John and Thomas Saxe, two brothers in a family of thirteen, were born in Ireland and raised on a farm in Fox Point. When they came to Milwaukee, they worked as newsboys and mechanics. Their humble beginnings gave no indication that the two brothers would come to own the largest chain of picture-houses in Wisconsin, consisting of forty-two theaters, and operate a massive entertainment company, Saxe Amusement Enterprises.
John Saxe entered the business of outdoor advertising, although he referred to himself as a ‘sign painter.’ Thomas, rather than going into outdoor advertising with his brother, had gone to work in the steel mills. His name, however, was unavoidably linked with John’s, and he eventually became an associate in the business as his eyesight got worse and forced him to leave the mills. The two then worked together as sign painters who serviced dime museums, burlesque theaters, opera houses and stages, all of which needed new posters and attraction boards painted weekly. The business grew and spread throughout Wisconsin, becoming one of the largest and most reliable in the state. Grand Theater aka Warner or Wisconsin
Their grand entrance into show business began when Saxe Signs sued a local theater owner for an unpaid balance and the owner turned his theater over to the brothers to settle the account. After that, the brothers began acquiring theaters at a rapid rate. By 1908, they had opened the Theatorium, Orpheum, Globe, and Lyric Theaters. Over the years, they added famous theaters like the Alhambra, the Strand, and the Miller, along with multiple other theaters. They also expanded their chain to cities outside Milwaukee, such as Green Bay, Waukesha, Fond du Lac, Madison, Janesville, Antigo, and Oshkosh. Davidson Theater c.1920 from CMY Archives
The debut of Saxe AE’s 3,000-seat flagship theater, the Wisconsin, in 1924, marked the height of Milwaukee’s love affair with the movies. The 75 foot exterior illuminated sign was visible for up to five miles on a clear night. The theater could truly be termed a ‘palace,’ with marble staircases and artistic treasures. The theater was actually more of a complex, including a dance hall, bowling alley, and arcade. They continued to build and rebuild theaters in Milwaukee, including the Modjeska, the Tower, the Plaza, the Oriental, the Uptown, and the Garfield. Two-thirds of all movie admissions in Milwaukee were brought in by the Saxe theaters.
After turning down many buyout offers from prestigious companies such as Universal and Paramount, they accepted an offer for $2 million from a 20th Century Fox subsidiary in 1927. John Saxe, after the buyout, continued to oversee the establishment of White Tower hamburger restaurants, which he had begun in the 1920s. Thomas had his fingers in quite a few pies, investing in carnivals, nightclubs, dance halls, apartments, and undeveloped properties. He owned a large amount of farmland south of the city, which were bought and developed into the village of Greendale. Other parcels of land, which Thomas donated, became Whitnall Park and Trimborn Farm.
The Saxe Brothers were not only incredibly influential in the culture of Milwaukee in the 1920s and 1930s--they were also a shining example of the optimism of the American Dream in a time when dreams weren’t always easy to believe in. Two newsboys, originally from Ireland, were able to create a massive movie empire in the movie capital of the world. Milwaukee was a city full of opportunity, and John and Thomas Saxe certainly took advantage of it.
1929 Milwaukee Telephone Directory
Partial List of Saxe Theaters and their locations:
Wisconsin - 6th Street and Wisconsin Avenue
Modjeska - Mitchell Street at Seventh Avenue
Tower - 27th and Wells Streets
Oriental - North and Farwell Avenues
Uptown - 48th Street, Lisbon Avenue and North Avenue
Garfield - 3rd Street near Locust Avenue
Strand - 510 W. Wisconsin Avenue
Merrill - 211 W Wisconsin Avenue
Miller - 3rd Street and Michigan
Princess - 3531 W. Villard Avenue
Lyric - 311 W. Wisconsin, 923 Milwaukee, 3804 W. Vliet St
Savoy - Center Street between 26th and 27th Streets
Mirth - Kinnickinnic between 27th and 28th Streets.
Tivoli - 3302 W. North Avenue
Alhambra -334 W. Wisconsin Avenue
Miller - 717 North Third St
Plaza - 3067 South Thirteenth St
Theatorium - 184 W. Wisconsin
Orpheum - 203 W Wisconsin, 535 W Wisconsin, 755 North Third St
Globe - 1220 W. Walnut St
Recommended for further reading on Milwaukee Movie Palaces: http://cinematreasures.org/
"Silver Screens: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee's Movie Theaters" by Larry Widen and Judi Anderson- on sale at the Chudnow Museum Gift Shop.
By Brynn Cooley, Museum Intern, Valparaiso University History MajorScreens: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee's Movie Theaters"All images