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A different theater-going experience

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Story by Nancy Herrick

As sometimes happens, there was a line outside the second-floor women’s restroom at the Oriental Theatre on a recent Friday night. While waiting, a group of friends gazed out over the ornate lobby.

“I just love this place,” said Jenna Johnson of Oak Creek. “I’ve never seen anything else like it.”

She could look all around the country, in fact, and find nothing else that even remotely resembles this theater. It is a venue that can make something as simple as dinner and a movie a truly memorable occasion.

Just like the moving images projected on the screen, the Oriental Theatre on Milwaukee’s East Side originally was designed to provide an escape.

“Themed palaces like the Oriental were built, mostly in the 1920s, to transport moviegoers to a different time and place,” says Eric Levin, manager of the theater.

With its colorful mosaic tile, detailed plasterwork, bent-glass chandeliers and terra cotta lion statues lining the stairway to the balcony, the theater’s lobby might be the most exotic locale of all. The theme is more East Indian and Moorish than it is Oriental, but when it was built in 1927 perhaps that’s what the word “Oriental” implied.

“There are very few palaces like this that have survived, and if they have it usually is as a performing arts venue,” says Levin. “The fact that this is still a movie theater is remarkable.”

The Oriental is such a well-preserved representation of the past that it has been named one of the 10 Theaters Doing It Right by Entertainment Weekly and one of the 10 Best Movie Theaters in America by Moving Pictures Magazine. In his book “Great American Movie Theatres,” author David Naylor called the Oriental “about as fine a neighborhood theater as one could want.”

At one time there were several large themed movie palaces in Milwaukee, says Lee Matthias, who was a projectionist at the Oriental throughout the 1980s. He has written a screenplay that uses the nooks and crannies of the Oriental as its setting.

“Every large theater built in Milwaukee in that era was unique in design and appearance,” he says. But the Oriental is the last one standing.

It attracts local filmgoers, of course, but also visitors from much farther away. “People stop by all the time, even from other countries, who have heard about the theater and want to see it,” says Levin.

The Oriental may represent a special era from the past, but its offerings are very much up to date. And now films are shown on three screens, the result of a sensitive reconfiguration in the 1980s that kept the artistic elements of the main theater intact while adding two smaller screens.

“At the time of the remodeling people were skeptical,” says Levin. “But we had a team of architects, artisans and restoration experts helping out and the main auditorium was left virtually intact.”

In past decades the Oriental was a popular place for live rock performances, then classic films. Now it is back to showing current movies exclusively.

“It’s not really an art house,” says Levin. “We run a lot of independent films, some foreign releases plus some quality first-run films.”

In November, for example, the Tom Hanks movie “Captain Phillips” and “12 Years a Slave” were on the marquee.

“Landmark has never shied away from showing challenging films,” says Levin, referring to the parent company, Landmark Theatres. The Oriental also is one of the venues for the Milwaukee Film Festival, the two-week juried event each fall that features foreign and documentary films.

In addition to showing movies that often can’t be found elsewhere, the Oriental offers a unique treat on Friday and Saturday nights for patrons who arrive 30 minutes prior to the 7 p.m. showing. That’s when members of the Kimball Theatre Organ Society play what is thought to be the largest organ in a theater in the United States. The 30-ton, 3,000-pipe organ dates to 1927 and was restored over a period of 13 years.

“Two organists play here, one of whom is the son of a pianist who used to play during the silent film era,” says Levin. “They play a lot of old standards and themes from musicals. You could say they play stuff that was popular when the organ was new.”

Another unusual attraction is the midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” on the second Saturday of the month. Attracting moviegoers since 1978, it is the longest running showing of this cult favorite. “With the help of the Sensual Daydreams live cast, it has turned into a show within a movie,” Levin says.

Levin has worked in theaters since he was 17. He lived in Southern California for a while, but returned to Milwaukee and bought and managed theaters of his own.

He takes pride in managing the Oriental and seems pleased that something so old continues to please today’s audiences.

“Any movie palace from that era that survived has withstood significant challenges,” he says.

The first was the transition to sound in 1929-’30, “which carried a hefty price tag,” he says. “The second was the saturation of TV in the 1950s. Then the newfound popularity of home video in the ’80s meant theaters had to fight once again for survival.”

Still, the Oriental thrives.

“That’s because it caters to an audience that’s looking for an alternative to the mainstream,” Levin says. “While the theater is an attraction in itself, its unwavering viability is really based in solid film programming.”

Here is manager Eric Levin’s list of five things to be sure to check out if you vist the Oriental Theatre..

1. The eight ceramic lions along the stairway to the balcony. “They are among the most striking features I’ve seen in any theater,” he says.

2. The box office. “It’s the first exceptional detailing you see and it’s all original,” he says.

3. The griffins that line the ceiling in the main theater. “Their eyes glow with green bulbs,” Levin says. There also are six Buddhas in the main theater. “They aren’t really Buddhas, though, but they are Eastern religious figures,” he says.

4. The 16 elephants that support the ceiling beams in the main lobby. “They’re painted with gold leaf,” he says.

5. The skillful addition of two smaller theaters, which each seat about 225 people. “They’re tucked under the balcony and if you are in the main theater you would never know they’re there,” he says.

If you go

What: The Oriental Theatre, a classic movie palace that dates to 1927

Where: 2230 N. Farwell Ave., just south of North Avenue on Milwaukee’s East Side.

Getting there: Take I-94 to Milwaukee and I-43 north out of downtown. Take the North Avenue exit (73B) and go right (east) about 2 miles. Turn right on Farwell and the theater is right there.

When: Movies are shown daily. On Fridays and Saturdays the huge restored Kimball pipe organ is played 30 minutes before the 7 p.m. showing. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is presented at midnight on the second Saturday of the month.

For information: (414) 276-5140.