Digitizing Milwaukee’s Polonia: The Modjeska Theater

by Alex Welborn

Recently, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries hosted the event “Hollywood in the Heartland” in conjunction with the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (WCFTR).  This celebration of the history of film and theater featured numerous one-of-a-kind film and theater artifacts and archival materials from the WCFTR.  The UWM Archives contributed to the event by displaying historic images of Milwaukee theaters and movie palaces from the 1910s and 1920s, many of which come from the Roman Kwasniewski photograph collection.  One such theater captured through the photography of Roman Kwasniewski is the Modjeska Theatre.

Modjeska Theater

The Modjeska Theatre was once a major attraction for the local Polish-American community. Serial # 25127

The Modjeska Theater first opened in 1910 as a small, 840-seat theater at 7th and Mitchell Street in Milwaukee.  Named after the Polish actress Madame Helena Modjeska, the Modjeska Theatre was most likely a posthumous tribute by the predominantly Polish-American community to the Polish icon.

Modjeska Theater and Mr. Harman

Mr. Harman and young movie-goers pose outside of the Modjeska Theatre. Serial # 25127

In 1924, the local Saxe Theatres chain bought the Modjeska and replaced it with a larger, 2,000-seat movie palace at the same address.  Though lacking in ornamentation, the new Modjeska featured a full orchestra pit, a Barton pipe organ, and a stage floor laden with trap doors for vaudeville acts.

Crowds lined up in front of Modjeska Theater

The former popularity of the Modjeska Theatre is evident in this image, as eager movie-goers line up outside the venue. Serial # 25127

The 1950s initiated a long and slow decline of the Modjeska’s former self.  During the 1980s and 1990s, the Modjeska changed ownership numerous times as operators struggled to keep the venue afloat.  In the early 1990s, the Modjeska served as a 1,700-seat local acts venue, and success was limited and the venue eventually closed in March of 2010.  Recent restoration efforts of the Modjeska Theatre have also folded due to lack of financial support, placing the building’s future in peril.  Thanks to the photography of Roman Kwasniewski, however, the spirit of the Modjeska will live on, even if the theater itself does not.

Source and more information: Rankin, James (Jim) H.  “Modjeska Theatre.”  http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/2276  Accessed 23 April 2013.

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