5819 6th Avenue,
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Previously operated by: Fox West Coast Theatres, Orpheum Circuit, Saxe Amusement Enterprises, United Artists Theater Circuit Inc.
Architects: Martin S. Tullgren
Firms: Martin Tullgren & Sons Co.
Styles: French Renaissance
News About This Theater
- Sep 10, 2007 — New marquee for the born-again Rivoli
The 2,000-seat Orpheum Theatre was opened by Saxe Amusements on March 14, 1922 with Norma Talmadge in “Smilin' Through” & Harold Lloyd in “Never Weaken” plus 5-acts of vaudeville. It was equipped with a Barton 3 manual 15 ranks theatre organ which was opened by Dr. Hyland Elman Slatre-Wilson. In the 1950’s it was taken over by Fox West Coast Theatres. It was last operated by United Artists, who, in the 1990’s converted it into a four-screen theatre. In 2015 there is an ice cream shop using the lobby, and the auditorium is used for storage.
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The Orpheum Theatre Building is architecturally and historically significant under Standards 1, 3 and 4 of Section 15.04 of the City’s Zoning Ordinance because it exemplifies or reflects the City’s cultural and social history as Kenosha’s first movie palace, structures which represent a distinctive era in the growth and development of one of the most important elements of mass popular culture, the motion picture.
The Orpheum Theatre Building “embodies the distinguishing characteristics of an architectural type or specimen…” or “is representative of the notable work of a master architect.” This Theatre is a fine example of a modern early twentieth-century commercial building designed by the Milwaukee master architectural firm of Martin Tullgren & Sons, popular designers of hotels, commercial buildings and apartment houses during the early twentieth century. The firm designed the Orpheum like many other “movie palaces” of the 1920s, with a simple exterior in favor of an elaborate interior.
It’s a four-story commercial block building constructed in the modern Twentieth Century Commercial style with brown brick walls and little ornamentation. The windows of the upper three (3) stories are single-light double-hung sashes that are undecorated. The first story is made up of several storefronts and the theatre entrance. The storefronts consist primarily of large show windows with transoms separated by simple brick pilasters. The main entrance to the commercial upper level commercial space is decorated with large sidelights and transom panels topped with a simple cornice.
The theatre entrance is recessed and sits under a replica of the original theatre sign. At the rear of the building is the raised theatre section. The south wall is decorated with Classical Revival details including a cornice with pediment and modillions, arched reveals, and decorative brickwork.
The building has recently undergone renovation and parts of the building are still being worked on, but the effort was to restore the historic character of the building while adapting it to a multiscreen theatre with office, commercial space and apartments.
In the 1920s, the showing of movies became more elaborate than the nickelodeon or opera house productions. The movies were longer, and often accompanied by vaudeville acts. These movie palaces featured elaborately, and often exotically, decorated interiors with large auditoriums, big stages, and fine organs and organists who provided musical accompaniment to the silent pictures.
In movie palaces, people not only saw a movie but an elaborate show where the movie was only part of the entertainment. The movie palaces were meant to transport people briefly into a fantasy world, and soon movie palaces dominated the theatre trade in most communities.
The Orpheum, like many movie palaces, was hidden behind a very simple commercial building. In 1927, the Kenosha Theatre was completed, becoming the second movie palace downtown. In that same year, the old Rhode Opera House was replaced with the Gateway Theatre, making it the third movie palace in Kenosha’s downtown. The Orpheum Theatre operated into the 1970s, but closed when multiscreen suburban theatres began to take business away from large, downtown theatres. The building retained its commercial use until the 1980s when the building stood vacant for a number of years.
After much controversy and threat to raze the building, a developer came forward with a plan to renovate the building into a multiscreen theatre, apartments, and remodeled commercial space. This effort is partially completed, but the building has yet to become fully occupied with upstairs commercial businesses or any residential apartments. Currently, the Orpheum houses a toy store and an ice cream parlor at the street level.
The Orpheum Theatre Building is a good example of modern 1920s commercial building. Many movie palaces were constructed within plain commercial buildings, often presenting a very small facade at the street level, with the bulk of the building hidden behind the commercial streetscape. The Orpheum is typical in that the bulk of the theatre is hidden at the back, but it also features a large commercial front of offices and stores at the street level.
Martin Tullgren was a Swedish immigrant who established an architectural practice in Chicago in 1881. In 1902 the firm moved to Milwaukee. Martin’s sons Minard and Herbert trained in their father’s firm and the sons became partners in 1909. Martin Tullgren & Sons specialized in large projects like hotels, commercial buildings and apartment houses. In 1922 Martin died, and his sons continued the firm until 1928, when Minard died. Herbert Tullgren continued to practice under the firm name until 1936, when he changed it to Herbert Tullgren, Architect. In the 1930s, Herbert Tullgren was one of the foremost architects practicing in the progressive Art Deco and Art Moderne styles in Milwaukee, and three of his apartment designs made important contributions to the development of twentieth-century apartment-house construction.
The Orpheum Theatre Building is typical of the modern buildings designed by Martin Tullgren & Sons. Because the building was constructed in 1922, the year Martin died, it is probably more the work of his sons Minard and Herbert than of himself.
The interior of the Orpheum was designed in the French Renaissance style and the decorative details included rich rugs, gold pendants, mirrored lights, polychromed baskets, silk-beaded upholstery, velvet drapes and curtains, and silk wallpaper in red, blue, orange and gold tones. The result was a theatre that dramatically contrasted with the plain commercial exterior of the building. Because the Orpheum Theatre is a fine example of a 1920s movie palace designed by a master architectural firm, it is a significant landmark in downtown Kenosha.
The Orpheum Theatre is also significant because the movies have had a profound effect on American culture, and going to the movies was an important ritual in American towns and cities that still exists today. This form of mass popular culture was particularly important in the City, making Kenosha movie palaces historically significant and important historical landmarks. (From City documents.)
Orpheum to open two stadium theaters (April 23, 1998, by CHRISTOPHER PFAU, Racine Journal Times)
Downtown Kenosha’s Orpheum Theatre will open two new movie theaters featuring stadium-style seating on Friday night.
“We think this is the direction downtown Kenosha wants to go as far as bringing people to the downtown area,“ Jeff Maher, president and owner of the Orpheum at 5819 6th Ave., said of the theaters.
The stadium-style theaters, which cost about $500,000 to put in, include state-of-the-art sound systems, Maher said.
The addition brings to four the number of theaters in the Orpheum, a discount movie house.
Ticket prices are $2 everyday, except on Tuesdays, when tickets cost $1.
Maher said he believes moviegoers are calling for the stadium-style seating which ensure unobstructed views of the screen.
“In order for the discount theaters to compete, (the theaters) have to go to stadium-style seating,“ Maher said.
September 16, 1922: Kenosha’s East Indian Organist
Turbaned Player Attracts Much Attention at Console of Orpheum Organ Saxe Brothers' Orpheum Theatre in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Dr. Hyland Elman Slatre-Witson, East Indian organist, at the three manual Barton Orchestra Organ.
About ten years ago Dr. Slatre-Wilson returned to the United States with the internationally famous Dr. John Alexander Dowie of Zion City, Illinois. Dr. Dowie at that time was building the Zion City tabernacle and planned to install one of the best pipe organs in the United States to be used in connection with a large choir and extensive musical festivals. Dr. Slatre-Wilson was placed in charge of the organ selection and installation and himself designed one of the best cathedral organs in the United States, which even now is a famous feature of Zion City. The organizatibn and establishment of the great Zion City Choir, whose singing has brought pleasure to hundreds of thousands in dozens of cities, was also a work of Dr. Slatre-Wilson.
Moving to Kenosha, Wisconsin, Dr. Slatre-Wilson founded the Conservatory of Music, which he conducted with great success, until the opening of the Orpheum when he took his place at the console of the organ installed there. The combination of Dr. Slatre-Wilson’s musical skill and the versatile three manual organ has captivated Kenosha’s music loving movie goers, and the Orpheum is crowded daily and nightly. The melodies pouring from the dozens of throats of the Barton organ in response to the touch of Dr. Slatre-Wilson’s gifted fingers is a revelation.
In explanation of the intricate improvisations and tonal gradations with which Dr. Slatre-Wilson delights Orpheum audiences, he modesty gives great credit to the divided manual. “I was greatly surprised,” he says, “to find that in spite of the fact that more tonal combinations and a richer expression are possible than I have ever been able to find heretofore, I was able to play it readily on sight, without a minute of study and I find it a constant inspiration in my daily striving to gain further mastery of organ playing.”
Much interest has been aroused in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by the appointment of Dr. Hyland Eiman Slatre-Wilson to preside at the big three manual Barton orchestral organ installed in Saxe Brothers' half-million dollar Orpheum Theatre.
Dr. Slatre-Wilson is one of the best educated musicians in the United States. His education was begun in the public schools of Syracuse, New York and continued at the college of the City of New York, the State University of New York and under such masters of music as Leschetizky, Marescalchi, Consolo, Vitale and others in piano, violin, voice orchestration and composition.
From his youth Dr. Slatre-Wilson took up the study of the organ and at the age of fifteen became city organist of the All-India University of Bombay, India, his native land. For the succeeding few years he was one of the leaders of the Bast Indian musical world. He organized the 150 piece Emin D'Nalyh Orchestra, named after him. (Emin D'Nalyh is Dr. Slatre-Wilson’s family name.)
(Moving Picture World, September 2, 1922) East Indian Organist Delights Kenosha’s Moving Picture Fans ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
DR. HYLAND ELMAN SLATRE-WILSON now presides at the big three manual Barton Orchestral Organ installed in Saxe Brothers' half-million dollar Orpheum Theatre, Kenosha, Wis.
Dr. Slatre-Wilson is one of the best educated musicians in the United States. His education was begun in the public schools of Syracuse New York, and continued at the college of the City of New York, the State University of New York and under such masters of music as Leschetizky, Marescalchi, Consolo, Vitale and others in piano, violin, voice orchestration and composition.
From his youth Dr. Slatre-Wilson took up the study of the organ and at the age of fifteen became city organist of the All-India University of Bombay, India, his native land. He organized the 100 piece Emin D'Nalyh Orchestra, named after him. (Emin D'Nalyh is Dr. Slatre- Wilson’s family name).
Dr. Slatre-Wilson comes from a long line of great East Indian educators. About ten years ago he returned to the United States with John Alexander Dowie, of Zion City, Illinois. Dr. Dowie at that time was building the Zion City tabernacle and planned to install one of the best pipe organs in the United States to be used in connection with a large choir and extensive musical festivals. Dr. Slatre-Wilson was placed in charge of the organ selection and installation and himself designed one of the best Cathedral Organs in the United States, which even now is a famous feature of Zion City. The organization and establishment of the great Zion City Choir, whose singing has brought pleasure to hundreds of thousands in dozens of cities, was also a work of Dr. Slatre-Wilson.
Moving to Kenosha, Wisconsin, Dr. Slatre-Wilson founded the Conservatory of Music, which he conducted with great success until the opening of the Orpheum, when he took his place at the console of the Barton Orchestral Organ installed there. The combination of Dr. Slatre- Wilson’s musical skill and the widely versatile three manual Barton Organ has captivated Kenosha’s music loving movie goers, and the Orpheum is crowded daily and nightly. The delicately shaded, thousand-toned melodies pouring from the dozens of throats of the Barton Organ in response to the touch of Dr. Slatre-Wilson’s gifted fingers is a revelation both of human skill and instrumental perfection.
In explanation of the marvelously intricate improvisations and minute tonal gradations with which Dr. Slatre-Wilson delights Orpheum audiences, he modestly gives great credit to the Barton Divided Manual. “I was greatly surprised,” he says, “to find that in spite of the many tonal combinations and rich expression possible with the Barton, I was able to play it readily on sight, without a minute of study and I find it a constant inspiration in my daily striving to gain further mastery of organ playing.”
The ORPHEUM Theatre revival is on the fast track. Follow at https://www.facebook.com/kenoshaorpheum/
(Kenosha News, Saturday, March 21, 1992)
RAZE ORDER LIKELY FOR ORPHEUM By Dave Backmann, Staff Writer
Fed up with an eyesore and magnet for vandalism, city officials have started the process to raze the 70-year-old Orpheum Theater in downtown Kenosha. A city ordinance states that a raze order can be issued if the cost of bringing a structure into compliance with municipal building codes exceeds 50 percent of the equalized value of the property. James M. Schultz, director of the city Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development, estimated necessary repairs to the Orpheum at “well over” $100,000. The Kenosha County Assessor’s office lists the 1991 value of the property at $57,000. “Issue of orders to raze are pending,” Schultz said. “The owner is aware of the possibility it could be razed. That building has been a sore spot for the downtown for many years now. Downtown retailers and property owners have registered many complaints with my office. The matter of razing it is being reviewed by the city attorney’s office at this time. I imagine it’s something we’re going to proceed on in the very near future.” Schultz said his office brought a recommendation for demolition to the city attorney after inspectors determined within the last year that the building needs substantial repairs to meet code requirements. City Attorney James Conway said, “I believe it’s (a raze order) going to go forward.” Schultz said he has met with building owner Bernard W. Chulew, Milwaukee, several times. Chulew took action to keep vandals from entering, but has not proposed steps to rehabilitate the building, Schultz said. “We’d rather see the building rehabilitated and rescued, but no proposals are pending,” Schultz said.
Chulew said he will fight a raze order. “I think I’m being singled out,” he said. “There are a lot of buildings downtown in worse shape than mine. My building is not falling down.” Chulew said he pays $800 monthly for a mortgage and real estate taxes on the building. An empty space created by the demolition will lead to more crime problems than a standing, vacant building, he said. The four-story, 16,184-square-foot building has been totally vacant for approximately two years. Chulew bought the property at 5819-5831 Sixth Ave. from the original owner, 20th Century Fox Studios, about 16 years ago. In September 1990, the city hired a contractor to remove the exterior overhead marquee to make the building a less inviting target for vandalism.
Schultz said the building has no future. “There is no market for a theater. “If you divided it up for offices, you would need major structural improvements. It is not structurally unsound. But the exterior needs quite a bit of work to be used again, like painting and tuck-pointing and you’d have to modify the entrance. There are quite a few problems with the mechanical systems, too.” Schultz said he hasn’t determined the cost of razing and cleanup. Chulew could ask a judge for a temporary injunction to block the demolition, said Assistant City Attorney Ed Antaramian. A judge’s options include ordering repairs to bring the building into compliance with city codes or allowing the demolition to proceed. The owner has the option to pay outright for the demolition. lf the city has to hire a demolition contractor, the cost would be added to the owner’s property taxes. Since October when the city began a systematic inspection of building exteriors downtown, 62 properties have been checked and code compliance orders have been written on all 62. “Mostly orders have been written for minor things like peeling paint on doors and windows,” said James M. Schultz, director of the city Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development. “People by and large are cooperating with the inspector’s orders to bring the buildings up to code.” While the exterior maintenance code for commercial properties has been part of city ordinances for years, the Lakeshore Business Improvement District last year complained of lax enforcement, resulting in blighted conditions. At a BID meeting in October, 50 businessmen/property owners from the district welcomed the hiring of another city inspector to concentrate on the downtown. Mike Lorberter said this week he has inspected 62 of the approximately 200 properties in the district. Lorberter has worked by first issuing complimentary cleanup orders which give a property owner 30 days to respond to him on how code violations will be corrected. If a property owner doesn’t respond during that period, a formal order is issued which states violations must be corrected in 30 days or a meeting arranged with Lorberter on how to correct the problems. “A formal order is to get your attention,” he said. “It usually works.” Schultz said a recommended order to raze the Orpheum Theater building is not related directly to Lorberter’s work, but is part of an overall attempt by the city to upgrade the appearance of the district. He said the Orpheum has been an eyesore and target of vandals for years.
Kenosha News, May 31, 1968) Noted theater manager retires ——– Wallace Konrad, manager of the Orpheum Theater in Kenosha for the past ll years, has announced his retirement after a 25-year career in Wisconsin theaters. Considered a nearly infallible authority on show business and movies, Konrad began his career as a canopy boy at the age of 16 in Sheboygan. In 25 years he managed a variety of theaters throughout the state, including hitching post theaters, prestige theaters, art theaters, and small and big town theaters. He made it a point to know the town in which he worked, and to know what that town’s audiences wanted in their theaters. Taking his work seriously, he would give people the kind of movies they wanted to see, and was known for his efforts in promoting movies. He also made it a point to know as much as he could about his business and the movies he showed. It is said there is no question about the business that he can’t answer. After service in World War II, Konrad returned to Port Washington, where he served as assistant manager of the Ozaukee and Grand Theaters for Fox Wisconsin Amusement Corp., under the late Harold Fitzgerald. For a number of years he managed several theaters for this chain in small towns all over the state. In 1949 he moved to Milwaukee to manage various theaters there, working his way to district manager of the Fox Milwaukee division. It was in Milwaukee that he married the former Elaine Mindick, and started the family which now numbers six. Fox began to liquidate its Wisconsin holdings in 1954, so in 1956 Konrad moved to Kenosha to manage the Orpheum Theater, recently purchased by Towne Realty, and later sold to the Prudential Management Corp. Retiring in March of this year after a short illness, Konrad will continue to make his home in Kenosha with his family.
(March 13, 1922 - Kenosha Evening News) - The Story of Saxe Brothers Who Caught Gleam of Big Idea — Pioneers of the Movies ______
The Saxe brothers John and Tom have been something like patron saints to the moving picture industry in Wisconsin and their management has branched out into other states. They were among the first men of the nation to realize the value of the moving picture as an educational institution. They saw the great possibilities of it to the lover of the cleanest and best in amusements at the minimum price. They saw early the important place that the motion picture was destined to play in modern life and they decided to have a part in the important development.
It was Tom Saxe who first predicted that motion pictures would become entertainment de luxe with productions so elaborate that managers would be justified in asking admission prices on a par with those of the legitimate houses.
Started Fifteen Years Ago
It Was five years before the “Divine Sarah” Bernhardt gave motion pictures real standing by joining the movies that John Saxe, now president of the Saxe Amusement company, and Tom Saxe, secretary of the company, began to dabble in pictures. They set up an old “Hale’s Touring Car” on Grand avenue in Milwaukee as the start of their business. Thousands of people recall this old car when people looked through the windows at pictures which flashed past. It’s a long step from the old touring car to the pictures of today but the Saxe boys were right at the head of the procession in every advancement.
The old car got too small. The world was moving faster, and Saxe Brothers moved with the world. They bought the old Orpheum Theatre in Milwaukee and converted it over to pictures. It was a real success, and then the Saxe boys began to branch out. They secured the Lyric theatre, the Princess, the Crystal and the Alhambra, which they made one of the biggest houses in the nation given over to the new and favorite form of entertainment.
Took a Gamble at “Pictures”
The Saxe Brothers took a gamble on pictures. They made old houses larger and built new ones with a view of giving the motion picture everything possible in the way of attractive investure. They called in the magic art of music to make pictures more attractive and added many things which brought a new and different attraction for the picture shows. Many times the expenditures made to try out new experiments were much greater than the returns, but the forward-looking Saxe Brothers were willing to take a chance because they believed that the ultimate success of the picture as an entertainment was far in the future. It was natural that the Saxe Brothers should become a commanding part in the management of the picture business in Wisconsin With their center in Milwaukee; they have been branching out year after year, until now the company has a part in the management and control of twenty-five theatres in Milwaukee and other parts of Wisconsin.
Theatres in Many Cities
The directory of the Saxe enterprises now includes the Strand, Rialto, Princess, Theatorium, the Miller (a vaudeville house), Modjeska, Savoy and Tivoli in Milwaukee, three houses in Waukesha, three in Oshkosh, four in Marinette, two in Kenosha, and one each in Green Bay and Wausau. The close connection of all of these theatres makes it possible for the controlling company to furnish to all the houses the best in motion picture entertainment with the minimum of cost.
Not the least of the interesting features connected with the new Orpheum Theatre is the fact that it signalizes an active interest of two pioneers of a great idea in Kenosha. John E. Saxe and Tom Saxe have done a lot to make life more liveable for the people of Wisconsin. Their connection with the new Orpheum Theatre is a guarantee of a broad policy looking forward all the time. The interest that they have shown in the development of the theatre in Kenosha is one of the happy incidents. When the Dayton boys were looking about for someone of real theatre experience, they found Tom Saxe, and they found that he had an idea that their idea of Kenosha being the real place for a real theatre was a decidedly valuable asset.
March 14th, 2022 marks the Orpheum Theatre’s Centennial. https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=2134366280053291&id=100004398180010&sfnsn=mo
(Smart Reader [Kenosha WI], Feb. 25, 2022) The glorious Orpheum which celebrates 100 years this March was not the first Orpheum in Kenosha. The original Orpheum was located on 56th Street next to the Fischer Hotel, east of Sixth Avenue. It opened on Saturday, September 24, 1910, and in addition to singers and other acts, the theatre touted clear, bright, and beautiful pictures for just five cents (2022 = $1.40).
Kenosha Evening News, October 1910: “The Orpheum Theatre is now equipped to give the public the finest service as a moving picture house,” The Kenosha Evening News read on November 15, 1911. “The very best pictures are the only ones used in this theatre.”
Edward and Fred Dayton were brothers both in name and in every venture they entered and they are now known as key instruments in the growth of Kenosha in the early 20th century. When Edward returned from serving as a captain in World War I, he had grand ideas of what could happen to Kenosha. He believed Kenosha needed a hotel. Kenosha had plenty of smaller hotels at the time, but Dayton thought Kenosha needed a top- notch hotel to rival the best hotels in nearby Milwaukee and Chicago – one that could attract the conventions and big events which were passing on Kenosha due to lack of such a venue. Without much support politically from the Kenosha government, the Dayton brothers let their hotel idea simmer on the back burner.
A year before the Orpheum’s first bricks were laid, the foundation was already in place. The Dayton brothers along with John and Thomas Saxe were the principal stockholders in the Kenosha Orpheum Theatre Company. They began working with the Majestic (5717 Sixth Ave.) and Strand (5611 22nd Ave.) theatres in Kenosha. The Orpheum Theatre Company, with the help of Harry M. Vale and A.B. McCall, opened the Orpheum Theatre we know today in 1922 (more on that soon). With the help of 189 stockholders, the eight-floor Dayton Hotel opened on June 20, 1925, just south of the Orpheum building.
Edward Dayton remained influential in the community, becoming involved in other local theatres, including the Majestic, Butterfly and Burke, as well as serving on the Salvation Army Advisory board, the American Legion club, the Knights of Columbus and numerous more before his death in July 1956 at the age of 80.
The Orpheum theatre was constructed at a cost of $400,000 (2022 = $1.65M) and first opened its doors where the livery barn of Chet Wattles and the wholesale liquor sales office of L.H. Beall once stood. Although numerous smaller movie houses were in Kenosha, the Orpheum was Kenosha’s first real “movie palace.” The day prior to the grand opening, the Kenosha Evening News provided over four entire pages to coverage about the the new movie palace. Headlines for the various stories include: “Orpheum Theatre Beautiful Opens Tomorrow (sic),” “A Structural Masterpiece,” “Orpheum Organ Second to None,” and “Meet Manager William Mick.”
The theatre had a dramatic contrast of its plain commercial exterior. The lush extravagant interior was designed in the French Renaissance style and decorative details included rich rugs, gold pendants, mirrored lights, silk-beaded upholstery, velvet drapes, silk wallpaper in red, blue, orange and gold tones, and a $20,000 (2022 = $331,000) Barton organ.
“We have had to work like beavers but the theatre will be ready in all its glory for opening night,” theatre manager William Mick told the Kenosha Evening News prior to the Orpheum’s grand opening.
In the dedicatory address, Professor O. L. Trenary said “A struggling, ugly village has grown into a wonderful little city because of some splendid fellows dreamed dreams and made those dreams come true.”
When the theatre opened in 1922, it reflected itself as an important cultural and moral force. “This theatre will never display a sign that announces: ‘This Picture is Not For Children’ or ‘For Men Only’,” stated one representative of the Saxe Amusement Company, the operators of the theatre.
In 1922, Kenosha Evening News called the Orpheum “A structural masterpiece; in exquisiteness of exterior and interior design.”
The opening night’s main feature was the US debut of “Smiling Through,” a 96-minute drama starring Norma Talmadge and Harrison Ford (no, not that Harrison Ford; there was an earlier one then.) But it wasn’t just a film that audiences were in for. The evening’s program for the first week included an overture by the Orpheum Orchestra Supreme, “Orpheum Flashes”, news from all parts of the world, “Hy-Colman’s Syncopators” with Zada Weber and Rosalie Reuter in “Dance Supreme”, Harold Lloyd starring in the 19-minute comedic short “Never Weaken,” George Lipschultz and Harry Linder presenting “Musical Moments,” and then the main event, “Smiling Through.”
The upcoming weekend saw five big acts of vaudeville hosted by Yip Yip Yap Hankers from the State Lake Theatre in Chicago.
With concerns over the Spanish flu spreading across the world less than four years prior to the opening of the Orpheum, Mack stressed that the theatre took all precautions to keep guests safe and healthy. “The audience in the theatre will not breathe the same air twice, as a constant change of air will take place – pure outside air being poured in every minute while the foul air is being exhausted by large fans.”
In 1922, the theatre seated 1,422 and was billed “the safest theatre in the world”. In addition to screen attractions, the Orpheum also hosted vaudeville acts on the weekends. On Mondays through Thursdays, the theatre would show First National and Paramount films continuously from noon to 11pm. On Fridays through Sundays, the vaudeville acts would take the stage for evening performances and Sunday matinees. Admission at the time was 25 cents for the films and 40 cents for the weekend shows (2022 = $4.18 and $6.69 respectively).
By 1924, the building as a whole was going strong. The Kenosha Evening News called it ‘a veritable city in itself.’ In addition to the theatre, other tenants in the building included a drug store, a men’s clothing store, an optical shop, a light-lunch emporium, physician and dentist offices, a beauty parlor, insurance and advertising agencies, voice-culture instructors, piano and violin teachers, a tailor shop, a soda fountain, long-distance telephone booths, and more.
The Orpheum was operated by Saxe Amusement and managed locally by Edward Dayton until February 1928, when Fox Theatres Inc. took over. Fox changed the name to “The Lake” and it stayed that for the next five years. In August 1933, Saxe regained control of the theatre and The Orpheum name returned. With that, The Orpheum hosted a gala on October 1, 1933. One-part fashion show, one-part Hollywood premiere, and over two dozen celebrity impersonators arrived in glittering automobiles surrounded by powerful searchlights bathed in light, dressed in lavish gowns and the best suits. Young Kenoshans portrayed such greats as Joan Crawford, the Marx Brothers, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Laurel and Hardy, and many more. Much of the glorious jewelry and fancy clothes worn by the “stars” were the hottest fashions provided by local shops like Segals, C.S. Hubbard’s, and Korf’s Sixth Avenue. After the “stars” went into the theatre, ticketgoers were welcomed in for the U.S. premiere of the Victor McLaglen film “Laughing at Life” as well as entertainment from the dancers of the Elaine Beth Studio and music by the Orpheum Theatre Orchestra.
In September, 1941, the management of the theatre changed hands once again when the Orpheum was one of nine Wisconsin theatres involved in a deal where Saxe Amusement Company leased the theatre to Fox-Wisconsin Amusement. From here after, the Orpheum name remained unchanged.
In July of 1942, the Orpheum hosted an interesting event. At midnight on a Monday, guests were treated to a “Midnight Voodoo Party.” “Invisible demons will raise tables, raise spooks, and raise Cain on the stage when H.L. Weber, a noted demonstrator of occult lore, brings his troupe of invisible zombies for this shuddery thrill show,” the Kenosha Evening News reported at the time.
In January, 1948, the new film “Blaze of Noon” starring William Holden and Anne Baxter opened at the Orpheum and a special guest was in attendance. The actual Academy Award won by Baxter in 1947 for her role in “The Razor’s Edge” was on display in the theatre lobby.
A lifetime before “American Idol” took over the TV airwaves, the Orpheum hosted a talent competition in March, 1949. 25-year-old George Chromcik won the $100 (2022 = $1,171) prize and advanced to the state finals in the ‘Talent Quest for Stars of Tomorrow.’ However, Chromchik would not make his way to Hollywood. In the state finals, ventriloquist Robert King of Fond du Lac won the Wisconsin championship.
The television age.
As television was growing in popularity across Kenosha and the country, movie theatres had to find new gimmicks to fill the seats. In a November 1956 ad, the Orpheum gave away a “free small turner (spatula) with a copper tone handle” to all ladies who purchased an adult ticket.
Filmmaker Bert I. Gordon returned to his hometown in June of 1958 to host a double feature of two of his films, his latest: “Attack of the Puppet People” and “War of the Colossal Beast” at the Orpheum. In a Q&A with audience members at the screening, Gordon gave his views on the film industry at the time, saying that horror pictures are just coming into their own. “They will replace westerns in most theatres. Television pretty much has the western market covered.” Throughout the evening, Gordon also determined that filmgoers wanted more gore, less creepiness, no future-centric horror films, and fewer women (which drew some negative reactions from both men and women alike in the crowd).
Beginning in 1958 and into the 1970s, the First National Bank of Kenosha hosted an annual Junior Banker Party at the Orpheum. All youngsters with their Junior Banker Badge could come out on Saturday morning for a full-length feature film, cartoons, and free popcorn.
In the summer of 1960, the words “Air Conditioned” were first used in Orpheum advertising. That year movie prices were 95 cents for matinees, and evening performances were $1.25 (2022 = $8.95 and $11.77 respectively.
In October 1960, the Orpheum hosted a Safety Slogan Award ceremony in conjunction with Certified Grocery Stores of Kenosha. The first 2,500 boys and girls who submitted their entry received a free ticket to the show. Kenosha Mayor Eugene Hammond and Police Chief Stanley Haukendahl participated in the event. The winners were David Arndt, who won a bicycle from Montgomery Wards, Bobby Allan Demarais who won a wristwatch from D’Jemes Jewelers, and in third place, Blake Seitz took home a $25 gift certificate to J.C. Penney. All attendees then enjoyed a special screening of “For the Love of Mike,” starring Richard Basehart.
In 1961, Orpheum manager Wallace “Wally” Konrad took out a classified ad in the Kenosha News seeking a Candy Counter Girl who was “neat and attractive.”
In June of 1962, the Orpheum theatre was leased by Prudential Theatre Co., operator of 58 movie houses in the eastern US. The Orpheum was one of 19 Wisconsin theatres in the deal.
Bradford High School’s prom of the late 1950s and through the ‘60s make today’s proms look pretty tame by comparison. The biggest social event of the year for many high school students was held on a Friday evening in April, and just hearing the plan for the evening is exhausting. The Downtown Kiwanis Club worked with the Eagles Club and the Orpheum for a full evening (and morning) of entertainment. After the completion of the prom, the students were led by a police escort to the Orpheum where they enjoyed a premiere showing of a new picture. While the film played, Kiwanis Club members transformed the Eagles Club into a colorful arrangement for the second phase of the prom – The After-Glow. After the film, the students returned to the the Eagles to be treated to a buffet and more dancing into the wee hours of the morning. As dawn began to break over Lake Michigan, a breakfast was served to the students after a long night of fun, created by Kiwanis after some parents voiced concerns of kids not going directly home after prom but seeking additional fun, sometime venturing to Milwaukee or Chicago. This tradition would continue to involve the Orpheum until 1970, the following year prom-goers would attend a screening at the nearby Lake Theatre.
The vaudeville and other non-cinematic forms of entertainment didn’t come around as often as they used to at the Orpheum in the 1960s. But there were still interesting performers. On December 30, 1963, a few topnotch TV and recording stars appeared in a one-night-only show. Johnny Tillotson, recording headliner, appeared with Paul and Paula, a young singing duo. The program also included appearances by Ronnie Cochran and the Kasuals Orchestra for two showings, at 7:30pm and 9:55pm.
Win a puppy! That’s right, in September 1965, the Orpheum hosted a promotion with the screening of the new film “My Pal Wolf,” the story of a little girl and her dog. Everyone in attendance received a free “wolf dog whistle”, and kids were encouraged to enter the coloring contest where two puppies were given away to the winners at the Saturday and Sunday matinee showings that week.
By 1965, traffic was a big concern in downtown Kenosha, and not from the shoppers. Some business owners expressed concerns over teenagers “scooping the loop” – aimless driving back and forth on Sixth Avenue with friends while not spending much money at the local businesses. To combat this, the city drew up a plan to convert Sixth Avenue from 55th to 59th Street to one-way southbound-only. One who was adamantly against this was Orpheum Manager Wally Konrad, who got support of 55 of the 63 business owners along Sixth Avenue who’d be affected by this to stand with him in opposition. “Re-routing prospective customers away from routes they have been using through force of habit for many, many years will discourage them and send them to our number one competitors – the shopping centers,” Konrad said in the petition. “If they put in one-way traffic, they’re not going to solve the scooping problem,” Konrad said. “Two lanes moving in one direction will encourage drag racing. (We) don’t care to discourage teenagers from coming downtown. They’re the customers of tomorrow.”
In February 1967, the Academy Award-winning musical “The Sound of Music” began an eight-week run at the Orpheum, one of the longest running films at the theatre. By popular demand, the film would return to the Orpheum later in the year for an encore engagement.
The month of October, 1967 brought trouble to the Orpheum. On the night of October 2nd, a thief broke into the theatre and stole a coin box from a cigarette machine after apparently failing to break open the safe. 20-year-old William Young was later found guilty of that crime as well as seven additional burglaries in the area. A few days later, a group of rowdy young people attacked 18-year-old Orpheum employee Jerry Gollnick inside the theatre after Gollnick ordered a non-paying patron to leave. A concession attendant was also struck by the group when she tried to intercede. Gollnick had no serious injuries; he was treated and released at St. Catherine’s Hospital, and Wally Konrad said he now planned to hire an off-duty policeman to protect the premises.
After 11 years of managing the Orpheum and over 25 years in the cinema business, Wallace Konrad announced his retirement in March 1968. Konrad was as much a fan of films as he was devoted to his job. It was said there were no questions about the business that he couldn’t answer. Konrad personally selected the films that would be shown at the Orpheum and took his work very seriously. Things would never really be the same for the Orpheum after Konrad’s retirement.
The beginning of the end.
In the summer of 1968, the Orpheum changed ownership hands once again. United Artists Circuit Inc. purchased a chain of 22 Prudential theatres in six Wisconsin cities including the Orpheum. Around this time, the Orpheum began to direct its focus to occasional kids' matinees on some weekends and adult-themed material in the evenings..
Some area religious leaders came together to lease the Orpheum for the week of October 18-24, 1968 for a showing of the 1965 film “The Restless Ones” produced by the Rev. Billy Graham. The film deals with problems of youth and their relationships with parents, society and their God. The screening of the film was heavily endorsed by the community, including police chief Robert Bosman and Captain Beulah Hartwig of the Juvenile Division, the latter stating, “I sincerely wish that every teenager in Kenosha could see this film.” Many local businesses encouraged their customers to see the film as well, including Kendall Shoes, 6208 22nd Ave. and the Town and County Shopping Center, both of which mentioned the showing in their own newspaper advertisements.
In September 1969, the Orpheum, now in its 47th year, was beginning to show signs of aging. Firefighters were called when a large sheet of metal from the ornamental molding atop the building began to blow loose during a downpour. Additionally, a falling piece of masonry left a dent in a parked car below and firemen refastened the loose pieces into place.
In January 1970, after a showing of “John and Mary” starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow, two men entered the theatre around midnight and held a gun to 21-year-old employee James Warrenburg. The thieves managed to escape with $515 (2022 = $3,700). They were never caught.
Two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., audiences nationwide could come out on March 24, 1970 for a screening of “King: A Filmed Record - Montgomery to Memphis.” The Orpheum was one of 1,000 theatres showing the film, with proceeds going to the Martin Luther King Foundation.
In June 1970, the first X-rated film was shown at the Orpheum, titled “Vixen.” But the Orpheum wasn’t the only local theatre getting in the adult movie game – that same weekend, the Roosevelt Theatre was showing the X-rated “The Best House in London”. However, that wasn’t a permanent direction for the Orpheum. The following week, the theatre brought in the family film “A Boy Named Charlie Brown.”
On December 7, 1970, for a $7.50 ticket (2022 = $53) boxing fans could watch the Muhammed Ali/Oscar Bonavena boxing match live from Madison Square Garden on the big screen through a closed-circuit telecast.
In time for Christmas 1971, the United Artists Theatre Circuit, owners of the Orpheum, opened UA Cinema 1 & 2 at the Welles Plaza Shopping Center on 75th St and 57th Ave. The two theatres with a shared lobby and concession stand seated 500 and 350 each.
Though the Orpheum was playing adult features, it still did family-friendly promotions in 1972. For the horror film “Frogs,” kids got in free if they brought in their pet frog (in a cage). Cash prizes were awarded to “the most beautiful frog” and kids were encouraged to dress up their frog (suggesting mini-bikinis or tuxedos.)
In June 1972, after the showing of “Swinging Stewardesses” and “How to Succeed With Sex,” two cans of film were taken from the sidewalk in front of the Orpheum as Leo Schuessler was locking up. On March 10, 1974 management reported that the ticket booth was entered on Sunday afternoon and a cash box with $245 (US = $1,385) was taken. The Orpheum was currently showing “The Exorcist”, which played for over two months. Later in 1974, the Orpheum began to cater nearly exclusively to the adult crowd, and it seemed that UA Theatres began to separate itself from the Orpheum in September 1974. Advertising referred to it simply as "The Orpheum”, with no mention of UA Theatres. United Artists was directing its focus to the new UA Cinema 1 & 2 on Kenosha’s west side. In January, 1975 Gonnering Realtors posted the Orpheum Building for sale. That June, an ad read “With the new Downtown Mall coming, think of the possibilities for the Orpheum Theatre and building. It is for sale so call us for further information.” Bernard ‘Bargain Bernie’ Chulew was well-known for his expertise in selling furniture and his memorable TV commercials. After starting at Barr Furniture, Chulew opened a number of furniture stores in the area, including Furniture Seconds and Mr. Furniture. Chulew also dabbled in real estate. September 30, 1975 was the day Bernie Chulew purchased the building from United Artists Theatres, and the Orpheum projectors went dark that same day, after 53 years. The final program was an X-rated double feature of “Emmanuelle” and “Candy.” Chulew did not want to see the theatre closed. His daughter, Rebecca Chulew believes that the city was not working with her father to help keep it open. “My dad tried, and he really took pride in the Orpheum,” Rebecca said in a recent interview.
Other factors were at work as well. In the 1970s, many business were abandoning their downtown locations to new accommodations in strip malls on Kenosha’s west side. Kenosha converted Sixth Ave. to the “Southport Mall” in the fall of 1975, and local politicians and investors saw the Orpheum as well beyond its prime and not worth the effort. Film distributors weren’t eager to work with independent owners and multiplexes like the new UA Cinema in Kenosha and others were starting to damage revenues at single-screen movie houses around the U.S.
In January 1976, the theatre itself became home to the Kenosha Indoor Flea Market on weekends, and throughout the mid-1970s and approaching the 80’s the storefronts and offices in the building seemed to be doing well, home to such as the The Express Restaurant, Finance System of Kenosha, Kenosha Christian Fellowship, Water World, Automotive Parts Company, Wisconsin AMVETS, Transcendental Meditation, Spectrum Music Studio and the Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization.
In late 1981, developers Tom Pitts of Pitts Bros. and Associates and Wayne Haney of Wilson-Haney Architects had dreams for the Orpheum building to be part of what they called the Renaissance Hotel Corporation/Southport Mall Revitalization Project, and asked the city for $326,000 (2022 = $1.6M) in a plan which would relocate residents at the Dayton Care Center and create a conference center, transforming the Dayton to a high-class 75-room hotel with a skywalk connecting it to a 600-seat conference center in the Orpheum Building. Pitts and Haney imagined the complex spurring a whole new outward appearance for that area and downtown Kenosha as a whole. But in December 1981 the Community Development Block Grant Citizens Advisory Committee voted to not recommend the Dayton-Orpheum project., citing a lack of private investor commitments and insufficient planning. Despite the funding denial, Tom Pitts was not discouraged. “We definitely feel that the project is still on,” he said to the Kenosha News. “No two ways about it … the City Council is the final review agency.” And in November 1983 the City Council voted to spend $255,000 in federal money over the next three years to rehabilitate the classic Dayton Hotel, 521 59th Street, as the dreams of the Dayton-Orpheum project began to fade, plans for the conference center fell through, and by the end of 1986, some downtown business owners were calling for the Orpheum to be razed.
In March 1984, the last operating movie theatre in downtown Kenosha and the last of Kenosha’s grand old movie houses, the Lake Theatre - opened as the Gateway in 1927 - announced it will close its doors, citing poor business.
(In the mid-1980s, the Orpheum storefronts interestingly featured an odd mix of beliefs and practices. On the second floor was Bible Baptist Church … and The Blue Moon Curio, an occult book store, was on the street level. Pastor Dana Kirshein of the 35-member Bible Baptist told the Kenosha News in 1984 that he was opposed to the occult, but stated “I don’t perceive it as a threat. I view it as an opportunity to convert.”)
In early 1988, a group of young people attempted to revive the Orpheum as a performing arts center. For Kenosha boy Kelly Mackay, what began as a project on the Gateway student radio station grew into a local television show, and then expanded into hosting concerts. Mackay, Jeff Moody, Jim Wells and others were producers of the Jones Intercable public-access music show Video Brain Damage, later called Video Whiplash. Mackay and his cohorts developed a relationship with indie record labels across the nation and would get new videos of hot young groups and the chance to see up-and-coming bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone at nearby venues to record for their shows. Mackay began to look into local venues to book acts that were visiting the area. One of the first places he looked at was a large warehouse at 22nd Avenue and 56th Street (now home to the VMC Lofts). It didn’t quite suit his needs but the owner, one Bernie Chulew, told him about a theatre he owned in downtown Kenosha and how that might work.
“It was a mess.” Mackay said in a recent interview. “It was the middle of winter and there was a waterfall of ice coming from the ceiling. Backstage behind the curtain was 3 feet deep of pigeon (feces) and carcasses. I put the word out and next thing you know I had a ton of people around my age who were totally into it. I was 17 and I came from a performing-arts background in school. My hope was to have a youth directed performing arts center.” It took three months to clean everything out of the theatre. Mackay said he’d sleep in one of the empty offices so he could get up at the crack of dawn, stop at Franks Diner for coffee, then work on the theatre throughout the day. On April 7, 1988, in an attempt to raise funds for paint and other necessities, an art show was organized with the help of Dale “Dr. Destruction” Wamboldt with a cookout outside on the Mall. For a fee, people could take a sledgehammer to a Chrysler.
By May, the Orpheum was ready for its rebirth as a concert venue. Mackay cited Moody, Jack Koshick, Don Lipkie and Tony Jakubowski as the essential team for obtaining the acts, the first of which, booked to play the grand-opening on May 27, 1988, was Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction. This sleazy British hard rock band was heating up the charts and the MTV airwaves with their recent debut album and the singles “Prime Mover” and “Backseat Education.” The tour was promoted on MTV, possibly the first (only?) time Kenosha was mentioned on the iconic music channel. The band was excited to take the stage that Friday night, but the organizers were concerned. They’d been up all night preparing the Orpheum, even having plumbing equipment flown in at the zero hour so the basement bathroom was in full operation, and the one thing they were waiting for was the proper permit. As the band tossed a football out in the Southport Mall ust hours before the show, the word came down from the city – the show was not going to happen. “We were shut down because there was a piece of tile missing and they didn’t issue our permit,” Mackay recalls. “After going to the Downtown BID (Business Improvement District) board meetings, it was pretty clear that they were against anything like this happening downtown.” But soon the tile was fixed, the permits were granted, and concerts came to the Orpheum in 1988 through that summer and fall, including national acts. Lifelong Kenoshan Chris Bacewicz was a young teenager at the time and excited to experience live music in Kenosha. “I always loved the old theatres and being able to go inside and think of how it once was was really cool. I was 14 at the time and started getting my own identity in life. The Orpheum shows were my first experience of live music and I was swept up in the spirit of it,” he said in a recent interview. “Music, particularly live and local stuff, has a soul-saving spirit that has gotten me through tough times more than anything.” Lisa Henthorn, rhythm guitarist of the band Oops! at the time, recalls the night her band played with Die Monster Die on October 31, 1988. “It was awesome – it was one of my first gigs. I was nervous but the place sounded and looked so freaking cool, it was definitely the perfect Halloween gig,” Henthorn said recently. “Before the show, we got to wander around the building a little bit. It was kind of spooky. Some parts of it looked like it had just closed and things were still in their places. We explored through the tunnel under the road and found a barbershop with the combs still in the now-empty glass jars that once were filled with cleaner solution.” The Smashing Pumpkins played their first out-of-state show in Kenosha at the Orpheum on November 18th, 1988. The little known Chicago band was building a solid reputation and were honing their skills at Chicago clubs Avalon, 21 Club and the Metro before coming to Kenosha. Mackay recalled his interaction at the time. “I remember sitting on the corner with Billy (Corgan) from Smashing Pumpkins and he asked me what I thought of his band’s name. I told him I personally didn’t like it, but it was clever and marketable and they should stick with it.” The band, later known for the hits “Today” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” would be so inspired by the aesthetic of the Orpheum’s interior they would return a few weeks later to take promotional pictures inside the theatre. Many of these photos were reported to have been published in independent ‘zines soon after, but they were still a few years from being on the cover of Rolling Stone.
The Orpheum as a concert venue was a valiant effort through 1988, but heating and other problems curtailed performances in the winter of 1988-89 - and after conflicts between the event organizers and property owner Bernie Chulew, live music did not return in 1989.
In January 1990, police were called to the theatre and reported a group of teens inside who had started two fires to keep warm. The fires were extinguished as several of the young people tried to flee, but police managed to arrest a 19-year old woman and two boys, ages 17 and 14. At this time, the Orpheum was perhaps in the worst condition of its history. The businesses occupying the storefronts were gone, the offices upstairs were empty, and in September of 1990 the classic marquee was removed by city order. By 1992, the Orpheum was seriously face to face with the wrecking ball, many city officials seeing it as an eyesore and hoping for redevelopment. James Schultz, director of the city Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development, said that the necessary repairs for the building were well over the value of the building. “That building has been a sore spot for the downtown for many years now … the matter of razing it is being reviewed … I imagine it’s something we’re going to proceed on in the very near future,” Schultz said at the time, according to the Kenosha News.
Bernie Chulew did not want to see his theatre be destroyed. “I think I’m being singled out,” Chulew said in 1992, as reported by the Kenosha News. “There are a lot of buildings downtown in worse shape than mine.” Alderman Frank Pacetti, council chairman and chairman of the City Redevelopment Authority, concurred, “It’s a travesty inside. It doesn’t make economic sense.”
One citizen stood strongly on the side of the decrepit theatre. Lou Rugani – at the time a member of the Landmarks Commission. “Restoration upgrades an area and returns a sense of place to a neighborhood while creating jobs during the work and employment afterward,” Rugani said in 1993, according to the Kenosha News. Rugani recollects those days in a recent interview: “The demolition cost for the Orpheum would be about half a million bucks and we suggested giving that money to any developer who would reopen it, which makes sense.” Rugani, with the help of other preservationists like Merike Phillips, helped save the Orpheum from the wrecking ball and it was declared a local landmark by the end of 1993. But being a “local landmark” was more of a glamorized term than an official sign of salvation.
In October 1994, Mayor John Antaramian delivered what could have been the death sentence to the Orpheum. “There needs to be a resolution in the next 30 days,” Antaramian said, as reported by Kenosha News. “After that, it’s time to start the process of bringing the building down.” Though some claimed the building was beyond repair, it was repaired. Rather quickly too.
Jeffrey Maher, chairman of JDM International Realty bought the building in early 1995 and costs for renovation were said to have run close to $500,000 (2022 = $914K). “Without Merike Phillips, I’m not sure the Orpheum would have survived,” Rugani said in a 2022 interview. “She was the one who found Jeffrey (Maher). I give her full credit for her efforts on behalf of saving the Orpheum.”
On November 19, 1995, the Orpheum triumphantly re-opened as a two- screen budget theatre. Moviegoers would pay $2 (2022 = $3.66) admission to see “Babe,” “A Walk in the Clouds” or “Apollo 13” on its opening weekend. However the reborn Orpheum looked a bit plain from the street on its re-opening, since construction issues delayed the installation of the new marquee by over a week. “That beautiful marquee was actually kind of a tribute to the original marquee and coincidentally it was built by the company who made the very original marquee, Poblocki Sign Company in Milwaukee,” Rugani said.
One person from the Orpheum’s past returned when it re-opened as a budget theatre. Kelly Mackay saw the theatre was being renovated and investigated. “I lived across the street, above Daisy’s Vanity Shoppe (now House of Nutrition), and I walked over to see what was going on and talked to them. I got hired when they opened and was later promoted to assistant manager. It was a great part-time job.” Within a few years, the theatre would split once again, now occupying four screens with the balcony being converted to two additional theatres. But the variety in films over four smaller screens, even at budget prices, couldn’t keep the audiences.
The street outside the Orpheum Building was the backdrop for a scene in the 1999 film “The Last Great Ride” starring Ernest Borgnine and Eileen Brennan. While Borgnine’s character tells a story to the other characters, we’re given a visual flashback to 1942 Chicago, which was actually Sixth Avenue around 1999. Automobiles from the era lined the streets for the clip, the marquee at the Orpheum advertised the 1948 Humphrey Bogart film “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and yes, that’s an error on the filmmakers' part, not a typo. The scene, which is less than a minute long, interestingly cements the Orpheum building in cinematic history from a totally different perspective.
By Spring 1999, Orpheum developer Jeff Maher stopped making payments on the $265,000 loan; by November the Orpheum was facing foreclosure, and once again closed its doors in January, 2000. But interest in the building was still strong. One was Illinois developer Paul McDonough. “When I first started buying buildings in downtown Kenosha, I purchased two on the same day. I called them the beauty and the beast!” McDonough said in a recent interview. “The beauty was the Market Square building at 56th & Sixth Ave., now owned by Anytime Fitness owner Louie Arreco. The beast was the Orpheum. At the time, this historic four-story building had gone through a sheriff’s auction but there were no takers. Johnson Bank owned the property via foreclosure. While it was vacant of paying tenants, it was occupied by hundreds of pigeons flying in and out of the various broken windows! While we toured the building, one of the bankers quite literally got sick and threw up during the walk through.”
McDonough purchased the Orpheum Building in 2001 and put $200,000 into the building looking to attract new businesses. “We filled 27 dumpsters removing all the trash and debris out of the building,” he recalls. “We installed 42 new Thermopane windows with maroon frames that matched the large theatre marquee. We then installed three new commercial storefronts along Sixth Avenue. The storefronts each had their own heating and air conditioning, new restrooms, oak hardwood floors, new period art deco chandeliers, etc.” Although his offer of “six months free rent” didn’t get any bites on the four-screen movie house, three businesses did move into the storefronts in the Spring of 2003: Peacetree Originals, wireless-phone company Nextel, and Divine Essentials. “I give credit to my tenants,” McDonough said in 2003, as reported by the Kenosha News. “They are pioneers to go into that space.’
As time went by, McDonough, a consummate businessman, put the building back on the market. Jennifer and John Heim bought the building in 2005 and opened The Laboratory Toy Store in the southwest corner. At the time, the Heims had dreams of re-opening the cinema. “Is the equipment current and does it work? Will we be able to use all those seats?” Jennifer Heim said in 2007, according to the Kenosha News. “But we’re definitely happy with it and we would like to see the theatre reopen at some point.” But money was an issue and the theatre needed updating, including becoming handicapped-accessible. Dr. Destruction (Dale Wamboldt) helped keep the spirit of the Orpheum alive by hosting a concert with his band Dead Leathers in 2009 and appearances in following years in front of the theatre including the Gypsy Museum of the Macabre and The Summer of Lovecraft Art Fair.
Although visitors found the toy store a unique community asset, the cash registers didn’t share that enthusiasm. In the spring of 2014, the Heims were looking for new owners to take over the Toy Store and Scoops Ice Cream Shoppe. Heim’s Toy Store closed in the Summer of 2014, and the Heim family relocated to Chicago and began renting the space. Julie and Carl Soldenwagner bought Scoops and relocated the store in early 2017 to Eighth Avenue. In the 21st century, the theatre remains dark, but the storefronts saw some activity. Additional local businesses that occupied the retail shops in the past 20 years also include Elsie Mae’s and currently Belissima’s Boutique and Kenosha Beauty Supply.
In September 2016, the Orpheum received another shot at life when Alex Kudrna, owner of Backyard Dream Productions, purchased the building with dreams of turning portions of the four-story complex into a digital production studio, rented office space, concert venue, restaurant, and yes, a theatre. It seems that cleaning up the building is a never-ending process and a recurring theme for each owner. “As we begin to clean up the building from years of vacancy and renovations, I found original ceilings that were hidden by drop ceilings, found plasterwork and old windows framed up behind drywall. A lot of hidden crawl spaces and nooks. We even found a Playboy magazine from the ‘70s in the electrical closet,” Kudrna said in a recent interview. By December, 2017, Kudrna opened “The O” on the second floor of the building as a shared and short-term office space. “It can be a stepping stone,” Kudrna said at the time, according to the Kenosha News. “A business might be here for two months, and next month maybe they will go buy their own place. Or if someone has a home office and they want to go somewhere nicer for client meetings. I want to help the community as a stepping stone.”
“The Orpheum had a lot of owners over the years. I feel they caused a lot of historical damage in the 1990s when they tried to save the theatre by adding four theatres. For the short time that it was open, I don’t feel it was worth it to destroy the architecture and history of the theatre. The two owners after the ‘90s did a lot to preserve the building and added much needed infrastructure. I feel each owner worked to upgrade the space so it can continue to stand and be a usable building. I have learned it is not cheap to keep up a building of this scale or historic nature. It takes someone with the love of history to truly care about it. My goals are to keep moving forward and making sure the infrastructure is adequate to keep it around for another 100 years, and of course have a working theatre!”
As the Orpheum celebrates 100 years, Kudrna said that a birthday party for his beloved building is a must. “For the 100th anniversary we are planning on a 2-day block party. I can’t release too many details yet, but you won’t want to miss this event!”
As the owner of Backyard Dream Productions, Kudrna is a indeed a self-professed dreamer. The Orpheum is a long way from its glory days, but Kudrma said that if money isn’t an issue, the grand movie palace will return. “What I would love to do… if I could afford it, would be to restore the theater to as close to its original condition as possible, seating for 1400, a full balcony, a modern parking garage in the back – and bring national acts here to perform.”
Perhaps the second hundred years of the Orpheum may be even better than the first.
By Jason Hedman - Special thanks to the many who helped in this research including Rebecca Chulew, Lisa Henthorn, Kelly Mackay, Jonathan Martens, Paul McDonough, Lou Rugani, JoEllen Storz and Dale “Dr. Destruction” Wamboldt. The author would also like to thank Kathy Bassinger and Anna McGovern for their help.