So, in my last post, I announced that I would be starting my own little “Keep Milwaukee Weird” series, and as promised, my first post would be covering the historic and beautiful Landmark Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee’s Lower East Side. Voted “One of the 10 Best Movie Theaters in America” in 2005 by Entertainment Weekly, the Oriental is a landmark of Milwaukee’s “alternative” East Side.
Opened on July 2, 1927, the Oriental Theatre (2230 N. Farwell Ave.) is the brainchild of local architects Gustave A. Dick and Alex Bauer. Looking to incorporate a clean East Indian style in the then-modern fad of Oriental movie palaces, the architects decorated the theater with hundreds of elephants, three beautifully decorated brass and stained glass chandeliers, stained-glass windows, two traditional Indian parapets, and of course, the distinctive glowing Buddha statues and elaborate ceiling decorations which adorn the main theater.
At the time, the Oriental was declared the “crown jewel” of the Saxe Brothers theater line, and was arguably one of the most opulent and beautiful movie palaces in the world.
In addition to housing three full-size movie screens, the Oriental also houses an enormous Kimball organ, moved in from the old Warner Theater after its division in 1973, and expanded over the years by the fine folks of the Kimball Theater Organ Society. Every Friday and Saturday, just before the 7pm show in the main theater, the organ is played to introduce the show. This isn’t something to be taken lightly; this organ is the largest of its kind in an active movie theater in the United States, and the third largest in the world.
In 1972, the Oriental Theatre, which had been functioning as a normal movie theater until that point, was sold to the three Pritchett brothers, local electricians who loved the theater and who wanted to fix it from its state of disrepair. Turning to Parallax Theatres (now Landmark Theatres) to operate the movie palace in 1976, the decision was made to turn it into a repertory film house, showing classics and cult films back-to-back for many years.
On January 7th, 1978, the Oriental began a tradition that continues to this very day: midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The theater holds the world record for the longest-running continuous showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show ever. The cast of Sensual Daydreams, which has performed at the Oriental since September 1992, is the second official cast to host Rocky Horror at the Oriental (following the defunct Celluloid Jam, which served as the Oriental’s in-house cast between 1984 and 1992).
Every month, on the second Saturday of the month at midnight, the cast performs Rocky Horror at the Oriental with all of the trappings: a full “shadowcast” performance of the film, audience participation and callback lines, throwing of rice, toast, cards, and toilet paper, squirt guns and beach balls, and of course, “virgin games”.
In the late ’70s, the Oriental shifted yet again to focus on the burgeoning market for foreign films and arthouse films, in addition to using the main stage for musical performances from bands as wild and varied as Iggy Pop, INXS, Blondie, Devo, Tears for Fears, and the Bodeans. In fact, the Violent Femmes arguably got their start at the Oriental, as street performers in front of a Pretenders gig who were called into the theater to replace the band’s missing openers. From their opening act at the Oriental, they were invited to NYC to open for Richard Hell, which led to their first record deal. The Femmes paid homage to the Oriental with the song Degradation, off their Add It Up (1981-1983) compilation album.
In 1988, after live performances at the Oriental were discontinued, the theater was split into a triplex-style arrangement, integrating two full theaters underneath the balconies of the original auditorium, preserving the original artwork and maintaining a uniform style with the rest of the theater. In addition, a vending stand was installed in the main lobby, and patrons to this day can enjoy gourmet treats, candy, popcorn, coffee, soda, wine, and beer with their film (because after all, this is Milwaukee we’re talking about). Be sure to try the brewery-inspired Nutritional Yeast as a popcorn topping; it’s vegan-friendly and very nutritious!
In addition to hosting Rocky Horror and the Kimball Theater Organ Society’s regular performances, the Oriental is also an annual host to the Milwaukee Film Festival. Every year, thousands of attendees flock to Milwaukee for the film festival; in 2015, an astonishing 70,885 attendees visited the Oriental and its sisters around Milwaukee: the Downer Theater, the Avalon Theater, Fox-Bay Cinema Grill, and Times Cinema. Sponsored by various individuals and groups around the city, the Milwaukee Film Festival seeks to promote the brightest and best of local filmmaker talent and give it a chance to make an impact on the community, as well as celebrating the art of filmmaking and cinema, from the mainstream classics to the cutting edge of independent film.
From its decadent beginnings in the Roarin’ 20s to its current position as one of Milwaukee’s few remaining classic movie palaces, the Oriental has left a lasting impression on Milwaukee and its people.
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