Milwaukee Cinema Graveyard
Like most bustling urban centers at the turn of the twentieth century, Milwaukee, Wisconsin was home to some of the nation’s first neighborhood movie theatres and downtown cinema palaces. When discussing or reading about local film history, I am always struck by the unity of experiences shared by theatres and moviegoers across the country which always reflect in some form or another the trajectory of film history itself. From film projections on white canvas backdrops in the earliest claustrophic storefront theatres to the gilded exotic shrines of stone and electric lights that populated major urban thoroughfares, the city of Milwaukee is emblematic of all these landmarks in American moviegoing.
Matt of Pink Angora fame has created a web repository of Milwaukee’s moviegoing past for a graduate class project entitled Milwaukee Cinema Graveyard. The Graveyard is a collection of photographs and information about the city’s population of theaters, most of which have been shuttered within the past thirty years and often times the victims of razing. The site is divided into several sections, with the individual theater pages divided between Former Theatres and Featured Theatres. Those theatres lucky enough to be Featured are treated within an essay-length history as well as a collection of historic and recent photographs (when applicable). In addition to the wealth of information about the theatres themselves, there is also a section showcasing advertisements from the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel for films shown in the city from the 1910s through the x-rated days of the 1970s.
While the Graveyard pulls much from existing scholarship about Milwaukee’s cinematic past, it offers for the first time a navigable Google map of 130 theatre sites within the city’s limits. Viewing this for the first time, I was astounded by the concentration of theatres within the downtown area, especially along the city’s main thoroughfare, Wisconsin Avenue. Today, only three of Milwaukee’s original stand-alone theatres currently operate as such: Times Cinema, Oriental Theatre, and Downer Theatre. While none of the downtown palaces remain, I am grateful that Milwaukeeans are able to experience at least part of the city’s rich theatre legacy. The Oriental is perhaps the best preserved of these theatres, still offering patrons something of its gilded past as a neighborhood palace.
In addition to the Google map, many of the Featured Theatres offer contemporary photographs taken by Erin Dorbin, a current graduate student in the History program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Erin has an impressive resume as a freelance photographer, and uses only film cameras for her work. The photographs taken by Erin that are included in the Graveyard are but a sampling of her portfolio, which runs the gamut of theatres, motels, diners, taverns, bowling alleys, laundromats, and various roadside signage across the country. She has several digital repositories for her work, all of which are linked below:
Milwaukee Cinema Graveyard is more than merely an object of local interest. It is a mirror through which any other urban area in America may view its own cinematic past, comparing and contrasting the elements of change that have irrevocably altered the landscape of moviegoing and ultimately our relationship with cinema itself.