Brady St. Pharmacy and
owner Jim Searles.
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 plansestimated by him to be between $500,000 and $1
millioninclude 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
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.
Ive 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 theaters 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. Thats 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 Milwaukees 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 areas
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
When this is all done, the
pharmacy will be a tenant in the theater building, Searles
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
Because Brady Street is a
designated historic district, the renovation plans also must be
approved by Milwaukees Historic Preservation Commission. So
far, Searles has received positive comments from local government
Im 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 DAmato is
confident that the pharmacists plans are historically accurate.
I know that he has worked very hard at this, DAmato 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 dont do this, I know
what will happen. Eventually, someone else will buy this building
and the past will never be restored.