The Riverside’s Many Revivals

The highs and lows of this storied theater.

Photo courtesy of the Pabst Theater Group.
Photo courtesy of the Pabst Theater Group.

1927: The Empire Building (710 N. Plankinton Ave.), which will house the Riverside Theater, is built for $2.5 million.

April 29, 1928: The Riverside Theater opens with musical act Ezra Buzzington’s Rustic Revelers and a feature film, The Big Noise.

1933-1945: Theater manager Ed Weisfeldt offers advice to then-new acts. This includes Lawrence Welk, whom he convinces to engage the crowd for the first time ever.

April 1935: A small electrical fire breaks out during a rehearsal, causing $3,800 in damage.

Jan. 29, 1938: Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk! The Three Stooges perform their famous slapstick comedy routine.

Jan. 25, 1940: If you believe a highly contested anecdote, a then-unknown Frank Sinatra makes his first singing appearance as a member of Tommy Dorsey’s band.

March 30, 1941: Burglars rob employees and drive away with $7,645, only to be foiled by the cops. Gunfire ensues and the men flee, leaving $7,121 behind.

1957: A Chicago real estate mogul buys the Empire Building for a reported $1.75 million.

Joe Zilber. Photo courtesy of the Pabst Theater Group.
Joe Zilber. Photo courtesy of the Pabst Theater Group.

November 1961: Joseph Zilber’s real estate company, Towne Realty, purchases the Empire Building.

Sept. 12, 1965: A “Mr. Milwaukee” breaks out (code name for fire) during a film screening. Theater manager John McKay blocks the flames by dropping an asbestos screen.

Nov. 29, 1968: Johnny Cash headlines two shows in one night with the help of wife June, Maybelle Carter and Carl Perkins.

1982: United Artists neglects to renew lease. Towne Realty considers other options for the Riverside, like office space or a beer garden. A campaign to “Save the Riverside” begins.

June 14, 1984: Zilber saves the Riverside, and the space transitions from movie palace to live music venue. Riverside Theaters Inc. signs a lease.

1991, 1995: Towne Realty cuts Riverside Theaters Inc. loose due to financial woes, and New Riverside Corp. signs a lease.

June 2005: New Riverside Corp. ceases operations, citing tough competition from the recently opened and publicly funded Milwaukee Theatre.

October 2005: The Pabst Theater Group takes over the lease and updates the interior and exterior. The Moody Blues kick off the new era.


Photo courtesy of CJ Foeckler/The Pabst Theater Group.
Photo courtesy of CJ Foeckler/The Pabst Theater Group.

July 2011: Bon Iver plays two sold-out shows, before launching a worldwide tour for the band’s sophomore album.

December 2015: The marquee is renovated to bring back the theater’s old-world charm. The vertical sign returns.

Historical information compiled from Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel archives.

“The Riverside’s Many Revivals” appears in the December 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the December issue on newsstands Nov. 30.

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Kevin is a freelance writer residing in Milwaukee. He’s contributed to The Shepherd Express, Third Coast Daily, Pop Matters and the sadly now-defunct A.V. Club Milwaukee. He looks forward to forging a deeper connection with the city’s impressive music scene during his gig as a Music Notes blogger. His talents include music criticism, riding a bicycle, drinking tasty beers and a crafty croquet swing. His weaknesses comprise Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, professional wrestling and his ever-growing record collection. He’s in desperate need to find more physical (and hard drive) space for the exceptional albums Milwaukee musicians keep churning out.