Prior to World War II there were 90-single screen movie theaters in Milwaukee.
As technology made it increasingly affordable to bring entertainment into the home, many of those theaters folded, and by 1960 that number had been halved. The advent of the VCR and the megaplex dealt the final blows to America's small cinemas, which all but vanished in the '80s.
A panel discussion featuring speakers from some of Milwaukee's beautifully renovated and re-purposed theaters Wednesday will tackle what can be done with some of the once great vacant movie houses that haunt the city.
"Theaters have just always been -- throughout the 20th century -- places of community activity and places where people can come together to be entertained. So they are very important and we definitely notice their absence," said Erin Dorbin, program director at Historic Milwaukee Inc. which organized Wednesday's panel discussion "Historic Theatre Operation in Milwaukee."
Milwaukee has been lucky enough to see several renovated and re-purposed theaters succeed from the Times and Rosebud Cinemas in Wauwatosa, Oriental and Downer Theaters on the East Side, Fox Bay Cinema and Grill in Whitefish Bay and at Downtown theaters like The Pabst and The Riverside.
Wednesday's panel discussion will feature talks from Milwaukee theater historian Larry Widen, Pabst and Riverside executive director Gary Witt, Oriental Theatre manager and former Times Cinema owner Eric Levin, and Lee Barczak, who owns the shuttered Avalon Theatre in Bay View.
"Everyone wants to see that beautiful movie palace saved, but economically it's a challenge," said Dorbin. "I am interested in finding out what worked, what hasn't worked and if there are any people out there interested in taking on the challenge. We have several vacant theaters in Milwaukee, let's sit down and hear what the realities of owning one are."
Finding ways to re-purpose old theater spaces is an important way to maintain some of the city's architectural gems and one-time neighborhood hubs, Dorbin said.
"I think anything we can do to concentrate on sustaining them is important." Dorbin said.
Dorbin, who first came to Milwaukee for a historic theater preservation conference several years ago said she fell in love with Milwaukee's grand old theaters and continues to enjoy them after moving here last year.
"I just fell in love with the theaters and the architecture here. I really like going to the Times and sitting on the couch ... People told me about the Oriental in particular months before I visited and I was blown away when I went inside," said Dorbin, "They are places that some people are just very, very passionate about."
The panel discussion begins at 7 p.m. at the Times Cinema, 5906 W. Vliet St., and is preceded by a one hour social hour with drink and concession specials.
The panel discussion is $10 for HMI members and $15 for non members.