Lost Milwaukee: The Princess Theater
If you’re under 40, chances are you’ve never even heard of the Princess Theater. And it’s probably impossible to believe there was a thriving “red light” district at Third and Wisconsin as late as the 1980s. But there was. There really was.
In 1897, the Pabst Brewery bought land at 738 N. 3rd St to build a branded saloon. The beer business opened in 1903, but somehow failed within a year. It was replaced in 1904 by The Grand, a 10 cent, four-shows-a-day “family vaudeville” theater that dabbled in motion pictures.
The Grand tried hard to stay afloat, shifting quickly from vaudeville to moving pictures to talking pictures (with actors behind the screen, narrating the imagery.) The business eventually failed, and the operation was leased to emerging theater kings Thomas and John Saxe. However, the land was retained by Clara Heyl, scandal-ridden Pabst Brewery heiress, whose son Helmuth would hold the title — as an on-again, off-again absentee landlord — well into the 1970s.
On December 16, 1909, the Saxes introduced a reinvented Princess Theater to great local fanfare. The house now featured over 1,000 “elegantly cushioned” seats, an improved balcony with four box seats, elegant lobby fountains, mosaic tile floors, elegantly painted movie posters, stained glass windows, mirrored walls, and one of the first electric ventilation systems in the city. There was now a five-piece orchestra pit, with a $20,000 Barton pipe organ with 27 stops — one of the first in Milwaukee. This was no longer a “poor man’s vaudeville house,” claimed papers, but a gathering place for a “better class of people.” Mayor David Rose even dedicated the opening night affair.
Once the new 1,500 bulb marquee ignited that night, movies — of progressively declining quality — would be shown here continuously for over seven decades.
In 1925, the now-wealthy Saxes invested over $50,000 to make the Princess Theater “the model picture house of Milwaukee.” The theatre’s famous terra cotta facade was revealed for the first time, elaborately decorated with neoclassical features and artificial windows. These accommodations were supposedly modeled after the recently-opened Wisconsin Theater (530 W. Wisconsin Ave.), the largest movie palace ever built in Milwaukee and then the flagship of a 28-house chain.
If the Princess Theater was ever that elegant, the luster faded very, very quickly. The Saxes sold their theater chain in 1927, briefly regained control of the Princess and a handful of their former movie houses in 1933, and then sold them off again. By 1943, the theater was showing “eighth run” films at a fraction of its neighbors’ ticket prices.
In 1957, the elaborate facade was “art-bricked” in a cheap and hideous attempt to modernize the neoclassical building. The sidewalk box office was covered. A new ticket counter was built indoors — and eventually, encased in glass. The orchestra pit was covered. The grand pipe organ disappeared. All traces of the “model picture house” disintegrated — the fountains, the mirrors, even the draperies. The Princess was stripped down to her bare essentials.
With the glamour gone, the Saxes gone, and the downtown movie audience increasingly gone, the Princess was at a low point in her life at middle age. And then, she found herself in a “friends with benefits” relationship with a sketchy neighbor, The Brass Rail club. The Brass Rail started as a downtown tavern, but became a hugely successful strip club in 1959. Eight months later, 320-lb. owner Izzy Pogrob disappeared with $1,500 in a white Cadillac — and turned up blindfolded and shot dead in a Mequon field with 93 cents in his pocket. Rumors whispered that Pogrob had been rubbed out in a mobster hit. The rumors continued when Milwaukee’s infamous Balistreri family took over the bar.
For a generation, the Brass Rail was *the* most notorious downtown “stag” bar — a strictly male space where wives weren’t welcome, and men could be men with neither courtesy or apology. Its racy burlesque posters beckoned to workingmen passing by, as well as young boys whose imaginations must have ran wild wondering what went on indoors.
But by 1959, nobody really cared anymore what was going on inside the Princess — and it was certainly no longer a “gathering place for a better class of people.” There were other, better downtown theaters, and the one-story, dime-a-dozen Princess was pretty much played out. Within a few blocks, you could visit the Alhambra, Esquire, Riverside, Towne, Warner, Wisconsin, Strand and Palace Theaters - all in arguably better shape than the Princess, and showing better movies. (OK, maybe not the Alhambra.) A Milwaukee Journal critic reported, “The Wisconsin Hotel, still one of the town’s best, defies the wrath of time…but we’re not too sure about the Princess Theater, which continues to throw reels and reels of tired celluloid at patrons for fifty cents a turn.”
How soon the Princess would make her comeback! On January 14, 1960, the theater was showing Sophia Loren’s 1959 film “That Kind of Woman” — but on the next day, the Princess became known as “that kind of woman” with an adults-only program. The ads for “Room 43” screamed, “DARING! FRANK! SENSATIONAL! A film for those who think they have seen everything!” Meanwhile, “Adventures in Sadie” was hawked as “the eyebrow-raising story of three men and a girl stranded on a desert island!”
The Princess had found a speciality: topless movies. And what a big deal THAT was, during the Kennedy era. Milwaukee personality Art Kumbalek says it best: “I don’t believe the young people today could begin to understand what a triumph that was—to see a naked boob in a motion picture theater.” Sneaking into the theater became a rite of passage for teenage boys — something to brag about to your less brave, but no less curious friends. The Princess was now a girl with a “reputation.”
With Helmuth Heyl barely noticing, the theater was passed from one out-of-town operator to another, and the films quickly went from mature to adult to X to XXX. The theater’s movie listings in local newspapers certainly captured both attention and imagination, but not everyone was ready to “out” themselves as a moral deviant by walking in the theater’s front doors. So the Brass Rail’s owners quietly installed a secret door connecting their club with the theater lobby. Anyone could now see a dirty movie - without anyone on the street knowing you had done so. While the Brass Rail was originally the raciest option on the block, it had become one of the more morally acceptable. With the arrival of the lurid Central Danish World adult bookstore at Third and Wells, the block became Milwaukee’s red light district. By the 1970s, there were 4 adult theaters and 15 adult bookstores in downtown Milwaukee — leading city officials to propose zoning regulations that would relocate these booming businesses to the Third Ward, where redevelopment efforts had erased a thriving Little Italy 20 years prior. The proposal to create a Third Ward “combat zone” ultimately failed.
The Princess didn’t get the Milwaukee premiere of DEEP THROAT, which went to the Parkway Theater (3417 W. Lisbon) in December 1972. But Marilyn Chambers, Russ Meyer and other famous adult film celebrities signed autographs here throughout the 1970s. This publicity didn’t escape the attention of local police or state investigators. In 1976, the theater paid $2,000 for two counts of obscenity, In 1977, the Milwaukee Police Department seized 77 films, of which the state only found 17 obscene, but eventually dismissed.
The continuous threat of a theater raid made the Princess seem like a very dubious and dangerous place, on top of its already scandalous reputation. Patrons reported that the appeal of the Princess Theater wasn’t even the movies themselves— it was the sheer thrill of being a spectator in such a forbidden place.
And the theater’s moral integrity wasn’t the only problem. Its architecture was literally falling apart. In 1967, both the auditorium flooring and the stage had to be replaced — because the cork lining had finally rotted. In 1977, a portion of the neighboring building crashed through the Princess Theater’s roof. Seating was often removed rather than repaired or replaced. Plumbing, lighting and heating were often unreliable —as was the cleanliness of the theater inside and out. Modern air conditioning had never been installed — and the building still had its original dirt basement floor throughout its entire lifetime.
Nothing could make the Princess a morally acceptable destination again — nor would it be affordable or feasible to try. Early VCRs and pay-per-view channels were starting to show up in the privacy of people’s homes. Nobody in their right mind was going to risk their reputation, safety or self-respect to visit a run-down theater. The thrill was gone.
With Grand Avenue, the Hyatt, and a new Federal Building all being built within a one-block radius, it was increasingly obvious that the decadent and now decaying Princess Theater’s days were numbered.
On December 10, 1982, the Sentinel reported that the Milwaukee Redevelopment Authority had voted unanimously to raze the theater. However, the Authority refused to hear the arguments of Joseph Balistreri, owner of the Brass Rail, who was working with an architect to reopen the bar as a restaurant run by “established restaurant people.” Balistreri was the son of Frank P. Balistreri, who was documented as the head of organized crime in Milwaukee and indicted in ongoing FBI and Justice Department investigations.
The Authority was asked to consider the plight of 62-year-old Violet Clemons, long-time cashier-manager and one of the seven Princess Theater employees, whose story was told in the Milwaukee Sentinel. ”Vie” sat on the same ticket-taking stool for ten years, in a secure, glassed-in world, with a little TV, telephone and artificial Christmas tree, without ever once seeing an adult movie. The surprisingly progressive Christian grandmother defended her customers as “quiet, hard-working men” who “weren’t bothering anybody” and needed this type of outlet in their lives. ”It’s their money and their time, and they are all adults. A lot of guys are not married, will never marry…as long as they are hurting anyone, the government should keep their nose out of it.” She also noted, “I don’t think anybody has the right to deny anybody else the right to watch an adult movie.”
Clemon’s lawyer said “It’s very easy to view this as nothing more than a dirty movie theater, but even that is better than another hole in the ground in downtown Milwaukee.” The owner of the Century Building on 3rd and Wells disagreed, “I, for one, just think it stinks. Let’s face it, guys, it’s just a porno theater.”
But was it? Two weeks later, historian Hugh Swofford came forward with a proposal that was ridiculed by city officials and papers. Since the Princess was the city’s oldest continuously operating movie theater, it was worthy of redemption, not razing. The proposal did have merit, according to the city’s historic preservation guidelines, and the discussion gained a foothold as the Redevelopment Authority fumed. The Brass Rail, however, attracted no preservation defenders.
Was there bias against these sordid downtown properties? Most certainly. Even the Balistreri lawyers pointed this out, saying “As this (redevelopment) plan is being constructed, I think certain individuals are being singled out, and I think they’re being singled out unfairly.” This statement could be applied to not only porn theaters, adult bookstores and strip joints, but the “undesirable” downtown denizens that frequented them. None were welcome in the new “everything must go” downtown of the 1980s.
By 1984, the Princess was the last remaining X-rated theater in Milwaukee — and one of two downtown movie theaters left standing after the Redevelopment Authority’s renovation rampage down Wisconsin Avenue. In March, the Authority seized the Princess and Brass Rail, ordered tenants to move out within 90 days, and began condemnation proceedings. The Brass Rail was flattened at the cost of $14,300, but as preservation talks continued on the Princess, demolition was at a standstill. On August 31, 1984, a random hole was punched in the theater wall to prevent its designation as a local historic landmark. Within a few weeks, the city’s seizure actions — including this wanton vandalism — were ruled legal by a local court, the oldest movie theater in Milwaukee was flattened, and Third Street had finally been exorcised of its demons.
The Authority voted to turn the Brass Rail / Princess site into a surface parking lot “until a new development is decided upon.” When pressed for definite plans for the parcel, a smug Authority member sarcastically offered, “trees.” Almost three decades later, the cement lot remains vacant, undeveloped, and treeless — a testament to the pointless ruin of an intact city block.
In February 1985, the Milwaukee Journal reported, “Gone are the clusters of streetwalkers beckoning men who walked along 5th Street at night. Gone are the honky-tonks where go-go girls offered more than dancing for the right price. Gone is the Princess Theater, where several generations of young men learned about the birds and bees from Brigitte Bardot, Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chambers. As the seamier types of entertainment have left downtown, more middle-class, family-style activities have moved in.” Milwaukee’s red light district was gone for good. Good, it seemed at the time, had triumphed over evil — leaving behind an ugly, barren, lifeless half-block stretch of street.
The Modjeska Theater, engineered by the Saxe Brothers in 1924 and still standing on Mitchell Street, has a street-level facade somewhat reminiscent of the Princess. However, the Princess Theater only lives on today in hazy, hush-hush memories — and in the eight marquee letters (P-R-I-N-C-E-S-S) salvaged by Times Cinema proprietor Larry Widen.