Today marks the end of an era for the iconic Oriental Theatre – and the beginning of a new one for the almost century-old movie palace.
According to signs posted on the legendary venue's front doors, Landmark Theatres – the Los Angeles-based chain that has occupied the Oriental for more than 40 years – will close the Oriental after its scheduled Thursday night screenings.
But don't panic: This is all to be expected, as Milwaukee Film begins its much-anticipated takeover of the theater, officially moving into the building and starting its 31-year lease to operate the Oriental on July 1.
According to Milwaukee Film, the hope is to reopen the theater by early August. But any exact dates are reliant on what the organization finds when it moves into the theater on the first of the month and how long many of its phase one projects – including expanding the bathrooms (especially the women's facilities on the first floor) and loading in its projection and sound systems – take to implement.
Again, none of this should cause concern, considering a transition shutdown was a part of Milwaukee Film's plan since, well, the plan existed.
Landmark will maintain control over the Downer Theatre, but today still marks a big shift for the Milwaukee movie scene. The company has operated the theater for more than four decades, helping the venue survive the changing industry by splitting its one massive house into three separate auditoriums, maintaining its beautiful timeless decor and serving as one of the city's few full-time independent cinema-focused theaters.
The company's steering wasn't completely faultless. The audio in the main house suffered a few years back, and the bookings increasingly over its tenure leaned toward older, whiter, safer, middle-of-the-road fare – or the occasional blockbuster – than true independent or arthouse cinema. (It says a lot that the venue's final bookings are two indistinctive literary adaptations and "Hereditary," a horror film currently in wide release.)
But for a kid growing up hungry for movies and movie knowledge, save for the UWM Union Cinema, the Landmark's Oriental provided one of the only places in Milwaukee where interesting and inventive smaller films by emerging, diverse and foreign voices regularly existed on the big screen. Where access to the great movies you'd hear about in The New York Times or the AV Club weren't secluded to a time zone away. For that, I'll always be appreciative.
But Milwaukee Film's plans for the theater, however, will be everything I loved about the Oriental combined with everything I love about the organization's annual festival – just more.
More of a focus on independent film from diverse, unique and distinct voices. More repertory features, helping bring new life into older or under-appreciated films in a time when streaming services ignore anything made before 1970. More themed programming to help educate and entertain film fans. And, in general, more creativity making the city's major center for independent movies – and one of its finest architectural beauties – even more of a must-see destination.
Milwaukee Film plans to provide updates as it gets a better look inside the Oriental and the transition moves forward, so stay tuned to OnMilwaukee for more updates on the new arthouse. (Oh, and also the 10th annual Milwaukee Film Festival is creeping up soon, too.)
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.