Urban Spelunking: Marquette's Varsity Theater
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Surely, too many of them are gone. But there are also a few that have survived that many of us rarely notice.
One of them is the gorgeous Art Deco Varsity Theater, 1326 W. Wisconsin Ave., now more formally known as Holthusen Hall.
The Varsity when it was still shiny and new, 1939.
The theater is owned by Marquette University, which has put it to a number of uses. And while some parts of it have changed, the 1936 venue and its lobby are basically intact and still in use as a theater, albeit not an entirely public one.
An interior shot circa 1947-48.
The Varsity was designed by architects Grassold and Johnson, who also designed County Stadium, Mayfair and Southgate Malls, the Finney Library on Sherman Boulevard and North Avenue, and did updates and additions to the Hide House in Bay View and the Sears building on Fond du Lac and North Avenues, among other work. They also did renovation work at Marquette's Straz Tower and Cobeen Hall, and designed the Central YMCA, which is now a Marquette dormitory.
Another exterior view, this one circa 1956. And a Varsity Theater ad (courtesy of Larry Widen) from 1954 (below).
The building – developed by Varsity Realty Co. – included a 1,400-seat auditorium with a balcony, projection room and lobby, as well as five retail spaces at street level and three floors of office space above. Photographs show a flower shop and a dry cleaner operating in some of the storefronts at various times.
Two views of The Varsity in 1966.
Though I think few look at it all that closely these days, the facade is great example of Art Moderne (aka Deco), with its impressive vertical bays of windows that project subtly outward to meet at a point and have decorative metalwork elements at the top and bottom of each of the 10 bays, which were once filled with glass block. The block has been replaced by transparent glass windows.
A great shot of the marquee, 1969.
"Complete air conditioning ... makes windows unnecessary; thus the function of the vertical glass-block panels is simply to admit daylight," wrote Architectural Record magazine in 1938. "Because of the diversity of uses for which the building was designed, the heating and air conditioning systems are laid out on an individual basis, but distribution of conditioned air is from a central point on the second floor.
The marquee's last hurrah, 1973.
"The building is steel-framed, with concrete floors and special ceiling arrangement in the office portion to accommodate duct work and piping. Exterior is of granite base construction with stone and face brick veneer."
The street-level windows are gone, circa 1980.
In the 1950s, the theater was part of Fox-Wisconsin chain. A traditional theater marquee once hung above the entrance, at the west end of the building. A ticket booth was located between the entry doors.
Just inside is a small foyer, wider than it is deep, with Deco light fixtures and decorative panels, showing dancers, spectators and other figures. The walls are marble.
The main lobby is larger, but unlike the foyer, this space is much deeper than it is wide.
There are swooshing curves everywhere and the banisters up to the balcony are supported by a series of balls that echo the dots that punctuate the roof line on the exterior.
The auditorium looks much like it does in old photos I've uncovered of the theater as it appeared in the 1940s.
The walls have stars punctuating each bay on either side of the room and flanking the proscenium. Exits toward the front of the auditorium are adorned with sleek vertical spires. The rows of seats have gently curved metal standards with recessed vertical lines following the arc of the edge. The armrests are wooden.
The stage has rigging for curtains, but it isn't very deep and there are no backstage dressing rooms.
There is a projection room up above the balcony (the entrance to it is pictured above), which survives and is still in use. Its bathroom has been converted to a closet. A film storage room still holds a few reels of film.
This isn't a loud, gaudy, over-the-top, palace-style movie theater auditorium. But, it is an understated, sleek and really beautiful one.
You can read Jim Rankin's super-detailed description of the interior on Cinema Treasures.
Marquette University purchased the theater in 1967, but left it more or less alone. The cinema appears to have continued to operate – and the marquee to have survived – at least until 1973. "Silver Screens: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee's Movie Theaters," by Larry Widen and Judi Anderson, suggests the theater closed in 1976.
At some point in the 1970s, Marquette was holding some classes in the auditorium.
A photo from around 1980 shows the marquee gone, the building renamed the "Varsity Building" and the university bookstore occupying the retail spaces and the basement below. The glass block was still there but the street-level windows had been covered with pebble-coated panels.
In 1985, the building was renamed Holthusen Hall, in honor of Milwaukee Manufacturing Corp. founder Henry Holthusen and his wife Violet.
These days, the auditorium – which was completely renovated in 2009 – has 1,154 seats. (I'm not sure what accounts for the difference; perhaps there never really were 1,400, or perhaps some rows have been removed over time, but it's unclear from where.)
The former retail spaces are occupied by the Career Services Center and the former bookstore space below has been converted to storage and for the university orchestra's rehearsal rooms.
The offices upstairs are home to the Marquette Counseling Center, Graduate School, Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, and Office of International Education.
I can remember seeing lectures by Kurt Vonnegut, Maya Angelou and Jello Biafra, as well as a concert by the Scottish band Travis – among other things – in The Varsity over the years and though it's not showing films like it did in the old days, the auditorium still hosts events like speeches, lectures, student and parent orientations, the Marquette Symphony Orchestra's concerts and a film series for university students.
Next time you pass it, check out The Varsity Theater on 13th and Wisconsin. It is an enduring survivor of the glory days of Milwaukee cinema.
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