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A MOVIE PALACE IN RACINE

A movie palace in Racine: The 1928 opening of the Majestic Theater

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RACINE — In the hyperbolic prose of the age, the May 2, 1928, debut of Racine’s Majestic Theater at 1430 Washington Ave., was previewed with 19 pages of superlatives in the previous day’s Racine Journal-News.

The paper said the design of the 1,300-seat, Gothic-styled theater offered patrons “unqualified charm of design embellished by exquisite decorative treatment” with its Gothic-arch ticketing vestibule, 82-foot-long entry lobby and main foyer, and expansive 10,400-square-foot auditorium, decorative plaster embellishments, and soaring 70-by-22-foot arched “Comedy” and “Tragedy” proscenium mural by New York painter Vincent Adorante, feted by the Journal-News as “one of the world’s greatest living muralists.”

Built by Ernst C. Klinkert, a German-born local developer and pre-Prohibition Racine brewer, and designed by Racine architect Wade B. Denham, the Majestic was one of four pre-Depression movie palace openings in Racine om 1928 — the 1,972-seat Venetian on Main Street in Downtown Racine on April 11, the Capitol (later Park Theater) on Washington Avenue in West Racine on May 30, and the 1,258-seat Rialto — on the same Monument Square block as the Venetian — on Sept. 21.

Of those, only the Majestic and Capitol survive, and both are in advancing states of decay after decades of neglect. The Venetian, closed in 1971, was demolished in 1977. The Rialto, closed in 1974, was razed in 1978. The Park went showed its last film in 1987. The curtain came down on Racine’s last active movie theater, the outlot eight-screen Regency Cinema at Regency Mall, in April 2009.

Gothic architecture

Outfitted with sumptuous marble, granite and mahogany finishes, the Majestic opened on that May afternoon with a 2 p.m. showing of William Boyd and Bessie Love in the 1927 American silent romantic drama film “Dress Parade,” produced by William Sistrom and Cecil B. DeMille.

The architecture of the Majestic, located at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Ann Street in Uptown, was trailblazing in its day.

Noted the Journal-News: “There has been a wide departure from the usual style of architecture in the new Majestic. The Gothic type has been followed closely, and it is said to be the only theater in the United States embodying that type.”

Built with live stage shows in mind

While primarily a movie house, the dual-use Majestic was also built with traveling vaudeville, live theatre and concert productions in mind, offering a large stage and rigging area, “liberal sized dressing rooms with accommodations … for road shows of large size,” and eight upper apartments to house visiting performers.

Notably, the theater included Wisconsin’s first full orchestra pit platform lift, which rose dramatically into the auditorium from the basement. A revolving console lift system was employed for the Majestic’s New York-built, 10-stop, three-manual, Marr & Colton organ, first played by Ruben Scholz.

A November 1930 minstrel show at the reopened Majestic, newly christened as the Uptown, was “staged … for the benefit of the poor of the city,” with Racine Mayor William H. Armstrong kicking off fundraising efforts with a 25-ticket purchase.

A July 17, 1944 “The Spirit of ‘76” War Bond show, staged by personnel from Camp McCoy to stimulate the local sale of war bonds to support the U.S. effort in World War II, featured the 28-member 76th Infantry Military Band for the stage show headlined by Sgt. Tommy Tucker and “Broadway crooner” Lou Carter.

The following year, a war bond purchase provided Racinians with a free ticket to see the 8 p.m. June 26 performance of “The Mighty 7 War Bond Show” — a 2-1/2 hour extravaganza featuring a cast of 150.

In a notable one-day Dec. 1, 1947 concert engagement, the Fox Uptown Theater hosted Metropolitan Opera tenor Lauritz Melchior and his orchestra on a reserved seat basis, with tickets priced at $3.60 for the main floor and first balcony, $2.40 for the second balcony, and $1.20 for the third balcony. Those tickets would cost, in 2019 dollars, $41.80, $27.87 and $13.93, respectively.

As late as 1953, the theater also served as the home of Racine Theatre Guild.

Double features, newsreels and cartoons

In the heyday of the single-screen Majestic and its Fox Uptown successor, multiple-feature showings with intermissions were the order of the day. In its earliest decades, twin-bill features would be accompanied by Pathé newsreels, comedy shorts, cartoons and musical interludes on the house organ.

But with the Wall Street crash of October 1929 leading to the Great Depression, the era of the opulent movie palaces quickly drew to a close.

Closed in 1930, the Uptown Majestic Theater Corp. was incorporated in March 1931 to reopen the Fox-affiliated theater for the presentation of “motion pictures, vaudeville and kindred amusements” according to The Journal-News.

In 1947, in the theater’s waning days, a November twin-bill feature paired the Shirley Temple, Cary Grant and Myrna Loy film “The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer” with the Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison second feature “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”

Motion pictures were historically the mainstay for the Majestic, renamed the Fox Uptown Theater in 1940 as part of its longstanding block-booking association with 20th Century Fox.

In a landmark 1948 case before the U.S. Supreme Court, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., saw the longstanding Hollywood practice of film companies owning theaters or exclusively block booking independent theaters ruled a violation of the nation’s anti-trust laws on a 7-1 vote. In addition to Paramount, major Hollywood film studios also engaging in the practice were Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, RKO Pictures, Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures and United Artists.

After that ruling, the Uptown dropped its Fox designation.

Curtain down

Following World War II, America’s urban movie palaces began a rapid decline, facing a trio of significant challenges — the arrival of television; mass migration to the urban fringe and suburbs; and the loss of the financial support provided by the Hollywood studios following the Supreme Court ruling.

Racine was not immune to the national trends, as the Belle City’s venerable movie palaces began to go dark.

The handwriting for the Uptown was already on the wall as early as January 1953, when the theater suspended operations indefinitely. The Uptown reopened in 1954 for a final five-year run.

A one-paragraph brief in the Feb. 25, 1959, Journal Times announced that theater leasee George Gross, a 30-year show business veteran, had brought down the curtain on the theater on Feb. 22. Gross had spent 18 years managing theaters in Racine, including five at the Uptown and seven at the Venetian in Downtown Racine.

Awaiting revival

Its days over as a theater, most of the auditorium seats were later removed, save for a smattering of seats in the Uptown’s expansive balcony.

Used largely for storage over the ensuing decades and falling into increasing states of disrepair, numerous failed attempts have come and gone to reopen, restore and revitalize the Majestic-turned-Uptown, including plans explored by the Racine Symphony Orchestra in 1977-78 to purchase and restore the Uptown in hopes of moving concert performances from Memorial Hall.

The Uptown was added to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places on March 1, 1982.

In 1989, three partners purchased the Uptown with plans to spend $6 million to transform the theater into a 300-400 seat, live theater venue. The plans never came to fruition. In 2001, the nonprofit Racine Theater Group was formed in an ill-fated bid to restore and reopen the Uptown as a performing arts center.

Matt Lambros, a New York City-based photographer, famously did a shoot at the Uptown in 2012 for “After the Final Curtain,” his ongoing project documenting the nation’s decaying theaters. Visit https://afterthefinalcurtain.net/2012/10/04/uptown-majestic-theatre/.

In 2017 and the Racine City Development Department earmarked $5 million for redevelopment of the Uptown in the city’s 10-year capital development improvement plan. The City Council removed the proposed earmark by a 10-3 vote.

Tom Paschen of Racine, who bought the Uptown in December, is hoping to change the theater’s fortunes, laying plans for some $5 million in restorations to build new income-generating apartments and convert the Gothic auditorium into a festive food hall.

With a projected window of 5 to 8 years, time will tell if Paschen’s ambitious vision for the Uptown becomes reality.

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