Riverside Theater

Also known as: The Wisconsin, Empire Building
116 W. Wisconsin Avenue Milwaukee, WI

Luxurious Vaudeville theater/movie house restored as a live theater venue


Overview Looking Noorthwest

As seen from the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge.

Photo taken by J.R. Manning in September 2016




The Riverside Theater was originally part of the Orpheum circuit and opened as the Wisconsin Theater on April 29, 1928. The theater also featured a Wurlitzer 3 manual/13 rank organ with a toy counter. It continued as a movie house and live performance venue into the 1970s when the movie-going public stopped coming downtown and went to suburban multiplexes. The theater closed on the Labor Day weekend in 1982.

It is apprpriately named, the battle to keep the Milwaukee River out of the basement continues to this day.

After the theater closed, the future of the theater was in doubt with some calling to make it into a parking lot. Local support to restore the theater as a live performance house grew and local philanthropist, Joseph Zilber, funded the $1.5 million restoration. The Wurlitzer organ was donated to the Dairyland Theater Organ Society, which restored and maintains the organ.

The theater retains its original elegance. The ceiling is a dome rimmed with crests that conceals lighting. A chandelier provides house light. A beautiful drapery was suspended from the proscenium arch with swags and tassels but it was destroyed by fire in 1966, caused by a moron tossing a cigarette on to the stage.

In 2005, the Riverside Theater Foundation, part of the Pabst Theater Foundation, leased the venue and promotes live performances of big-name performers.

Update Log 

  • September 18, 2016: Added by J.R. Manning