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Iconic Milwaukee movie house reopens Aug. 10
Refurbished Oriental Theatre adds ‘Craft Cinema’ to mix


By: TOM JOZWIK - Special to TimeOut

August 2, 2016

 

MILWAUKEE - The venerable Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave., which dates back nine decades to the year of the celebrated Lindbergh flight and the great Babe Ruth’s then record-setting 60-home-run performance, is poised to reopen Aug. 10 under new ownership.

Actually, the nonprofit Milwaukee Film, parent organization of the annual Milwaukee Film Festival, succeeded Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatres as operator of the Oriental on July 1. The formally named Landmark Oriental Theatre closed to the public the next day, and several weeks of renovating have ensued. A ladies’ room was added on the first floor, a men’s room was remodeled, updates in the areas of sound and projection equipment (including the addition of cutting-edge digital projectors) were undertaken as facets of a multimillion-dollar refurbishing. Also, repairs are being made to a water-damaged ceiling.

“Our revitalization effort for the historic cinema is only just kicking off,” Milwaukee Film-Communications Manager Emily Foster informed Conley Media.

The Oriental’s “multiyear renovation plan” includes updating  of heating and air conditioning, lighting and seating.

Lauded as an “exotic and ornate movie palace,” the three-auditorium Oriental boasts Middle and Far Eastern dŽcor, as well as a Kimball organ, reputedly the largest of its kind in the United States. Since 1978, when the movie house was 51 years old, it has offered monthly screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” establishing a longevity record in the process. “Rocky Horror” screenings are expected to continue under Milwaukee Film management.

Milwaukee Film’s role

The Milwaukee Film Festival will continue as well, its 10th edition slated for Oct. 18 through Nov. 1. The MFF umbrella Milwaukee Film describes itself as “dedicated to entertaining, educating and engaging our community through cinematic experiences, with a vision to make Milwaukee a center for film culture.” Milwaukee Film’s board of directors includes Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone, Milwaukee Bucks Senior Vice President Alexander Lasry and Mayor Tom Barrett (emeritus member), among many others.

Programming is another area that will undergo alterations at the reopened Oriental. A recent news release takes note of the theater’s “Craft Cinema programming,” which it describes as “beloved classics to mini-festivals, local offerings, cult curiosities and everything in between.”

Such programming represents something of a rollback to the theater’s “calendar house” programming of three and four decades ago. First-run and nearly new feature films will share the Oriental’s screens with documentaries and movies from bygone decades in the early weeks of the reopening. Home-grown products, as well as foreign films, will be featured.

The refurbished movie house raises its curtains the second Friday in August with a pair of first-run films - the Spike Lee feature “BlacKkKlansman” and the documentary “McQueen.” The former, starring John David Washington and Adam Driver, is the reality-based story of Colorado Springs, Colo., detectives who go undercover to torpedo a supposedly reformed Ku Klux Klan; the latter is a documentary whose subject is Alexander McQueen, a brilliant but troubled fashion maven.

Scheduled to open Aug. 17 are a trio of films: the brand new “Summer of ‘84,” written for the screen by Milwaukeean Stephen J. Smith, about libidinous teenagers coming to believe a neighborhood cop just might be a serial killer; “Back to Burgundy,” a 2017, Cedric Klapisch-helmed French dramedy concerning siblings attempting to save a family vineyard; and 2017’s “Filmworker,” a hit at Cannes and a doc by Tony Zierra featuring Leon Vitali and Ryan O’Neal - the former an actor who abandoned his craft for relative obscurity as a Stanley Kubrick assistant.

A rapper and a kung-fu classic

Kubrick’s 1975 flick “Barry Lyndon,” the Thackeray novel adaptation in which Vitali co-starred, is scheduled for an Aug. 19 screening. On Aug. 23, a satirical Spike Lee movie from 2000, “Bamboozled,” and a flick based on a Japanese anime TV series will be shown. “Bamboozled,” a comedy-drama starring Damon Wayans, deals with a television writer’s rise and fall. “Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” based on the anime series “Cowboy Bebop,” will screen with subtitles Aug. 23 and with dubbed dialogue two days later. The 2001 flick will be bolstered by “bonus material.”

At 9:30 p.m. Aug. 25, “RZA: Live From the 36th Chamber” will be on the agenda. Rapper RZA Diggs, founder and chief producer of American hip hop ensemble Wu-Tang Clan, will be doing a live rescoring of what is considered a classic kung-fu film, “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.” Milwaukee Film CEO Jonathan Jackson in a news release said, “RZA and Wu-Tang Clan’s connection to ‘The 36th Chamber of Shaolin’ is a perfect example of the transformative power of film that Milwaukee Film hopes to inspire in our community.” Tickets for the live show are available at orientaltheatremke.com/RZA.

Oriental movie ticket prices are regularly $11, but $9 for matinees, $8 for seniors 60 and older, $6 for youngsters 12 and younger. Milwaukee Film members can purchase discounted tickets, and concessions, at regular screenings; the Milwaukee Film organization welcomes members (there are more than 4,000), who are invited to exclusive monthly screenings and private events.  

More information can be obtained at orientaltheatremke.com and mkefilm.org.