On this American holiday, falling on November 26 in 1931, the Alhambra Theater of Milwaukee gave thanks for Frankenstein — “a really great picture!” — and a solid box-office hit.
A week earlier, on Thursday the 19th, another stunning ad ran, setting the stage for the next day’s big opening. It featured the curious test makeup shot of The Monster combined with mystery play effects of claw, dripping blood and a note pinned with a dagger. “He produced a monster from the parts of men departed…” the prose read, “It had the strength of a dozen men, and a mechanical brain”. Karloff, we are told, “is the actor nominated as Lon Chaney’s successor”.
The film would run three weeks, making it the season’s biggest hit in the city’s largest theater.
Built for vaudeville by the Schlitz Brewery in 1896, briefly named The Uihlein after the company owners, the Alhambra Theater was the centerpiece of a massive, seven-storey entertainment complex that included four beer bars, a bicycle park and a rooftop photo studio. It was, for a time, proclaimed the world’s largest movie house with its vast floor, two balconies and opera-style private boxes totaling some 3,000 seats. The Alhambra even sported its own advertising staff and carpenters to design and build elaborate displays for new films. Another Karloff vehicle, The Mummy (1932), saw the Alhambra festooned with Egyptian motifs and a large sarcophagus occupied by a homemade mummy. Designer Milton Schultz had wrapped a store dummy in bandages and set it on fire to great effect.
For all its opulence, the Alhambra would have a tough go at it. Prohibition closed down its bars and the movie house would chronically struggle to fill its cavernous interior, competing with several theaters that had sprouted within a few blocks. In the summer of 1931, the Alhambra got an upgrade, scoring a new, larger screen; wall-to-wall carpeting and a $50,000 air-cooling plant but, still, it couldn’t beat the Depression. By the Forties, the Alhambra was a second-run house given to frequent and increasingly long closings. By the Fifties, the twin punch of television and suburban migration spelled its doom. The Alhambra was shuttered and razed in 1961. It would be another twenty years before the abandoned lot was built up anew.
Coming up tomorrow: More terrific Alhambra ads for Frankenstein.