Inspiring Wonder

The magical Oriental Theatre continues to delight moviegoers 90 years after it was built.

BY SARAH C. LANGE  |  PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI

Fun Facts

• When the Oriental opened in 1927, it showed the silent film “Naughty But Nice” for 40 cents a ticket, according to “Silver Screens.” Just months later studios released talking motion pictures.

• Walter Mirisch, who worked as an usher at the Oriental, went on to produce films, including “West Side Story,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “In the Heat of the Night.” The last earned him an Academy Award for best picture.

• Triangle Publications owned the Oriental until 1946. Walter Annenberg, born in Milwaukee and the only son of company owner Moses, inherited Triangle after his father died in 1942. Walter expanded the media business, starting Seventeen magazine in 1944 and TV Guide in 1953. Years later he created the philanthropic Annenberg Foundation.

• In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, musical acts, including Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop (with David Bowie), Talking Heads, INXS, Blondie, R.E.M. and Lou Reed, played on the Oriental’s stage.

• In recent years, the Milwaukee Film Festival and the Oriental hosted
Susan Sarandon, Martin Landau and Willem Dafoe — a former UW-Milwaukee student.

One of the few remaining movie palaces in Milwaukee, the Oriental Theatre will turn 90 on July 2. Although John and Thomas Saxe operated the East Side gem when it opened, its history is a bit complicated, says manager Eric Alan Levin.

“History preserves the fact that it was part of their chain, but actually they sold the business shortly after they opened the Oriental,” he says of the Saxes, who ran 40-plus theaters in the state. “The owner of record was a notorious guy named Moses ‘Moe’ Annenberg,” Levin says, adding that Annenberg had connections to Dean O’Banion in Chicago and Lucky Luciano in New York.

Like the Saxe brothers, Annenberg got his start selling newspapers, though instead of The Milwaukee Journal, he sold for Hearst in Chicago. Later he moved to Milwaukee, where he was in charge of distribution. In 1920, the Annenbergs relocated to New York, and Annenberg went on to own racing newspapers and a racing wire service as part of his own lucrative media empire.

“I think it was Annenberg’s investment,” Levin says of the $1.5 million it cost to build the Oriental. “The construction permit was taken out in his name. … The Saxe brothers were the public face of the theater. They operated it, (but) he owned the real estate.”

That said, the Saxe brothers hired the Milwaukee firm Dick and Bauer, whose architects designed their Tower Theatre on North 27th Street the previous year. The Saxes asked Dick and Bauer to incorporate East Indian, Moorish, Islamic and Byzantine elements, write Larry Widen and Judi Anderson in “Silver Screens.”

Much like the films the Oriental would show, its décor was designed to provide an escape from everyday life and even to inspire a sense of wonder. Levin believes the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 strongly influenced this direction in design. “There was a lot of fascination starting at that point with exotic, faraway lands,” he says. “That’s when you start seeing a lot of this fantastical décor that is supposed to transport you to another land — it’s really a fantasy.”

By the early ’70s, the illusion was starting to fade. The Pritchett brothers, local electricians, bought the theater and worked their own magic to restore its luster, and Landmark Theatres (formerly Parallax) began running the Oriental in 1976.

“Once Landmark took it over, it became the (area’s) key rock and alternative venue,” says Levin, who worked as a projectionist at the Oriental in the ’80s. “I used to get paid just to sit here and watch concerts, because they were obligated to have a projectionist even if there wasn’t a film running.”

In fact, he was on hand the day Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders famously asked the Violent Femmes, who were playing on the sidewalk, to open for her, thus jump-starting the Femmes’ career. After adding two additional screens under the balcony in 1988, the theater returned to showing movies almost exclusively.

“There are some really amazing theaters (in the U.S.) that have survived, and the Oriental is one of them,” Levin says. “We’ve had people from Sicily, France, Germany, Japan and China who have said there’s nothing like this there. It’s great to have tourists stop in and stand here in awe. I’ve gotten used to it, so it’s fun to be reminded that it’s special.”

The Oriental Theatre will celebrate its 90th birthday with a party June 25 beginning at 6 p.m. Festivities include magic by Glen Gerard, music from the Kimball theater pipe organ, and a screening of a restored version of “Casablanca” preceded by a Warner Bros. animated short. Plus, the first 300 people will get a slice of a cake sculpted to look like the Oriental facade.

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