My Milwaukee

PrintPrintEmailEmailIt is a Sunday evening in late November. I’m standing in front of the screen at the Times Cinema in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, about to introduce a film I made, a biographical documentary about Charlie Chaplin. It is one of the closing night attractions at the Milwaukee Film Festival. Aside from the fact that the city of my birth actually has a film festival—not to mention a full complement of other cultural institutions that we only dreamed of when I was growing up here in the 1940s—I am amazed to belatedly recall that it was in this very theater, more than 60 years ago, that I caught my first glimpse of Chaplin (in The Great Dictator ).

This leads, in time, to a second thought: The Times and other movie houses like it were what we had in the way of cultural institutions in Milwaukee circa 1941. We didn’t know that at the time, of course. How could an institution devoted to playing the third local runs of Hedy Lamarr movies qualify for so exalted a status?

Yet it was for some sort of cultural excursion that eight-year-old me was taken to see The Great Dictator —on a school night at that—because, of course, Chaplin had long been an icon to people of my parents’ generation, the serious and aspiring artist who redeemed the movies from their slightly disreputable status as guilty pleasures in bourgeois circles. I’m sure they had not read any of the sober essays on him by the likes of Edmund Wilson, Stark Young, and even Winston Churchill that in those days were a fairly regular feature of the better magazines. But in the mysterious way of these things, the high regard in which Chaplin was then held in intellectual circles had, I think, trickled down to them, reinforcing their own more simply defined affection for him.

The attention Milwaukee gave Gertie somehow symbolizes the spirit of the city I knew.

So there I was, in 1941, appreciating, or trying to appreciate, Charlie’s impersonation of Adolf Hitler. The film had caused some controversy, which had flown over my head. I had of course heard of Chaplin. I even owned a little wind-up toy of him that could briefly imitate his famous waddle. But I had never actually seen him onscreen. And try as I might to adore him, I think most of the film sailed over my head too. My recollection is that I liked some of the comic by-play between Chaplin and Jack Oakie’s version of Mussolini. And I remember vividly a shot in which a group of haystacks suddenly open up and tanks roll out of their —to me—cleverly camouflaged nests. I suppose I also liked Chaplin’s dance with the balloon globe, though I’m not entirely certain of that. Surely his endless, humanistic speech at the end of the film made me restless, as frankly it still does.

But I knew what was expected of me. So I mimed enchantment for my parents’ benefit. I did a lot of that in those days. They were so sweetly earnest, as I now appreciatively recall, about introducing me to “the finer things.” Their problem back then was finding, in Milwaukee, finer things for me to appreciate.

That’s no longer the case. The city now has everything it yearned for years ago: a symphony orchestra, a ballet company, an opera house, a repertory theater, the nation’s most architecturally spectacular art museum, even a world-class zoo. And yes, lackluster but undeniably major-league baseball and basketball teams, playing in state-of-the-art venues. Better still, as I discovered wandering around town for a couple of days before my screening, it has achieved a rather nice interpenetration of the old and the new. By this I mean that the old, slightly dowdy Milwaukee of my childhood continues to coexist with the new concert halls and sports arenas.

The Times Cinema has only recently begun to feature first-run movies.
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There have been losses, of course. A couple of ugly freeways scar the formerly cohesive downtown. West of the bridge over the Milwaukee River, Wisconsin Avenue, the downtown main street, is in decline. Only one of the half-dozen movie palaces of the past still exists in something like its original form. The once glamorous department stores have largely given way to discount places. The old Davidson Theatre, just around the corner from the Boston store, cramped and musty, but temporary home to touring theatrical companies, is long gone and largely forgotten.

Gertie, however, is not. She was a discombobulated mallard that unaccountably nested on a piling under the Wisconsin Avenue bridge in order to hatch her brood one spring right after World War II. She created a perpetual traffic jam, attracted national attention to the city, and somehow, amidst the hubbub, successfully brought a clutch of healthy ducklings into the world. There is now a bronze representation of this paragon of motherhood and her offspring at the bridge.