By Josh Hertzog   Published Sep 24, 2005 at 5:44 AM Photography: OnMilwaukee Staff Writers

{image1}The Riverside, one of Milwaukee's oldest theaters -- it opened in 1928 -- has hosted top-notch acts like Judy Garland, Abbott and Costello and, in 1940, Frank Sinatra. It's now getting another lease on life.

In June, the then tenants announced their intention to break their lease on the theater, putting its future in question. But the same team that runs the nearby Pabst Theater is now also running the Riverside, giving them a near lock on the downtown theater-sized concert business.

"This is a tremendous day for Milwaukee and Milwaukee's cultural environment," says Alderman Robert Bauman.

No public funds have been used in the renovation of the privately-owned Riverside Theatre, and the length of the lease has not been disclosed.

"We want to give this incredible building a soul again," says Gary Witt, executive director of the Pabst Theater. "It's important to give a building a soul, an identity."

Through the years, the need to improve upon the current facility has grown, leading to an extensive remodeling process that has taken quite awhile, but hopes to dazzle Milwaukeeans and visitors nonetheless.

{image2}"The renovations have been amazing," says Witt, who hopes the Riverside experience will be better than ever. And he explains that there is more to a successful theater than just raking in the dough.

There is a new sound system and stage, new curtains, new concession stands, new bars and merchandising tables, a new box office, and much of the building, including the bathrooms, has been repainted. Space has also been cleared to allow for better handicapped accessibility in the front of the theater.

What seems to excite Witt the most? Beautiful new carpeting.

"We want you to be able to eat off the floor," he enthuses.

Witt hopes the Riverside will attract not only performers, but community groups, too. Milwaukee Public Schools and other civic groups are now included in the Riverside's plan to promote theater and the arts among young people.

"It's about building a community, not selling tickets," says Witt. "We want to see the restaurants and hotels around us succeed."