneath the low ceiling of the balcony above, which created a feeling of compression. Walking forward, one was then hit by an awe-inspiring sense of release provided by the soaring expanse of the theater.

There were murals on the side walls and, as was common, ornate painted plaster details everywhere: on the ceiling, on the proscenium around the 40x30-foot stage opening, on the walls. Thanks to a series of colonnades on either side that mimicked opera boxes, offered the look and feel of a European opera house. Carytids stood sentry between these openings.

There were damask, velvet and satin drapery and other elements.

Inside the auditorium, above the dropped ceiling.

Described later as “Milwaukee’s most elegant neighborhood theater; a miniature Viennese Opera house,” admission was 40 cents on Saturday evenings – less at other days and times – which got you a feature film, several short films, three vaudeville acts and musical accompaniment by an orchestra and organist.

“If the eyes were pleased, so were the ears as the house orchestra, the ‘Saxonians,’ appeared complete with tympani, at evening performances,” notes “At other times it was the job of the organist to ‘perfume the air with music’ (as famed 1920s organist Gaylord Carter so well put it in the video: ‘The Movie Palaces’ by the Smithsonian Institution in 1988) and accompany the silent movies.

“The Garfield was well equipped for this with its Barton theatre pipe organ of three manuals and eleven ranks (voices) which was opened by organist Jack Martin. It rose into view from the orchestra pit upon its four-post Barton lift every time it started the overture.”

The ornate proscenium in a section behind the church's altar.

However, by the time the Garfield swung open its doors, Saxe was feeling pressure from the big Hollywood studios like Loew’s, Warner Brothers, Fox and Paramount, who were swallowing up indie theater chains.

In December, Saxe sold its theaters to the California-based Midwesco Theaters Inc., which already owned a couple hundred theaters. Soon after, Fox Film Corp., in turn, gulped down that chain and Fox-Midwesco became the big kid on the block in Wisconsin theaters for a quarter-century, and it put veteran theater manager Milton Harman in charge of the Garfield.

Meanwhile, the Saxe clan busied itself with businesses like the White Tower fast food chain and later, Thomas Saxe got back into the theater game during the Depression, buying back his theaters and running them until his death in 1938.

As the movie business and entertainment landscape changed, so did the theater.

ceiling trim
Ceiling decoration in the auditorium.

By the 1940s, the Saxonians were gone. The marquee was changed and the large arched window in the facade was covered. Sometimes movies weren’t earning enough and other events were held, including concerts, fashion shows, union meetings, teen dances and conventions.

With TV taking over, the Garfield closed in 1965.

After some changes in 1967 – including the removal of the seats – the building was occupied in 1968 by The Opportunities Industrialization Center, an apparently windowless vocational school.

The OIC was founded in Philadelphia and opened its first Milwaukee site in the old Rosenberg’s department store on King Drive at North Avenue in March 1967.

The colonnade on the east wall.

Some of its lavishness was sold off, including the Polacheck lobby chandeliers, which ultimately ended up in the Barrington, Illinois mansion of the Sanfilippo family.

“The once fashionable Garfield Theater, a flashy but fading dame on Milwaukee’s near north side, is trying to recapture her youth,” wrote Barbara H. Kuehn in the Sentinel in January 1968. “She’s likely to pass her new lease on life to people in the neighborhood. But she’ll have to part with her frills first.”

An OIC counselor told Kuehn that the goal was to “motivate self-renewal, so we start by trying to get the trainee to think for himself” in terms of selecting an area of study.

“The theater was once a hub of community entertainment as people flocked to its movies, vaudeville shows and musical programs,” Kuehn wrote. “OIC hopes to transform it into a center where people in the surrounding inner city can get a new start in life.”

balcony stairs
The stairs up to the balcony from the lobby.

After OIC closed in a swirl of controversy in the early 2000s, the Philadelphia Church of God in Christ purchased the building and converted it into a church in 2006.

While the lobby and foyer maintained some of their grandeur, if dulled, a dropped ceiling that ran from the edge of the balcony all the way to the stage killed that sense of release, leaving only the feeling of compression.

In order to suspend the ceiling, hundreds of holes were popped through the ornate plaster ceiling.

Upstairs, the balcony was enclosed and diced up into a series of classrooms (likely by the vocational school).

Before work to demolish the lobby and auditorium began, I was invited over for a full-on, Indiana Jones-style “spelunk,” as Jackson Lindsay II of General Capital, architect Keith Stachowiak – who, thankfully, brought a really powerful light source – and I climbed to the catwalks, opened a locked door via a convenient hole in the wall to access a bit of remaining balcony, explored the basement, nosed around the dressing rooms below the stage, peered through the openings in the projection booth, stuck our heads up into the upper level fan room and did our best to photograph what we could see from our limited vantage points.

dressing room
A dressing room below the stage (above) and the catwalks above the auditorium (below).

Alas, we never could find a navigable route onto those colonnades that looked like European opera house boxes.

I’d been trying for years to get inside to see what remained and had heard that there wasn’t much to see, but as is often the case, this was not true at all.

The exterior terra cotta is lovely and there for all passersby to see and enjoy. Just next to the main entrance, workers uncovered a vintage sign, reading "First run on the North Side," which was removed and saved.

vintage sign
(PHOTO: General Capital Group)

While the elaborate ticket booth and chandeliers are long gone, the foyer decor is largely intact and quite beautiful. Fortunately, this space – as well as that terra cotta facade – will survive as a lobby for the new apartment building.

apartment tile
Tile in the stairwell to the office spaces.

Through the doors into the much larger lobby space, with its higher ceiling and grand staircase feels a bit like a revelation. Perhaps not on the scale of the former Warner Grand Theater Downtown – now the MSO’s Bradley Symphony Center – but still awe-inspiring with its marble fireplace and extant decor.

While climbing the grand staircase is rewarding, entering the balcony at the top and the auditorium below are disappointing.

There’s nothing to see in the balcony and in the former church sanctuary below there are only some hints (admittedly lovely) of what could be seen during the Garfield Theater days.

The real excitement comes when we visit the backstage rooms (sadly stripped of their original wall finishes and any old performer graffiti that may have existed), the catwalks (creepy and alluring as any) and, especially, what little remains of the balcony, the projection booth and the organ loft.

projection booth
Inside the projection booth (above) and the steps up to it (below).

From these latter spaces, the awesome – if dark and crumbly – scene of that “European opera house” reveals itself.

We can see the proscenium – though the top half or more of the stage opening is blocked up – and the ceiling with their elaborate painted plaster motifs. We can see the colonnades with their decorative railings. We spy the carytids standing tall and proud. We can see the project booth, tacked onto the back wall as if an afterthought.

Later, looking at Dick & Bauer’s original plans, Stachowiak notices that they don’t match the built theater. The carytids, for example, are nowhere to be seen. In fact, neither are the colonnades.

Dick & Bauer plans.

“I can't find those caryatids in the interior sections / elevations – (it) seems like the design was changed,” he says. “They were never a part of the original plan – as a matter of fact neither were the side aisles/corridors, upper or lower.

“These plans had to have changed significantly during construction. Not all that surprising for the time – I also love how they reference ‘murals by decorator.’ Like the architects had no care about what was applied after the fact by someone else because it was ‘decoration’.”

Stachowiak also sees later plans and notes changes that took place long after the original construction.

“It was so poorly altered by two notable architects,” he says. “First the sloped theater floor was covered and the fly loft infilled in 1967 by Fitzhugh Scott for the Opportunities Industrialization Center.

“Then in 1983 Alonzo Robinson added this monstrosity of a floor plan to the theater along with the drop ceiling and flourescent lights. Imagine going to a vocational school for the disabled and having no access to natural daylight.”

While we’re there we see all those holes popped into the ceiling and we see that time has taken its toll on much of the splendor.

While, perhaps, someone with absolutely unlimited funding MIGHT be able to return the Garfield Theater to its original splendor, what then?

Few are looking to open new movie theaters, even if it were to be divided like the Oriental into a triplex, and the city, if anything, is reaching a glut of concert and event venues. Movie palaces were very specialized buildings that are difficult to convert.

I’m sad to think that it will be gone forever, one more vintage movie palace condemned to history, but what Milwaukee does need now is housing, and especially affordable housing, and that’s what this site will provide.

Fortunately, some of that will occupy the retail/office space, which will allow the street-facing aspect of the old Garfield Theater to not only remain intact, but to get a much needed restoration.

The project will provide a new 18,000-square-foot library with flexible-use community rooms, a makerspace, improved access to technology, new furnishings and an updated and refreshed presentation of library materials and resources.

The library building will also have 42 affordable apartments. There will be another eight in the former storefronts and 43 more in the building to the north.

As Barbara Kuehn wrote of the Garfield in the Sentinel in 1968 ...

“Sad, in a way, to see the old lady lose her ruffles. But she was past her prime in both beauty and usefulness. The face lifting may well put her back in touch with the neighborhood.”

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.