In late June, Milwaukee Film announced that The Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave., will remain closed until at least autumn, due to the coronavirus outbreak, but that it will use the time to make the next leap forward in its ongoing work to renovate and restore the 1927 movie palace.
This summer, work is being undertaken to replace the seats and carpeting in the east house and on the ground floor of the main house, to restore plaster on the ceiling and walls, improve sightlines and sound, and prepare for the future installation of the 1925 Wurlitzer theater organ Milwaukee Film has secured for the theater.
Plaster work on the ceiling has revealed bits of silver paint, which may be the original color and which may be recreated.
"This is the big one, the big kahuna," says Milwaukee Film's Sebastian Mei of the current work. "This has been the most challenging thing to figure out. It was going to be having to force us to close for up to four or five months to get all that plaster fixed. Now that we're forced to be closed, it's actually a good time to go ahead and do that."
In addition, says Mei, being closed is allowing the work to proceed at a lesser cost.
"They had also talked about putting in scaffolding all the way to the ceiling and call it a dance floor," he says with a smile. "We now, as you can see, have a sort of cherry-picker to do that work. It's a lot less intrusive and a little bit less expensive, as well."
It seems odd to say but at least in relation to the required renovations, the shutdown has been fortuitous.
"It's making lemons out of lemonade, as they say, and it's something that's been positive for us," says Mei.
"We would have worked in phases and we would've tried to figure out when the slow season would be for us, and we would have had to close again. The fact that we're forced to be closed now, we're trying to rush to get everything done as much as possible, so that when this all awfulness finally ends, we can actually open to a brand new shiny building that people are going to be impressed with."
So, when is that reopening going to come?
"The plan for the construction to end is at the end of October," says Mei. "One of the things that we're going to be facing is lack of content, and that can be a little bit challenging in terms of what are we going to be screening. The theaters that are open now are playing old films from the '80s and '90s and throwbacks, the classics.
"So content is going to be a challenge for first run theaters, regardless of when our construction is done and when this pandemic passes, but in an ideal world, we'd be open in November."
And if that happens and there's no new content for the Oriental's three screens?
"I think if the pandemic was gone and the construction was done, we would have to open. People want to come back to this building. People want to come back to movies. People need this escape, I think more than ever, especially having been cooped up in their homes for so many months.
"So I think if it was safe to reopen for our staff and our patrons, we would most definitely reopen. We'd play ‘Goonies’ for 10 months if we had to. Just play ‘Goonies’ over and over."
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.