The Oriental Theatre’s lobby, restrooms, and concession stand are all wheelchair-accessible, and all three auditoriums have reserved seating for guests who use wheelchairs.
All three screens support CaptiView, a personal closed-captioning device for guests who are hard-of-hearing. Closed captions are wirelessly transmitted to a small, easy-to-read screen that attaches to an auditorium seat. CaptiView devices are equipped with high-contrast displays and privacy visors that minimize distractions to other theatregoers.
All three screens also support Fidelio, a wireless audio receiver that delivers descriptive narration to guests who have visual and/or hearing impairments. Each Fidelio receiver comes with a plug-in headset, but guests may use their personal headsets or headphones if desired.
Assistive technologies can be checked out and returned at the main concession stand. Please note closed-captioning and descriptive-narration availability is determined by film distributors, so films we screen might not be enabled for CaptiView or Fidelio systems.
In addition to a full-service concession stand stocked with popcorn, candy, soft drinks, and other snacks, the Oriental Theatre offers a full range of import and domestic beers, wines, and cocktails. Guests are welcome to enjoy bar beverages and other concessions in our auditoriums.
The Main Auditorium is equipped with:
- 1,080 seats (554 floor, 526 balcony)
- 4K digital projection with Dolby Vision 3D
- 35mm and 70mm film projection
- 8-channel Dolby Digital Sound
The East and West Auditoriums, on either side of the central Main Auditorium, are equipped with:
- 220 seats each
- 2K digital projection
- 6-channel Dolby Digital Sound
How do I know which screen is which in your listings?
Easy! The Abele Cinema is our massive main house, while the Lubar and Herzfeld Cinemas are our two smaller-capacity side houses.
What's showing at the Oriental Theatre right now? Where can I get descriptions of the films?
Check out the Now Playing section on the homepage or the Coming Soon page to learn which films are currently showing and which will be arriving soon. Each film page contains a brief description of the film.
How early should I arrive for a typical showing?
We recommend arriving at least 15 minutes prior to a film's start time so you have time to get your ticket, purchase concessions, find a seat, get comfy, and turn off your phone.
How will I know if a movie showtime is sold out?
Check the film's detail page. If a given showtime is sold out and tickets can no longer be purchased, the show time will be grayed out, and you will be unable to add tickets to your cart. You can also call the box office at 414-276-5140.
Where should I park? How can I get to the theatre?
The Oriental Theatre is located in a bustling area of the East Side with metered street parking and a limited number of off-street lots. We recommend arriving early enough to find a parking spot or arriving via public transportation, such as the MCTS bus system. Learn more about the nearby parking lots and structures - check out this link for parking assistance!
Conception, Construction, & Not-So-Humble Beginnings
Designed to feel like a “temple of Oriental art,” the Oriental Theatre was conceived of by the Milwaukee architecture firm Dick & Bauer and constructed by Saxe Amusement Enterprises in 1927. With design elements borrowed from Indian, Moorish, Islamic, and Byzantine architectural styles, the Oriental Theatre’s eccentric, East Indian-inspired aesthetic resulted in 2,000 yards of lush textiles, faux teakwood ceiling timbers, intricate tile floors and pillars, onion-domed minarets, a porcelain-paneled entrance, and a stately terra cotta balustrade atop the theater roof.
In addition to these East Indian architectural features, guests of the Oriental will find a pastiche of design elements that contribute to the theater’s extravagant ambience:
Three 8-foot chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Eight porcelain lions don the staircase to the balcony. Numerous hand-painted murals of the Taj Mahal and other giants of Eastern architecture line the walls. Countless mythological creatures can be found in the plasterwork. Hundreds of elephants are hidden throughout the interior. And enormous statues of the Buddha with bright green eyes live inside decorative bays in the main theater.
On July 2, 1927, the Oriental Theatre opened its doors to Milwaukeeans. The three inaugural-night performances each included newsreels, a Felix the Cat cartoon, the short film Flying Feet, a stage production called Mystic Araby with orchestral accompaniment, organ music, and the main feature Naughty But Nice, a silent film starring Colleen Moore. The theater was an immediate success, drawing praise from filmgoers, architects, journalists, industry insiders, and, eventually, cinema and media historians. Regarding the theater's ambitious, grandiose décor, actress Greta Garbo referred to it as "the last word in motion picture theaters."
Over the next few decades, other local theaters shuttered, but the Oriental continued to operate, mostly thanks to the East Side’s then-growing and eventually stable prominence as a commercial and entertainment destination. Despite continued financial success, the theater had fallen into disrepair by the early 1970s, requiring not only maintenance and modernization, but new ownership with the resources and enthusiasm to bring it into the modern era.
Renovation as Response to Mid-Century Cultural Shifts
In 1972, the Oriental Theatre was sold to a trio of Milwaukee brothers, the Pritchetts, who initially considered razing the building and constructing a general store. After seeing the stunning interiors and ornate decoration, the brothers came to see the theater in all its architectural and aesthetic glory. The Pritchetts became stewards of the building and proponents of its cultural and decorative significance. During the 1970s, they revitalized the building, replaced the roof, and added new entertainment offerings, such as concerts, live performances, and, starting in 1978, midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
As urban sprawl beget suburban movie theaters throughout the 1950s and 1960s and with massive multiplexes popping up across the American moviegoing landscape in late 1970s and 1980s, it became clear the Oriental Theatre needed to make substantial changes if it wanted to remain competitive in a rapidly transforming industry. At the tail end of the 1980s, the Pritchetts renovated the theater and built two additional auditoriums on either side of the main theater, beneath its balcony.
Although the addition of two new screens signaled a sea change for both the Oriental Theatre and moviegoing culture at large, the building’s original architectural and aesthetic features were preserved and remain intact to this day.
Present Day and Beyond
Since 2009, the Oriental has been the anchor theater of the Milwaukee Film Festival, a 15-day fest that screens more than 300 films each year. Starting in July 2018, Milwaukee Film—the local nonprofit that runs the festival and offers year-round film education and programming—has taken over operations at the Oriental Theatre via a 31-year lease.
By operating the world-famous Oriental Theatre, MKE Film, the area’s most venerable film organization, seeks to further its mission of entertaining, educating, and engaging the community through cinematic experiences. Restoring the theater’s architectural infrastructure, improving its cinema technologies, and screening festival-quality films year-round will help us further this mission and help cement Milwaukee as an economic, industrial, and creative pillar of global film culture.
MKE Film is in the early stages of a cinema-rehabilitation project to help fund the extensive improvements the theater is dire need of, including structural renovations, facility modernization, and sound and projection system updates. By restoring one of the nation’s finest historical cinemas, MKE Film hopes to secure a bright future for the theater, advance the local film industry, and become a permanent fixture in global cinema culture—all while continuing to screen great films and spark important conversations in the community.
RE-ORIENTING THE ORIENTAL THEATRE
Milwaukee Film recognizes that the name and décor of our cinema are relics of a time when the exoticization of Asian culture and iconography was common and had not been examined. They serve as examples of Orientalism and the “exotic” cinema design style common amongst cinemas of the early 20th Century.
In 2021 we began a multi-year interrogation of these names, icons, decorative features, and their impact on those who may work at or visit our space. We intend to listen carefully and ask our audiences to do the same as we all better understand these perspectives and center our focus on representation, identity, and inclusion.
Tune in below for two previous panel discussions featuring Adam Carr, Nancy Wang Yuen, and Michael McQuillen speaking to the historical use of “Oriental” in American culture, architecture, and cinema whiile interrogating the Oriental Theatre’s name further—which kicked off a multi-year interrogation of our cinema’s name and decor that continues to this day.
- Re-orienting The Oriental Theatre Part 1 - Our conversation starts by elevating representation, identity, and inclusion during a frank panel discussion featuring Adam Carr and Nancy Wang Yuen, speaking to the historical use of “Oriental” in American culture and cinema
- Re-orienting The Oriental Theatre Part 2 - This discussion centers on our cinema's architectural and design elements. Led by a presentation from Michael McQuillen, a historic preservation expert, about the architectural context of the place and then followed by a discussion from a panel of local AAPI leaders, moderated by Adam Carr.
This is an ongoing exploration. Join our mailing list in the footer below to hear about future conversations.