Milwaukee's Oriental Theatre is getting closer to reopening, with multimillion-dollar renovations nearly done
The Oriental Theatre, Milwaukee's 94-year-old movie palace, is getting ready for its post-pandemic closeup.
Milwaukee Film, the nonprofit organization that operates the Oriental as well as the Milwaukee Film Festival, is wrapping up the fourth phase of its renovations of the East Side theater at 2230 N. Farwell Ave.
The work includes restoring the theater's massive balcony, restoring the main amphitheater's ceiling and replacing cove lights in the venue.
Improvements to seating, handrails and lighting, as well as a hearing loop being added to the main auditorium, will follow before the theater is reopened in August — 17 months after it closed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A few weeks after the Oriental shut down in March 2020, Milwaukee Film accelerated some of its multimillion-dollar renovation plans for the theater, replacing seats and carpeting, improving sightlines and sound quality and improving the air infiltration system.
The work on the main, Buddha-lined auditorium, which seats about 500 people, is basically done; that part of the project alone cost $1.2 million, according to Milwaukee Film.
The work on the 420-seat balcony is still in progress, as is installation of the 1925 Wurlitzer theater organ. The final phase of renovations will include more updates to the lobby; the theater's concession stand has already been expanded and upgraded.
The Oriental was the first Milwaukee movie theater to shut its doors because of the pandemic, but it wasn't the last.
Eventually, all 20 area theaters closed; most began reopening last fall. As of June 18, five remained shuttered: the Oriental, Times Cinema, Rosebud Cinema, Fox-Bay Cinema Grill and Marcus Theatres' Showtime Cinema. The Showtime is scheduled to reopen June 25.
When Milwaukee Film announced in 2017 it was taking over operation of the Oriental, the nonprofit vowed to give the theater a major upgrade.
When it took over in 2018, Milwaukee Film closed the theater for six weeks for renovations; the next year, it shut down one of its two smaller screens for extensive renovations. The pandemic shutdown allowed the rest of the plans for the Oriental to be sped up.