By Cynthia Sommer
The still active venue of the 100 + year old Miramar Theater (2844 N. Oakland Ave) has a long and varied history since it first opened as a movie theater in 1913. In Milwaukee during those early years, movies and movie theaters mushroomed with over 75 theaters established. The Miramar theater competed with its close rivals – the nearby Downer and Murray (2342 N. Murray) theaters and in addition in the 1920’s, the Shorewood (4329 N. Oakland) and Oriental movie theaters. One can imagine in those early years of neighbors walking to the theater to enjoy the new exciting silent films with stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford or Gloria Swanson and in the mid to late 1920’s with the “talkies”.
The movie going audiences became more sophisticated in expecting “new scenes of strange countries, examples of trick photography, high grade comedy and scenes from famous plays and books”. Competition among the theaters was very real and resulted in the building of elaborate and lush “Movie Palaces”, such as the Oriental Theater, to attract customers. The Miramar adapted with the times to show the “modern movies” with big name stars. The Miramar changed ownership to the Fox Eastside Theater Corporation in 1940 resulting in the theater becoming the “Oakland Theater” and eventual closing in the late 1940’s.
The 1948 anti-trust ruling by the US government forced the major movie studios, such as Fox and Paramount, to divest their interest in theater chains thus having a major impact on local theaters. The older theaters could not afford the routine repairs and remodeling and almost half the theaters in the City closed in the next decade. The advent of television also significantly affected patronage of the movies. In 1952, both the Murray and Shorewood theaters were razed. We are lucky to still be able to glimpse the “Golden Age of Movies” in the Downer, Oriental and Miramar buildings.
Another chapter in the life of the now closed Oakland/Miramar theater occurred in 1952 when Milwaukeean Mary John forged her dream to establish a professional theater in the City. Many in the City responded to her call. Mr. Fred Miller of the Miller Brewing Co served as chairman of the new non-profit Drama, Inc. theatrical corporation and along with over 650 dedicated volunteers raised over $100,000 for the theater in two years.
The Oakland (Miramar) Theater interior space with 650+ seats was remodeled into a theater-in-the-round with seating for over 300 patrons. The arena style created an intimate space with only 6 rows of seats surrounding the octagonal stage. The innovative stage lighting was positioned over the stage. The building façade was redone with the entrance showcased with a canopy. The “Milwaukee City Circle” was the original name for the new theater that was selected through a name-the-theater contest. But the name was never used. The Board of Directors changed the name to the “Frederick C. Miller Memorial Theater” following the tragic, untimely death of Fred Miller in a plane crash in Dec, 1954, about one month prior to the grand opening.
The opening night gala on January 25, 1955 brought patrons in tuxedos and minks, a red carpet, two giant searchlights, temperatures of minus 5 degree and excited neighbors. “Neighbors and passersby enjoyed the activity so much that they gathered in front of the theater in orderly rows…. they shivered in the cold but didn’t mind.” To attract audiences in the early years, well known stars, such as Geraldine Page, John Ireland, John Kerr and Geraldine Brooks, were hired to play main roles in Broadway hits. Neighbors occasionally saw glimpses of the stars and unexpected excitement was sometimes created near the venue since the theater did not have a cross-over for the actors. It was said that “near accidents were caused in the traffic on the street when the armored army of Henry IV marched out of the alley down Oakland Ave” to the theater front entrance.
Many other changes occurred during the next decade including the positive development of a resident acting company to perform the classics and new works – the foundation for the current Milwaukee Repertory Company. Patrons enjoyed over 138 productions but the theater space limited the growth of the professional theater group. The Milwaukee Repertory Theater moved in 1968 from the Fred Miller Theater to a new downtown location in the Todd Wehr Theater in the Performing Art Center and moved again to its current home across from Milwaukee’s City Hall in 1987.
The theater for most of the 1970’s was the J. Pellman Theater where stars such as Mickey Rooney, Rita Moreno, Bernadette Peters performed in musicals and other productions. From the late 1970’s to 1981, the Metropole Nightclub was established and presented numerous rock acts. The theater again became vacant and only two days prior to its scheduled demolition was purchased by the Eastbrook Church. The church did considerable repair and remodeling and stayed until 1995 when the growth of their congregation necessitated a larger space. The current owners William and Pamela Brown Stace purchased the venue in October, 1998 and revived its historic name – the Miramar Theatre. They host up and coming local and national music groups, provide open mic on Tuesday nights and are equipped with recording studios. A list of upcoming acts can be found at: www.themiramartheatre.com.
The Miramar has an interesting history – from silent films to modern movies, from big star Broadway production to the classics, from church services to rock bands. The walls could tell some stories!