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Action at the Astor!
Brady St. Theater to revive

By RICHARD ROMANO

 

The Brady St. Pharmacy and owner Jim Searles.


Jim Searles is in the throes of an ambitious plan that is designed to not only strengthen the Brady Street neighborhood, but to pay homage to days gone by.

Searles, a Glendale native, is the owner of the Brady Street Pharmacy located at the southeast corner of Brady and Astor Streets. Searles is in the midst of a lengthy project to restore the building to its past glory as a theater and to return the corner to its role as a neighborhood focal point.

His exterior and interior renovation plans—estimated by him to be between $500,000 and $1 million—include restoring the original 1910 theater facade, adding a fountain courtyard with a large street clock and converting the second floor to a 1600-square-foot, 100-seat movie theater and several meeting rooms, including a 750-square-foot ballroom.

Searles already has devoted thousands of dollars and countless hours of his time to the project over the past four years. His careful research into how the Astor Theater should be brought back to life includes utilizing resources such as local museums and construction contractors specializing in restoration. He says he expects the process to take another five years.

“I’ve always been interested in history, so when I found out that this was once a theater, it made sense to bring that era back.”

The Astor Theater was designed by Hugo Miller for owner John H. Radke in 1910. By 1915, the 950-capacity theater featured silent movies, newsreels and live vaudeville acts. The Astor stage and its spotlights were framed by velvet curtains and an alcove housed a player piano.

Over the next 20 years, the Astor Theater changed as dramatically as American entertainment tastes. Vaudeville was dead by 1925. By 1939, the theater’s facade was streamlined and an art deco marquee was installed.

The last movie shown at the Astor was in 1952. Movie houses went out of business all over the area, due to the emergence of television.

The building was turned into a two-story structure: the second floor a living space and the first floor occupied by ROA Films.

In the 1970s, ROA Films was relocated. By 1979, the building was boarded up, a reflection of hard times hitting Brady Street. “Brady Street was finished,” Searles said. “(My wife) Barb and I used to take walks through the neighborhood when we ran the pharmacy at the Knickerbocker Hotel. We were about to lose our lease and we saw potential in this building. That’s why we bought it.”

The Searles’ purchase was one of faith as well as vision. The neighborhood experienced a number of transitions over the past 100 years. Historically a strong neighborhood attracting Italian immigrants in the early part of the century, Brady Street became Milwaukee’s version of Haight-Ashbury from the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. A number of residents and businesses moved out during this time period, leaving Brady a neighborhood on the brink of extinction.

Since being part of the area’s rebirth over the past 17 years, Searles continued to see potential in the building. His commitment to the theater restoration is seen in the various old time movie posters and antique movie cameras and projectors placed throughout the first-floor pharmacy. Searles will continue to run the pharmacy while the theater operates upstairs.

“When this is all done, the pharmacy will be a tenant in the theater building,” Searles said.

The movie theater, he noted, will run films exclusively from before 1950. “Movies have gotten away from wholesome family entertainment,” Searles said. “Showing the old movies is all part of the theme of bringing back that bygone era.”

Because Brady Street is a designated historic district, the renovation plans also must be approved by Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Commission. So far, Searles has received positive comments from local government representatives.

“I’m going to have to form a separate 501(c)(3) (non-profit) organization in order to make this happen,” Searles said, noting that the project will require financial support such as grants.

City Alderman Michael D’Amato is confident that the pharmacist’s plans are historically accurate. “I know that he has worked very hard at this,” D’Amato said. “The fact that he has been successful in running an independent pharmacy in the face of the large chains is a testament in itself.”

Last year, State Rep. Jon Richards wrote to Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist asking for project support. “The plan Jim Searles developed promises to make the building a crown jewel in the urban renaissance that is the Brady Street neighborhood,” Richards wrote. “He has worked day and night for years, skipping vacations and time off.”

Barbara and Jim Searles renovated the building in 1983 and 1984 to start the pharmacy and began residing in a small second-floor corner of the building. Barbara became a founding member of the New Brady Street Business Association in the late 1980s and was later appointed by the city to the Business Improvement District Board.

When she died of breast cancer three years ago, Searles said her untimely death at the age of 51 sent him a message.

“This is about leaving the world in better shape,” Searles said. “If I don’t do this, I know what will happen. Eventually, someone else will buy this building and the past will never be restored.”