RACINE — Stowed away among about 200,000 artifacts that the Racine Heritage Museum, 701 Main St., doesn’t have space to display is a chunk of delicately sculpted plaster ripped from a wall.
The piece is about 27 inches long and a little more than 5 inches tall. The wings are sculpted with a what’s probably an olive branch motif — long thin leaves dotted with budding olives. The central frame is topped with a seashell bordered by two fish.
All of this attention and detail to frame ... a fire exit sign.
It speaks to the level of detail and care that went into the Venetian, a 1,972-seat theater designed in an Italian motif that opened at 505 Main St. on April 12, 1928.
The day before the Venetian’s grand opening The Racine Journal-News, which in 1932 would evolve into The Journal Times, printed a special “Venetian Theatre edition,” filled with articles raving about the luxurious design and pride in its close Wisconsin ties.
The artifact is also a reminder, after the theater’s decline and eventual demolition in 1977, of what the city once had and is now lost to history.
One year before the Venetian opened, United Studios Inc., a Chicago-based architecture firm that specialized in atmospheric theaters, opened the Kenosha Theatre. After seeing their southern neighbor’s theater, built in the motif of a Spanish castle, Racinians were pretty excited to have a theater equal in grandeur.
The Journal-News special edition was filled with stories about the architects, contractors and artisans amid glowing reviews and advertisements from neighboring businesses offering dinner-and-a-movie deals and wishing the new venture good luck.
The theater had enough stage space for vaudeville acts, which were still quite popular at the time, as well as a screen for motion pictures. Universal Studios, which owned and operated the theater, decided the first film exhibited would be “Thanks for the Buggy Ride,” which the Journal-News described as a “hilariously humorous farce.”
The paper was effusive in its praise of the beauty and craftsmanship of the theater.
“The bold and daring pirates of medieval Spain who sailed the seven seas in their galleons searching for plunder and adventure, never found half so precious a loot as the brilliant new Venetian theater ...” a Journal-News reporter wrote in an article headlined “Striking Beauty of Lobby Hint of Beauty of Auditorium.”
The plaster work, of which the Museum’s artifact is an example, also received high praise.
“The ornamental plastering work in the theater, a work of art throughout, which only artists of their craft could accomplish, is a tribute to the engineering genius owned by the Universal Contracting company of Minneapolis,” the Journal-News wrote in an article headlined “Firms Which Helped Create Racine’s Wonder Playhouse.” “The work is of beautiful design and accomplishment and will please the critical eye of Racine’s patrons.”
Atop the statues and moulding, evoking an Italian plaza topped with the tips of fake cypress trees, was an atmospheric dome with twinkling stars.
“The extraordinary realistic atmospheric dome is truly marvelous,” wrote one Journal-News writer. “The twinkling stars, the soft-rolling clouds and the romantic moon, represent an authentic design furnished by the department of astronomy of the University of Wisconsin.”
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The project also received a good deal of press because its creators had close ties to each other and Wisconsin.
Before Carl Laemmle founded Universal Pictures Inc. (today’s Universal Studios), which owned and operated the Venetian, he owned a clothing shop in Oshkosh. L.P. Larsen, who founded United Studios Inc., which designed and oversaw the construction of the Venetian, was a young man from Copenhagen whose family had moved to Oshkosh. Larsen walked into Laemmle’s shop to buy his first pair of “long pants” before his confirmation.
“Mr. Larsen and Mr. Laemmle smile today when they look back on that early deal which involved 15 dollars, for today Mr. Larsen builds theaters all over the United States for the Universal company, and millions of dollars and exchanged between the two men in the necessary transactions,” the Journal-News wrote.
Larsen went on to Chicago, where he worked as a scenic artist during the day and attended art school at night. In 1920, he founded United Studios, which built atmospheric theaters across the country.
“Atmospheric theaters, of which the Venetian is a wonderful example, are close to Mr. Larsen’s heart, for he built the first theater of this type east of the Mississippi,” the Journal-News wrote. “Erected in Worcester (Massachusetts), this theater was considered one of the show places of the east, both from an architectural and amusement standpoint.”
‘It’s a piece of history’
Larsen’s creations have not all held up over the years.
According to the website Downtown Kenosha, The Kenosha Theatre, located at 5919 6th Ave., closed in 1963 and was intermittently used as a storage space and a flea market. In 1983, the theater was bought by the Kenosha Theatre Development, which restored the apartment building next door to the theater and used the cash flow to stabilize the theater.
The Citizen’s Group for the Kenosha Theatre has leased the building and its website states the group plans to restore the theater to use for live entertainment. It’s unclear where they are in the process, but there has been little evidence of work there over the past several years, at least from the outside.
But the former Sheboygan Theatre, now known as the Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts, underwent a full restoration starting in the mid-1990s. Executive Director Katy Glodosky said the restoration project went to incredible lengths to be true to the theater’s original Spanish colonial design. Using remnants of the lobby’s original carpet, the restoration team tracked down the manufacturer and asked them to remake the original carpet.
“It’s very ornate with lots of little details,” said Glodosky. “You notice something new every time.”
Now, several Sheboyan performing arts groups call the Weill Center home, including the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra. The theater also hosts children’s theater performances, magic shows, screens movies and hosts live music from folk to classic rock to international acts from Cuba and South Africa — all within the same space where Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo and Glenn Miller once performed.
“You’re not just going to see a show or a musician — you’re going to experience the space,” said Glodosky. “When you’re walking on the tile or the carpet, it’s a piece of history you’re standing on.”
“The bold and daring pirates of medieval Spain who sailed the seven seas in their galleons searching for plunder and adventure, never found half so precious a loot as the brilliant new Venetian theater.” Racine Journal-News article from April 1928