Venetian Theater Building Razed.
A historic Theater is lost forever.
By Timothy St. Thomas
On Thursday, March 29th 2007, a crew arrived at the location of the Venetian Theater building to remove asbestos such as the fire curtain and some insulation that remained in the building.
On Friday, March 30th a crew arrived and assembled a fence around the area and performed other prep work.
That following Monday, April 2nd, the crew begin to re-enforce the east wall of the building. This side of the Venetian was about 4 feet from a duplex and was separated by what had been an emergency walkway.
On Tuesday demolition begin. First with the west wall near the stage and then pulling down the east wall. This was not met with full success as large portions of the wall fell into the duplex, in one case startling the resident with bricks entering their flat. The roof of the duplex was ripped open and had a 15 foot long gaping hole.
Wednesday the crew took down the roof portion. This closed the last view of the projection booth that was still fully intact with details above it. The famous ceiling of the theater had already fallen as crumbled plaster to the floor, except for portions protected by the remaining roof. (This is visible in a photo I will include later.)
Friday the crew pulled down the remaining portion of the east well while Milwaukee police closed West Center Street for concern that the front wall may collapse into the street. It did not.
Saturday, April 7th, the Venetian facade was pulled down.
On Sunday a group of scavengers were tearing at portions near the stage, carting away scrap metal. The stage remained wall remained standing. The movie screen, only slightly torn and it’s side curtains intact was still hanging from the ropes used to secure it there some time around it’s closing. Some people who were interested in preserving the terra-cotta and other features were also at the site removing them. Attempts by preservation minded citizens to convince the wrecking company to let them get these details before the building was felled were met with stonewalling and finally work begin. They worked though out the afternoon to take as many whole pieces as they could.
We’ve lost her forever, she is gone. No more laughter will fill her hall, no more wonder shall unfold.
And so, my friends, we’ll say goodnight,
for time has claimed his prize,
but tonight can always last,
as long as we keep alive,
the mem’ries of Paradise
Styx - A.D. 1958 Lyrics(Dennis DeYoung)
Because history is often lost, the articles that were written to promote an attempt to revitalize the Venetian will remain here.
Bright Lights to Return to 3629 W. Center?
Start-up Meeting CoffeeMakesYouBlack
Stories about Venetian in the Olden Days
James Rankin’s great work at this website has inspired many stories and information treasure troves I hope someone will use to spark the renaissance of the Venetian Theatre.
James H. (Jim) Rankin
3629 W. Center St., Milwaukee, WI, United States
Screens: Single Screen
Style: Italian Renaissance
Firm: Peacock & Frank
Movie palaces were grandiose theaters usually designed to a theme decor and of two major types: the Standard (or ‘Hard-Top’) which emulated traditional opera house construction, and the Atmospheric, a novel approach that recalled stars and clouds in an outdoor setting in a less expensive form of construction.
The Venetian was of the latter type and the “Milwaukee Journal” of March 6, 1927 reproduced the rendering of the theater’s auditorium by Milwaukee architects Urban Peacock and Armin Frank showing a tree-lined parapet high above the seats where the blue plaster sky vault began to soar overhead. The cost exceeded one half million dollars according to an article in the “Exhibitor’s Herald” magazine of April 16, 1927 entitled: “Elaborate New VENETIAN THEATRE, Wisconsin’s First Atmospheric Theatre Is Opened In Milwaukee.”
Ironically, the Italian Renaissance theme decor was not quite as ‘Venetian’ as that created in 1911 in the Juneau Theatre on Mitchell Street, but with 1430 seats, the Venetian was a lot larger.
The Gala Opening at 6:30pm on March 18, 1927 featured Laura LaPlante in “Butterflies in the Rain” accompanied by the 2-manual, 8-rank Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ (the theatre was soon thereafter wired for sound movies).
The Milwaukee Circuit of the Universal Theatres Chain opened this air-conditioned marvel with antiqued walls, gold, blue and wine velvet hangings, lush tapestries, and hand-blocked velvet stage curtains outlined in patterns of rhinestones.
It was also one of the few theatres to employ the “stadium style” of seating where one could go directly from the auditorium floor, up into the balcony without going into the lobby.
From the balcony the vista of a tree-lined row of building tops interspersed with statuary created a romantic view under the starry sky as projected clouds drifted by.
Like all theaters, the Venetian suffered with the coming of television and the consequent loss of its audience, and with the decay of the neighborhood, the theater closed permanently in 1954, even though it had a fully rigged stagehouse capable of putting on local talent shows or the like.
It subsequently became a furniture store, which put a suspended ceiling in the auditorium, and then the Venetian Sales Co. which used the auditorium for a warehouse and the once ornate lobby for a liquor store.
Today it sits abandoned, the utilities disconnected, and awaits the city’s decision to spend the many thousands of dollars to demolish it.
At the least, one can still admire the architect’s classy facade design of brown tapestry brickwork framed by Itanlianate designs in glazed terra cotta ornament in buff, azure, and lemon yellow.
May that stepped and reticulate-patterned parapet with its elegant terra cotta urns endure for a while longer.
Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin
From Nephew of Owner 1960s-1980s
Dear Mr. Rankin
My Uncle Charles Karabetsos owned the Theater from about 1960 to his retirement in the 80′s, I worked at the theater from the early 60′s while in High School and later through my college years at Marquette University.
While showing him My son’s wireless laptop, I entered Venetian Theater Milwaukee, and he was quiet pleased (he’s close to 90 now) to see the old building in its better years, the Marquee which had the large Venetian name was not on the Theater as I recall in the early 60′s, there was a marquee that projected over the sidewalk, this is where you could list the coming and current attractions, it was removed in the late 70′s or early 80′s as I remember under a program that Milwaukee had for such hanging signs.
My uncle never operated a furniture company, the first business was a catalogue sales company (popular in the late 1950′s and into the 60′s. This was a general merchandise company, the interior was quiet difficult to work around, the slanting floors and high ceiling, in 1960 he put a suspended ceiling in the auditorium, this held up for about 10 years more or less as the roof always leaked.
He sold a variety of items, almost like a general store, during the Holiday season he had a very large toy department, this was prior to Toy’s R Us. The decline in toy sales and the impact of competition always presented new challenges, he used the stage area for warehousing of Proctor And Gamble soap items for the Coin Op. laundry business, the upper area was rented for several years to a person who sold sewing machines and developed a brush stroke technique to show how the “masters” painted on canvas, he attempted suicide after a partner embellished money from the company, for 20 years time stood still with all his stuff, occasionally we would salvage something to use for a sign or a part. In the 70′s we were able to obtain a liquor license, the seating area was left un-heated and used to warehouse large quantities of soda, beer and soap. The front or lobby became a neighborhood grocery and liquor store. My uncle sold the building and liquor business in either the late 80′s or early 90′s and since then I believe it has been closed entirely. In all the years that I worked there I don’t think I ever took a picture.
What’s quiet interesting is that I travel to Cuba under a Treasury license, in Cuba there are many old Movie theaters still operating, I will occasionally go to a movie, just to experience the grandeur of a 1000 set movie theater, the over-stuffed seats, no leg room rows.
Thanks for making this post possible.
posted by Havana Theaters on Dec 26, 2003 at 2:57pm
Back in the Day
Project Save the Venetian Theatre Launched
A report by Paul Bachowski, Feb. 1, 2007
Operation Save the Venetian Theatre is underway! Ron Roberts of the Department of Neighborhood Services has stated that he will hold off on the demolition of the theater if I am able to provide them with a financially supported renovation plan. The building’s impressive brick and terracotta facade, brick walls, steel roof structure and concrete floors are all in great shape. The building tells a story that cannot be recreated and it has the ability to once again stand out as a brilliant asset for the neighborhood. The gypsum roof panels need to be completely replaced as the steel roofing structure is all that remains in certain areas. This is a blessing because I would like to install a green roof with solar panels that will provide renewable energy for the property and minimize storm water runoff. The long road to seeking grants for the restoration of the theater has begun.
At least $200,000 will need to be raised in the next couple months to acquire, stabilize and clean out the building. The replacement of the roof, facade cleanup and lobby area restoration would be the first phase. A non-profit entity will be formed that will oversee the renovation of the building interior and manage fund raising efforts. My entrepreneurial business partner Devon Duke has worked in the theater business and she currently operates Conversations night club in Milwaukee. Devon will be overseeing the day to day operation of the non-profit lounge we will locate in the lobby. This lobby lounge will help generate the renovation monies needed to make the theater functional once again. With the $200,000 funding in place this year you will see a new facade on the first floor of the building and can stop in daily to watch the renovation of the theater taking shape behind secured windows.
Please help me get the word out as this window of opportunity may not last long. Grant support and partners with money and skills will be crucial.
The redevelopment of the Venetian Theatre will be a major catalyst to the redevelopment of the area. A partnership of property owners, contractors and other interested parties is being formed that will seek TIF monies that would rebuild the surrounding area with mixed use, mixed income developments and an attached parking structure. The vision for the future includes trolleys shuttling patrons from Bronzeville Cultural and Entertainment District to the Venetian Theatre for live performances by Milwaukee¢s African American Theater Companies.
Milwaukee Urban Skyline Investment Company
What can a building do?
The April 6th 1927 edition of “Exhibitors Herald’ celebrated the opening of “Wisconsin’s first real atmospheric Picture Palace”, the Venetian Theater, located at 37th and Center Streets in Milwaukee.
“The Interior of the building bespeaks the beauty of an Italian Garden, bathed in moonlight and beautiful with flowers, shrubs and trees. The azure blue of a Venetian Sky at dusk is represented in the arched ceiling, and a special cloud machine, one of the few in the Northwest, creates a soft cloud effect, while behind this screen of vapory light twinkling stars are created by another devise. Surrounding the gardens are walls, gateways and palaces aglow with the soft light of many lanterns hidden throughout the auditorium.” – Exhibitors Herald – April 6th 1927 edition.
Growing up on the corner of 39th and Center Streets, the neighborhood adults told me about the building when it was a movie theater. That during the first reel of film the lights simulated a sunset and then the theater went dark. And slowly, one by one, stars would light in the blue painted sky and twinkle till the ceiling was filled with stars. Later, when the movie was over, the lights would simulate a sunrise, with all of the glowing colors of one, and the stars would disappear. You had been taken to a new place and then returned, much like the work of a great motion picture.
When I knew the Venetian Theater it was a retail shop known as Venetian Sales. The marquee had been cleared and had the word “Sales” put on it in the largest letters, I imagined they were once used for the title of the film. Off to the left and right of that were the words “Toys” and “Sundries”. The Venetian was known in the neighborhood as “Charlies” after the owner of the business, Charlie Karabetsos. Charlie’s was the place where my first watch was purchased. It was on display in what had been the concession stand. Throughout the years I lived with my parents, until I moved away in the early 1980’s, my family purchased many items there, yet, it was a place of great mystery. I could smell the popcorn every day when I went in the shop to pick up the daily newspaper and I could see the stars twinkling when someone described them to me. I wanted to go up the grand staircase in the lobby (You can see the banister of it in the photo of the concession stand) and look around. I wanted to see the original ceiling that was above the drop ceiling I knew to be there. I wanted to see what the upper level was like.
When I knew it as a retail location, the auditorium was a warehouse style show room, the seats long removed and replaced with metal shelving or skids of merchandise with hand painted signs on them. The sidewalls had been painted white, yet I could still see the plaster textures that had been there to form the garden displays on the sides. I wondered what it would have been like to watch a movie there? A drop ceiling had been put in place, in places it had water stains from the leaking roof. Small grated holes in the floor where the heat and air-conditioning came into the auditorium were still there. The lobby was mostly intact, with the metal ceiling still in place and Gaines – human figures from the waist up adorned the sides of each entry to the auditorium, still painted in gold paint. These have since been removed, but I hear are still in the Milwaukee area.
About 3 years ago I was watching TV and happened across the Jim Carrey Movie, The Majestic. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0268995/ ) For those who are not aware of the movie, Carrey plays “Peter Appleton” a screenwriter in Hollywood in 1951, during the height of the McCarthy era, when Hollywood was filled with accusations of communism. Through a few turns of events Peter lands (literally) in a town that lost many of it’s men to WWII with amnesia. Peter resembles the son, Luke Trimble of the owner of the then defunct “The Majestic” theater. Luke was one of the towns popular sons and was lost during the war. Peter assumes Luke’s identity – not recalling his own - and one of his major influences on the town is to help his ‘father’ re-open the old movie theater, with the help of the townspeople. The Majestic re-opens and the whole town starts to make improvements and the attitude of the people brightens.
I thought about the Venetian and what it had meant to me as a child. I did some research and found an entry on CinemaTreasures.com about the theater and encountered Jim Rankin, who was able to send me the photos and the article I mention above. (Sadly, Jim passed away this last January).
I decided to visit the Venetian and see what the building looked like. Needless to say it was a sad moment. While I could still see the beauty in it, it was very neglected. The building still has the beautiful facade with beautiful terra-cotta decorations and the balcony’s that overlook the street. The cross-hatched pattern on the front of the building is still there and beautiful. The large doors entry doors are still there, though boarded up. Years of neglect have dimmed the beauty of this once grand building, but I saw hope for it to return it its former glory. I begin to write about the neighborhood that I knew as a child. The many people I knew there and the shops that were open along Center Street. It’s a long story and one I am enjoying writing. I’m not certain it will ever be published, but the writing is the action I am enjoying most.
But I hoped for the building to be reopened one day. Perhaps I’m just a believer in great possibilities. The buildings history alone warrants that it not meet the same fate as other buildings we have lost forever such as the Chicago and Northwestern Station and many, many other Movie Palaces that once graced our Milwaukee skyline and neighborhoods.
Like in the movie “The Majestic”, I believe that re-opening the Venetian, perhaps using the lobby for a club as proposed and then restoring the remainder of the building will help the neighborhood revitalize itself. People will see a strong presence of something good, and have hope for a great future. People will come to the Venetian for entertainment and shops will open to sell them other items they may need while they are there. Perhaps folks around will be inspired to repair and restore their homes and the neighborhood will return to glorify the name it had when I was a child “The Uptown Neighborhood.”
Could the auditorium be returned back to a stage where perhaps movies can be shown? The stage was large and once had dressing rooms for the vaudeville acts that awaited there time on stage. Could this be used for Community Theater?
Questions remain. What is left of the interior of the auditorium after years of the roof being open? Can we obtain the Gaines that once graced the lobby so we can at least make copies of them and restore them to their place?
We have lost so much of our history to the wrecking ball in the name of progress. These buildings are forever lost, never to be experienced by future generations. The Venetian should not experience such a fate, nor should we or those who come after us.
Timothy St. Thomas – February 7, 2007