The Theatre closes and re-opens for the first time

After serving as a neighborhood institution for more than four decades, the Sherman Theatre closed its doors in March of 1977 following a fire that damaged the theater’s curtain, screen, and several front-row seats. The theater’s marquee initially read “Closed Temporarily”, however six months later, owner Robert Read told The Milwaukee Journal that no repair work had been done, and that he was still waiting for an insurance payout.

It is unclear exactly happened next but the Sherman Theatre never showed another film. By the early 1980s, changing social and economic conditions in the city had led to the closure of many Milwaukee movie houses. Some were demolished to make way for parking lots. Others lived second lives as businesses or churches. The Sherman Theatre was sold soon thereafter to Liberty Temple Church, headed by pastor Rex Gwaltney.

By the mid-80s, some Sherman Park neighborhood residents and area leaders had begun efforts to buy the Sherman Theatre building and rehab the property to help jumpstart the faltering Burleigh Street business corridor. This early effort was lead by Mike Brodd, Thomas Donegan, and Paul Mathews. Brodd was the manager of the Planning and Analysis Division of Economic Development for the City of Milwaukee and the chairman of the business and economic development committee for the Sherman Park Community Association. Donegan was the alderperson for Milwaukee’s 7th District, and Paul Mathews was serving as a county board supervisor.

Many had high hopes for the theater and the neighborhood. “Ideally, I’d like that whole strip to be the West Side’s Downer Avenue,” Donegan told The Milwaukee Journal, referencing the business corridor’s trendy east-side cousin.

In 1986, the Sherman Park Community Association (SPCA) received two grants from the City of Milwaukee that funded a market study and feasibility study prepared by a local consulting firm. The market study made a bold but somewhat unusual recommendation: That the theater be converted to a large 120-child daycare/after school facility. It further recommended that the entire front of the building, including the old theater lobby, be used exclusively as retail space. However, the report also noted that several performing arts groups expressed interest in the theater, including Ko-Thi Dance Company, an African-American dance company.

By 1989, the push to reopen theater was in full swing. In March, Milwaukee Neighborhood Ventures Inc., a nonprofit entity created by SPCA and headed by Brodd, had purchased the property. At this point, the goal was still to restore the theater to show foreign-language films and classic movies and as a space for performing arts. Brodd said he hoped to have the theater opened by the end of year, although he acknowledged it could take longer.

In a press conference at the theater, Allan H. “Bud” Selig, then the president of the Milwaukee Brewer’s and the chairman for the theater project’s capital campaign, expressed fond memories of the theater. He said he and Herb Kohl had “fought and won the Second World War” sitting in the theater, later adding: “Hopefully young kids of today and tomorrow will have the same opportunity we did in participating in the Sherman Theatre.”

Milwaukee Neighborhood Ventures Inc.’s push to reopen the theater seemed so promising that former mayor John Norquist even signed the city’s 1990 city budget there in a bid to, as one news-paper report put it, “emphasize the city’s commitment to neighborhoods”. The city’s budget set aside more than half a million dollars for use on neighborhood projects like the Sherman Theatre. In an interview Donegan described the theater as “a neighborhood landmark, a center for the community coming together.”

Three years later, rehab efforts were still underway. About $500,000 had already been raised and invested in restoring the building’s façade, replacing all storefront windows, removing asbestos materials, and installing new heating and air conditioning systems. However, another $350,000 would be needed to renovate the interior of the theater. Brodd told The Milwaukee Sentinel that the intent was use the theater to show movies and host live performances, but he indicated he was “still getting input from the arts community and theater operators.”

By 1996, however, attempts to reopen the theater portion of the building had fizzled out. Some $600,000 in public and private funds had been spent on fixing up the retail shops, but the theater itself remained shut. Brodd cited unfavorable economic conditions in the theater industry as the chief reason that part of the building remained empty. However, he said there was a possibility Milwaukee Public Schools might use the space for youth programs or that it could indeed be converted to an indoor childcare play space. These alternative uses were never realized, however, and the theater remained unused.

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