Oriental Theatre restoration project on track for fall opening

A view of the ceiling from the balcony.

Last updated on June 21st, 2021 at 12:13 pm

Crews continue to make progress on the multi-phased $10 million renovation of the historic Oriental Theatre on Milwaukee’s East Side.

Milwaukee Film, the nonprofit owner and operator of the 94-year-old theater, is now in the middle of phase four of five, which includes balcony and ceiling restoration work, and the addition of glass donor signage in the main lobby. The organization offered a behind-the-scenes look of the construction progress on Friday.

In the balcony, damaged plaster is being repaired to match the texture of the historic surface, while the ceiling is being restored to preserve historic color and decorative elements.

Seating, handrails, lighting, a hearing loop and other elements in the balcony will be installed once scaffolding is removed.

Since work began last summer, other phases of restoration have included replacing seats and carpeting, improving sightlines and sound quality, restoring plaster on the ceiling and walls, and beginning the process for installation of a 1925 Wurlitzer theater organ.

“It has been such a joy to be stewards for the Oriental Theatre. Since our closure last spring, we have invested every minute we could into restoring the historic wonder of our main house, and we can’t wait for the day when we get to open our doors for our patrons to experience it,” said Kristen Heller, chief operating officer for Milwaukee Film.

Milwaukee Film met its $10 million fundraising goal for the campaign in the spring of 2019. Chris Abele, co-founder of Milwaukee Film and former county executive, provided a lead $2 million donation. Philanthropists Donald and Donna Baumgartner, the Herzfeld Foundation, Marianne and Sheldon Lubar, Allan H. (Bud) and Suzanne L. Selig, and The Yabuki Family Foundation provided additional lead donations.

“We continue to be very grateful for the generosity of more than 900 contributors, that has allowed us to renovate and preserve this magical piece of history,” Heller said.

Milwaukee Film hasn’t announced an official opening date for the theater, but is planning to host its Cultures & Communities Festival (formerly the Minority Health Film Festival) in September in the Oriental. The organization also recently announced it plans to hold the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival as an in-person event.

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Lauren Anderson is an associate editor and covers health care, nonprofits and education for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism.

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