April 15, 2014 //
Wisconsin Ave. theaters in 1933. Courtesy Larry Widen collection, photo by Albert Kuhli
By Richard G. Carter
“I don’t think there there’ll ever be a time when things seem to come out even…” William Bishop, “The Walking Hills” (1947)
Remember the Regal theater? The Roosevelt, Atlas/Century, Fern, Garfield, Franklin, Colonial, Egyptian, Grand and Peerless? Remember when these, and other neighborhood movie houses, were a regular and integral part of our entertainment? I certainly do.
These mostly small theaters in mostly Black neighborhoods boasted a single screen, double features and attracted big crowds almost every night. And I’ll never forget them. During my teenage, 1950s years in Milwaukee’s Black, and growing more-so inner-city, neighborhood movie houses were among the most popular places. And for many adults, some even rivaled the ubiquitous taverns that dotted our heavily populated blocks. Each of these venues was special in its own way. Graced with typical theater names, their friendly surroundings attracted countless Black teenagers and grownups — as well as a number of Whites — usually without any trouble. And what a joy they were.
Indeed, such movie houses were the perfect setting for a gathering of our version of “boys in the hood” — or a sizzling tryst or nervous first date. Better yet, they were where we learned to appreciate why Hollywood was making a big deal of telling the country that “Movies Are Better Than Ever.” Of course, one of the best things about “going to the show,” as we called it, was that just about every one of these theaters was within walking distance of our homes. No need for a teenager to use the family car. No need to drive and look for a place to park.
The Regal, hard by the 700 Tap at N. 7th and W. Walnut Sts., was the standard by which all other neighborhood theaters was measured, and dearly loved by movie-smitten, near Northside youths. And the Regal is where my mother took me for my very first movie — a reissue of 1943’s “Cabin on the Sky” — with an all-Black cast.
Affectionately dubbed “The Flick,” this chummy-sized venue was known for its ear-splitting decibel level, vociferous audience reaction, heckling of films and Sunday triple feature “shoot-’em-ups” for kids. Also famed for a 25-cents admission for a movie-and-a-half after 9:30 any night, it’s where we swooned for Lena Horne, cried with Louise Beavers and tapped our feet to Cab Calloway soundies. This made seeing films an experience today’s under-40 adults and kids cannot imagine. Plastic, multi-screen clones in sterile shopping centers can’t compare with our mix of cozy and opulent movie houses in vibrant residential neighborhoods and bustling inner-city commercial streets.
One of the most popular neighborhood houses was the smallish Fern, at N. 3rd (now N. King Drive) and W. Clarke Sts. Once a week, I’d meet James Reed — one of my best buddies — at 3rd and Meinecke at 7 p.m., and we’d stay until the house lights came on. He and I also met at the same corner to attend the balconied, bigger Atlas (late to become the Century), on 3rd just past W. North Ave. Both theaters were about six blocks from my home. Slightly father away, but still easy to reach on foot, was the much larger, opulent Garfield on 3rd between W. Locust and W. Chambers Sts. I loved its huge lobby, main auditorium and two balconies — as well as the ornate walls and ceilings. I remember going there to see 1952’s classic “High Noon.”
Another favorite was the Roosevelt, at N. 14th St. and North Ave., which lured us in droves for “Two Hits for Two Bits” on Wednesday and Thursday nights. “The Velt,” as we called it, was closest to the Regal in popularity. It’s where I was entranced by 1951‘s “The African Queen” — Humphrey Bogart’s tour-de-force with Katharine Hepburn.
Not too far north, at N. 17th and W. Center Sts., was the Franklin, close to my late 1950s’ residence. I clearly recall running into a long-lost high school buddy enjoying himself immensely there for 1957’s great “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” In my late teen years, I also loved the classy Egyptian — which featured décor to match its name — at N. Teutonia Ave. and W. Nash. St. It somehow seemed fitting that this is where I took in the late James Dean’s bravura work in 1956’s “Giant.”
About six blocks from where I lived were two cozy theaters — the Grand and Peerless — a block apart on N. Holton St., between W. Center and W. Locust Sts. There, in a mainly white area, Black and White students of Lincoln High School often gathered. They were among the few public places that brought us together at night.
Finally, there was the Colonial — a big, balconied house at N.16th and W. Vliet Sts. One of the most memorable of my Milwaukee youth, it attracted many families to its quality double features. I marveled there at Oscar-nominated Gloria Swanson in 1950’s “Sunset Boulevard,” and John Huston’s gritty “The Asphalt Jungle” the same year. But best of all, in the mid-to-late 50s, the Colonial also presented doo-wop and Black R&B concerts on its spacious stage. Among big names I saw were Little Richard, Bo Diddley and the legendary Spaniels, of “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight” fame.
Those were the days my friends, I thought they’d never end. But end they did, and here we are. But I’ll never forget sights and sounds of our neighborhood movie houses.
Milwaukee native Richard G. Carter is a freelance columnist