By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 08, 2005 at 5:40 AM Photography: Eron Laber

{image1}Face it, we all have things we love and hate about Milwaukee. But, complaining and focusing on the negative leads nowhere. So, in this second edition of this new column we highlight an issue that we think needs to be addressed, discussed and solved. Every "This Sucks" feature tells you why we think something sucks, offers commentary, opinions, solutions and, of course, gives you the chance to weigh in through our exclusive talkback feature.

What sucks: It sucks that we can't see a movie Downtown.

Why it sucks: Just look at any photo of Downtown Milwaukee from the past and you'll see a downtown strip lined with movie houses (to say nothing of the ones on the side streets, too!). These days, the closest "Downtown movie theater" is the Oriental or Prospect Mall Cinema, neither of which is by any description in Downtown.

According to Carlo Petrick, communications manager for Marcus Theatres, there is little talk at his company about opening any theaters Downtown at the moment. And there's no serious talk of reviving the Grand Theater, either.

"The Prospect Mall Cinema, as well as the Oriental and Downer, are near Downtown," he says. "Theaters in downtown locations across the U.S. have not fared well in decades. The lack of residential population, complementary development and sufficient free parking all have had a negative effect.

"Marcus Theatres is looking at new development possibilities in many different areas, including urban and suburban sites, but cannot comment on projects still under consideration. However, downtown theaters are an extremely risky financial proposition. There are only a few successful downtown theaters in much larger cities across the country, among a couple dozen failures."

Despite the boon in condo living Downtown and in neighborhoods adjacent to Downtown, like Walker's Point, the Third Ward, Brewer's Hill and the lower East Side, Petrick says the numbers still just don't work for Marcus.

"To be successful, theaters should be part of a downtown entertainment/nightlife district. There will certainly be more synergy for a theater near restaurants and bars in established areas. There needs to be a sufficient population base near any theater in order for it to be successful. Even with new housing in the Downtown area, the residential population is still light."

Beth Nicols, director of Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District #21, is maintaining a positive outlook, however.

"The likelihood of a Downtown theater is looking more positive for us," she says, noting that she has had numerous informal discussions on the topic with Marcus. "The more Downtown develops and the larger our residential base becomes the more we are capable of supporting these types of destinations."

Of course, there's always the hope among many that the old Grand (aka Warner) Theater, across from The Shops at Grand Avenue, will re-open, but that doesn't appear to be in the cards at the moment, according to both Petrick and Nicols.

"The Grand Theatre is still for sale," says Petrick. "The property is ideal for redevelopment or use as a live performance venue."

Despite talk about the theater -- which, along with the Riverside and the Varsity, is the last remnant of dozens of Downtown venues -- becoming a permanent home for the Milwaukee Symphony, Nicols, too, says nothing appears to be in the cards at the moment.

"I am currently unaware of any solid plans for the old Grand Theater," she confirms. "Ideas do come and go, and there are many variables. (For example) the land is owned by one entity and the building by another. I hope that someone is able to come up with a creative solution. It's such a visible theater with great history attached to it."

What can you do to make it not suck: The good news is that despite talk that the PabstCity project is scaling back from its initial plans, news reports and a recent presentation by the developers suggest that, at least for now, the 16-screen, 72,000-square foot movie complex, developed by Pittsburg-based Jenco Theaters, is still a go.

In the meantime, while you don't have to move Downtown, you can help Downtown attract retailers and entertainment by shopping there and going out there. If theater companies see that you're spending your entertainment dollars on Wisconsin Avenue, they may start to think that the Oriental and Prospect Mall aren't quite close enough.

Ironically, the lack of a theater appears to be the reason many are skeptical about Downtown's future and, at the same time, a new theater depends on quashing that skepticism. But if it does happen, Downtown may just get the big boost it needs.

"A movie theater Downtown would make a lot of people happy, myself included," says Nicols. "Currently we have to head further west, north or south. Our market research indicates that many people are interested in and would support a theater Downtown. From a business perspective it's great. A new business that adds to the value and attractiveness of Downtown as a destination is a win. From a perception standpoint it's yet another development that says 'get Downtown.'"

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.