Milwaukee Theatre Wisconsin Center District
In 1999, after a 20-show run of "Riverdance" shattered ticket sales records for the building, the Wisconsin Center District Board of Directors formally began to consider the future of the Milwaukee Auditorium, which had already enjoyed a 90-year history as a center of Milwaukee’s civic and cultural life. Would WCD and the Milwaukee community be better served in the 21st century by renovating, razing or simply maintaining the historic facility?
An internal study and an independent consultant each found that renovating and reconfiguring the building was both structurally feasible and the most economically advantageous course. Both studies noted that an improved venue could address a growing and unfilled niche in the Milwaukee entertainment market for a 3,500-5,000 seat theater; this view was underscored by competing proposals floated in Milwaukee for similar but entirely new venues. Unlike those schemes, however, a converted Auditorium could also serve conventions at the Midwest Airlines Center by offering an adjacent assembly venue, and by bringing WCD revenues to help subsidize convention business.
In October, 2000, WCD solicited proposals for construction management and a project architect. Upon selecting a winning design by VOA Associates, Inc., and a construction manager, Grunau/Hunt, the Board gave the green light, in April, 2001, for a major renovation to transform the building into a state-of-the-art concert, theatrical and assembly. $5 million in existing Wisconsin Center District funds were committed to the project; in June, a bond issue, to be repaid with operating revenues, was sold, and preliminary work began. Construction started in earnest in November, 2001. After a two-year, $41.9 million project, the new Milwaukee Theatre opened on November 7, 2003.
The project converted the Milwaukee Auditorium’s flat-floored, horseshoe-shaped arena to a more spectator-friendly 4,000-seat theater with two sloped tiers of seats offering superior sight lines, luxury and comfort. Built-in flexibility can reduce the space to a more intimate theater setting with a full house of 2,500 seats.
A signature feature of The Milwaukee Theatre is its half-domed rotunda lobby ringed by three levels of gallery walkways, created from the rear of the original hall’s arched ceiling; a mirrored wall creates the illusion of an enormous, circular rotunda. This space is used for general patron circulation, concessions and merchandising as well as pre-show receptions and assembly breaks. For patrons, The Milwaukee Theatre also offers extensive circulation space, an abundance of new restrooms, and ADA-compliant disability access with elevators, ramps, wheelchair platforms, restroom facilities, lowered counters and other features.
At its "working" end, The Milwaukee Theatre provides an amazing amount of rehearsal, dressing room and production space, a new stage and loading docks, new "house" audio and lighting systems, and other technological and physical-plant improvements.
Since its opening, The Milwaukee Theatre has been embraced by patrons, critics, and productions alike. Some public praise seems contradictory; people enjoy The Milwaukee Theatre’s spaciousness, especially the grandeur of the Rotunda, but also comment on a sense of warmth and intimacy that permeates the building, and they remark about its traditional elegance and historic detail, as well as its clean lines and bright modernity. The message from show producers and presenters is more straightforward; they love the efficient layout and uncommon amount of elbow room backstage, the simplicity and flexibility of the seating, and the available technology, such as data connections to WCD’s T3 fiber backbone.
4,100 seat capacity with flexibility to create a full house of 2,500
Superior sight lines, comfort and disability access with all-new sloped, main, balcony and gallery box seating
Galleried, half-domed rotunda lobby on Kilbourn Avenue
Outdoor terrace overlooking Kilbourn Avenue
Large box office lobby and canopied drive-through/passenger drop-off on Kilbourn Avenue
Improved public circulation with new and expanded restrooms, concourses, elevators and concession areas
New rehearsal space and revamped meeting and reception rooms
Improved loading dock/stage access and stage equipment including rising orchestra pit
Restored and enhanced architectural details and artistic enhancements including preserved historical murals
Physical plant, acoustical, sound system and lighting improvements.