MILWAUKEE — Exactly one year since achieving Wisconsin State Historic Registry status, Milwaukee’s Oriental Theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Tuesday.
An icon of the city’s Eastside, the intricately decorated theater is still attracting movie-goers nearly 100 years later since opening in 1927. It currently shows film screenings and theatrical performances on three main screens, including over 300 films during Milwaukee Film Festival alone.
“We’re very proud of the fact that we’re the custodians of this movie palace,” said MKE Film’s Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Jackson.
Milwaukee Film assumed control of the the Oriental Theater in 2018. The local nonprofit has just begun a project to rehabilitate the aging cinema by executing structural renovations, modernizing facilities and updating sound and projection systems. So far MKE Film has spent $6.25 million on restorations that conform to the historic standards required for achieving national historic designation.
“The Oriental Theater is significant in its own right as an example of an absolutely lavish, exotic movie palace,” said Jackson. “There are very few of these remaining, let alone in Milwaukee but in the entire country.”
Of 16 cinemas that opened during 1927 in Milwaukee, only the Oriental Theater remains. Its multi-story lobby, detailed plaster-work and one-of-a-kind chandeliers characterize it as a “theater palace” as opposed to a standard movie theater. According to Jackson, Milwaukee architecture firm Dick & Bauer borrowed design elements from Indian, Moorish, Islamic and Byzantine architectural styles to create a “temple of Oriental art.” For example, eight porcelain lions line the staircase up to the 1,000-seat balcony, and hundreds of elephant are hidden in artwork throughout the interior.
The National Park Service coordinates the National Register of Historic Places. Designation on the list helps preserve places of historic and/or archeological significance through tax credits and other incentives.