Located in the heart of downtown on the Milwaukee River in the Empire Building, the 2500 seat Riverside Theater is one of Milwaukee's landmark performing arts centers. Offering an array of popular attractions including many A-list concert events from some of today's top touring acts, performances of Broadway shows and other theatrical productions as well as children and family events, the Riverside Theater remains one of Milwaukee's most historically rich, well-loved stages among performers and the public alike. However, the Riverside has had its ups and downs over the years.
Local architects Charles Kirchoff and Thomas Rose had done very well in designing the famous Palace Theater in New York City, so they were selected for the Riverside. Built in 1927, it opened on the 29th of April in 1928 with the movie "The Big Noise" starring Chester Conklin. The Riverside Theater earned its name by literally fighting to keep the adjacent Milwaukee River out of its basement.
When the RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Vaudeville circuit was looking for a larger venue to better dominate the Milwaukee market, they approached the developers of the land at the noteworthy intersection of Grand Avenue (now Wisconsin Avenue) and West Water Street (now Plankinton Avenue) and offered to become the star tenant with the Riverside built inside of the new twelve story Empire office building. A cramped alley and the river form the other two boundaries of the Empire building. That narrow alley would be the subject of many a barroom story for generations of stagehands who have had to load in a show at the Riverside Theater, with more than one piece of scenery finding itself in the river by accident.
For years the Riverside showed mainly RKO and Universal films with a steady diet of hard-boiled mysteries and action pictures. In the war years of the 40's and into the 50's, the Riverside offered stage shows; Blackstone the Magician, The Andrew Sisters, Les Paul and Mary Ford, and Johnny Ray were some of the Riverside headliners of the day. Even Esther Williams and Ben Gage were booked into the Riverside for a six day engagement. Jimmy Dorsey and his band hold the attendance record for a one week run. But most of the time, the Riverside just showed movies. Rarely did they have a blockbuster.
In the early 50's the Riverside dropped the RKO connection. For all of the 50's and the early 60's The Riverside became the flagship filmhouse of downtown Milwaukee showing mainly first run blockbuster feature films. Sometime in the 1960's, United Artist took over the theater and the decline set in as it did with a number of UA theaters around the country at that time. By 1982, United Artists had run the Riverside into the ground for decades. The original 3-manual, 13-rank Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ barely operated and the majority of the light bulbs in the five auditorium chandeliers we not in working order. When UA's lease on the Riverside expired in '82 they did not renew.
Plans were already drawn up to demolish the Riverside in the early 80's and turn it into either a little strip mall or a large parking structure, but a downtown revitalization began to bubble and a new "Save the Riverside" campaign took hold. Local millionaire and owner of Towne Realty Joseph Zilber agreed to fund the one million plus needed to restore the Riverside to its former glory. The colors once again turned back into their proper gold and red hues and new lighting illuminated the theater. The basement walls were fixed once again to keep the river at bay. The projectors were removed. The Riverside Theater had a grand Re-Opening in 1984 which was attended by thousands. Since that time, (because the projectors were removed in 1983) the Riverside has had to feed exclusively on road shows, local theatrical productions and touring musical acts.
The Riverside Theater/Empire Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, but New Riverside Corp., the group that leased the Riverside, abruptly shut down the venue in the summer of 2005. They cited the arrival of the new Milwaukee Theatre as driving them out of business because the two theaters competed for similar acts.
The doors weren't shut for long. Local philanthropist Michael Cudahy took over the Riverside Theater much the same way he did the Pabst Theater a few years earlier. The smell of stale brew and decaying upholstery made people forget how elegant the Riverside truly was. Armed with deep pockets, Mr. Cudahy restored the grand ol' lady to the jewel it was when it first opened in 1928. Chandeliers were taken down and cleaned, each crystal by hand, seats were fixed, floors painted, carpet replaced. Several new bars were added to the entryway. Two lavish fireplaces in the entryway that had been hidden for years were uncovered and restored.
Today the Riverside Theater is back on its feet and once again a favorite local theater among performers and the concert going public, restored to its original glory.
116 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53203