The Beer Garden That Brought Sound Movies to Milwaukee
The Beer Garden That Brought Sound Movies to Milwaukee
Photo: Schlitz Palm Garden, early-1900s, Milwaukee Public Library, Milwaukee Postcard Collection
Two months ago, the Oriental Theatre celebrated its 90th anniversary. 90 years ago on September 3rd, 1927, sound movies debuted in Milwaukee at the Garden Theater, which is better remembered for its pre-Prohibition incarnation, Schlitz Palm Garden. Designed by architect Charles Kirchoff, Schlitz opened its year-round, indoor beer garden at 225 Grand Ave. (Post-1930 address: 235 W. Wisconsin Ave.) on June 6th, 1896. The popular and spacious beer garden with an arched ceiling had its own musicians and famous performers entertained up to 900 people for almost a quarter-century until Prohibition started in 1920. Without beer, the Palm Garden struggled to draw people through its doors with revues and vaudeville.
Schlitz decided to turn its beer garden into a movie theater. The garden closed on March 6th, 1921. They turned to the Kirchoff and Rose architectural firm for the conversion. It reopened as the 1,250 seat Garden Theater on April 22nd, 1922. It was overshadowed by bigger movie palaces and theaters on Wisconsin Ave., such as Saxe’s flagship 3,275 seat Wisconsin and Strand (2,000), Universal’s Alhambra (2,500), and Orpheum Circuit’s Palace (2,437) and Majestic (1,902).
From the earliest days of movies in the 1890s, there were efforts to marry moving images and sound, such as Thomas Edison's and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson's Kinetophone which synchronized a Kinetescope and cylinder phonograph. Talking pictures failed to catch on with the public, due to three problems: synchronization, amplification and poor audio quality .
By the mid-1920s, technological advances addressing these issues positioned Western Electric's Vitaphone sound-on-disc and Theodore Case's and Earl Sponable's Movietone sound-on-film systems for a breakthrough in Hollywood. However, memories of previous sound movie experiment failures, unwillingness to spend money on retrofitting studios and theaters for sound and the loss of foreign markets were too much for the major studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Paramount, First National and Universal, to make the leap.
Warner Brothers and William Fox's Fox were minor studios looking for a leg up to break through to the ranks of the majors. Warner Bros. bought Vitagraph with its Brooklyn studio in 1925. Sam Warner saw the potential of Vitaphone, but oldest brother and studio president Harry Warner said "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" Adding a Vitaphone soundtrack to feature-length movies fit the brothers' expansion plans by eliminating the need to hire theater musicians to accompany films.
Warner Brothers' first sound movie, Don Juan, premiered with music and sword fighting sound effects on August 6th, 1926. It was preceded by Vitaphone shorts of music. It was a hit with little reach as only five theaters were wired for sound nationwide.
Their second Vitaphone move, The Better Ole (1926) with Sydney Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin's older brother), added a scream and a faintly whispered word that some believe was "coffee." Warner Brothers cranked out a full schedule of Vitaphone shorts by filming vaudeville acts playing in Manhattan, such as the Palace on the Orpheum Circuit, at their Brooklyn studio.
Movie theater operator L. K. Brin leased and wired the Garden for sound. Vitaphone came to Milwaukee on September 3rd, 1927 with When a Man Loves, a John Barrymore and Dolores Costello vehicle adapted from Abbé Prévost's once-controversial Manon Lascaut. It followed shorts, including popular vaudevillians Van and Schenck, who sang songs in various ethnic accents. Newspaper accounts recorded the audience cheering when they watched and heard Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) Chairman Will Hays onscreen introduction of Vitaphone.
Contrary to myth, Al Jolson didn't ad-lib "You ain't heard nothing yet" in the part-talkie The Jazz Singer that ushered in talkies when it opened in New York on October 6th, 1927. The scenario called for some recorded dialogue. The phrase was part of his shtick and he uttered it a year earlier in the Vitaphone short A Plantation Act, By this time, Milwaukee was one of 80 cities to have a theater wired for sound and the Garden became the unofficial home for Warner Bros.-Vitaphone productions. The Jazz Singer finally arrived on December 30th, 1927 and played for four weeks at the Garden. The success of Vitaphone led the Garden to add Fox’s Movietone sound-on-film newsreels and shorts in 1928. The first 100% talkie, Lights of New York, opened at the Garden in summer 1928.
During the sudden and rapid conversion to talkies during the late-Roaring Twenties, Hollywood started adding two-strip Technicolor to talkies in 1929. Since color greatly increased production costs, studios would film only a major musical number or scene in color for some black-and-white movies. A rare all-color talkie was Warner Brothers’ Gold Diggers of Broadway. It played at the Garden for eight weeks (fall 1929) in an era when bills at first-run Downtown theaters usually changed weekly. It is now a mostly lost film with two surviving fragments, despite being the second highest grossing movie of 1929 and making the best movies of the year lists.
The Garden changed its name to Little and Newsreel over the following decades before closing in 1955.
To find out more about Milwaukee movie theaters from ornate palaces on the “Ave.” to smaller neighborhood theaters, start with Silver Screens: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee’s Movie Theater by Larry Widen.
Dan, Local History Librarian