A Look at March Madness in Milwaukee During the 1970s

Cheering the champs in a declining Downtown

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March Madness descended on Milwaukee in 1977, and the town went crazy. Led by coaching legend Al McGuire, the Marquette University men’s basketball squad beat North Carolina 67-59 to win the NCAA championship, and Milwaukee rewarded the team with a motorcade down Wisconsin Avenue.

In this photograph, power forward Bernard Toone (left) and point guard Butch Lee soak up the crowd’s adulation as their convertible nears North Fifth Street. Lee was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, and both Marquette Warriors went on to brief careers in the NBA.

The Downtown they traversed that day was in a state of gradual decline. By 1977, there were still major retailers and first-run movie theaters in the city’s center, but they were rapidly losing ground to malls and multiplexes on the suburban edge. (The Grand Avenue mall would open nearby about five years later.)

Today, every business pictured has either vanished or become something else. West Wisconsin Avenue brims with new development, and the Marquette Golden Eagles – no longer the Warriors – continue their quest for a second national crown.

IN COLLABORATION WITH MILWAUKEE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

THE ESQUIRE AND CENTRE THEATERS were two of the last Downtown movie houses. The Esquire, which was showing Watergate tale All the President’s Men, opened in 1947 as the Telenews Theater and was demolished in 1981 along with the rest of the block for the big blue federal building now called 310W. The Centre Theater, originally the Warner, is the new home of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

The oldest landmark in the scene is the PABST BUILDING, a 13-story office tower completed by its namesake beer baron in 1892. Described as “Milwaukee’s first skyscraper,” it was torn down in 1981 and replaced eight years later by the 100 East Building.

Downtown retailers of the day included JC Penney and Woolworth’s. BOSTON STORE was the last to close, going out of business in 2018. Its building is currently undergoing redevelopment as the mixed-use HUB640.

FILM STILL RULED in 1977. Every camera pictured here is a bulky single-lens reflex (SLR), and the Channel 4 photographer needed the strength of a weightlifter.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s March issue.

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