Pabst Theater

144 E. Wells Street,
Milwaukee, WI 53202

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Pabst Theatre, Milwaukee, WI - exterior detail

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The Captain Frederick Pabst Theater, Milwaukee’s Grande Olde Lady of Wells St., is again courting a suitor and wedding bells are being heard throughout the land. As the Michael Cudahy Foundation contemplates its union with the venerable dowager, the Pabst welcomes well wishers for the nuptials of its second century of diverse entertainments. Milwaukee and the nation can be proud that so honored a theatre continues from a foundation begun in 1871. Let us go to the wedding feast by learning just why this ‘bride,’ done up in gilt and marble and a new Pub, is such a great catch for the Cudahy Foundation.

SEEDS OF THE PABST

While the Pabst is not the oldest extant theatre in Milwaukee County (that honor belongs to the Ward Memorial Theatre of 1881 on the Veteran’s grounds, the former federal enclave of Wood, Wis.), it is the fourth oldest continuously operating theatre on the same site in the United States, and that is one of the distinctions that led to it being designated a National Historic Landmark of the US in 1991. That site was at first a shipyard along the Milwaukee River and the eastern portion a black smith’s shop, but when Swiss immigrant Jacob Nunnemacher and his sons sought a site for the first classy opera house in the city, it was here that they started construction in 1870. Ironically, these entertainment pioneers were in the same business as that of the Pabst brewery, libations. For years this handsome Grand Opera House served the various ethnic groups in the city, but by 1890 the need for a larger site for the German’s theatre led Frederick Pabst, late of a captaincy on the great lakes steamers and now head of the brewery bearing his name, to purchase the opera house and drastically remodel it upon the same footprint, and christen it Das Neue Deutsche Stadt-Theater (or: The New German City Theater, as the main such theatre in a city would be called in his native Germany). The original Stadt Theater had stood where the parking lot for the Hyatt Regency hotel is now on third street. Originally, this new Stadt theater was to be of a revolutionary design by famous Chicago architects Adler and Sullivan, but apparently the tradition-minded burghers of Milwaukee, who made up over sixty percent of the city’s population at that time, were taken aback by such a nontraditional design and persuaded the Captain to hire a local man more familiar with local tastes. It was then given to Carl G. Hoffmann in conjunction with local panorama scenic painters such as Georg Peter to design and decorate in a Germanic flavor complete with the names of German notables of the arts painted in ornate frames upon the archivolt of the auditorium, a device later expanded in the Pabst to literati of other nations as well.

The Stadt may have continued as it was for years had it not been for an opportunity for remodeling presented when a fire started in the basement kitchen of the attached cafe and caused extensive smoke damage and the necessity of rebuilding the basement areas of the theater as well. With this need to close the theater for a time, the occasion was used to have Pabst brewery architect G. Otto Strack redesign the boxes in the auditorium to better the acoustics and sight lines, and thus this man got his first opportunity to put his mark upon this theater, even though his design for it had been rejected in 1890. The Stadt continued for two more years until finally a disastrous fire reduced all but its foundation and some of its walls to rubble in January of 1895. Preparations for a charity ball had been under way with streamers of tarlatan radiating from a chandelier of open flames, one of which ignited the streamers. Though valiantly fought in near zero temperatures, the multitude of fire companies could save only the four bays of the attached commercial and office building which was separated from the theatre by a brick fire wall.

Vacationing in Europe at the time, the Captain when informed of the disaster, reportedly cabled: "Rebuild at Once!" to his architect on staff, Otto Strack. Herr Strack was not ignorant of theater design after having studied in Germany and having seen many theatres there, and then he also took a quick tour of the foremost theatres in the US within months after the fire. Since he had to build on the same foundation of the Stadt, there was no opportunity to enlarge before the next theatre season would begin in the autumn. Instead, he concentrated on devising the most fire proof theater built up to that time, and one of the most comfortable and ornate since it would now bear his employer’s name: PABST.

HER COMING-OUT PARTY

In a remarkably short span of eleven months the Grande Olde Lady was born as a new theater was designed and built with many innovations, such as the fact that the superstructure was of cast iron and concrete, the only wood in the building being the stage floor and the window frames. No sources of flame were allowed since this was to be our first all-electric theater. Even the traditional "fire curtain" built into most theaters to close off the stage from the audience in the event of fire and usually woven of asbestos over cotton cords, was here a unique fabrication designed to outlast most any fire. It was an iron frame 38 feet wide by 50 feet high having wire mesh on both faces with the space between them filled with fire bricks. No fire was ever going to destroy this barrier as it had so many asbestos fire curtains in the past! A very efficient stage with the newest technologies for the performers assured excellent productions, among these technologies being the first use in the city of a complete permanent steel counterweight system to fly scenery and draperies without the old ‘slots’ for sliding scenery frames which had dominated stagecraft for nearly a century, as well as the first national use of an all electric lighting system, according to national theatres expert David Naylor writing in his "American Theatres: Performance Halls of the Nineteenth Century" page 120. Even the stage floor was in three sections that could be raised or lowered by remote control to effect some dazzling dynamics. In the spacious orchestra pit now resided at center position the console of probably the first electric pipe organ in a US theater, certainly the first to have its wind provided by an electric blower. The balcony and gallery were of semi-cantilevered construction thus almost eliminating the view-blocking columns common to theatres before this. The 1800 seats were on concrete floors with down flow air circulation through registers under them, probably among the first such in the nation.

The attention to luxurious decor and comfort was not absent in the rush to a fire proof theater, and the idea pioneered at the Stadt of having names of notables inscribed about the cornice of the drum shaped auditorium was enlarged upon in the Pabst to act as a visual tribute to the Stadt. The dominant ornament was the statue of Apollo some seven feet high flanked by the muses of Drama and Song upon the apex of the proscenium arch, all in gold leaf. Fourteen boxes flanked the stage allowing the local ‘beer peerage,’ as one wag put it, to dominate the evenings in regal splendor. To enhance that splendor and cause the ladies' diamonds to sparkle was the task of the innovation of unusual lighting. Since only dim carbon filament bulbs existed at the time, provision was made for over a thousand of them to adorn the balcony and gallery fascias, the dome, and other fixtures; but these would still provide only soft light that complemented the ladies' complexions. What was needed was brilliant lighting to sparkle diamonds and show off the hand wrought gold metal thread tiebacks upon the deep maroon velvet hangings and the richly tasseled gold house curtain on the stage, so eight carbon arc street lamps were installed above a 16-foot diameter circle cut in the theater’s dome and below which was hung a "bowl" or "veil" of crystals to scatter the brilliant white light. Imagine the dazzling brilliance as the gorgeously coifed and gowned ladies with their gloved arms upon those of their men in evening dress and top hats promenaded into the auditorium and took their seats as the bright white light extinguished and the glowing quality of the little light bulbs remained until dimmed out themselves as the orchestra struck up the overture. While the heating from the Pabst Brewery power house blocks away was sufficient to provide the physical warmth that the glittering decor already suggested, the real claim to comfort came in the summer when some 10 tons of ice was carried by the back stage electric elevator up to the attic and transferred by a small railroad across to the auditorium attic where it was placed before two 13-foot-diameter fans which sent delightful waves of cooled air down to the heretofore sweltering audience in the days before air conditioning. A bow must be made to Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Theatre in Chicago for this idea, and that of the carbon arc auditorium lights from the 1882 Exposition Theater of Munich, Germany.

Opening night was November 9, 1895 and the SRO event was the talk of the town as one carriage after another pulled up to the carriage lobby entrance under the light bulb studded arcade supporting the canopy along the four story brick, limestone and granite facade. Gold leafed metal urns and a lyre surmounted the parapet with the terra cotta letters spelling out PABST THEATER to this day. It was a grand program with dedicatory speeches and even a special "Pabst Theater Festival March" composed by orchestra conductor Christopher Bach and played for the occasion on the new 35-voice electro-pneumatic pipe organ by our architect cum organ engineer and entertainer, Otto Strack. A farce in four acts from the stages of Berlin that season was featured: "Zwei Wappen," (Two Coats of Arms), a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ retelling with an American cousin visiting a family in Germany. At intermission, the Captain and his family stood in their box and graciously accepted the applause of the appreciative audience. A happy crowd thronged the ‘refectory’ in the basement where the men enjoyed intermission with (what else?) Pabst beer, and after the show they retired with their ladies to the adjoining Pabst Theater Cafe where they further imbibed by toasting the future of so glittering a showpiece showplace.

MID-LIFE CHANGES

The Pabst enjoyed many more seasons of German touring companies and also hosted the resident German theatre groups, interspersed with occasional English language occasions. With the outbreak of World War I, things changed drastically for the Pabst. No longer were German touring companies available, and in the Teutophobic days that ensued, anything German was discouraged. By the 1920’s, most of the productions were in English and the theater saw many other uses as for political rallies, religious ceremonies, chataqua discourses and numerous concerts of the Chicago Symphony and countless other artists of the stage, so much so as to feature a complete roster of the American stage for the next fifty years. The advent of motion pictures and the decline in attendance at traditional theatre caused the Pabst to look tired by the mid-twenties, so local theatre architects Gustav Dick and Alex Bauer (who had just completed their work on our Oriental theatre) were engaged by the owner, the Pabst Brewery, to remodel the aging theatre into new vitality. Gone now were the boxes, the pipe organ, the stage elevators, the unique fire curtain, and the brilliant carbon arc lighting, which was replaced by an art glass ‘disc’ fixture which filled the original opening with standard tungsten filament bulbs behind the stained glass which was done in an art deco motif. The new color scheme was greens and gold, and the mechanical air washing and cooling machines of the day usurped the basement, the outmoded ice cooling having melted away. Gone too, by now, was the Captain himself and thus a new generation and a new era had begun.

The Great Depression years followed with reduced patronage, but little change to the building, and the days of World War II saw many GI’s but little advancement aside from the 1928 movie palace-styled vertical sign of the theatre’s name on the facade fading more. As the war ended, the brewery sought to divest itself of the theatre even as it had divested itself of other real estate acquired by its founder. It was decided in 1953 that a foundation would be formed of three local foundations to own and run the theater which was turned over to several promotional companies. During this time such names as Liberace, Louis Armstrong, Liza Minelli, Beverly Sills, Jack Benny, Rita Moreno, Billy Joel, and Dave Brubeck trod the stage in between various film showings from the projectors installed in the Twenties in a former trunks storage room. Follow spotlights were installed to follow these great names, but a new foe appeared on the scene to drain away the audience: Television. With an abundance of movie houses already competing in the city, it was thought pointless for a fine legitimate stage facility like the Pabst to continue with films, especially since such stages as the Davidson, the Garrick (Bijou), and the Academy of Music (Shubert) were now gone. By 1961, the city acquired the theater and then sublet it to the foundation to continue its previous mixed-use policy. The city spruced up the again aging interior with new draperies, asphalt tile flooring to replace the worn carpets and other minor efforts to forestall decay. Uninspired leadership caused the old lady to be used less and less, and there was talk of demolishing it for much need parking for City Hall across the street. By the end of the Sixties, however, the county’s Performing Arts Center was beginning construction just two blocks north. Then mayor Henry Maier was envious of another government’s progress in its new travertine marble hall, and dismayed at the loss of so many performance dates to the new PAC, so he and others knowing the potential of the Pabst sought to rescue it from its oblivion.

RENAISSANCE

In 1967 the city sought local landmark designation for the Pabst which it received. They then sought listing on the National Register of Historic Places from the federal government to document its significance to all (granted in 1972), and the awarding of that designation was the springboard for the accumulation of public and private funds to finance the 2-½ million dollar refurbishment which was never intended to be a real restoration. Nonetheless, by 1976 the often dark dowager of Wells St. was revived by a makeover that didn’t restore the box seats, but did restore the red, maroon and gold color scheme, newer, brighter lighting, a complete regilding by the same artisans who had done the 1928 remodeling, Conrad Schmitt Studios, as well as new stage hardware, electronic lighting, a forestage elevator and a new pipe organ. The exterior was finally given the many repairs it needed, and the air cooling of the 1920s was replaced with the freon air conditioning of the 1970s. The Olde Lady was again resplendent in new frock and jewels and many thousands of people attended the grand re-opening on September 23rd, 1976 as did this writer and thrilled at the glorious ‘new’ opera house that greeted yet another generation into yet another era. The Performing Arts Center may have been larger, but the intimate Pabst, with superb acoustics praised since its opening, was now going to try to be Mayor Maier’s "People’s Theater." More local groups were booked into the Pabst and some even saw their births there, but it still remained dark for too many days of the year under a succession of managers.

In 1989 a new "hyphen" was added to the Pabst in the form of a connecting transitional corridor from the high tech attitudes of the new adjoining Milwaukee Center office/hotel complex, to the new north grand lobby of the Pabst, decorated to harmonized with the restored 1890s opulence of the theatre itself, complete with a gilded and coffered ceiling, an ornate hand carved wooden back bar from a local mansion, and ‘puddled’ damask draperies 12 feet high. A series of showcases along this transitional corridor contain photos, programmes, and memorabilia of the many greats who have graced its stage. In this same era came a new Executive Director, Philip Procter, a native Milwaukeean, who got the place going by encouraging its use by many more diverse groups, and even found a bust of the late Captain to add the historic nexus.

NATIONAL HISTORIC LANDMARK

His dynamic tenure also sought and obtained the coveted designation of National Historic Landmark of the United States, an honor held by Carnage Hall in New York City, Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, and only a couple of other theatres in the nation. This writer was privileged to be engaged by Mr. Proctor to compile and write the two volumes (retained at our Central Library, as well as the National Archives) which were sent to the federal government to document the importance of the Pabst, both in history and in present, to the United States in general as well as locally. In its Nomination Volume in 1991, the Department of the Interior writes in "Summary:" "The Pabst Theater is the best preserved German-American theater in the United States and is one of the most tangible reminders of the cultural role of Milwaukee, the "Deutsch Athen" (German Athens), as it was known to generations of German-Americans. The Pabst is also important in theater design and for its long-time multi-cultural appealĂ·.The Pabst thus is nationally significant for both its importance to German-American history and for its significance in the history of the American theater. It has been praised and appreciated by performers and theatergoers of many nationalities for nearly a century." I was told that this is one of the few Nominations that received unanimous recommendation from the survey committee and it was submitted to the Secretary of the Interior for his signature, which he bestowed on December 10th, 1991.

Aside from the production every December of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s "A Christmas Carol," the Pabst is too small to originate any substantial productions and thus sees its days as a ‘road house’ for touring groups on a rental basis. This realization puts even more emphasis on making the theater suitable for both diverse productions as well as maximum use of its seats. To this end, a capital campaign was resumed in 1998 with the object of reseating the gallery with seats for now larger Americans (a new total of 1300 in the theater), passenger elevators to there and other levels of the theatre, enhanced air conditioning, and the restoration of a cafe, or "Cudahy’s Irish Pub" as it is now called, to the east side of the original lobby. This last item was a gift of $1,000,000 through the generosity and foresight of local philanthropist Michael Cudahy who long knew the value of so original and historic a location to the city. With the completion of this campaign and its wonderful additions in early 2002, the Pabst again can accommodate the most people with the greatest comfort amid splendid surroundings. The Grande Olde Lady is again a young pride in all her splendor awaiting her groom.

Like most cities, Milwaukee is fighting a drain on its taxbase, and thus seeks to shed as many financial burdens as possible, and just when no one knew who could successfully take this burden from the city that admired it but could no longer afford it, along comes Mr. Cudahy yet again, this time to offer to purchase and run the theatre through his foundation. His daring and foresight are very commendable and he explains that he seeks to make the theater yet more useful to more local and national groups as well as to put money into those areas needing care that previous funds could not accommodate. He has the vision to see the fact that the Pabst has a dedicated crew of acolytes at this temple of Thespis, and pledges to retain them and add such personnel as the theatre has needed for many years. At this writing it seems certain that the city will agree to his wish and sell the Pabst for the nominal sum of one dollar with the provision that he retains the name and the essential fabric of the building for the performing arts. With the new owner of the Pabst, the Michael Cudahy Foundation, standing in the wings, we await the curtain rising on a new era of continued beneficence to Milwaukee and the nation, for yet another century. Brava Pabst! Encore!


P.S. The Pabst was known by that name since opening and is still so referred to, but in the mid-90s its Board of Directors saw fit to legally rename it: "The Captain Frederick Pabst Theater" in order to distinguish it in the eyes of the public from the Pabst Brewery which had not owned it since 1953, but which was then in public disfavor when the brewery’s new owners were disavowing the Pabst Brewery’s pension plan to its former employees. The brewery buildings in Milwaukee are now idle, and the beer name is now owned by a California investments estate through its Pearl Brewery in Texas. The agreement in offer to the Cudahy Foundation limits them to keeping the Pabst name and the option to sell it back first to the city, should they later wish to divest themselves of it, thus the PABST name seems assured for a long time to come.

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 22 comments)

deleted user
[Deleted] on July 28, 2006 at 11:53 am

Sorry you feel this way about Frankie. That was not the case here. I have known Frankie for years and that is the last thing he wants to do is self-promotion. He is a God-fearing man who is very talented. And being a ‘former’ popsinger is just that. He doesn’t seek the limelight anymore but people are requesting him to sing more and more because he has such an incredible talent. Shame on you.
F Piper

BrooklynJim
BrooklynJim on July 28, 2006 at 3:47 pm

More of the same, Frankie? I just left you a reply to your comments to me on the Ramona page. Again, I sincerely suggest you read Cinema Treasures' “Terms of Use” to avoid receiving this kind of flak in the future. ‘Nuff said.

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on August 10, 2006 at 10:07 pm

I walked around this theater last week. It looks great! I’m glad a few of these survive the wrecking ball.

Broan
Broan on October 8, 2007 at 7:09 am

Recent photos of this theatre are HERE

DavidHurlbutt
DavidHurlbutt on October 8, 2007 at 2:18 pm

In the streetcar era the #10 which took workers to the factories in suburban West Allis and commuters home to Wauwatosa stopped outside of the Pabst. Many streetcar riders were sheltered from the rain and snow while they waited patiently under the Pabst’s canopy for the next car. Thus, these riders who may have never been in the Pabst knew where it was located and who was performing there.

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on November 17, 2008 at 2:36 am

Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham filmed his Christmas Special in the historic Pabst Theatre.
It is currently in rotation on the Comedy Central Network, and slated for DVD release on Nov.18th 2008.
There are many tilts & pans of the Pabst Theatre’s classic interior within the show.
He opens his show citing the Pabst Theatre’s Vaudeville history.

TLSLOEWS
TLSLOEWS on July 2, 2010 at 12:19 am

Very nice, longest header I have seen on any C.T. site,will read the whole thing when I have more time.

LouRugani
LouRugani on November 28, 2013 at 2:47 am

I’ve posted some rare photos of the PABST wearing its late lamented vertical sign.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on September 12, 2014 at 6:44 am

The design of the rebuilt Pabst Theatre following the fire of 1895 is attributed to architect Otto Strack. A late 1920s remodeling was designed by Milwaukee theater specialists Dick & Bauer.

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