Music club for all ages could revive historic Milwaukee theater on the west side

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The former State Theater has been reinvented several times since it opened in 1915: cinema, ballroom dance club, rock concert hall and exotic dance club.

Now, having been vacant for nearly 30 years, the building on the west side of Milwaukee could become a concert hall for all ages – something its supporters say the city is in dire need of.

This development, dubbed The New State, would combine a non-profit arts group to help young people discover the world of music with for-profit businesses: sound engineering studios, a store to sell t-shirts and other branded products of musicians, and all-ages performance venue.

The New State would add to the growing number of developments on the west side, revive a historic building and provide a fun activity and possible jobs for young people interested in music, said developer John Hennessy, who helps lead the project.

“I’ve never worked on a project that seems to be touching so many buttons,” said Hennessy, whose developments include a renovated building nearby that counts Daddy’s Soul Food and Grille among its tenants.

The new state faces challenges, including raising an initial stash of money to purchase the fire damaged building from the city before securing around $ 3.5 million to revive it.

Efforts to redevelop the building at 2612 W. State St. are underway as other projects take place along North 27th Street between West Wisconsin Avenue and West Highland Boulevard.

“It’s all starting to fall into place,” said Allyson Nemec, a neighborhood resident, who operates Quorum Architects Inc., 3112 W. Highland Blvd., and is involved in The New State project.

The two-story, 10,000-square-foot building has housed a movie theater for over 30 years.

In 1948, it became home to the Friendship Club (also known as the Lonesome Club), where men and women, dressed in their finery, performed ballroom dances with a big band orchestra.

As the popularity of ballroom dancing waned over the decades, the club struggled.

His business was relaunched in 1975 under new owners, who booked rock groups at what was called the Electric Ballroom. In 1979, along with another group of owners, it was renamed Palms.

Before the Palms closed in 1984, it hosted bands such as U2, Joan Jett, The Police, B-52s and Tom Petty – often before they were big stars.

Perhaps the most famous show was a 1981 concert by the Plasmatics, a punk band led by singer Wendy O. Williams. His “sexual acts” led to police arresting Williams, newspaper reports said.

A jury then found Williams not guilty obstruction of a police officer, and other charges were dismissed.

After the Palms closed, a new group surfaced in 1986 to open Hoops.

City officials thought they were getting a sports bar. Instead, Hoops was a strip club.

Angry members of the Common Council, claiming they had been duped, attempted to shut down the club. A judge canceled those efforts.

Hoops closed in 1991 after the council refused to renew its licenses. Locals said Hoops attracted prostitutes, created traffic jams and attracted customers who frequently fought.

The building has since been dormant – surfaced in the news last year after a fire caused extensive damage.

Meanwhile, The New State group began working on their redevelopment plans.

Part of the building would house a new non-profit group, West Side Arts One, Limited, led by West Side resident and commercial operator Andrew Parker.

This group would help young people compose, record and perform music, with an emphasis on hip-hop and electronics, said Parker, who operates Manderley Bed and Breakfast, 3026 W. Wells St.

Additional space would be leased to Mammyth Audio, a recording studio operated by Charles Forsberg, and to Unifi Records, owned by Dimi Pochtarev.

The building would include a consignment store allowing musicians to sell goods.

Finally, The New State would host a performance hall for all ages and alcohol-free for musicians, including those honing their craft through West Side Arts One, Limited.

Operators of the 400-seat venue would include Janice Vogt and hip-hop artist WebsterX (born Sam Ahmed).

They are among the co-founders of Freespace, a concert hall for all ages that, since 2015, has hosted around 10 annual showcases of young musicians and other events at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 E. Center St.

Freespace is a DIY operation “and a community centered on love, music and empowerment,” Vogt said.

But Freespace shares its current home in the Riverwest neighborhood with other groups and relies on volunteers. This limits its operations, she said.

In New State, Freespace could double the number of shows and offer additional programs for young musicians, Vogt said. It would be a much larger space than the Riverwest site, which can accommodate up to 50 people.

In addition, its central location near bus lines would improve access for young people across Milwaukee.

The New State venue for all ages would be a for-profit business, Vogt said, but “would keep entry prices as low as possible … while ensuring that the artists and musicians performing were not short-circuited “.

Places for all ages play an important role in city life, she said.

“Music is a vital force in our hearts and our societies,” said Vogt. “Young people in particular have the right and should have access to spaces to shape their culture.”

Milwaukee has places, including the Miramar Theater, the Rave, and the Pabst Theater Group, where people under the age of 21 can hear music, she said.

The New State would give young people “their own stage, space and voice by providing musical resources, support and opportunities,” said Vogt.

The New State would also help young people hoping for a career in music, she said.

Places like The New State are needed “for creative communities to thrive,” said Kelsey Kaufmann, general manager of Cactus Club, a Bay View tavern that features live music.

“The city lacks opportunities for young bands and artists,” Kaufmann said.

But it’s going to take a lot of money to make the idea a reality.

Hennessy said the backers are initially raising $ 250,000 to purchase the building and stabilize it. The city acquired the building in 2000 through the seizure of the property tax.

Although a sale has not yet been negotiated, officials from the city’s Development Department are hopeful that New State donors can secure funds to purchase and revive the building, said Jeff Fleming, a spokesperson. of the department.

The project would require around $ 2.5 million for renovations and an additional $ 1 million to support West Side Arts One, Limited, Hennessy said.

Renovation costs are not abnormally high, he said. Aside from the roof, the fire damage was not as great as initially feared.

Much of the money would come from individual donations and foundation grants, Hennessy said.

The new state also plans to claim state and federal historic preservation tax credits, said Nemec, the architect of the project.

The development would be about half a block east of North 27th Street, which Hennessy considers “downtown on the near west side.”

Other nearby developments include the conversion by Ambassador Hotel owner Rick Wiegand of the old school Wisconsin Avenue, 2708 W. Wisconsin Ave., to the 23-suite Ambassador Suites hotel for extended stays.

In addition, a 2.3-acre site south of West Wisconsin Avenue and west of North 27th Street could be transformed into two state office buildings – an investment of $ 140 million.

“The west side is in need of a central business district again,” Hennessy said. “He needs a place like this to kind of complement the neighborhood.

Tom Daykin can be emailed to and followed by Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.


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