Avalon renovations to begin this month
November 1, 2013
By Kevin Meagher
Thirteen years after the Avalon Theatre closed it may (really) be on the verge of reopening.
Since it closed in 2001, the historic Avalon building, 2469 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., was not much more than apartments and a handful of retail businesses. Its marquee advertised community events or the name of a business tenant.
Buzz surrounding the theater has rolled through the community in tides, where hope rose and fell over the past eight years that the beloved icon would, at last, be renovated and resume its role as Bay View’s very own movie theater.
While it has taken nearly a decade to get to the stage where repairs and remodeling begin, owner Lee Barczak never doubted that he would reopen the theater after he purchased it in 2005.
“I bought it knowing it would be a decent investment just as it was, and I believed 1,000 percent in what was happening in Bay View. From there it was not a matter of if we were going to do it, but how. It’s been a challenge, but it’s going to happen,” Barczak said.
The dramatic recession of the mid-2000s impeded the launch of a renovated Avalon. Finding the right contractors to renovate the theater also slowed the process. Barczak said he thought he had the right contractor in place earlier this year, but after discussing the building’s issues more thoroughly with the company’s leader, he realized that he needed to change directions.
“When you’re dealing with older buildings, lots of companies tell you they have experience but when you get right down to it, they really don’t get the complexities of redoing an old building… You really learn as you go, but I can’t afford to have a lot of learning on this project,” said Barczak.
With the help of a better economy and the potential of $300,000 earmarked for the project by the city of Milwaukee Department of Economic Development, Barczak projects the Avalon will be open for business for the 2014 summer blockbuster season. Construction is scheduled to begin in early November, and while Barczak believes he has the right construction company in place now, he did not want to divulge its name until the contract was signed.
Barczak received a city of Milwaukee $75,000 grant in June 2005 to help offset renovation expenses.
The Avalon Theatre opened May 1, 1929, seating 1,637 patrons. It was one of the “atmospheric theaters” built in the early 20th century. The term refers to interior design with an open auditorium ceiling and decor that created the illusion of an exotic setting. The Avalon is remembered by Milwaukeeans for both its twinkling night sky and the ambiance of a Mediterranean village.
Barczak said that the remodeled theater will retain its Mediterranean atmosphere and that there will be even more stars in the sky (ceiling) than there were when the building opened 84 years ago.
The new Avalon will feature two screens, one with seating for 220 and the other with seating for 65. Barczak is installing two bright Precision White Screens, which possess the ability to project enhanced 2D and 3D presentations with wide viewing angles. The main theater will feature a full-sized screen.
The Avalon will include a small bar and restaurant served by a separate entrance from the street and built in the space that was recently occupied by Wild Workouts and Wellness. Barczak said venue “will be more of bar than a restaurant, with a menu consisting of high quality pub food.” Seating will accommodate 24-26 diners.
Customers will also be able to eat and drink in the pub itself or in their movie seats. While movie food like popcorn and candy will be offered in the theater, patrons will be able to order food from the pub’s menu, including pizza, sandwiches, quesadillas, and salads.
In order to accommodate food service in the movie theater, there will only be four seats between each aisle so servers and patrons can move around easily. The seats will be similar to the typical plush movie theater seating, but with trays for those who wish to dine.
Repairs and Renovations
“I want the Avalon to be a unique Bay View experience and at the same time capturing a lot of memories for people in this neighborhood that is thriving again,” Barczak said.
Renovations include extensive repairs and new mechanicals throughout plus the addition of a pub that serves food and a kitchen for food prep.
“All the mechanical systems must be carefully done to retain the charming qualities of the original,” Barczak said.
The heating and air conditioning must operate quietly, he said.
Because of the age of the building and the state of disrepair, he’s replacing the electrical service and wiring, plumbing, heating, and air conditioning. Additionally, new projection and sound equipment will be installed along with a new marquis, new theater seating, and men’s and ladies rooms. Barczak said that he is putting in more stalls than code requires in the women’s bathroom because “one of my wife’s pet peeves is having to stand in line to use a bathroom.”
He is not going to recreate the box office that was removed by the prior owner because the trend to purchase tickets online has dramatically diminished the need for a ticket booth. He will increase “the number of doors across the front of the building” and provide accessible seating throughout the theater, not just in the front row. The seating will accommodate wheel chairs or motorized personal transportation vehicles.
The balcony will not be restored. To do so would have added costly improvements to satisfy ADA requirements including an elevator to the balcony and a lift in the balcony itself that would convey patrons with mobility challenges to its stepped-seating, Barczak said.
Barczak plans to show first-run films as well as some late night cult classics and family-movie matinees on weekends, similar to what is shown at his other theaters. The Avalon Theatre is the third venture of Barczak’s Neighborhood Theater Group (NTG), which includes the Times Cinema at 5906 W. Vliet Street and the Rosebud Cinema at 6823 W. North Ave. He said his philosophy with the NTG is to bring current first-rate movies back to Milwaukee neighborhoods so residents don’t have to drive out to suburban mega-theaters every time they want to see the latest titles.
“Neighborhoods way-back-when were much more ecologically sound, because you did everything within a pretty small area…If you drive 20 miles to a big-screen theater that’s 10 dollars each way of your car you’re using in gas, insurance, mileage, maintenance. That 20 bucks savings on your car just bought you two tickets (to a movie),” said Barczak.
Although Barczak acquired two properties on the east side of Kinnickinnic, adjacent to the small parking lot across from the Avalon, he said those are part of a future larger development he’s planning. Earlier this year a city official told the Compass he thought those properties would be demolished for Avalon parking.
Barczak said that there are more than 400 public parking spaces within two blocks of the Avalon that he’ll rely on to serve his theater and pub patrons.
Steve Ste. Marie, who owns Bay View Maytag Laundromat located kitty corner from the Avalon, is excited about the prospect of the theater reopening.
“As the premier piece of real estate in Bay View, the area has nothing to lose and everything to gain once the business is thriving again. It has been my experience that the neighborhood has been very supportive of new, well-run businesses and I believe this will carry over to Lee Barczak and the rest of the Avalon staff,” Ste. Marie said.
Because of the location and nature of the Avalon’s business, there are a few city grants Barczak is eligible to apply for and that he will be seeking for the Avalon. The first comes from the city’s Retail Investment Fund and is aimed at creating jobs. In order for Barczak and the Avalon to receive the grant, he must create a certain amount of full and part-time jobs. Once the Avalon proves they have met the requirements, they would then be reimbursed for pre-approved grant related expenses. While Barczak feels the Avalon will provide around 20 to 30 jobs, he is in a tricky position with hiring because of the movie industry schedule.
“You can have a set number of employees, but then you have a period where Hollywood isn’t really releasing much that everyone wants to see, then you’ve got a lot of (employees) standing around,” Barczak said.
On top of the number of employees required for eligibility for the grant, the employees must also be Milwaukee residents. The other grants the Avalon qualifies for are a façade grant to renovate the storefront of the theater and a grant intended for businesses in economically stressed zones. Because the Avalon is on the west side of KK, it is considered to be in one of these zones. Barczak is seeking to finalize the grant applications by the end of the year.
With the help of Alderman Tony Zielinski, Barczak feels he is in a good position to finally get the theater running again, sooner rather than later. “The city has been very helpful and positive,” Barczak said.
“Because of our problems with developing and getting going, certainly (Zielinski) could have given up on us and said ‘Ah, bologna,’ but the guy hasn’t. He wants this theater…and other than me, I don’t think there’s anybody as intent on seeing it get done,” said Barczak.
With or without funding assistance from the city, Barczak said he will begin the renovation this month and plans to be open in May 2014.
More information about the original Avalon Theatre: cinematreasures.org/theaters/1768
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