100 Years of the Orpheum – Kenosha’s First Grand Movie Palace

100 Years of the Orpheum – Kenosha’s First Grand Movie Palace

(Author’s note: This is not a quick read, a lot can happen in 100 years. Get comfortable and enjoy.)

The trailer before the feature

The glorious Orpheum  celebrates 100 years this March, but it was not the first Orpheum in Kenosha. The original Orpheum was located on 56th Street next to the Fischer Hotel, east of Sixth Avenue. It opened on Saturday, September 24, 1910, and in addition to singers and other acts, the theatre touted clear, bright, and beautiful pictures for just five cents (2022 = $1.40).

Kenosha Evening News, October 1910

“The Orpheum Theatre is now equipped to give the public the finest service as a moving picture house,” The Kenosha Evening News read on November 15, 1911. “The very best pictures are the only ones used in this theatre.”

But the original Orpheum lacked the glitz and glamour that would soon come. Local historian Lou Rugani describes the building, which sat on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, as “pretty much a barn.”

By June 1917, the original Orpheum had closed.

(If I really wanted to confuse you, I could go on about the “New Orpheum” which opened in 1912 at State and Main in Racine… but let’s just pass on that one.)

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Edward and Fred Dayton were brothers both in name and in every venture they entered and they are now known as key instruments in the growth of Kenosha in the early 20th century.

When Edward returned from serving as a captain in World War I, he had grand ideas of what could happen to Kenosha. He believed Kenosha needed a hotel.

Kenosha had plenty of smaller hotels at the time, but Dayton thought Kenosha needed a top notch hotel to rival the best hotels in nearby Milwaukee and Chicago – one that could attract the conventions and big events which were passing on Kenosha due to lack of such a venue.

Without much support politically from the Kenosha government, the Dayton brothers let their hotel idea simmer on the back burner.

A year before the Orpheum’s first bricks were laid, the foundation was already in place. The Dayton brothers, along with John and Thomas Saxe were the principal stockholders in the Kenosha Orpheum Theatre Company. They began working with the Majestic (5717 Sixth Ave.) and Strand (5611 22nd Ave.) theaters in Kenosha.

The Orpheum Theatre Company, with the help of Harry M. Vale and A.B. McCall, opened the Orpheum Theatre we know today in 1922 (more on that soon).  With the help of 189 stockholders, the eight-floor Dayton Hotel opened on June 20, 1925, just south of the Orpheum building.

Edward Dayton remained influential in the community, becoming involved in other local theatres, including the Majestic, Butterfly, and Burke, as well as serving on the Salvation Army Advisory board, the American Legion club, the Knights of Columbus, and numerous more before his death in July 1956 at the age of 80.

Kenosha Evening News, March 1922

March 14, 1922 – opening night

The Orpheum theatre was constructed at a cost of $400,000 (2022 = $1.65M) and first opened its doors where the livery barn of Chet Wattles and the wholesale liquor sales office of L.H. Beall once stood.

Although numerous smaller movie houses were in Kenosha, the Orpheum was Kenosha’s first real “movie palace.”

The day prior to the grand opening, the Kenosha Evening News provided over four entire pages to coverage about the the new movie palace. Headlines for the various stories include: “Orpheum Theatre Beautiful Opens Tomorrow (sic),” “A Structural Masterpiece,” “Orpheum Organ Second to None,” and “Meet Manager William Mick.”

Kenosha Evening News, March 13, 1922

The theatre had a dramatic contrast of its plain commercial exterior. The lush extravagant interior was designed in the French Renaissance style and decorative details included rich rugs, gold pendants, mirrored lights, silk-beaded upholstery, velvet drapes, silk wallpaper in red, blue, orange, and gold tones, and a $20,000 (2022 = $331,000) Barton organ.

“We have had to work like beavers but the theatre will be ready in all it’s glory for opening night,” theatre manager William Mick told the Kenosha Evening News prior to the Orpheum’s grand opening.

In the dedicatory address, Professor O.L. Tannery said, “A struggling, ugly village has grown into a wonderful little city because of some splendid fellows dreamed dreams and made those dreams come true.”

When the theatre opened in 1922, it reflected itself as an important cultural and moral force.

“This theatre will never display a sign that announces: ‘This Picture is Not For Children’ or ‘For Men Only’,” stated one representative of the Saxe Amusement Company, the operators of the theatre.

Photo via cinematreasures.org

Kenosha Evening News called the Orpheum “A structural masterpiece; in exquisiteness of exterior and interior design.”

The opening night’s main feature was the US debut of “Smiling Through,” a 96-minute drama starring Norma Talmadge and Harrison Ford (no, not the Harrison Ford you are thinking of, there was another).

But it wasn’t just a film that audiences were in for. The evening’s program for the first week included an Overture by the Orpheum Orchestra Supreme, “Orpheum Flashes” – news from all parts of the world, “Hy-Colman’s Syncopators” with Zada Weber and Rosalie Reuter in Dance Supreme, Harold Lloyd starring in the 19-minute comedic short “Never Weaken,” George Lipschultz and Harry Linder presenting “Musical Moments,” and then the main event, “Smiling Through.”

The upcoming weekend saw five big acts of vaudeville hosted by Yip Yip Yap Hankers from the State Lake Theatre in Chicago.

With concerns over the Spanish flu spreading across the world less than four years prior to the opening of the Orpheum, Mack stressed that the theatre took all precautions to keep guests safe and healthy.

“The audience in the theatre will not breathe the same air twice, as a constant change of air will take place – pure outside air being poured in every minute while the foul air is being exhausted by large fans.”

In 1922, the theatre sat 1,422 and was billed the safest theatre in the world.  In addition to screen attractions, the Orpheum also hosted vaudeville acts each weekend. On Mondays – Thursdays, the theatre would show First National and Paramount films continuously from noon to 11pm. On Fridays through Sundays, the vaudeville acts would take the stage for evening performances and Sunday matinees. Admission at the time was 25 cents for the films and 40 cents for the weekend shows (2022 = $4.18 and $6.69 respectively).

Early days of the movie palace

By 1924, the building as a whole was going strong. The Kenosha Evening News called it ‘a veritable city in itself.’ In addition to the theatre, other tenants in the building included a drug store, a men’s clothing store, an optical shop, a light lunch emporium, physician and dentist offices, a beauty parlor, insurance and advertising agencies, voice culture instructors, piano and violin teachers, a tailor shop, a soda fountain, long distance telephone booths and more.

The Orpheum was operated by Saxe Amusement and managed locally by Edward Dayton until February 1928, when Fox Theatres Inc. took over. Fox changed the name to The Lake and it stayed that way for the next five years.

Kenosha Evening News, November 1930

In August 1933, Saxe regained control of the theatre and The Orpheum name returned. 

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With the name returned to its former glory, The Orpheum hosted a gala on October 1, 1933. One-part fashion show, one-part Hollywood premiere, over two dozen celebrity impersonators arrived to the theatre in glittering automobiles surrounded by powerful searchlights and themselves bathed in light, dressed in lavish gowns and the best suits. Young Kenoshans portrayed such greats as Joan Crawford, the Marx brothers, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Laurel and Hardy, and many more.  Much of the glorious jewelry and fancy clothes worn by the “stars” were the hottest fashions provided by local shops like Seagals, C.S. Hubbard’s, and Korf’s Sixth Avenue. 

After the “stars” went into the theatre, ticketgoers were welcomed in for the US premiere of the Victor McLaglen film “Laughing at Life” as well as entertainment from the dancers of the Elaine Beth Studio and music by the Orpheum Theatre Orchestra. 

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In September, 1941, the management of the theatre changed hands once again when the Orpheum was one of nine Wisconsin theatres involved in a deal where Saxe Amusement Company leased the theatre to Fox-Wisconsin Amusement. From here after, the Orpheum name remained unchanged.

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In July of 1942, the Orpheum hosted an interesting event. At midnight on a Monday, guests were treated to a “Midnight Voodoo Party.” 

“Invisible demons will raise tables, raise spooks, and raise Cain on the stage when H.L. Weber, a noted demonstrator of occult lore, brings his troupe of invisible zombies for this shuddery thrill show,” the Kenosha Evening News reported at the time.

Kenosha Evening News, March 1945

In January, 1948, the new film “Blaze of Noon,” starring William Holden and Anne Baxter, opened at the Orpheum and a special guest was in attendance. The actual Academy Award won by Baxter in 1947 for her role in “The Razor’s Edge” was on display in the theatre lobby.

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A lifetime before “American Idol” took over the TV airwaves, the Orpheum hosted a talent competition in March, 1949. 25-year-old George Chromchik won the $100 (2022 = $1,171) prize and advanced to the state finals in the ‘Talent Quest for Stars of Tomorrow.’ 

Kenosha News. March 1949

However, Chromchik would not make his way to Hollywood. In the state finals, ventriloquist Robert King, of Fond du Lac, won the Wisconsin championship. 

The television age

As television was growing in popularity across Kenosha and the country, movie theatres had to find new gimmicks to fill the seats. In a November 1956 ad, the Orpheum gave away a “free small turner (spatula) with a copper tone handle” to all ladies who purchased an adult ticket.

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Filmmaker Bert I. Gordon returned to his hometown of Kenosha in June of 1958 to host a double feature of two of his films, his latest “Attack of the Puppet People” and “War of the Colossal Beast” at the Orpheum. 

In a Q&A with audience members at the screening, Gordon gave his views on the film industry at the time, saying that horror pictures are just coming into their own.  “They will replace westerns in most theatres. Television pretty much has the western market covered.”

Throughout the evening, Gordon also determined that filmgoers want more gore, less creepiness, no future-centric horror films, and fewer women (which drew some negative reactions from both men and women alike in the crowd).

Kenosha News, November 1962

Beginning in 1958 and into the 1970s, the First National Bank of Kenosha hosted an annual Junior Banker Party at the Orpheum. All youngsters with their Junior Banker Badge could come out on Saturday morning for a full-length feature film, cartoons, and even free popcorn.

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In the summer of 1960, the words “Air Conditioned” were first used in Orpheum advertising. That year movie prices were 95 cents for matinee, and evening performances were $1.25 (2022 = $8.95 and $11.77, respectively).

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In October 1960, the Orpheum hosted a Safety Slogan Award ceremony in conjunction with Certified Grocery Stores of Kenosha. The first 2,500 boys and girls who submitted their entry received a free movie ticket.

Kenosha Mayor Eugene Hammond, along with Police Chief Stanley Haukendahl participated in the event. The winners were David Arndt, who won a bicycle from Montgomery Wards, Bobby Allan Demarais won a wristwatch from D’Jemes Jewelers, and in third place, Blake Seitz took home a $25 gift certificate to J.C. Penny.

All attendees then enjoyed a special screening of “For the Love of Mike,” starring Richard Basehart.

Kenosha Evening News, March 1961

In 1961, Orpheum manager Wallace “Wally” Konrad took out a classified ad in the Kenosha News seeking a Candy Counter Girl. But messy ugly boys need not apply, requirements for the job being a “neat and attractive girl.”

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In June of 1962, the Orpheum theatre was leased by Prudential Theatre Co., operator of 58 movie houses in the eastern US.  The Orpheum was one of 19 Wisconsin theatres in the deal.

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Bradford High School’s prom of the late 1950’s and through the 60s make today’s proms look pretty tame by comparison. The biggest social event of the year for many high school students was held on a Friday evening in April and just hearing the plan for the evening is exhausting. The Downtown Kiwanis Club worked with the Eagles Club and the Orpheum for a full evening (and morning) of entertainment.

After the completion of the first phase of the prom, all the students were led by a police escort to the Orpheum where they enjoyed a premiere showing of a new movie. While the film played, Kiwanis Club members transformed the Eagles Club into a colorful arrangement for the second phase of the prom – The After-Glow. After the film, the students returned to the Eagles to be treated to a buffet and more dancing into the wee hours of the morning. As dawn began to break over Lake Michigan, a breakfast was served to the students after a long night of fun. This was created by Kiwanis after some parents voiced concerns of kids not going directly home after prom, but seeking additional fun, sometime venturing to Milwaukee or Chicago. This tradition would continue to involve the Orpheum until 1970, the following year prom-goers would attend a screening at the nearby Lake Theatre.

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The vaudeville and other non-cinematic forms of entertainment didn’t come around as often as they used to at the Orpheum in the 1960s. But they still had their share of interesting performers.

On December 30, 1963, a few top notch TV and recording stars appeared in a one-night only show. Johnny Tillotson, nightclub, television, and recording headliner, appeared with Paul and Paula, a young singing duo. The program also included appearances by Ronnie Cochran and the Kasuals Orchestra for two showings, at 7:30pm and 9:55pm.

Kenosha News, September 1965

Win a puppy! That’s right, in September 1965, the Orpheum hosted a promotion with the screening of the new film “My Pal Wolf,” the story of a little girl and her dog. Everyone in attendance received a free wolf dog whistle and kids were encouraged to enter the coloring contest where two puppies were given away to the winners at the Saturday and Sunday matinee showings that week.

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By 1965, traffic was a big concern in downtown Kenosha, and not from the shoppers. Some business owners expressed concerns over teenagers “scooping the loop” – driving back and forth down Sixth Avenue, aimlessly driving and seeing friends, while not spending much money at the local businesses. To combat this, the city drew up a plan to change Sixth Avenue from 55th to 59th Street to one-way, southbound only.

One person who was adamantly against this was Orpheum manager Wally Konrad. Konrad got support of 55 of the 63 business owners along Sixth Avenue who would be effected by this plan to stand with him in opposition.

“Re-routing prospective customers away from routes they have been using through force habit for many, many years will discourage them and send them to our number one competitors – the shopping centers,” Konrad said in the petition.

“If they put in one-way traffic, they’re not going to solve the scooping problem,” Konrad said. “Two lanes moving in one direction will encourage drag racing. (We) don’t care to discourage teenagers from coming downtown. They’re the customers of tomorrow.”

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In February 1967, the Academy Award-winning musical “The Sound of Music” began an eight week run at the Orpheum, one of the longest running films at the theatre. By popular demand, the film would return to the Orpheum later in the year for an encore engagement.

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The month of October 1967 saw an increase in crime at the theatre. The night of October 2nd, a thief broke into the theatre and stole a coin box from a cigarette machine after apparently failing to break open the safe. 20-year-old William Young was later found guilty of the crime as well as seven additional burglaries in the area.

Just a few days later, a group of rowdy young people attacked 18-year-old Orpheum employee Jerry Gollnick inside the theatre after Gollnick ordered a non-paying patron to leave. A candy concession attendant was also struck by the group when she tried to intercede. Gollnick had no serious injuries, he was treated and released at St. Catherine’s hospital and Wally Konrad said he now plans to hire an off-duty policeman to protect the premises.

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After 11 years of managing the Orpheum and over 25 years in the cinema business, Wallace Konrad announces his retirement in March 1968. Konrad was as much a fan of films as he was devoted to his job. It was said there are no questions about the business that he couldn’t answer. Konrad personally selected the films that would be shown in his theatre and took his work very seriously. Things would never really be the same for the Orpheum after Konrad’s retirement.

The beginning of the end 

In the summer of 1968, the Orpheum changed ownership hands once again. United Artists Circuit Inc. purchased a chain of 22 Prudential theatres in six Wisconsin cities including the Orpheum. Around this time, the Orpheum began to direct their focus to kid’s matinees on the weekends, and more adult-themed material in the evenings, although this was not exclusively the case.

Kenosha News, October 1968

Many religious leaders of the community came together to lease the Orpheum for the week of October 18-24, 1968, for a showing of the 1965 film “The Restless Ones” – produced by the Reverend Billy Graham. The film deals with problems of the youth and their relationship with their parents, society, and their God.

The screening of the film was heavily endorsed by the community, including police chief Robert Bosman and Captain Beulah Hartwig of the Juvenile Division. The latter stating, “I sincerely wish that every teenager in Kenosha could see this film.”

Many local businesses encouraged their customers to see the film as well, including Kendall Shoes, 6208 22nd Ave., and the Town and County Shopping Center, both of which mentioned the showing in their own newspaper advertisements.

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In September 1969, the theatre, now in its 47th year, was beginning to show signs of aging. Firefighters were called when a large sheet of metal from the ornamental molding atop the building began to blow loose during a recent downpour.

Additionally, a falling piece of masonry left a dent in a parked car below and firemen had to nail the loose pieces back into place.

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In January 1970, after a showing of “John and Mary” starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow, two men entered the theatre around midnight and held a gun to 21-year-old employee James Warrenburg. The thieves managed to escape with $515 (2022 = $3,700). They were never caught.

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Two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., audiences nationwide could come out on March 24, 1970 for a screening of “King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis.” The Orpheum was one of 1000 theatres showing the film, with 100% of proceeds raised going to the Martin Luther King Foundation.

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In June 1970, the first X-rated film was shown at the Orpheum, titled “Vixen.” But the Orpheum wasn’t the only local theatre getting in the adult movie game – that same weekend, the Roosevelt Theatre was showing the X-rated “The Best House in London”. However, this wasn’t a permanent direction for the Orpheum. The following week, the theatre brought in the family film “A Boy Named Charlie Brown.”

Kenosha News, December 1970

On December 7, 1970, boxing fans could come to the Orpheum and for a $7.50 ticket (2022 = $53), could watch the Muhammed Ali/Oscar Bonavena boxing match live from Madison Square Garden on the big screen through a closed circuit telecast.

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In time for Christmas 1971, the United Artists Theatre Circuit, owners of the Orpheum, opened UA Cinema 1 & 2 at the Welles Plaza Shopping Center on 75th St and 57th Ave. The two theatres with a shared lobby and concession stand seated 500 and 350 each.

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Although the Orpheum was playing plenty of X-rated features, it was still doing family-friendly promotions in 1972. For a showing of the horror film “Frogs,” kids can get in free if they bring in their pet frog (in a cage). Cash prizes were awarded to the most beautiful frog and the kids were encouraged to dress up their frog, suggesting mini bikinis or tuxedos.

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In June 1972, after the showing of “Swinging Stewardesses” and “How to Succeed With Sex,” two cans of movie film were taken from the sidewalk in front of the Orpheum while Leo Schuessler was locking up.

Kenosha News, November 1973

On March 10, 1974 another criminal incident was reported. This time management called police to report the ticket booth was entered on Sunday afternoon and a cash box with $245 (US = $1,385) was taken. The theatre was currently showing the horror film “The Exorcist.” The Academy Award-winning film had an excellent run at the Orpheum. The theatre played the Linda Blair film for over two months.

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Later in 1974, the Orpheum began to cater exclusively to the adult crowd, regularly showing X-rated fare, and nearly abandoning its daytime family functions.

(I speculate this is why UA Theatres began to separate themselves with the Orpheum in September 1974.)

Since UA took over ownership, the advertising usually proclaimed the theatre as a “United Artist Theatre.” Now advertising referred to it simply The Orpheum, with no mention of UA Theatres.

It is also possible that United Artists were stepping back from the Orpheum because they did not plan to operate it for much longer – they were directing their focus to the new UA Cinema 1 & 2 on Kenosha’s west side.

Just a few months later, in January 1975, Gonnering Realtors had posted that the building was for sale. 

Advertising for sales returned in June 1975 again with Gonnering’s pushing the sale of the Orpheum. This one read: “With the new Downtown Mall coming think of the possibilities for the Orpheum theatre and building. It is for sale so call us for further information.”

Bernard “Bargain Bernie” Chulew. Photo submitted by Rebecca Chulew

A buyer did come forward.  Bernard ‘Bargain Bernie’ Chulew was well known in the area for his expertise in selling furniture and his memorable TV commercials. After starting in sales at Barr Furniture, Chulew became the owner of a number of furniture stores in the area including Furniture Seconds and Mr. Furniture. Chulew also dabbled in real estate.

September 30, 1975 was a dark day for the Orpheum, both literally and figuratively. It is the day Bernie Chulew officially purchased the building from United Artists Theatres. Without much fanfare, the Orpheum film projectors shut down on the same day after 53 years with the final showing being an X-rated double feature of “Emmanuelle” and “Candy.”

Chulew did not want to see the theatre closed. In a recent interview with his daughter, Rebecca Chulew, she believes that the city was not working with her father to help keep it open.

“My dad tried and he really took pride in the Orpheum,” Rebecca told me in a recent interview.

Chulew cannot be held completely responsible for the downfall of the Orpheum. There were many other factors at work here as well. In the 1970s, downtown Kenosha had become a shell of what it once was.

Many business were abandoning their downtown locations to move to brand new accommodations in strip malls on Kenosha’s west side (so much that Kenosha converted Sixth Ave to the Southport Mall in the fall of 1975). Numerous local politicians and investors saw the Orpheum as well beyond its prime and not worth the time and money.

Film distributors were not eager to work with an independent owner like Chulew, and multiplexes like the new UA Cinema in Kenosha and Marc and Rapids Plaza theatres in Racine were starting to put single-screen movie houses out of business all around the U.S.

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In January 1976, the theatre itself became home to the Kenosha Indoor Flea Market on weekends.

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Throughout the mid-1970’s and approaching the 80’s, the storefronts and offices in the building seemed to be doing well. They were home to such businesses as the The Express Restaurant, Finance System of Kenosha, Kenosha Christian Fellowship, Water World, Automotive Parts Company, Wisconsin AMVets, Transcendental Meditation, Spectrum Music Studio and the Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization.

Kenosha News, September 1980

In late 1981, developers Tom Pitts of Pitts Bros. and Associates and Wayne Haney of Wilson-Haney Architects had big dreams for the Orpheum building which they called the Renaissance Hotel Corporation Southport Mall Revitalization Project.

They asked the city for $326,000 (2022 = $1.6M) in a plan which would relocate the residents at the Dayton Care Center and create a conference center – transforming the Dayton to a high class 75-room hotel with a skywalk connecting it to a 600-seat conference center in the Orpheum building.

Pitts and Haney imagined the complex spurring a whole new outward appearance for that area and downtown Kenosha as a whole.

In December 1981, the Community Development Block Grant Citizens Advisory Committee voted to not recommend what was known as the Dayton-Orpheum project. At the time, they cited a lack of private investor commitments and insufficient planning.

Despite the funding denial, Tom Pitts was not discouraged.

“We definitely feel that the project is still on,” he said at the time, according to the Kenosha News. “No two ways about it… The City Council is the final review agency.”

In November 1983, the City Council took the first step by voting to spend $255,000 in federal money over the next three years to rehabilitate the classic Dayton Hotel, 521 59th Street. However, the dreams of the Dayton-Orpheum project were beginning to fade.

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In March 1984, the last operating movie theatre in downtown Kenosha and the last of Kenosha’s grand old movie houses, the Lake Theatre, announces they will close their doors, citing lack of business. The theater would later reopen as the Rhode Opera House and return to hosting stage productions. 

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In the mid-1980s, the storefronts of the Orpheum interestingly featured an ironic mix of beliefs and practices. On the second floor was the Bible Baptist Church and The Blue Moon Curio, an occult book store, was on the street level. 

Pastor Dana Kirshein of the 35-member Bible Baptist told the Kenosha News in 1984 that he is opposed to the occult but stated, “I don’t perceive it as a threat. I view it as an opportunity to convert.”

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Plans for the conference center fell through completely and by the end of 1986, many downtown business owners, particularly those of the Kenosha Lakeshore group, were calling for the building to be razed.

Kenosha News, 1988

The Orpheum rocks out 1988

In early 1988, a group of young people attempted to revive the Orpheum as a performing arts center.

it was a quick trip for young Kenosha boy Kelly Mackay. What began as a project on the Gateway student radio station, grew into a local television show, and then expanded into hosting concerts.

Mackay, along with Jeff Moody, Jim Wells, and others, were producers of the Jones Intercable public access music show Video Brain Damage, later known as Video Whiplash. Mackay and his cohorts developed a relationship with indie record labels across the nation and would get new videos of the hottest young bands and the opportunity to see up and coming bands, like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone, at nearby venues to record for their shows.

It didn’t take long for Mackay to look into local venues to book these acts who were coming to the area. One of the first places he looked at was a large warehouse on 22nd Avenue and 56th Street (now home to the VMC Lofts). That place didn’t quite suit his needs, but the owner of the building, one Bernie Chulew, told him about a theatre he owned in downtown Kenosha and how that might work.

“It was a mess.” Mackay told me in a recent interview. “It was the middle of winter and there was a waterfall of ice coming from the ceiling. Back stage behind the curtain was 3 feet deep in pigeon (feces) and carcasses. I put the word out and next thing you know I had a ton of people around my age who were totally into it. I was 17 and I came from a performing arts background in school. My hope was to have a youth directed performing arts center.”

It took three months to clean everything out of the theatre. Mackay said he would sleep in one of the empty offices so he could get up at the crack of dawn, stop at Franks’ Diner for coffee, then work on the theatre throughout the day.

 

On April 7, 1988, in an attempt to raise funds for paint and other necessities, an art show was organized with the help of Dale “Dr. Destruction” Wamboldt. The event included a cookout outside on the Mall – this was during the Southport Mall era of Downtown, when Sixth Avenue was closed off as a pedestrian mall.

For a small fee, people were able to take a sledgehammer to a Chrysler automobile (Kenosha’s relationship with Chrysler in the 1980s is a story for another time).

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By May, the Orpheum was ready for its rebirth as a concert venue. Mackay also cites Moody, Jack Koshick, Don Lipkie, and Tony Jackobowski as his essential team at the time for obtaining the acts.

The first act which was booked to play the grand opening on May 27, 1988 was Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction. This sleazy British hard rock band was heating up the charts and the MTV airwaves with their recent debut album and the singles “Prime Mover” and “Backseat Education.” They were the perfect band for the time to bring the Orpheum back as a prime concert venue – their tour was even promoted on MTV, very possibly the first time Kenosha was mentioned on the iconic music channel (until Kenosha native Al Molinaro will playfully name-drop his hometown in Weezer’s 1994 video “Buddy Holly”).

The band arrived in Kenosha and were excited to take the stage for their Friday night performance. But the organizers were concerned. The night before, they were up all night preparing the Orpheum for the event, even having plumbing equipment flown in at the zero hour so the basement bathroom was in full operation, Superior Light and Sound were on hand to provide a spectacular show.

But the one thing they were waiting for was the proper permit.

As the band hung out in the Southport Mall tossing a football around just hours before the show, the word came down from the city – the show was not going to happen.

“We were shut down because there was a piece of tile missing and they didn’t issue our permit,” Mackay recalls. “After going to the Downtown BID (Business Improvement District) board meetings, it was pretty clear that they were against anything like this happening downtown.”

But they couldn’t stop them, the tiles were fixed, the permits were granted and concerts did come to the Orpheum in 1988.

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The Orpheum hosted a number of shows through that summer and fall, including national acts like Overkill, Nuclear Assault, Warzone, and Dag Nasty and local favorites Ash Can School, Die Monster Die, Beautiful Bert, Num Skull, and Screamer.

Lifelong Kenoshan Chris Bacewicz was a young teenager at the time and excited to experience live music in Kenosha.

“I always loved the old theatres and being able to go inside and think of how it once was was really cool. I was 14 at the time and started getting my own identity in life – the Orpheum shows were my first experience of live music and I was swept up in the spirit of it,” he told me in a recent interview. “Music, particularly live and local stuff, has a soul-saving spirit that has gotten me through tough times more than anything.”

Lisa Henthorn, rhythm guitarist of the band Oops! at the time, recalls the night her band played with Die Monster Die on October 31, 1988.

“It was awesome – it was one of my first gigs, I was nervous but the place sounded and looked so freaking cool, it was definitely the perfect Halloween gig,” Henthorn said in a recent interview. “Before the show, we got to wander around the building a little bit. It was kind of spooky.  Some parts of it looked like it had just closed and things were still in their places. We explored through the tunnel under the road and found a barbershop with the combs still in the now-empty glass jars that once were filled with cleaner solution.”

The Smashing Pumpkins around 1988. Photo via Reddit.

The Smashing Pumpkins played their first out-of-state show in Kenosha at the Orpheum on November 18th, 1988. The little known Chicago band was building a solid reputation and were honing their skills at Chicago clubs Avalon, 21 Club and the Metro before coming to Kenosha.

Mackay recalls his interaction with the future superstar frontman at the time.

“I remember sitting on the corner with Billy (Corgan) from Smashing Pumpkins and he asked me what I thought of his band’s name. I told him I personally didn’t like it, but it was clever and marketable and they should stick with it.”

The band, later known for the hits “Today” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” would be so inspired by the aesthetic of the Orpheum’s interior they would return a few weeks later to take promotional pictures inside the theatre. Many of these photos were reported to have been published in independent ‘zine’s soon after, but they were still a few years from being on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The Orpheum as a concert venue was a valiant effort through 1988, but unfortunately it did not last. Heating and other problems curtailed performances in the winter of 1988-89 and after conflicts between the event organizers and property owner Bernie Chulew, live music did not return in 1989.

The wrecking ball cometh?

In January 1990, we almost lost the Orpheum. Police were called to the theatre and reported a group of teens inside who had started two fires to keep warm. The fires were extinguished as several of the young people tried to flee, but police managed to arrest a 19-year old woman, and two boys, ages 17 and 14.

At this time, the Orpheum was perhaps in the worst condition of its history. The businesses occupying the storefronts were gone, the offices upstairs were empty, and in September 1990 the classic marquee was removed by city order.

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By 1992, the Orpheum was seriously face to face with the wrecking ball, many city officials saw it as an eyesore and were hoping for redevelopment.

James Schultz, director of the City Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development said that the necessary repairs for the building were well over the value of the building.

“That building has been a sore spot for the downtown for many years now… the matter of razing it is being reviewed… I imagine it’s something we’re going to proceed on in the very near future,” Schultz said at the time, according to the Kenosha News.

Bernie Chulew did not want to see his theatre be destroyed.

“I think I’m being singled out,” Chulew said in 1992, as reported by the Kenosha News. “There are a lot of buildings downtown in worse shape than mine.”

“There is no justification for preserving the building,” said Ray Forgianni at the time while serving as City Development Director.

Alderman Frank Pacetti, council chairman and chairman of the City Redevelopment Authority concurred, “It’s a travesty inside. It doesn’t make economic sense.”

One citizen stood strongly on the side of the decrepit theatre. Lou Rugani – at the time a member of the Landmarks Commission.

“Restoration upgrades an area and returns a sense of place to a neighborhood, while creating jobs during the restoration work and employment afterward,” Rugani said in 1993, according to the Kenosha News.

Rugani recollects those days in a recent interview.

“The demolition cost for the Orpheum would be about half a million bucks and we suggested giving that money to any developer who would reopen it, which makes sense,” he told me.

Rugani, with the help of other preservationists like Merike Phillips, helped save the Orpheum from the wrecking ball and it was declared a local landmark by the end of 1993.

But being a “local landmark” was more of a glamorized term than an official sign of salvation.

In October 1994, Mayor John Antaramian delivered what could have been the death sentence to the Orpheum.

“There needs to be a resolution in the next 30 days,” Antaramian said, as reported by Kenosha News. “After that, it’s time to start the process of bringing the building down.”

The projectors return

Although some claimed the building was beyond repair, it was repaired. Rather quickly too.

Jeffrey Maher, chairman of JDM International Realty bought the building in early 1995 and costs for renovation are said to have run close to $500,000 (2022 = $914K).

“Without Merike Phillips, I’m not sure the Orpheum would have survived,” Rugani told me in a 2022 interview. “She was the one who found Jeffrey (Maher). I give her full credit for her efforts on behalf of saving the Orpheum.”

Happenings Magazine, November 1995

On November 19, 1995, the Orpheum triumphantly re-opened as a two screen budget theatre. Movie goers would pay $2 (2022 = $3.66) admission to see “Babe,” “A Walk in the Clouds” or “Apollo 13” on its opening weekend. However, the new Orpheum looked a little plain from the street view on its re-opening since construction issues delayed the installation of the new marquee by over a week.

“That beautiful marquee was actually kind of a tribute to the original marquee and coincidentally it was built by the company who made the very original marquee, Poblocki Sign Company in Milwaukee,” Rugani said.

Kelly Mackay. Kenosha News, 1995.

One person from the Orpheum’s past returned when it re-opened as a budget theatre. Kelly Mackay saw the theatre was being renovated and investigated.

“I lived across the street, above Daisy’s Vanity Shoppe (now House of Nutrition), and I walked over to see what was going on and talked to them. I got hired when they opened and was later promoted to assistant manager. It was a great part-time job.”

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Within a few years, the theatre would split once again, now occupying four screens with the former balcony being converted to two additional theatres. But the variety in films over four smaller screens, even at budget prices, couldn’t keep the audiences.

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It wasn’t just the movies on the inside of the theatre around this time. The street outside the Orpheum and the building was the backdrop for a small scene in the 1999 film “The Last Great Ride” starring Ernest Borgnine and Eileen Brennan.

While Borgnine’s character tells a story to the other characters we are given a visual flashback to 1942 Chicago, which was actually Sixth Avenue around 1999. Automobiles from the era lined the streets for the clip, the marquee at the Orpheum advertised the 1948 Humphrey Bogart film “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and yes, that year is an error on the filmmakers part, not a typo.

The scene, which is less than a minute long, interestingly cements the Orpheum building in cinematic history from a totally different perspective.

Scene from the 1999 film “The Last Great Ride”

By spring 1999, Orpheum developer Jeff Maher stopped making payments on the $265,000 loan and by November the Orpheum was facing foreclosure.

The Orpheum once again closed its doors in January 2000.

But interest in the building was still strong. One was Illinois developer Paul McDonough.

New century, new owners, new ideas

“When I first started buying buildings in downtown Kenosha, I purchased two on the same day.  I called them the beauty and the beast!” McDonough told me in a recent interview.  

“The beauty was the Market Square building, on corner of 56th & Sixth Ave., now owned by Anytime Fitness owner Louie Arreco. The beast was the Orpheum. At the time, this historic four story building had gone through a Sheriff auction but there were no takers. Johnson Bank owned the property via foreclosure. While it was vacant of paying tenants, it was occupied by hundreds of pigeons, who flew in and out of the various broken windows!  While we toured the building, one of the bankers quite literally got sick and threw up during the walk through.” 

McDonough purchased the Orpheum building in 2001 and put $200,000 into the building looking to attract new businesses.

“We filled 27 dumpsters removing all the trash and debris out of the building,” he recalls. “We installed 42 new Thermopane windows, with maroon frames that matched the large theatre marquee.  We then installed three new commercial storefronts along Sixth Avenue. The storefronts each had their own heating and air conditioning, new restrooms, oak hardwood floors, new period art deco chandeliers, etc.”

Although his offer of “six months free rent” didn’t get any bites on the four-theatre movie house, three businesses did move into the storefronts in the Spring of 2003: Peacetree Originals, wireless phone company Nextel, and Divine Essentials.

“I give credit to my tenants,” McDonough said in 2003, as reported by the Kenosha News. “They are pioneers to go into that space.’

As time went by, McDonough, a consummate businessman, put the building back on the market.

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Jennifer and John Heim bought the building in 2005 and opened The Laboratory Toy Store in the southwest corner.  At the time, the Heims had dreams of re-opening the cinema. 

“Is the equipment current and does it work? Will we be able to use all those seats?” Jennifer Heim said in 2007, according to the Kenosha News. “But we’re definitely happy with it and we would like to see the theatre re-open at some point.”

But money was an issue and the theatre needed updating, including becoming handicapped accessible. 

Dead Leathers perform in front of the Orpheum in 2009. Photo submitted by Dale Wamboldt.

Dr. Destruction (Dale Wamboldt) helped keep the spirit of the Orpheum alive by hosting numerous events including a concert with his band, Dead Leathers in 2009, and appearances in following years in front of the theatre including the Gypsy Museum of the Macabre and The Summer of Lovecraft Art Fair.

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Although visitors found the toy store a unique community asset, the cash registers didn’t share that enthusiasm.

In the spring of 2014, the Heims were looking for new owners to take over the Toy Store and Scoops Ice Cream Shoppe.

Heim’s Toy Store closed their doors in the summer of 2014 and the Heim family relocated to Chicago and began renting the space. 

Julie and Carl Soldenwagner bought Scoops and relocated the store in early 2017 to Eighth Avenue.

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In the 21st century, the theatres remain dark, but the storefronts saw some activity. Some of the additional local businesses that occupied the retail shops in the past 20 years also include Elsie Mae’s and currently Belissima’s Boutique and Kenosha Beauty Supply. 

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In September 2016, the Orpheum received another shot of life when Alex Kudrna, owner of Backyard Dream Productions, purchased the building with big dreams of turning portions of the four-story complex into a digital production studio, rented office space, movie theatre, concert venue, restaurant, and more.

The ceiling above the original Orpheum stage. 2022. Photo by Jason Hedman

It seems that cleaning up the building is a never-ending process and a recurring theme for each owner.

“As we begin to clean up the building from years of vacancy and renovations,  I found original ceilings that were hidden by drop ceilings, found plasterwork and old windows framed up behind drywall. A lot of hidden crawl spaces and nooks. We even found a Playboy magazine from the 70s in the electrical closet.” Kudrna told me in a recent interview.

The orchestra pit in front of the original stage and a doorway to the dressing rooms located under the stage. 2022. Photo by Jason Hedman.

By December, 2017, Kudrna opened The O in the second floor of the building as a shared and short-term office space.

“It can be a stepping stone,” Kudrna said at the time, according to the Kenosha News. “A business might be here for two months, and next month maybe they will go buy their own place. Or if someone has a home office and they want to go somewhere nicer for client meetings. I want to help the community as a stepping stone.”

The Orpheum in 2022. The lobby has been remodeled as a future event space. Photo by Jason Hedman

“The Orpheum had a lot of owners over the years,” Kudrna told me. “I feel they caused a lot of historical damage in 1990’s when they tried to save the theatre by adding four theatres. For the short time that it was open I don’t feel it was worth it to destroy the architecture and history of the theatre. The two owners after the 90s did a lot to preserve the building and added much needed infrastructure.  I feel each owner worked to upgrade the space so it can continue to stand and be a usable building. I have learned it is not cheap to keep up a building of this scale or historic nature. It takes someone with the love of history to truly care about it. My goals are to keep moving forward and making sure the infrastructure is adequate to keep it around for another 100 years and of course have a working theatre!”

As the Orpheum celebrates 100 years, Kudrna said that a birthday party for his beloved building is a must.

“For the 100th anniversary we are planning on a 2-day block party. I can’t release too many details yet, but you won’t want to miss this event!”

Current Orpheum owner Alex Kudrna sits in theater #3 in what once was the balcony. 2002. Photo by Donny Stancato.

As the owner of Backyard Dream Productions, Kudrna is a indeed a self-professed dreamer. The Orpheum is a long way from its glory days, but Kudrma said that if money isn’t an issue, the grand movie palace will return.

“What I would love to do… if I could afford it, would be to restore the theater to as close to its original condition as possible, seating for 1400, a full balcony, a modern parking garage in the back – and bring national acts here to perform.”

We can appreciate that dream, Mr. Kudrna, and we are rooting for you to make the second hundred years of the Orpheum even better than the first.

By Jason Hedman

Questions, comments, corrections? Email jasonhedmanart@yahoo.com

Want even more? Click here for the full-length Q&A with Alex Kudrna. 

Special thanks to the many who helped in this research, including Rebecca Chulew, Lisa Henthorn, Kelly Mackay, Jonathan Martens, Paul McDonough, Lou Rugani, JoEllen Storz and Dale “Dr. Destruction” Wamboldt.

The author would also like to thank Kathy Bassinger and Anna McGovern for their help.

Cover photo, Summer 1940, courtesy of The Kenosha History Center

2022 prices calculated by usinflationcalculator.com