Riverside Theater

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At least one known male and one female entity
make The Riverside Theater their home.



As the patron can see, the Riverside Theater was built to be a fancy, grand-looking “presentation house” with 2,558 seats, which are located on the orchestra level, in a huge balcony via the elevator, and in three box seats on each wall below the organ screens.

What is seen today is the result of the 1982-’84 restoration  effort that gave this theater a new  lease on life, making it  a fully operational performance stage theatre that also has a screen for films.  The stage today is wide enough to handle any touring stage production, artists of all kinds as well as local groups.

The Milwaukee Symphony’s Pop Concerts were held here until Covid reared its ugly head. The French baroque style, showcased in the theater’s decorum, truly offers a wonderful place to escape the worries and troubles of life, while enjoying the entertainment offered. The theater’s auditorium had five chandeliers, a three manual, thirteen rank Wurlitzer theater pipe organ, and a glorious, giant central dome, with tri-color cove lighting, hidden by an ornate rim of cabochon-faced crests, to top it all off.

After the impressive 1984 restoration, the theater reopened with a huge stage that was suitable for performances of major broadway shows, as well as opening up the possibility of providing a large range of events that would draw people inside.

Yes indeed! The Riverside Theater has fun with special events like the Milwaukee Symphony Pops Concert performances.  During the Milwaukee Symphony Pop Concert where the Empire Strikes Back film was shown on the screen, with the orchestra playing the film score /concert, R2D2, a Storm Trouper and a Sand Person greet the patrons entering the auditorium and posing for pictures as well.

Furthermore, down in the basement area, there is a bar and the women’s rest rooms. The bar area was designed like the Star Wars Canteen, complete with a fog machine running, creating an atmosphere.


The Riverside Theater is the only one of six grand Vaudeville/movie theaters designed and constructed during the 1920’s by Classic theater specialists, Kirchoff and Thomas Rose, in the city of Milwaukee. They were picked to create this theater because of their marvelous work done on the Palace Theater in New York City. The Riverside Theater is one of three classic theaters which they designed that is still standing in Milwaukee, and still being used for theatrical, and musical performances, and special events as well with interesting speakers.

The Grand Drapery used around the theater stage’s proscenium arch had “20 swags of teal velour with its galloons in ochre, and tassels in henna red, laid upon a lambrequin of Austrian folds, with highlights in beige and fringed in henna. The beige teaser curtain hung in swags and jabots while the tormentors were in beige, framed in teal galloons.” (cinema treasures.org)

It originally was envisioned to be a Vaudeville stage by RKO vaudeville promoters, but by the time it was built, vaudeville was “on its last legs,” so a movie screen was added as well. It opened on April 29th, 1928, offering a mixture of Vaudeville / theatrical presentations and movies as well.

When Warner took over the theater, it’s entertainment venue turned completely to film to pay the bills. They did their best to take care of this grand old building.

In the following years The Riverside Theater dodged two near fatal bullets.

In 1966, The Riverside Theater suffered a fire which destroyed  the fancy draperies, swag and elaborate decor around the stage, but the theater was saved by automatic sprinklers, which retarded the fire until help could come. As the price tag to replace the original materials would be $590,000, a simple panel of dark red duvetyn with “30% fullness” was substituted for the destroyed swag and draperies.

United Artists were the next to lease the theater, who, it is reported, “ran the theater into the ground.” However it was the owners of this building, Towne Realty, who committed the sin of not wanting to work on building upkeep, letting this old dame sink into a run-down condition. Uh Oh! This isn’t good.

In 1982, United Artists didn’t renew their lease, and the owner, Towne Realty  had plans to tear the entire Empire Office building down, and build a shopping mall or a large parking structure.  The Riverside was to suffer the fate of the other six Milwaukee Vaudeville 1920s’ theaters; a date with the wrecking ball. Horrified enthusiasts of building preservation quickly banded together to try to “Save The Riverside.”

After hearing the pleas of preservationists to save The Riverside Theater on a local radio station, the owner of Towne Realty, millionaire Joseph Zilber had a change of heart, regained his senses and threw out the new construction plans into the trash can. Mr. Zilber contributed 1 and 1/2 million dollars to restore Milwaukee’s 1920s’ old dame, The Riverside Theater.

The Riverside reopened with much celebration in 1984, as a full-fledged, theatrical stage theater, becoming a hot spot for touring Broadway shows and other touring groups, like Riverdance, and many well-known singers and musicians. While it wasn’t quite as fancy and elaborate as the original theater decorum, “it still was a beautiful theater with its newly lighted, gilded and re-draped auditorium, done in golds, and reds, offering a glorious slash of color and sparkle.”

When they bought the Riverside Theatre building in 2005, “The Pabst Theater Group took over management of the Riverside Theater, 116 W. Wisconsin Avenue, and later the Turner Hall Ballroom, 1040 N. Fourth Street, in 2007.”

A separate Riverside Theater Foundation also has been established. The Riverside Theater Foundation started to pay the Pabst Theater foundation for managing the theater. In 2014, the management bill was 1.64 million dollars. The Riverside was making a hefty profit offering entertainment that drew in big crowds.

As of 2020, The Riverside Theater offers musical groups, comedians, events featuring special speakers, with an occasional touring play or musical.  On the Pabst Theatre website, they state;”The Riverside Theater is one of the most opulent of Milwaukee’s theaters, welcoming high caliber artists ranging from Kevin Hart and Neil Young to Norah Jones and Aretha Franklin.”



Like many old theaters, The Riverside Theater has its own spectral musical and dramatic arts fans, former employees, and perhaps an owner or two  who reside in the theater building, letting staff know that they are there in nice and funny ways, when the theater is empty of audiences. There are a variety of reasons why spirits haunt theaters.  Some of those reasons are listed below.

When a structure is restored to its former beauty, spirits who were attached to it can become more active.

Geiser Grand, OR (Spirits were so overjoyed at the major repairs being dome, they tried to encourage the workers right away).

Hartford Twain House Museum (The whole Twain family moved back inside to be together).

The Whaley House Museum, CA (The Whaley Family are spending their after-life here for a variety of reasons).

The Riverside Theatre, WI (Apparently, this well-loved Milwaukee theatre has both its living fans and its spectral supporters as well).

Performers or wanna-be performers in the arts can still yearn for the stage:

Mantorville Opera House (Spirits of actors are more than ready to go back on stage).

Realto Theatre, Il (Spirits still dressed in costumes wait up in the balcony).

The Avalon Hollywood Theatre, CA (Some performers still want to be on stage).

Riverside Theater, WI (Spirits may yearn for the stage once more).

Conscientious employees or owners continue on in spirit form.

Boulder Theatre, CO (A theater manager never left the building; still doing his duties.)

State Theater of the Arts, PA (A theater manager takes a hands-on approach, not afraid to confront the living about neglect).

The Elsinore Theatre, OR (The spirit of George Guthrie still keeps an eye on the living to insure the quality of the performances. especially during rehearsals).

The Riverside Theatre, WI (Sprits may be past owners or managers or dedicated employees yearning to do their old jobs).

Patrons who truly loved their time in the building, enjoying the performances, sometimes decide to stay as residents, and get free seats for all the performances scheduled for this stage.

Kansas City Music Hall, MO (Spirits of past patrons love to still come and see the shows on stage).

Mabel Tainter Theatre, WI (Performers on stage has spied spectral patrons of the theatre enjoying the show).

The Paramount Theater, TX (Patron spirits enjoy both the stage performances and the films).

Riverside Theatre, WI (There is at least one past patron who loves the restored theatre and all the entertainment provided for free for them).

Spirits like to stay in their favorite place in this world to remember all the good times they had experienced there.

The Biltmore in Miami, FL (Spectral party animals from Prohibition and formal dancing enthusiasts still remember).

Natatorium, TX (Spectral gamers and music-loving dancers still enjoy what they most loved about this place).

Flanders Hotel, NJ (Spirits in festive moods relive their good times in the hotel. One spirit will even crash private affairs).

Riverside Theater, WI (At least one spirit is known to come and sit, remembering all the good times he had seeing his favorite films and /or shows here),



While it is not known who is haunting the theatre, or why they are there, there seems to be a boatload of spirits who think the renovation of their favorite place was done brilliantly!  Three have shown themselves. Another spirit is known to be a female who likes perfume.

Spirit of Female

A strong scent of floral perfume can suddenly float through the auditorium.

A female voice was caught in an EVP.

When the theatre is quiet and empty, this female spirit makes her presence known.

She may walk the aisles or even go onto the stage.

She may be the one who likes to play jokes on the cleaning staff. It is unknown if she does this, but it is possible.

Spirits of Males

The aroma of cigar smoke has been noticed in various places around the theater. Apparently, the offender(s) doesn’t/don’t feel that the “No Smoking” sign applies to spectral smokers.

An eye witness told me of an incident with a male spirit after the theater had closed. When this witness was working after a show counting the ticket money, a concerned usher came to her and said that there was a man in the auditorium who wasn’t leaving.

This witness went into the auditorium with the usher to see for herself. Sure enough, there was man who was lying in the auditorium chairs, looking very real. When the eye witness and the usher approached him, imagine their surprise when this man melted into the air.

Male spirit(s) has/have been seen standing in the aisles or walking down the side or central aisles.

General Activity

The feeling of being watched is strong at times. Spirits are watching the activities of the living.

Disembodied sounds and perhaps talking have been noticed either in personal experiences of the living or by investigators in their caught EVPs.

The Stage

On the stage, a friendly male spirit said “Hey!” to the general manager who was locking up the building for the night.

Disembodied foot steps are heard traveling across the stage.

Shadows have been seen on the stage by Riverside Ghost Tour folks and paranormal investigation groups.

The Balcony

A spirit of a gentleman is noticed here; dressed in his going to the theater clothes; “a nice coat and a hat.”

This spectral patron likes to sit in one of the  balcony seats; remembering all the shows he has seen here.

He seems to be watching something that only he can see.

Chuckles and Interest

During the wee hours of the morning, the custodial staff know very well of the existence of these spirits in the theatre who try to get their personal chuckles with gentle acts of fun.

Paper mysteriously floats down from the ceiling.

After turning their back on the their cleaning supplies, the cleaning staff find that their cleaning cart had been moved from where they had last left it.

They simply tell the spirits that they have no time to play, and that they have work to accomplish. They have no sense of fun at all.


Staff have had a lot of personal experiences in this structure. The General Manager has had boatloads of experiences with the spirits who reside here.

The Riverside Theatre has Ghost Tours and Ghost Hunts led by professional paranormal investigators.  The groups are limited to ten people, all masked and practicing social distancing. For a one hour tour, people has had experiences in the theatre, and may have caught hard evidence with their paranormal leader.

One of the many groups that have investigated The Riverside theater is P.I.M.:(Paranormal Investigations Milwaukee). They have caught EVPs and have had personal experiences in this theatre. The Riverside Theater is one of the places they love to investigate.



Yes indeed!

This theatre is considered one of the most haunted places in Milwaukee. Though it is not known who these spirits are and why they are staying at the Riverside Theatre, these theater enthusiasts continue to appear, tease and watch the living. They are friendly, playful and love a good joke. There isn’t a crabby one in the bunch, as they are still upbeat theater people in spirit form.



116 W Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53203
(414) 727-5963 

The glorious, grand, twelve story Empire Office Building which is home to the Riverside Theater can be found near the corner of W. Wisconsin Avenue and N. Plankinton, in the downtown area of Milwaukee, near the Milwaukee River.




  • Interview with eye witness accounts, by Julie Carr
  • Cinema Treasures.org
  • Pabst Theater Group to Split from Pabst Theater Foundation: https://www.bizjournals.com/milwaukee/news/2016/04/01/pabst-theater-group-to-split-from-pabst-theater.html
  • onmilwaukee.com/articles/riversideghosts072713, Milwaukee Ghost Stories, Jul 25, 2013
  • fox6now.com/fox6-wakeup-news/riverside-theater -One of the Most Haunted Places in Wisconsin, By Brian Kramp, Sept 29th, 2020
  • pectrumnews1.com/wi/madison/human-interest/2020/10/17- Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater Ghostarian Talks About Its Haunted Past

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