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The Oriental Theatre during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Dave Reid.

The Oriental Theatre during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Dave Reid.

Milwaukee’s most iconic movie theater will remain closed until at least the fall.

The Oriental Theatre, operated by Milwaukee Film, has been closed since March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic, and planned renovation work, will keep it closed through the summer.

“Our operations have been highly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, which has created significant uncertainty over when we’ll be able to safely open our doors again to large crowds,” said Milwaukee Film CEO Jonathan Jackson in a statement. “We are, however, able to safely embark on several long-planned restoration projects that, if not done now, would require future shutdown of the cinema.”

Last summer the organization overhauled the 220-seat west theater, replacing the seats and carpeting and making other sight-line and acoustical improvements. This summer it will tackle the 1,080-seat main theater and 220-seat east theater.

“The Oriental Theatre has long been a gathering space for Milwaukee to participate in the arts, and Milwaukee Film is helping to ensure it will be part of our community for generations,” said Patti Keating Kahn, board chair for Milwaukee Film. “Going forward with this work now is an important decision, and as we’ve reached out to our major donors, they’ve been extremely supportive that this is the perfect time for restoration to ensure we’re ready when it’s safe to bring film back to a packed house.”

The organization has yet to announce final plans for the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival, scheduled for October, but confirmed last month that it would be held, possibly virtually.

The announcement to keep the theater closed comes as other theater operators have struggled with how, and when, to safely reopen. AMC Theatres, the largest theater operator in the country, originally announced it would reopen 450 of its 600 cinemas on July 15th at 30 percent capacity and would not impose a mask requirement. Following public backlash the company changed course and announced it would require masks.

Marcus Theatres, the Milwaukee-based chain, is encouraging, but not requiring customers to wear masks as it gradually reopens its theaters. It will reopen most of its theaters by July 15th.

Those looking to capture some of the big-screen magic, and support Milwaukee Film, can watch movies via the organization’s Sofa Cinema program.

2019 Restoration Photos

Oriental Plans

The Kubala Washatko Architects is handling the design of the facility’s upgrades. The new seats come from the Michigan-based company, Irwin.

Jackson said more than 900 donors contributed to the capital campaign to restore the theater, including $2 million from festival co-founder Chris Abele. Donald Baumgartner and Donna Baumgartner, the Herzfeld Foundation, the Sheldon and Marianne Lubar Charitable Fund, Allan H. (Bud) and Suzanne L. Selig and The Yabuki Family Foundation provided additional lead donations.

A 1925 Wurlitzer pipe organ is being prepared to be installed in the theater. The theater lost its prior organ, a 1931 Kimball, because the non-profit group that owned it had it removed prior to Milwaukee Film taking over the theater. It was originally from the Warner Grand Theatre that is now being redeveloped by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and was installed in the Oriental Theatre in 1991. The theater’s original organ was removed in 1959.

Lobby improvements, including a phased upgrade of the concession stand, were first implemented last year.

Milwaukee Film acquired a 31-year-lease for the theater at 2230 N. Farwell Ave. from building owner New Land Enterprises in 2017 and took possession of the theater in July 2018. As part of the first phase of upgrades, the non-profit replaced the projection equipment and rebuilt and expanded the first-floor restrooms.

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Oriental Theatre Closed for Summer, Plans Renovations

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