Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Digitizing Milwaukee's Polonia: The Modjeska Theater

Recently, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries hosted the event “Hollywood in the Heartland” in conjunction with the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (WCFTR).  This celebration of the history of film and theater featured numerous one-of-a-kind film and theater artifacts and archival materials from the WCFTR.  The UWM Archives contributed to the event by displaying historic images of Milwaukee theaters and movie palaces from the 1910s and 1920s, many of which come from the Roman Kwasniewski photograph collection.  One such theater captured through the photography of Roman Kwasniewski is the Modjeska Theatre.

The Modjeska Theatre was once a major attraction for the local Polish-American community. Serial #25127
 The Modjeska Theater first opened in 1910 as a small, 840-seat theater at 7th and Mitchell Street in Milwaukee.  Named after the Polish actress Madame Helena Modjeska, the Modjeska Theatre was most likely a posthumous tribute by the predominantly Polish-American community to the Polish icon.

In 1924, the local Saxe Theatres chain bought the Modjeska and replaced it with a larger, 2,000-seat movie palace at the same address.  Though lacking in ornamentation, the new Modjeska featured a full orchestra pit, a Barton pipe organ, and a stage floor laden with trap doors for vaudeville acts.

The 1950s initiated a long and slow decline of the Modjeska’s former self.  During the 1980s and 1990s, the Modjeska changed ownership numerous times as operators struggled to keep the venue afloat.  In the early 1990s, the Modjeska served as a 1,700-seat local acts venue, and success was limited and the venue eventually closed in March of 2010.  Recent restoration efforts of the Modjeska Theatre have also folded due to lack of financial support, placing the building’s future in peril.  Thanks to the photography of Roman Kwasniewski, however, the spirit of the Modjeska will live on, even if the theater itself does not.

Source and more information: Rankin, James (Jim) H.  “Modjeska Theatre.” Accessed 23 April 2013.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Play Ball!

Thousands of fans will flock to Miller Park today for the Milwaukee Brewers opening day game. One hundred years ago, Milwaukee fans flooded smaller ballparks and sandlots to see lesser-known teams for the same occasion. Of these teams, the Kosciuszko Reds were a south side Milwaukee favorite. In its decade of existence from 1909 to 1919, the Reds won several local circuit pennants as well as a devoted following in Milwaukee’s Polish Community.

The Kosciuszko Reds were founded in 1909 in part by Louis Fons, a prominent Polish-American businessman, joining the ranks of dozens of other semiprofessional and sandlot teams outside of the world of organized baseball. The Reds worked their way up from the local semiprofessional City League to the more exclusive Lake Shore League where they claimed the pennant over their rivals in other southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois towns in 1912, 1914, and 1915.

Although many of the Reds players were not, in fact, Polish, its founder’s Polish roots, the team’s red and white uniforms echoing Poland’s flag, and the community support of Milwaukee’s Polonia helped make the Reds a decidedly Polish team.

In 1912, a new ballpark for the Reds was erected at Harrison St. and Grove St. (now W. Harrison St. and S. 5th St). It opened in May, unfinished, with an exhibition game against the Peters Union Giants, an African American semiprofessional team from Chicago. Roman Kwasniewski hauled his equipment to the ballpark that day to photograph the action.

Kosciuszko Reds George Disch swings and misses
Kosciuszko Reds George Disch swings and misses
A player for the Union Giants slides into first base
A player for the Union Giants slides into first base
 More images from the Giants vs. Reds game can be found in the Milwaukee Neighborhoods collection.

Kwasniewski captured other photographs of the team as well, including these:

This information in this post comes largely from UWM History Professor Neal Pease’s two excellent articles on Milwaukee’s Kosciuszko Reds:

A Kosciuszko Reds player warming up
A Kosciuszko Reds player warming up
A Kosciuszko Reds player poses with his bat
A Kosciuszko Reds player poses with his bat
 Pease, N. (2004). The Kosciuszko Reds, 1909-1919: Kings of the Milwaukee sandlots. Polish American Studies, 61(1), 11-26.

Pease, N. (2005). Big game on the South Side: A Milwaukee baseball mystery decoded. Wisconsin Magazine of History, 88(3), 28-39.

-Anne Gaynor