Kenosha Theatre

The Kenosha is one of the 22 theaters in my new book “After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater.” Find out more here.

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View of the auditorium from the side of the balcony.

The Kenosha Theatre opened on September 1st, 1927. It was designed by Larry P. Larson, an architect from the mid-western United States. The theater cost $750,000 ($10,220,301 when adjusted for inflation) and was financed by United Studios of Chicago. It was commissioned by Carl Laemmle, a Wisconsin native and one of the founders of Universal Studios. The 2300-seat theater was built to resemble the Alcazar castle in Segovia, Spain, which is rumored to be the inspiration behind Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World.

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Much of the blue ceiling was destroyed when the roof was replaced in the mid-1990s.

An atmospheric theater, the auditorium ceiling was painted a dark navy blue and covered with lights that were meant to look like stars. This gave patrons the illusion that they were sitting in a courtyard under the night sky while watching a film. Larson took it a step further than most of his contemporaries when it came to the layout of the ‘stars’ and arranged them with data from the department of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin.

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Lobby staircase leading to the balcony.

Like many early 20th century theaters, the Kenosha opened as a vaudeville and silent film house. The opening program included a vaudeville act called “Dear Little Rebel” and a silent film, “The Irresistible Lover”. The Kenosha began showing ‘talking pictures’ when a Vitaphone system was installed in February 1927. Vitaphone was the only commercially successful sound-on-disc system for showing motion pictures with sound. The sound was on phonograph or vinyl records and was synced to the film by special turntables attached to the projectors. Like other theaters of this era, the Kenosha often held contests and giveaways to encourage customers to return. In July of 1928 the theater offered free airplane flights to its patrons. You could sign up to take a free flight with a licensed pilot as long as you saw a film at the theater.

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Some fallen pieces of plaster are being stored in the theater’s lobby so they can be used in the eventual restoration.

On December 18, 1928 eight men broke into the Kenosha Theatre, tied up the night watchman and cracked open the safe in the office, stealing $1,022 in cash and $720 in gift-ticket books. Alexander Dotz, the night watchman, confessed the following day that the robbery was an ‘inside job’ and that he planned the heist with his co-conspirators at a roadhouse the day before took place. He also revealed that his brother, a police officer, who had watched the robbery from the balcony, was planning on arresting the men but chickened out at the last minute. Both brothers testified in court that they had been forced to participate in the robbery due to repeated threats from the ringleader, Angelo Tarello. The Dotz Brothers were each sentenced to 16-20 years in the Green Bay Reformatory.

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View of the auditorium from the rear of the balcony.

Warner Bros, who took over the theater in 1929, closed the Kenosha Theatre in March of 1933 along with six other theaters in the area. Sol J. Hankin, general manager for Warner Bros is quoted as saying, “We may keep the theaters closed for a year, maybe less, maybe more, maybe forever. General economic conditions are the chief cause for their closing, but I can say that we do not believe there was the proper amount of cooperation from union labor”. Hankin cited that motion picture operators refused a reduction in salary that other theater employees had received. The Kenosha was reopened the following year after it was acquired by Standard Theatres, Inc.

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A close up of the theater’s proscenium arch.

Many Hollywood stars performed live at the Kenosha, including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Lawrence Welk and the Three Stooges. It closed on April 21, 1963, 36 years after it opened. Standard Theatres Inc. sold the theater with a stipulation in the deed that it could not be used as a theater for 30 years. Standard also owned the Lake Theatre in Kenosha and did not want competition. It was later used as a warehouse and a flea market before being closed permanently. Due to years of neglect, the roof leaked badly and much of the interior was damaged by the water exposure.

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In 1983 the theater was purchased by Kenosha Theatre Development. The group repaired the storefronts and the apartments attached to the building to help generate funds towards restoration of the theater. In the mid-1990s a new roof was installed. This had the unfortunate effect of destroying most of the ‘starlit’ ceiling, but it was necessary to prevent further water damage. Debris from the roof covered the main floor and it took volunteers three years to remove it all. It’s estimated that the theater will cost $24 million to restore.

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Entryway to the auditorium from the lobby.
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8 Replies to “Kenosha Theatre”

  1. It’s just a total shame that we as Americans let this happen to our Historical Buildings.
    I am old enough to remember when going to a show on a date was a dress-up experience.
    These buildings were beautiful and being all dressed up in a suit and a tie, the girl in a dress and heels made it a memorable experince.The final curtain is a sad, sad comment on our society.

  2. Putting on a tie to go out on a date? Wow. That’s amazing. I guess we chalk that up to one more formal tradition thrown aside by the Baby Boom Generation. People don’t even wear a tie to church anymore.

  3. A lot of the decorative plaster work in the Kenosha Theater is similar to what was installed in the Venetian Theater in Racine. My dad and I removed a good portion of it AS the Venetian was being torn down in 1976. Over the next 40yrs it was installed in the 150 seat theater which was built in a 20′ deep basement beneath his home and houses the 5/28 Wurlitzer that was installed in the Michigan Theater, Detroit in 1926.

      1. Have you ever seen it? If not, I am the administrator for a FB group entitled: Wurlitzer Opus #1351 Michigan Theater, Detroit. I could add you as a member if you like. This group has pictures of the completed basement theater that contains restored plaster work from the Venetian Theater as well as unique ‘junque’ from about 25 different movie palaces that were demolished or closed throughout the U.S. Items that have been rescued include the 5/28 Wurlitzer from the Michigan Theater which is the main attraction. 🙂

  4. It is a shame that beautiful theatres like this sit in ruins. Unfortunately the advent of the VCR as well as TV itself had much to do with it. The Kenosha by most standards had a small capacity with 2300 seats compared to the 3000-4000 palaces. For the most part the single screen venues are not profitable.
    I for one do not care for these multi screen buildings. Most if not all movies come out and stick around for at most under a month and months later they come out on DVD or streaming. People used to make a big deal about going to a movie.
    The Loews King in Brooklyn NY was closed in 1977 and sat there abandoned for over 30 years and also had the roof cave in. There was a push to renovate it with the initial cost estimate of $62 million. When it did reopen fully restored minus it’s Morgan Pipe Organ the final cost was $94 Million. There were delays and cost overruns and I am sure there were kickbacks as well. It is now operating as a state of the art performing arts center. When it was reopened it looked like one stepped back n a time machine.

    We need to save the past.

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