By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 10, 2014 at 9:02 AM

Once upon a time, The Modjeska Theater, 1134 W. Mitchell St., was a neighborhood movie palace, the big daddy of Mitchell Street, the second busiest thoroughfare in Milwaukee after Wisconsin Avenue.

The street was so bustling and such a magnet for surrounding South Side enclaves that it boasted six theaters in about as many blocks. Among them The Juneau, dressed up in Venetian splendor, was a big draw and so was the Granada, directly across the street from the Modjeska, and the Pearl further west on 19th Street.

The current Modjeska Theater, built in 1924 and designed by Chicago’s C.W. and George Rapp, needs work, but step inside and you’ll still be transported to the era of the grand movie palace. It’s richly detailed, both inside and out, and it was clearly a temple to motion pictures and to Vaudeville, which shared the spotlight here.

Among the theaters Rapp and Rapp designed were the Warner -- later The Grand, which is still standing -- and The Wisconsin and the Uptown Theaters in Milwaukee, both razed.

An earlier Modjeska – named for Polish actress Helena Modjeska (nee Modrzejewska) who had died in 1909 – was built on the site in 1910 by Milwaukee movie moguls, brothers Thomas and John Saxe, who built a companion place Downtown on Third Street, called the Princess (demolished in the '80s). You can see a photo of the old Modjeska here.

The theater was damaged in a fire, but its 900 seats were inadequate to meet demand anyway, and so the old Modjeska was torn down to make way for the 2,000-seat theater that still stands today -- though with a somewhat smaller capacity now -- wrapped in terra cotta and currently undergoing what supremely knowledgeable theater historian Larry Widen (author of "Milwaukee Movie Palaces," aka "Silver Screens") -- who had been leading the work before parting ways with the theater's owners shortly after our tour -- called, "a really good clean up." 

"This is a Downtown-style movie palace," he said as we stood at the foot of the stage and gazed up to the ceiling, three stories above. "It had all the trappings. There were five other theaters on this block and this was the most expensive. This was the pricey one. Usually what would happen is the movies would premiere Downtown. I think they played about a week. You know, the big Bogey or Cagy picture or whatever would start out Downtown.

"Then it would make its way out to the first tier of the suburban theaters and this was one of them. This one, the Uptown, the Oriental, the Tower, the Avalon, The National and from there they would kind of make their way down the street from 35 cents to a quarter, 20 cents, 10 cents to 5 cents."

The theater has been closed for nearly five years and hasn’t shown films since United Artists stopped running the place in 1989. The Modjeska had, for a period, been the Midwest home office for UA and by the early ‘80s it was a budget cinema, admitting patrons for $1 a head.

A couple years later Stewart and Diane Johnson bought the theater and it became home to the Modjeska Youth Theater Co. and the venue continued to also host concerts and other events on a rental basis. Magician David Seebach often staged events there.

In 2007, the youth group and the Mitchell Street Development Opportunity Corporation (MSDOC) partnered to create the Modjeska Theater Project, which purchased the theater, and three years later the youth group folded.

Now, the Modjeska is owned by a non-profit trust called the Mitchell Street Development Opportunities Board.

Having been vacant for five years, the theater already was in need of some TLC. Then last winter happened.

More specifically, a pipe burst in the basement and here were about 900,000 gallons of water down there in February. Though it seems mostly dry and, remarkably, doesn’t smell too musty anymore, there's a visible high water mark, above my head, on the walls.

"Right now there is mostly painting and cleaning going on," says Project Manager Jesus Enrique Nañez, who sits on the theater's board. "We have several contractors that are volunteering some time for electrical and plumbing work to make sure we are up to code. The heaviest work load is in funding these repairs."

The roof has been redone and a crew of volunteers is helping to repaint and repair parts of the theater's many surviving details, like gorgeous railings up to the balcony lobby, and scroll work in the theater. The entry lobby is adorned with plaster motifs and appears to be in fine shape.

There was an orchestra pit in the theater, but the youth group covered it up when it extended the stage in the 1990s. Two boxes remain, though the organ and the pipes that would’ve been housed in lofts above the boxes are long gone.

"As of right now we do not have a projected opening date," says Nañez. "We have a goal to open some of the theatre space to artistic and community based groups in 2015. However, we will provide public access to the theatre during our participation in the Doors Open Milwaukee event and we encourage people to come over to check out the theater and all of the renovation progress." 

The board expects to present a mix of programming in the theater, including a variety of films about 25 percent of the time. Concerts and performances by a range of arts groups interested in the space will round out the schedule.

The Modjeska was built as a stop for regional Vaudeville acts and has hosted live music for decades.

Marty Robbins played there in ‘61 and in more recent decades the theater has hosted performances by Marilyn Manson, They Might Be Giants (during whose concert the stage famously gave way), Ministry, Cheap Trick, Judas Priest, Gregg Allmann, among others.

"The stage was built with an orchestra pit with an organ and an organ box and a full stage," said Widen. "The stage is now 28 feet deep to the back wall and it’s 40 feet from proscenium opening to opening. You can get a pretty good-sized act on the stage."

Playing to the local crowd is what theaters often did, and the Modjeska screened Polish films in the 1940s to draw on the area’s heavily Polish population.

In that spirit, Widen had said the Modjeska planned to spotlight films currently being made in the reinvigorated Mexican movie industry and Nañez suggests that remains the plan survives.

On my visit, we went everywhere inside. We gawped at the panoramic views of the city from the roof, and nosed around in the old offices above the retail shops that are part of the building. On the opaque glass panels in some of the doors you can make out the names of former occupants, which had been painted on.

In one former office, the youth group had created a "mini Modjeska," a tiny theater. Behind the screen you can open the windows and step out on to the marquee. If you lean out you can look straight down Mitchell Street, down to 11th, where the streetcar used to bend the corner around.

Up in the projection booth, there’s an open toilet and sink in the corner because projectionists weren’t allowed to leave the booth under any circumstances, so the facilities were demanded by their union.

Above the balcony level are two rooms where the films were assembled for projection. There's no power here, so I don't make out much with my meager flashlight other than that the rooms are basically empty now. No dust-covered film canisters or cobweb-laced reels here.

In the basement, newly built wooden racks hold the letters that name the films on the marquee. This is where the dressing rooms for performers are located and the basement is a maze of rooms. Down here it’s dark, but with the flashlight I can see the quirky patterns on the walls left by the water of the winter flood.

There are also walls adorned with graffiti left by performers of shows performed on the stage above.

Renegade photography was a challenge as the power is off in much of the building (please excuse the grainy images), but it gave the entire place an eerie vibe. If you want to see The Modjeska for yourself, it is on the list of buildings for this year's Doors Open Milwaukee event, Sept. 20-21.

There’s work to be done, and only a portion of the estimated $150,000 required to complete the work has been raised. Much of the remainder is expected to be generated by revenue once the theater reopens.

 "This project is being completed by mostly volunteers and donations," says Nañez.  "Painting, cleaning up, creating a good buzz about the theater.

"Every donation helps us buy vital supplies needed to move the project forward. There will be great opportunities for individuals and companies vested in the area to have naming rights of different sections of the theater. we have launched our first mailer requesting donations and we have had some great results come in already. We are certainly in need of more support and would appreciate donations and volunteers at this time."

If you are interested in donating time, effort and/or money, please contact Jesus E Nañez at (414) 982-9378 and help restore a vital part of the social history of Milwaukee's South Side.

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 OnMilwaukee.com 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.