The Adler Family, Part II: The building of an industry
(Photos contributed by the Adler family)
By Kris Leonhardt
The world of make believe: a place where anything can happen, a place filled with thrills and chills, a place that can make you feel alive again. Stepping into a movie theater often transports you to this world of make believe if you allow it.
Though it came about for another purpose, Philip Adler would enter into a business venture that would provide this type of escapism for generations to come. However, he could not have known this as he prepared to add his next building to the city of Marshfield.
Following the fire that destroyed the Korth Opera House in the late 1800s, Adler saw the need for a meeting hall to replace the wood structure that was destroyed. He set to work on a large brick structure on the Adler Block that would house a meeting and dance hall. Right by Adler’s side was his 9-year-old son John Peter (J.P.), helping to haul bricks during the building’s construction.
Once completed, Philip concentrated on stage productions. Needing assistance, J.P. was obligated to drop out of school.
“He helped out at the (family) farm and worked in the theater too,” explained J.P.’s daughter Bette Adler.
J.P. spent a decade helping his father and theater managers in various aspects of the business, including managing a legion of bill boys to advertise its presentations.
At the age of 21, J.P. took over, leasing the Adler Opera House from his father. While continuing to stage performances — with vaudeville shows being easily accessible as Marshfield was a midway point between Chicago and the Twin Cities — J.P. would make his first move toward what would become a lucrative business component. Purchasing a Magniscope, Adler entered the early motion picture industry, and real life images began spilling out onto the theater screen — actually, a large curtain.
Soon J.P. was facing competition from several pop-up theaters in Marshfield as well as the more prominent Unique Theater. Showing his prescience and fortitude, Adler equipped his theater to show two- to four-reel films on a hand-cranked projector and began screening the more enthralling feature films. The Unique Theater and the others would soon meet their demise.
Adler remodeled his theater to increase capacity, add seating, and gave the floor a slope. He renamed it the New Adler Opera House.
Living in the venue, Adler spent his days and nights working on his business, but this would not prevent him from meeting the love of his life, Rosamond Bille.
“I believe she took a job in the orchestra pit. She played the piano and organ. He was from the north side, and she was from the south side. The Soo Line tracks was a dividing line with the Catholics on the north side and the Protestants on the south side,” Bette explained with a chuckle.
Though the two came from different religious and family backgrounds, he being German and she Danish, the two fell in love and were married. Within weeks of their marriage, J.P.’s mother would die, and his father passed away just three weeks later after being in a car accident near Unity.
Adding to the misfortune, Adler would experience business difficulties when the Paramount Pictures Corporation was formed. The group, controlling 80 percent of America’s film distribution market, made it expensive and difficult for small businesses to succeed in the industry, charging high rental rates and creating a block-booking system, which required theaters to rent the entire set of films produced in a season to get the quality features.
Another blow would come with World War I as higher production costs and the war tax increased operational costs. Adler was then confronted with another challenger. Advertised as the “coolest place in town,” the Trio Theater, complete with a cooling system, gave Adler a fight. Adler fired back with his “House of Quality,” using promotional tactics to retain his clientele.
Following the war, business was booming at the theater. Adler later purchased the Trio Theater, remodeled it, redecorated, and renamed it the Relda — Adler backwards.
As the power of the major studios increased, it became harder and harder for small independent theaters. Theater owners formed trade organizations and chains to give them leverage as attendance exploded.
Adler became active in the trade organizations and purchased the Lyric and Majestic theaters in Stevens Point as well as the Palace in Waupaca and leased the Waupaca Theater, remodeling each one as needed.
Still at the mercy of block-booking, Adler ran his first-run features at his best theaters and his less desirable films at the cheaper movie houses. As talking pictures came in the late 1920s, Adler equipped his theaters with sound systems.
Adler expanded his chain further by adding theaters in Neillsville, Antigo, and Merrill as well as obtaining interest in about a dozen Milwaukee theaters.
In 1937 Adler would build his most glorious theater at 333 S. Central Ave. in Marshfield, naming it the New Adler. Years later he would build the Chalet Theater in Monroe and the Rosa Theater — named for his wife — in Waupaca.
As soldiers returned from World War II, the introduction of the television kept families safe and comfortable at home. Thus, film presentation proceeds began to decline, and Adler evolved once again. By increasing his concession offerings and building the 10-13 Drive-In on the corner of Highways 10 and 13, Adler lobbied to entice families back to the theater.
1958 marked Adler’s 50th year in theater ownership. By this time theater attendance had greatly declined, and he had either sold off or converted many of his theater businesses with the exception of the New Adler Theater and the 10-13 Drive-In in Marshfield, the Rosa Theater in Waupaca, and the Adler in Neillsville.
Now 70 years of age, Adler hosted a number of events to mark the special occasion. Telegrams poured in from many celebrities acknowledging Adler’s success as well as their fondness for the resilient business man.
Next week: The Adler Family, Part III (Final): The Legacy