History of Downer Theatre
By Cynthia Sommer
The Downer Theatre located at 2589 N. Downer holds a special place in the City of Milwaukee’s history in that it is the oldest movie theater that still shows films. The theater was built in 1915 by well known Milwaukee developer Marc Brachman and movie entrepreneurs, Thomas and John Saxe. The theater experience was different from now in that the theater was established more than twelve years before the “talking pictures”. Movie goers in the early days would have enjoyed their silent films at the Downer with background music played on the Weichkhardt pipe organ, a Sohmer piano or an in-house orchestra.
The theater, designed by the Chicago architect Martin Tullgren, was a two story building with a symmetrical façade that contained the theater entrance and a projecting Art Deco marquee. The current marquee and the green enameled steel panels replaced the original facade in the 1930’s. The historic designation of the N. Downer Avenue Business district in 2001 felt that the changes to the theater made in the 1930’s “acquired a historic character of their own over the years” and should be preserved. The Downer Theatre cost nearly $65,000 to build at the time and could house about 940 patrons.
The 1911 City of Milwaukee lighting, ventilation, exit and fire regulations for movie theaters insured that the Downer Theatre addressed the safety issues that were a problem with early movie theaters in the US. The Downer was felt at the time to be a model for the “modern neighborhood movie house”. The ownership of the Downer Theatre changed several times during the years, with both independent and corporate operators that included Warner Brothers Studios in the 1930’s. The Downer struggled in the 1940’s and late in that decade became an art and independent film cinema under Fox-Wisconsin and continued showing such films through the present. Classic films that were shown included Woody Allen’s Zelig, Bill Forsythe’s Gregory Girl and Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. More recently, you might have seen Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker and Pulp Fiction.
The Landmark Theatre Corporation that acquired the Downer in 1990 did extensive, badly needed remodeling. The building was converted into a twin-screen theater with a current seating of 465, both auditoriums combined. The cost of the project was valued at $130,000. Fortunately, much of the historic feel of the interior was restored with its gold leafing, gaslight type lanterns and new carpeting that resembled the original pattern. Several technical updates, such as Dolby Digital Sound, were also added. The Downer Theatre is a great example of a modern adaptation of an older theater. John Dahlman, manager of the Downer Theatre, reminds folks that the Downer has “survived the Great Depression, Two World Wars, television, video rentals and DVD’s”. Movie goers today can still experience the charm of the Landmark Downer Theatre while viewing the best in independent film and foreign language cinema – a distinctive movie experience that you won’t find in the multiplexes.