By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Oct 21, 2003 at 5:04 AM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo


Oriental Theatre Fun Facts:
  • The theater never closed during the 1987-'88 renovation project that converted the single-screened theater into a triplex.
  • Experts believe there are as many as 300 elephant images throughout the theater and lobby.
  • When first built, the backstage lightboard was only second in size to Radio City Music Hall's.
  • The Kimball organ was originally in the Grand Theatre.
Since 1927, the opulent Oriental Theatre has been the East Side's crown jewel, and last year, the exotic, Eastern-themed establishment turned 75.

The Oriental has a history of resilience, surviving the transition from silent to sound films in the late '20s, the invention of television in the '50s, VCRs in the '80s and a renovation project that sectioned the fledgling, single-screener into a thriving triplex.

To bastardize the words of Jerry Garcia, a man who once played on The Oriental's stage: What a long, fantastic, controversial, genderbending trip it has been. From raucous Rocky Horror shows (including an egg-throwing patron whose yolk ruined a movie screen), to nuns protesting the film "Hail, Mary" by picketing on Farewell Avenue, to quiet Sunday afternoons of movie watching under the gaze of the glowing-eyed Buddhas.

All the while, the cashier continued to sell admissions from the ornate, freestanding ticket booth, customers shook salt and brewer's yeast, Landmark Theatre's signature topping, on their popcorn and the organist played another song.

The first film was shown at The Oriental on July 2, 1927. The film was "Naughty but Nice," a romantic comedy starring Colleen Moore, and at the time, it cost a mere 25 cents to see a movie during the day and 40 cents in the evening.

Architects Gustave Dick and Alex Bauer built The Oriental during an era when going to the movies was an all-day experience or an evening escapade requiring fancy clothes. Today, going to The Oriental is still a very rich experience, one that offers so much more than just the featured film. Afterall, where else in Milwaukee will you find a tribe of black terra cotta lions, paintings of what appears to be Mecca draped with thick velvet curtains and hundreds of elephant images?

The Pritchett brothers have owned The Oriental Theatre building since 1972. "Bob (Pritchett) has been very passionate, caring and smart landlord," says John Dahlman, Milwaukee marketing leader for Landmark Theatres and manager of the Downer Theatre.

Behind the scenes, it takes a lot of work, and a lot of light bulbs, to keep The Oriental an enchanting escape for moviegoers. But it's a job that Oriental employees are happy to do. "It might sound corny, but I really believe we're continuing the artistic process," says Dahlman. "We're presenting art."

The Oriental Theatre promotes many freedoms, but two rules are strictly enforced: No commercials in the trailers (Sorry, Britney) and no dubbed films, only subtitled. It seems that, for most people, subtitled movies fall into the category of either love or hate. "I just don't understand when reading became a chore," says Deb Tzortzos, who recently became the district manager for Landmark Theatres after Kevin O'Neill, father of celebrated local artist, Amy O'Neill, retired after 25 years of service.

In 1966, the first multiplex opened in Milwaukee, Mill Road Cinemas, and single-screened movie houses started to feel the crunch of the future. Consequently, in 1976, Landmark Theatres, an art house chain, took over The Oriental and reformatted the strategy by scheduling a mix of Hollywood classics, cult favorites and foreign films. Back then, films changed daily, and were usually shown in pairs as double features. (Remember the two-color calendars announcing the films?)

Also during this era, concerts were regularly held on the mammoth stage. Supertramp, The Tubes, INXS, REM, Fine Young Cannibals, Howard Jones, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Laurie Andersen, Ricky Lee Jones, Jay Leno, Steven Wright and New Order are among the many groups and artists who performed.

Oriental manager, Eileen Chiappetti, started working at the theater in 1985, and has a repertoire of stories from these shows, including the night she stood next to Laurie Anderson and the time Steven Wright did back-to-back stand-up routines with completely different jokes.

Chiapetti also remembers the wear and tear both concerts, and smoking, had on the theater and the lobby. "The lobby was recarpeted right before The Tubes played here," she says, "But by the end of the evening there were cigarette burns everywhere."

In the '80s, much like Saturday night's "Rocky Horror Picture Show" ritual, Friday nights at The O were popular with midnight movie viewers and films such as "Hairspray," "Stop Making Sense," "Blue Velvet" and "Eraserhead" filled the screen.

Unfortunately, Landmark's original efforts weren't enough, and it was clear that the theater needed to bring in more money ... or else. Hence, in 1987, a renovation project began that sectioned the 2,000-seat auditorium into three smaller theaters. By 1988, the project was completed, resulting in a 1,000-seat main theater and two smaller rooms capable of seating seat about 250 people.

"Unfortunately, single theaters were considered white elephants," says Deb.

Landmark also began a new format and showed first-run films, including Hollywood blockbusters. However, even today they remain true to their roots and show many foreign and independent films, and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" still runs every Saturday night. The Oriental holds the world record for the longest continuous showing of Rocky and celebrated the cult classic's 25-year anniversary in early 2003.

Posters from many films passed now hang in the projectionists' booth: "Matewan," "Basquiat," "Cousin Bobby," along with a couple of scarecrows that were used in Mark Borchert's "American Movie." While threading up Margaret's Cho's film, "Norotious C.H.O.," on one of the projectors, Chiapetti remarks that we're lucky it's not hot outside, because there isn't air conditioning in this particular room.

Lucky? Indeed we are, but not only because the room temperature is comfortable. We're lucky to be standing inside the Oriental Theatre, stuck in a world where chain theatres are forcing independent movie houses to call it curtains.

Even though some longtime Oriental patrons grumbled about the "plexing," it's undeniable that the expansion allowed the majestic, one-of-a-kind theater to survive. Considering that the artists and architects were extremely sensitive to the original structure and decor, it's hard to remember exactly what was there before the project and what wasn't.

Molly Snyder grew up on Milwaukee's East Side and today, she lives in the Walker's Point neighborhood with her partner and two sons.

As a full time senior writer, editorial manager and self-described experience junkie, Molly has written thousands of articles about Milwaukee (and a few about New Orleans, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston and various vacation spots in Wisconsin) that range in subject from where to get the best cup of coffee to an in-depth profile on the survivors of the iconic Norman apartment building that burned down in the '90s.

She also once got a colonic just to report on it, but that's enough on that. 

Always told she had a "radio voice," Molly found herself as a regular contributor on FM102, 97WMYX and 1130WISN with her childhood radio favorite, Gene Mueller.

Molly's poetry, essays and articles appeared in many publications including USA Today, The Writer, The Sun Magazine and more. She has a collection of poetry, "Topless," and is slowly writing a memoir.

In 2009, Molly won a Milwaukee Press Club Award. She served as the Narrator / writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel from 2013-2014. She is also a story slam-winning storyteller who has performed with The Moth, Ex Fabula and Risk!

When she's not writing, interviewing or mom-ing, Molly teaches tarot card classes, gardens, sits in bars drinking Miller products and dreams of being in a punk band again.