A Tale of Two Theaters

Two theaters stood, swaying in the breeze, in danger of becoming as useless as an old VHS player. Without intervention, they could have been forgotten, replaced by home-viewing options like Netflix and HBO.

But both have been given a second chance, by savvy entrepreneurs who realized that with time, energy, and money, these theaters could become great again.

On Mitchell Street is the Modjeska: defunct since 2010, but with an increasing number of lights twinkling in the past few years. The theater is in the process of transitioning into a multi-use venue that hosts concerts, film festivals, craft fairs, and other community events. Although it stands among other historical sites on Mitchell Street, it is perhaps the most prominent, with a vintage facade that can’t be missed.

Further south, on Kinnickinnic Avenue, lies the Avalon, with its impressive entry, grand foyer with Mediterranean columns and a starlit sky fueled by thousands of incandescent bulbs glowing above its interior. It is a spectacular sight to see on the otherwise modest streets of Bay View, surrounded by small businesses and apartments.

The people responsible? Jesus Nañez and Lee Barczak, two entrepreneurs with different goals for their theaters but the same focus on preserving these iconic Milwaukee landmarks.

The
The Modjeska’s facade stands out as a unique historical relic on Mitchell Street. Photo: Arup

MODJESKA

Jesus Nañez’s interest in the Modjeska was sparked by a simple sign: “Volunteers wanted.” As soon as the musician and entrepreneur walked through its doors, he felt the history of the theater, and saw its potential.

Built in 1924, the Modjeska was a bustling venue for vaudeville acts, which catered to the Polish community in the area. The theater thrived for decades until, almost a century later, its crumbling facilities became too expensive to maintain, and the theater was shut down in the late ’00s.

The Modjeska is now owned by a nonprofit called the Mitchell Street Development Opportunities Corporation, which Nañez is now working with. Nañez’s entrepreneurial background allowed him to take the project to the next level, and he began leasing the building at the beginning of 2016. With his help and fundraising efforts, the Modjeska has seen major upgrades such as a new roof, sprinkler system and improved heating and plumbing.

Nañez also had the idea to sell all of the floor-level chairs from the theater, both as a fundraiser and in order to make the performance venue more flexible for multiple types of events. With the elimination of the chairs, the theater can be more than just a place to watch films. Nañez’s vision includes community events and concerts, and the architectural firm Engberg Anderson, Inc. is already planning a three-tiered floor that will make the cavernous space more dynamic.

The dedicated volunteer force from which Nañez got his start has drawn more and more people from the neighborhood. This gives Nañez hope that the new Modjeska will thrive as it once did, and become a community stronghold in the Mitchell Street neighborhood.

The Avalon glows brightly at night on Kinnickinnic Avenue. Photo: Historic Milwaukee
The Avalon glows brightly at night on Kinnickinnic Avenue. Photo: Historic Milwaukee

AVALON

As the Modjeska progresses, the Avalon stands sturdy, also drawing bigger crowds by the minute. But it wasn’t always this strong, as owner Lee Barczak knows all too well.

Barczak (who also owns the Rosebud and Times Cinemas) bought the Avalon in 2005 for $1.1 million. Before that, it had operated continuously since 1929, until its owners were denied a liquor license in 2000 and shut it down. Barczak envisioned a swift restoration of the theater, but proceedings were complicated by the economic recession. Renovations were officially started in January 2014 and the theater opened a year later.

Barczak’s idea was to maintain the historical integrity of the Avalon while integrating a “modern” movie-going experience.

The starry sky, which used to consist of 140 stars, was expanded to 1,400, showcasing an entire galaxy overhead. Unique technology was used to create a projection of a night sky above Granada, Spain, which was chosen because of the theater’s Mediterranean architecture.

Barczak also invested in top-tier screen and sound system equipment in order to create a state-of-the-art viewing experience.

Perhaps the biggest reason to get off the couch and go to the Avalon is its wide variety of high quality food and beverages — way beyond the offerings of a typical theater. There is a full bar and restaurant in the lobby, and moviegoers can even order food from their comfortable seats inside the theater.

By his count, the investments and improvements to the Avalon have paid off — big time. He guessed that the theater would have 1,000 visitors a day, and this number is now exceeded regularly.

Although the two theaters seem different in scope and vision, they share this need for an influx of visitors. The Modjeska requires volunteers to come in, get their hands dirty, and do the work of cleaning and rebuilding an historic building. The Avalon needs people to fully immerse themselves into the experience, selecting the theater for its food and drink offerings rather than going just for the movie.

As theaters like the Modjeska and the Avalon return to prominence in Milwaukee, their biggest goal is to bring people together in unique settings and out of the isolation of their homes. In the age of Netflix, these could be transformative venues.

For more information on these theaters, visit timescinema.com or modjeskatheatermke.com.