RACINE — For a few decades in the early 1900s and into the middle of the 20th century, the City of Racine was home to numerous movie theaters. Some of these opulent palaces could seat nearly 2,000 people and were built with extravagant architecture and design.
Main Street was the city’s main cinema vein, with six theaters on the street alone; 14 others were scattered throughout the city, several of those being Downtown near Main Street. But as the years went on, every single one closed, and a majority of the once-grand movie houses have been demolished. Since 2006, city residents have had to head to Sturtevant’s Marcus Renaissance Cinema just to see the latest flicks.
With July’s city-issued demolition order of the former Park Theatre, 3015 Washington Ave., Racine is set to lose another one of its cinema relics. Built in 1928, the Park — which opened as the Capitol — closed in 1987 and has since fallen into utter disrepair.
The Park may stay standing for a few months while courts review the order, but there is little to no hope to save the dilapidated theater.
Its fate was shared by many other local theaters.
In the end, adults only
Downtown’s two largest, most flashy theaters were the Venetian and Rialto. They were located essentially right next to each other on the east side of the 500 block of Main Street, across from Monument Square.
“They were these big, ornate palace-like theaters,” said local film historian Jim Neibaur, who grew up going to see films at both in their waning years.
The Venetian was built in the spot of the 400-seat Palace Theatre, which opened in 1916 and was then demolished in 1927 to make way for the 1,972-seat Venetian, which opened April 11, 1928. Its neighbor, the 1,258-seat Rialto, opened Sept. 21, 1918.
In 1968, the Venetian, 505 Main St., closed after its owner failed to pay the lease. Two Chicago entrepreneurs bought it in 1969 and reopened it in July 1970 as a “youth-oriented entertainment center” that showed family-friendly films, according to Journal Times archives.
When the theater reopened, it had trouble finding an audience. Within a week, it was showing R-rated and pornographic films. “If the public shows it wants the skin film, we’ll give it to them,” co-owner James Turner said in an Aug. 26, 1970, Journal Times article.
The Venetian closed for good in 1971 and was demolished in March 1977.
The Rialto Theatre, 521 Main St., shared a similar fate to the Venetian. In 1973, it began running into licensing issues after it began showing R-rated “Blaxploitation” and X-rated films. In 1974, it illegally operated without a license and its manager was subsequently arrested by Racine police. Because of this, the city never granted the theater a renewed license and it was forced to close.
To end the historic theater’s 56-year run, the Rialto hosted the Racine Adult Film Festival, showing an X-rated film each night for its final week and capping everything off with a screening of “Behind the Green Door” on Sept. 2, 1974.
The Rialto was torn down in January 1978.
In the Venetian and Rialto’s place is now the Johnson Building, 555 Main St.
Nearby theater duo
Just a few blocks north, at the intersection of Main and State streets, was another pair of lavish theaters.
The first of those was the 850-seat Rex Theatre, 211 Main St. It was originally the New Belle City Opera House, which opened Feb. 18, 1890. The Rex opened May 14, 1914. It fell into tax delinquency in 1930 and closed in 1939. Racine County acquired the building in 1940 in a tax seizure.
A local businessman purchased the building from the county in 1942 for $3,000 and converted it into a bowling alley, J & W Lanes, which operated there until the building was knocked down in December 1978 to make way for road improvements.
Across the street was the 1,170-seat RKO Mainstreet Theatre, 200 Main St. It opened as the Oprheum Theatre on April 29, 1912. A Journal Times article proclaimed that the opening marked “an epoch in the theatrical history of Racine.”
The Orpheum reopened Sept. 7, 1930, as the RKO Mainstreet Theatre. It closed in late 1951. Over the next few years, efforts were made to save the theater or revive it as a city civic center, but it remained vacant.
In July 1958, the city issued a demolition order after the building inspector discovered the once-magnificent theater had been reduced to a shadow of its former self by rampant vandalism. The Mainstreet was torn down that November.
Frequent name changes
One former Racine theater stands above all others in terms of the sheer number of name changes it went through.
It is unclear exactly when it opened, but by 1869, Turner Hall had opened as a live music and theater venue at the northwest corner of College Avenue and Sixth Street. In 1901, it became the 1,000-seat Wigley Hall. By December 1907 it had changed names twice, turning into the Peoples Family Theater and then the Globe Theater.
In 1908, the theater was renamed yet again. It reopened as the College Avenue Orpheum Theater and began showing silent films. But because there was the other Orpheum on Main Street, the College Avenue Orpheum was renamed again to the Crystal Theatre in 1913.
Sometime after 1914, the theater closed. It is unclear when the building was razed, but the area is now a parking lot.
Other Uptown theaters
Though frequently talked about and targeted for restoration, the Uptown Theater, formerly the Majestic, was not the only cinema in the Uptown neighborhood.
This other theater, the Grand, was located slightly east of the Uptown on Junction Avenue. It opened Nov. 10, 1910 and appears to have closed around March 15, 1928, which was the last day the theater ran its showtimes in The Journal Times. By 1930, it was demolished and an auto repair shop was built in its place.
Just east of Uptown was another little-known theater, the Star Theatre. It was located on the north side of the 1000 block of 16th Street between Howe and Racine streets. The Star was built in 1913 and operated until 1927, when it was purchased by SC Johnson and converted into the JMBA Recreation Hall as part of the company’s headquarters.
It stayed part of SC Johnson until at least 1932. City insurance maps indicate the building was demolished by 1958. A parking lot is now in its place.
No photos of the Grand or the Star are known to exist.
In 1926, the owner of the Star Theatre and co-owner of the Douglas Theatre, 1639 Douglas Ave., announced plans to open another theater on 16th Street.
About a year later, the 900-seat Crown Theatre, 911 16th St., opened to the public. The Journal Times exalted it as “a theater regal enough to be the envy of kings, colorful enough to be the admiration of artists and comfortable enough to satisfy the large public that wants entertainment.”
The theater closed around 1954 and was converted into retail, apartment and office space in 1964. The building was still standing in 1988, when it housed a pharmacy. It is not clear when the structure was demolished, but green space is in its place now.
Marcus Theatres’ demolished cinemas
Marcus Theatres has operated many cinemas in the city, including the Park, Rapids Plaza and Marc. All of those are still standing — for now — but the two in the city most recently demolished were also Marcus operations.
When Westgate Cinema, 5101 Washington Ave., opened in 1968, it was the city’s first new indoor theater in 40 years. On top of that, its dual screens were a practically unheard of luxury at the time.
Neibaur recalled going to the Westgate, which was originally called Cinema 1 and 2, with $1 in his hand. His mother always gave him that much so he could grab some snacks between double features. When he paid for his tickets, he was shocked that he got no change back.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ A dollar to see a movie!” he recalled with a laugh.
Though it opened with two screens, the Westgate had five when it closed on Sept. 25, 2006. Its closure made way for the opening of the Marcus Renaissance Cinema in Sturtevant later that year. The Westgate was demolished last July.
After the Westgate closed, the eight-screen Regency Cinema was converted into Regency Value Cinema. That theater opened with six screens on Feb. 4, 1983, at the northeast corner of the Regency Mall lot, to the north of Target.
It ran as a second-run cinema from 2006 until April 2009. Its closure marked the end of active movie theaters in the City of Racine.
The building was torn down that July.
In Photos: Racine's former movie theaters
Take a look back at Racine's former movie palaces.