MILWAUKEE — Like the rest of the world, Downer Avenue has changed a lot over the last 108 years. In fact, little has remained the same along this stretch of Milwaukee’s east side.

However, throughout that time, the Downer Theatre has remained a constant. Many nearby residents thought it always would.

What You Need To Know

  • Landmark's Downer Theatre posted on its social media Tuesday night that it has closed

  • Many East Side residents said they were surprised

  • Smaller theaters are facing significant challenges

  • The theater opened in 1915

Jane Terry woke up to the news that the theater had unexpectedly closed its doors. Terry said it is a loss for the community, especially for a building filled with so many memories. 

“I was dismayed. It is a part of Milwaukee history,” said Terry. “I’ve gone to the theater for years. When I lived in Appleton, my husband and I would come down to the city and go to the Downer, I was surprised and not happy.” 

The circumstances leading up to the closure are not clear; Landmark Theatres, the movie theater chain that owns the theater, did not provide a comment.

“We have high hopes in finding a solution that continues to respect the tradition and historical integrity surrounding this incredible theatre that’s been a foundational institution in Milwaukee's beloved Downer Avenue Commercial District for more than a century,” President of the Downer Avenue Business Improvement District Michael DeMichele said on Wednesday in a joint press release with Bridge33 Capital, the firm that acquired the building occupied by the theater in April 2020, and nonprofit Milwaukee Film, which operates the Oriental Theatre.

One thing that remains clear is that many small theaters across Wisconsin have faced challenges in recent years. While the COVID-19 pandemic and changing viewing habits, including the rise of streaming, have affected numerous theaters large and small, the impact is often felt at small theaters first.

Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece heads the Film Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She said small theaters have less to fall back on when ticket sales dip.

“We see small theaters can’t rely on so many extraneous elements of support from the populous such as concessions, larger screens, larger seats that bigger theaters in the suburbs and part of bigger chains have access to those things, they have additional capital,” Szczepaniak-Gillece said.

Recent history shows that what happens to shuttered smaller theaters can vary. In Wauwatosa, discussions are underway to reopen the Rosebud Cinema as a nonprofit. In the central Wisconsin city of Waupaca, the Rosa Theater reopened in June as part of the regional Rogers Cinema chain. 

Szczepaniak-Gillece said more small theaters could shift to showing older classics based on community demand. 

“That is a trend that I think can be really beneficial to a smaller local theater because you can take the pulse of what the local community is invested in and not just show ‘Oppenheimer’ or ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ but also show whatever the local population is really invested in,” she said.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee Film is in talks with business officials regarding the future of the theater.

“We are honored to be a part of this active conversation and excited about this possibility.” Milwaukee Film’s CEO Jonathan Jackson said in the joint press release. “We will always champion fostering cinematic spaces and artistic voices and experiences in our community to bring people together any way we can."

Regardless of what happens, many in the neighborhood hope to see Downer Theatre reopen soon.