Ask someone what to do in Milwaukee on a given night, and there’s a good chance they’ll point you toward the Riverside Theater. This opulent venue on the river is one of the best places to catch Milwaukee concerts, and in recent years, it’s seen everyone from Bob Dylan to Eddie Vedder grace its stage. But that stage hasn’t always had room for drums and amplifiers. When the Riverside Theater opened in 1928, vaudeville ruled the day and rock music was still a speck on the horizon. Maybe that’s why the theater looks like something out of The Great Gatsby, with its gilded auditorium and impossibly ornate plasterwork. Today, the Riverside has been restored to its original opulence, and it remains one of Milwaukee’s premier concert venues. But to really get to know this architectural gem, you have to go back a little further in history. Jazz Age OpulenceApril 29, 1928. The Wall Street Crash was still more than a year away, and Milwaukee—like many American cities—was in the midst of its own Jazz Age. When the Riverside Theater opened on this night, it was considered the most graceful and opulent building in all of Milwaukee. Designed in the French baroque style by a pair of local architects who had just completed work on New York City’s Palace Theatre, the Riverside was every bit the equal of its eastern cousin. A giant central dome with tricolor cove lighting served as the centerpiece, and ivory played a heavy role in the color scheme. Back in this era, audiences would flock to the Riverside to catch a vaudeville show or a movie complete with organ accompaniment. The Riverside had turned Milwaukee into a world-class city. The Dark Years The Riverside continued to evolve over the ensuing decades, but visiting the theater remained one of the truly essential things to do in Milwaukee. Sadly, this all changed when someone threw a cigarette onto the stage in 1966 and the grand vision was swallowed up by a fire. The building’s structure remained intact, but much of its beauty was gone. Rather than pay top dollar and restore the theater to its original condition, the owners let it slip into disrepair. Thankfully, a grassroots movement in the early 1980s convinced developers to properly restore the Riverside, and the gorgeous new theater hosted its second grand opening in 1984. A Living Piece of HistoryThe best news for today’s music fans? The Riverside Theater has never been busier. Since the Pabst Theater Foundation began leasing the theater in 2005, performances have more than tripled and the event calendar has been crowded with everyone from local indie bands to national comedy acts. All that foot traffic takes its toll on an old building, however, and crews continue to renovate and revitalize the Riverside between concerts. It’s an ongoing ordeal to preserve such magnificent architecture, but for residents of Milwaukee, it’s worth it. Not many cities can claim a building as old and as grand as the Riverside, and especially not one in as great shape. In Milwaukee, events come and go and fashions change over time—just as in any other place. But it’s nice to know that there’s at least one place that doesn’t change, a place whose grand, gilded dome looks the same today as it did nearly a century ago.
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