By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 18, 2021 at 1:01 PM

Milwaukee Film announced Friday that its work to restore the beautiful 1927 Oriental Theater, 2230 N. Farwell Ave., has entered the fourth of five phases.

In June 2017, Milwaukee Film acquired a 31-year lease for the theater, run for the past 40 years by the national Landmark Theatres chain, and work on phase one began immediately.

Restored lobby elephant.

That included renovation and expansion of bathrooms, replacement of the screen, as well as repair and replacement of damaged plaster and other decoration.

Much of the work is being done by Milwaukee's Conrad Schmitt Studios.

A year later, work progressed to phase two, which included removing the 1980s-era seats in the small "west house," closest to the entrance, adjusting the pitch of the floor in the west house, too, to make it more accessible to all patrons, and upgrading the fire and safety systems.

East House
The upgraded "east house."

Phase three, which had been in progress for much of the pandemic shutdown, found workers replacing seats and carpeting, improving sightlines and sound quality, restoring plaster on the ceiling and walls, and beginning the process for installation of a 1925 Wurlitzer theater organ.

That phase also upgraded the "east house."

New seats in the main house.

All seating is being replaced, too.

The organ, which you can read about here, began its life at the Howard Theater (later the Paramount) in Atlanta, where it remained until the 1950s.

Some parts of the organ – which is massive and will arrive in stages – have begun to arrive on site.

Cove lighting
The cove lighting runs along the back of this molding.

The plan for this next phase includes new glass donor signage in the main lobby, restoration of the balcony, including repairing and restoring damaged plaster, restoration of ceiling (and preserving historic color and decorative elements) and replacement of cove lighting that was likely last used around World War II.

A series of nonstructural pillars flanking the walkway into the main house – which were added in the 1980s – will be removed.

On the scaffolding.

Getting an up-close look at the ceiling above the balcony from atop the scaffolding (pictured above) is pretty cool, offering rare glimpses of things like the ornate ceiling vents (pictured below).

ceiling ventX

Once balcony work requiring scaffolding is complete, balcony seating, handrails, lighting, a hearing loop and other work will commence.  

When completed the balcony will have around 450 seats.

The completed work looks quite incredible, with bright colors that pop, a cleaned drape running across the proscenium above the stage, and a beautiful detailed ceiling restoration (pictured below). The theater looks better than I’ve seen it in nearly 40 years.


The theater is expected to reopen to film goers in August, and it’s possible the major restoration work will be done by the end of the year.

The next in-person event will be Milwaukee Film's Cultures & Communities Festival, Sept. 6-12.

“It has been such a joy to be stewards for the Oriental Theatre. Since our closure last spring, we have invested every minute we could into restoring the historic wonder of our main house, and we can’t wait for the day when we get to open our doors for our patrons to experience it,” said Kristen Heller, chief operating officer for Milwaukee Film.

“We continue to be very grateful for the generosity of more than 900 contributors, that has allowed us to renovate and preserve this magical piece of history."   

Phase four work is estimated to cost around $1.2 million with estimates for the entire restoration running at around $10 million.

Find more info on the Oriental at  

Read a history of the theater in this Urban Spelunking story from 2018.

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.