2616 W. National Avenue,
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Firms: Dick & Bauer Inc.
Milwaukee’s National Theatre was of the Atmospheric style or ‘stars-and-clouds’ type, but its name was not an expression of its importance to the nation, but for the fact that it was on National Avenue, which had been Elizabeth Street in the city, but changed to a plank road farther out. In 1877 the city renamed the combined streets in honor of the “National Home for Volunteer and Disabled Soldiers” (called ‘Soldiers Home’) of the Civil War. That hospital and domiciliary was one of two in the nation and this one was started locally by women’s groups but later funded by the Federal government. It later became part of the Veterans' Administration, and the Milwaukee one remains today. In a sense then, this name was of some national significance since soldiers from across the nation were sent here to the 45 acres of park-like grounds where there was (and is) also the Ward Memorial Theatre of 1881. These were two of at least five show houses on National.
This theatre was opened on January 12, 1928 with “Becky” starring Sally O'Neill. It was built and operated by the Universal Chain Theatre Enterprises Inc. On April 19, 1930 it was taken over by the Warner Bros. Circuit Management Corp. It was one of five lavish neighborhood houses by Milwaukee architects Gustav Dick and Alex Bauer as part of the local Saxe chain of theatres, all of which used the then common practice of placing the small box office and ticket lobby on the narrow but expensive street frontage and connecting this via a long ornamental promenade to the foyer at the back of the auditorium on the cheaper land off the street (in this case the N.W. corner of National Avenue at 26th Street). That promenade was prefaced by the rich tan, beige and cream terra cotta frontage with a giant arched window, heavily draped, which faced south and thus flooded the ticket lobby with light. The island box office was at the sidewalk line to conserve space, and the terra cotta ornament of the frieze panels on the parapet above featured a procession-of-nobles theme, with a crested coping above them on the roof line, and all was topped with a patinated copper dome of imbrication. Not all of this beauty could be as easily seen after 1940 when Milwaukee’s Poblocki sign company removed the original bronze marquee and replaced it with the 1940’s vogue of an aluminum triangle with huge attraction boards to better showcase the tiles on the screen. The vertical sign, however, done in neon and bulbs, reading: “Saxe’s National” was retained up to demolition.
The promenade was reached through six doors from the ticket lobby, a tall narrow space with a tile floor, and plaster walls with Renaissance mouldings clustered around a set of beveled mirrors set high on the wall above the doors and beautifully draped in swaged velours. The Promenade was a long room with staircases to the balcony on both flanking walls. The staircases of carpeted white marble were set behind arcades of four columns each between which were hung on wrought iron rods the most distinctive ornaments of the space: gonfalons. These horizontal banners had vertical designs reminiscent of the Spanish baroque theme of the theatre. They were tasseled and fringed and were shown somewhat in the 1928 catalog of the E.L. Mansure Co. formerly of Chicago. A mock beamed ceiling hung with wrought iron lanterns of isinglass and a rustic tile floor led on into the auditorium foyer. This curving space followed the rear curve of the auditorium and to two of its four sets of doors led into the only “Crying Room” in Milwaukee theaters. This was a glass windowed room in the auditorium under the back portion of the balcony, with some 30 seats to which sound was piped so that the piping voices of babies and tots would not distract the audience. By 1970, juveniles had found other uses for the room.
The auditorium featured two elaborate niches atop the flanking arcades which served as exit ways. They had a faux marble finish, and were heavily adorned with artificial foliage and proceeded to the front splays where a triple-arched pavilion with broken pediments toped the organ screens. The raking cornices of the pediments were parted by a sculptural group, these two being only part of the ten sculptures in plaster that adorned the parapets above the arcades. Also located in these areas were giant urn-shaped lanterns with honey marbled glass inserts to allow light to emanate. Behind all these were the blue horizon lights of course, to imitate the glow of a night sky. With hundreds of star lights set into the ceiling, the illusion of a Spanish courtyard was complete. The proscenium wall was a shallow mansard in Spanish tiles surmounting the wide but low equilateral arch, nicely draped in burgundy velour with gold, verde, and ruby accents on the satin borders, tassels and pendants. Such ‘pendants’ were actually the innovation of the E.L. Mansure Co. in order to break up the expanse of velour swags and legs in great fullness. The pendants were actually heavy wood backings cut into artistic shapes upon which a stuffing material was placed and covered completely with silver satin. The satin was wrapped around the entire shape, with its front quilted by means of hidden stitching creating mounds and valleys to better capture the footlights in whatever color they were set up to project. Further enhancing these ornaments were the glass jewels sewn to their surface in an artistic pattern, along with the hand tinting with darker colors along their borders. Pendants were hung from the drapery headings by multi-ply ornamental cords, sometimes in a series of pendants, and were often terminated on their lower edge by two-foot long tassels. These, together with the hand-tinted appliques of the borders, were so rich as to be difficult to imagine today, since very few examples of this art for remain anywhere.
The 1,388 seats on the main floor (including the Crying Room) and the large balcony greeted many people over the years as the National Theatre was a popular theater, especially when its house organist Martin Pflug played for talent shows and the like, on its 3 manual, ten rank Barton theatre pipe organ. The lofts where these pipes were held were behind the two flanking pavilions described above, and had swaged burgundy velour draperies fringed in a six inch gold bullion style fringe framing the tripartite columned openings. Behind the openings were the swell shutters of the organ, of course, and these were concealed by a large mesh scrim cloth, painted a soft gold and adorned with embroidery of a giant urn of flowers, the flowers being in glass jewels which caught the lights of the balconnets below beautifully. Foot-long golden tassels were suspended from brocade galloons at the intersections of the panels of velour, and this writer vividly recalls removing them from the empty chambers and finding himself covered with 42 years of dust for his troubles.
Another little feature of the auditorium that must have pleased early audiences were the flanking semicircular water fountains taking the form of lavabos on the walls, having water dripping into them from a wall-mount lion’s head just above each shell shaped bowl. Just what urges of nature this sound may have engendered in the audience as time went on, is not recorded. The fountains adjacent to the organ screens were turned off, however, many years ago, after either the plumbing failed, or the patrons' bladders could take no more of the power of suggestion. The fountains were not illuminated and were mounted about four feet above the floor so as not to encourage little ones to play therein.
The National Theatre was a handsome Atmospheric style theatre, although by the time this writer saw the theatre in its last years, most of the light bulbs were burned out, and the clouds projectors had ceased to work long ago. Still, photos of it at opening remain and one of the auditorium was so fancied by the former editor of “Marquee” magazine of the Theatre Historical Society of America, that he used it to be the cover of their issue of the 4th Quarter, 1980, putting it in a league of select theatres to have graced the cover of that journal. The National Theatre found itself suffering the same neglect by both audiences and owners as the years wore on and so it was condemned by the city for use as a site for a subsidized high rise apartment house for indigent senior citizens in 1970, and that summer it was demolished amid the pangs of elderly ones who came up to the barricades to lament, and share their memories of earlier times and better days.
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