“Welcome to Cleveland”… In Bay View

If you’re flying low into Mitchell International Airport and the wind is blowing in the right direction, you’ll know you’re near Milwaukee when you see the “Welcome to Cleveland” sign at 2893 S. Delaware Ave. It’s the infamous sign on the roof of Mark Gubin’s building, formerly the Bay Theatre.

In 1978, Gubin painted the sign, which was written in six-foot letters. The idea came to him over lunch with his assistant. With all the low-flying planes passing by en route to Cleveland, why not put up a sign welcoming passengers to Milwaukee? Gubin has never had any reason for having the rooftop exhibit other than to have a little fun. Gubin never once received a serious complaint from the airport or airlines.

The sign became famous, making headlines in newspapers, magazines and other media, including “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”. A special announcement was made on flights from Denver to Cleveland with a stopover in Milwaukee. Flight attendants had to inform passengers that the sign was fake and just a stunt by the owner of a Milwaukee building. Gubin received a letter from City Council President Ben E. Johnson telling him that the sign caused “outrage and panic” among some passengers. Despite this, the city never took action against Gubin’s escapades.

From the lake to the bay

Built in 1926 by Peacock & Frank three blocks from Lake Michigan, it was aptly named the Lake Theatre. It was renamed the Bay Theater in the early 1940s and operated by Standard Theatres. It had a screen and 970 curved wooden backs and spring-upholstered leather seats. The seating was arranged in three banks, which enabled two aisles in the theater. The lobby had two standard flights of stairs to the balcony and a beautifully tiled floor. Movies occupied the Bay Theater until 1956. In 1970, Hank Landa, an engineering teacher with a minor in film studies, almost bought the theater as a venue for old movies. The purchase failed. Determined to have this unique venue, in 1981 he bought an old grocery store at 2138 E. Rusk Ave across from the former Bay Theater and named it “Gallery Cinema”; It had a capacity of 60 seats and was in service until 1990.

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A recording studio, youth club and several other tenants used the Bay Theater until 1972, when a local photographer bought the theater for a commercial studio and climbed over the marquee with the signage “Mark Gubin Photography”. Gubin used the ambiance of the theater for photo shoots. The original stage lighting and downstairs seating offered fascinating photoshoots large and small.

Despite his age, the Welcome to Cleveland sign went viral in 2015, bringing Gubin renewed notoriety. Today the building sits intact, quiet in Bay View. I have been informed from a reliable source that the projector room is now a sunken (pit) in the living area and now houses an antique fireplace in a very quirky museum-like residence. I asked for a tour many years ago but could not get a permit. The former Bay Theater is definitely on my list of buildings to explore.

Adam Levin

Adam Levin is the admin of the Old Milwaukee Facebook group facebook.com/groups/oldmilwaukee and the author of Fading Ads of Milwaukee.

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