Riverside Theater (Milwaukee)

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Riverside Theater
Address 116 W. Wisconsin Ave.
City Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Country United States
Owned by Pabst Theater Organization
Type concert hall
Capacity 2,450
Opened 1920

Riverside Theater is a concert hall, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The venue, which has seats for 2,460 people and hosts many different musical artists and shows. It is leased by the Pabst Theater Foundation, which presents shows there, and at the Pabst Theater and Turner Hall.

The building, which opened in 1928, was designed by local architects Charles Kirchoff and Thomas Rose, who designed many theaters, including the Palace Theater in New York City. The theater underwent major renovations in 1984.

The building that houses the theater is twelve stories tall, and includes office space.


The Riverside Theater is probably the most graceful, if not the most opulent of Milwaukee’s theatres and it comes by its name, honestly, by fighting since opening on April 29, 1928, to keep the adjacent Milwaukee river out of its basement.

When the RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) vaudeville circuit was looking for a larger, fancier venue to replace their 1908 Majestic Theater, they bought into the firm demolishing the old Empire Hotel and Tavern at the prominent intersection of Grand Avenue (now Wisconsin Ave.) and West Water Street (now Plankinton Ave.) to build the Riverside within the new 12-story Empire office building with an alley and the river forming the other two boundaries.

Vaudeville was on the decline by this time, so the theatre envisioned as a presentation house with 2,558 seats on the orchestra level plus three boxes on each wall below the organ screens and in a huge balcony reached by a lobby elevator. Local architects Charles Kirchoff and Thomas Rose had done well in designing the famous Palace Theatre in New York City, so they were selected to bring about this French baroque vista in colors of ivory and gilt with peacock blue accents.

A mixture of vaudeville and films continued for years until Warner Bros. took over for a brief period until their own opulent Warner (now called the Grand) was completed in 1931, just two blocks away.

The ceiling features a giant central dome with tri-color cove lighting nicely concealed by an ornate rim of cabochon-faced crests. The original Grand Drapery graced the proscenium arch with 20 swags of teal velour with galloons in ochre and tassels in henna red upon a lambrequin of Austrian folds decorated in beige and fringed in henna. Behind and below this the beige teaser curtain hung in swags and jabots while the tormentors were in beige framed in teal galloons and bullion-style fringe.

Tragically, all of this beauty perished in 1966 when a patron tossed a cigarette onto the stage and it all disappeared in the ensuing fire. Automatic sprinklers back stage saved the structure until the firemen came, and eventually a simple panel of 30% fullness dark red duvetyn replaced all this when the estimated cost to replace originals came in at $590,000.

When United Artist opted not to renew their expiring lease in 1982, and local real estate developers had already drawn up plans for a shopping mini-mall or large parking structure, a grassroots “Save the Riverside” campaign was started as part of the growing downtown revitalization movement.

After local support grew for the preservation of the Riverside, local philanthropist Joseph Zilber, who enjoyed many programs at the venue in his youth, agreed to fund the $1–1/2 million needed to repair and revitalize the building. The theater eventually held its grand re-opening in 1984 to showcase the gorgeous newly lighted, gilded, and re-draped auditorium. Even the long-neglected organ was given a substantial makeover, further displaying the new and improved Riverside.

The theater underwent an artistic renovation, when in October 2005, The Riverside Theater Foundation (an arm of The Pabst Theater Foundation) leased the venue and began promoting and marketing performances there. Since that time, performances at The RIverside have more than tripled and the quality of the artists has exceeded anytime in its history.

Artists ranging from Sheryl Crow, Oasis, Eddie Vedder, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and many, many more have since graced the stage. The future now looks bright as the Riverside Theater Foundation has increased performances every year of their existence at this beautiful theater.

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