RACINE — Racine was once a city brimming with neighborhood movie theaters, but that has not been the case for decades — and there has not been an open cinema within city limits since the spring of 2009, when the Regency Value Cinema closed down.
Though none are actively showing films, a handful of former movie houses stand to this day — but the number is set to shrink. The city in July ordered the demolition of the Park Theatre, 3015 Washington Ave., which has become decrepit as its current owner, John Apple, has reportedly ignored city orders to repair the building.
Photos from the city show gaping holes scattered on the walls, with rust and decay evident throughout the entire building. A pipe backup has also reportedly spewed 5 inches of raw sewage into the basement. The building, which shuttered as a theater in 1987, is not considered a protected landmark, meaning its demolition will likely not be impeded.
The Park showed its first film as the Capitol Theatre on May 30, 1928. Its opening capped off a boom that saw four theaters open in the city within just over a month.
Of those four movie houses, three still stand. One is the Uptown Theater, 1426 Washington Ave., which opened with about 1,300 seats as the Majestic on May 1, 1928. It closed for good in 1959 and has been vacant ever since. Like the Park, it is in a state of disrepair, but the Uptown is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Over the decades, several unsuccessful attempts have been made to revive the Uptown. In 1989, three partners purchased the building and planned to spend $6 million to transform it into a 300- to 400-seat live theater.
One of the three partners told The Journal Times in a Feb. 27, 1989, article: “We’re literally at a point of no return for the Uptown. Either we fix it now, or it’s going to be torn down.”
It was never fixed up and the live theater plans didn’t pan out, but nearly 30 years later, the building is still standing, though unwanted.
Peg and the late Lou Larson, who owned the former Peg & Lou’s Bar & Grill, put the theater on the auction block in April with a reserve price of $275,000. It did not sell, and the Larson family plans to put it on the market.
Last fall, city aldermen voted down a proposed $5 million earmark for a possible redevelopment as part of the city’s 10-year capital improvement plan for the year 2021.
“That’s a shame, as it’s a gothic-style theater and there aren’t many of those left — and weren’t many to begin with,” Matt Lambros, a New York City-based photographer who documents decaying theaters through his ongoing project “After the Final Curtain,” wrote in an email. Lambros photographed the Uptown in 2012 and allowed The Journal Times to use a photograph from that session for this report.
Silver screen to storage space
The other standing theater opened in 1928 is the 900-seat Granada, 1921 Charles St. Of the three remaining, it is in the best shape. It showed movies until 1961 and was converted into a warehouse sometime after, though exactly when is unclear.
In 2005, a local businessman purchased the Granada with the intention of restoring it and turning it into a banquet hall or events center, but because there was no nearby parking lot, the idea was considered unfeasible and was subsequently abandoned. Larry Vail, owner of Jim’s Garage Door Service, bought the property in 2015 and returned its use to a warehouse.
Vail has kept some things intact, such as the fireplace in the lobby, one of the box seats, the stage arch and the original light fixtures on the ceiling, but said he has no plans to restore the theater. He performed a few renovations, but they were related to the warehouse use: He installed a driveway behind the building on Carter Street, new exits and a large garage door for loading.
The ceiling and walls have been painted white to have better lighting; the walls, though, have persistently leaked, resulting in water spots speckling the otherwise white interior.
‘Ideal neighborhood theatre’
Before the theater boom of 1928, the Douglas Theatre, 1639 Douglas Ave., opened on Jan. 30, 1926, with about 750 seats. An advertisement in The Journal Times on the day of its opening dubbed it “Racine’s Charming New Moving Picture Theatre” and “in every respect an ideal neighborhood theatre.”
The second-oldest of the still-standing theaters, the Douglas has one of the most tumultuous pasts.
It showed its last film in 1960 and was sold in 1962, reopening that year as the Douglas Inn apartments. Then on Dec. 5, 1966, it was again reborn, this time as the 30-room Uptowner Motel North. In March 1971, the building was converted back into apartments under the name Uptowner Apartments, capitalizing on its former motel name. With all those renovations, the theater is practically unrecognizable.
Today, the building still houses apartments, but its storefronts — where the theater lobby was — now hold a Metro PCS store and Cain Civil Process, a process serving and private investigation agency.
In 1857, what would become the city’s first local movie theater was built by Alexander McClurg, the son-in-law of Racine’s founder, Gilbert Knapp. But before it became a theater, the McClurg building, which is on the National and State Register of Historical Places, was also the city’s first public library, municipal court, railroad office, Turkish bath house and vaudeville theater.
It was also the state’s first “fireproof” building and the only structure in the city to survive the Great Racine Fire of 1882.
But 161 years after the McClurg building was erected, Racinians may best know it as the city’s only gelato shop, Divino Gelato Cafe, 245 Main St.
In 1906, the Bijou Theater opened in the building, hosting both vaudeville acts and movie screenings. The first film screened there was 1903’s classic “The Great Train Robbery.”
The theater moved a block away to 421 Main St. in 1907, where it stayed in operation under two other names — the State and Badger — until 1951, when it closed for good. During its run at 421 Main St., the Bijou also premiered Racine’s first talkie, “The Air Circus,” on Oct. 4, 1928, beating the newer, more glamorous theaters such as the Uptown and Granada.
The north side’s last theater, the Rapids Plaza Cinema I and II, closed Sept. 27, 1992 after 16 years of screenings.
In the summer of 1991, the two-screen theater, located at 2200 Mount Pleasant St., was one of about two dozen throughout the country that fell victim to angry mobs and looting related to the film “Boyz N the Hood.” The theater canceled a screening of the film after about 200 people tried to sneak in; enraged would-be patrons smashed windows and stole money and candy, and one assistant manager was hit in the head by a metal garbage can someone threw.
Marcus Theatres, which operated the Rapids, declined to comment on the incident, The Journal Times reported on July 13, 1991. Just over a year later, the theater closed. The official word from Marcus was that the cinema was superfluous because the company also operated the larger Regency Mall and Westgate cinemas that housed a combined 11 screens, according to a Sept. 25, 1992, article in The Journal Times.
The building remained vacant until 1998, when it was converted into Reconciliation Ministries International, a church that is still open.
Marcus Theatres seemed rather proud of its “Cinema Twins,” the Marc 1 and 2, when the theater opened July 18, 1973, at 3025 Kentucky St. An advertisement announcing its opening boasted such amenities as lounge chair seats, “the luxuriousness of the auditoriums” and air conditioning.
For a time, The Journal Times was a frequent partner with the Marc, hosting ticket giveaway contests, special family nights and even a children’s film festival. One contest The Journal Times ran in partnership with the Marc in 1984 tasked entrants with writing a 2,000-word essay about “a special place in your heart.” Five winners received a one-year pass to the Marc.
The Marc came to an end Jan. 4, 1987. In the years since, the building was retrofitted into retail space and housed a Rogan’s Shoes and waterbed store. Currently in the former theater are Dollar General and Michelle’s Nails & Spa, though the building’s address has changed to 4111 Durand Ave.