The Oriental Theatre, a historical landmark wedged between a sandwich shop and a sports bar, is one of Milwaukee’s greatest pieces of film history. Open since 1927, the historic theatre is known for showing indie films and for being host to one of the largest film festivals in the country.
Recent news of changing operations has put the popular theatre in the spotlight. Next summer, Milwaukee Film, which already plays a huge role in the theatre today, will take over the theatre’s operations.
Since its opening, the Oriental has been Milwaukee’s only operating movie palace and has been showing films for 88 years. Set on the busy East Side, the theater caters to filmgoers across Milwaukee.
The outside of the theatre is donned with tall minaret towers that light up at night, give passerby’s a hint at what is waiting inside.
Inside the theatre sits the large traditional box office, where the theatre’s famous Indian décor begins. Covered with movie posters and information about show times and ticket sales, the box office sits in the middle of the entrance. Behind it, a large open space where visitors can purchase tickets from self-checkout machines. Multiple stained glass chandeliers hang from the ceilings of the spacious entry.
Upon entering the main theatre area, visitors are welcomed by tall ceilings, deep hues of red and blue and one-of-a-kind Indian décor. The theatre’s East Indian inspired style is seen throughout the building, with mustard walls and eye-catching accents, making the theatre look as if it almost dripping in gold from floor to ceiling.
In the main area, employees dressed in the traditional theatre uniform serve customers at the concession stand. Here visitors can purchase popcorn, candy and even alcohol to sip during the show.
The theater features two minaret towers, three stained glass windows, six Buddhas, eight porcelain lions, hundreds of elephants, hand-drawn murals, and dozens of draperies, all of which have been in the theatre since its opening.
The porcelain lions line the broad stairway to the second-floor theatres. On the second floor are several balconies with thick red and gold detailed curtains, tied back to give a view of the main floor and a closer look at the movie posters that hang across from the balcony and above the concession stand.
The theatre is said to be the only movie palace ever built to incorporate East Indian décor.
One of the theatre’s unique additions is the Kimball Theatre pipe organ that introduces the seven o’clock show on select Saturdays. The pipe organ is the largest organ in a theatre in the United States and is the third largest in the world.
The Oriental operated as a movie theater until 1972; then in 1976 when Landmark Theatres took over operation.
When opening again in the late seventies, the theatre ran repertory films before switching to foreign and specialty films as well as hosting live performances.
By the end of the eighties, the theatre went under renovation and added two new theatres, reinventing itself to exist strictly as a movie theatre.
Landmark Theatres, the current operator of the Oriental, also operates Downer Theatre on Downer Ave near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.
The company, which has operated The Oriental for nearly 42 years, will now be replaced by a new organization.
Milwaukee Film announced this past summer that it will begin operating the Oriental starting July 1, 2018.
Milwaukee Film, best known for the yearly Milwaukee Film Festival, will be taking over the theatre’s operations. With the change in operations comes big updates to the historic theater and Milwaukee Film festival.
“The Oriental Theatre is a treasure. I have visited hundreds of cinemas worldwide and the Oriental Theatre is my favorite. It is magical to see 1,000 of our members fill the main house at our monthly screenings,” said Jonathan Jackson, Artistic and Executive Director of Milwaukee Film in a recent press release.
Milwaukee Film has been renting the Oriental for the past nine years for monthly member screenings and the annual Milwaukee Film festival. It plans to expand its organization through operating the theatre it runs the Film Festival out of.
“Our nine-year-old organization securing long-term control of this cinema is a momentous occasion. We have cemented our permanence in Milwaukee and intend to greatly expand our cultural, economic, and educational impact on our community,” said Jackson.
With the change in operations, the Oriental will face new changes.
According to Milwaukee Film, strong consideration will go into deciding which Oriental employees will stay with the theatre once under operation by the organization.
Milwaukee Film plans to keep the name of the theatre but will be making physical changes by “revitalizing the space through investments in the infrastructure and upgrades to the projection and sound.”
Milwaukee Film plans to show festival-quality films at the Oriental that typically wouldn’t get shown in Milwaukee theaters until now. These films include international and American independent fiction films and documentaries, weekly releases, event cinema engagements, films for families, and themed festivals and series.
The most recent events at the theatre were the 2017 Film Festival, which ran from September 28 through October 12 and the 32 Annual LGBT Film and Video Festival which ran from November 2 to the 12.
Milwaukee Film plans to keep the theatre a place where events like these will not only be hosted but also grow in audience and popularity.