- Historic Sites
The city of his birth sent Richard Schickel off on a lifelong career. Here’s what the film critic and historian discovered when that job brought him back home.
April/May 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 2
The loving attention Milwaukee lavished on Gertie somehow symbolizes the spirit of the city in which I grew up. It has always been a sentimental place, probably because once it started to become a minor metropolis, its German population was culturally dominant. These were people who loved Christmas—when I was a kid, there was a family we knew that kept their Christmas tree standing until Easter—misty landscapes on the parlor walls, poignant songs sung around the pianos, and, of course, taverns, of which when I was growing up, Milwaukee, as I was told, had more per capita than any other city. Slightly higher on the food chain were the legendary German restaurants, notably Karl Ratzsch’s and Mader’s, both of which still exist. I didn’t visit them, though my taste for the sauerbratens of youth remains unabated and, these days, unslaked. I don’t know of a single German restaurant in Los Angeles, where I now live; it’s all fish and greens and waiters rattling off their healthy low-calorie choices wherever I turn. In olden times it was very different—very gemütlich , to borrow a word I heard early and often. Even then everyone was looking back fondly on “Old Milwaukee,” and it sometimes seemed more determined to preserve its comfortable past than it was to bustle on into the modern world.
My mother and father, born around the turn of the last century, idealized that plush, staid culture. In their day Milwaukee was sometimes referred to as the Athens of the West because much of its culture was homemade: singing societies; local theatrical groups; above all, the Turnverein. This was a Germanic institution housed in a Romanesque building made out of “Cream City Brick” (Milwaukee was also known as the Cream City because so many of its buildings were made from this local, light-colored material). The Turners believed strenuously in the mens sana doctrine. Their hall contained a gym and a dancehall and meeting rooms where the issues of the day were earnestly discussed. With all the Gemütlichkeit guff peddled about “Old Milwaukee,” it is easy to forget that the city was incorporated in the mid-1840s, just about the time of the failed revolutions in Europe, and that it was the largely leftist Germans who gave Milwaukee its character. We had, in my lifetime, two Socialist mayors, and the city has remained a Democratic stronghold.
The “old” Milwaukee remains clearly visible today—for example, at the Pfister Hotel.
But it is hard to get nostalgic over political agendas. It is much easier to get people to mist up over a plangent song or, for that matter, a comfy old Biedermeier sofa. I had not spent a lot of time in Milwaukee after my parents moved away from it in the early seventies. But in recent years I’ve returned several times, and now for this screening, which allowed me time to wander about, re-connecting. The quick impressions I had gained from my earlier visits were confirmed: The “old” Milwaukee of my childhood remains clearly visible today. I always stay, for example, at the Pfister Hotel. In 1965 its management erected a round moderne tower at the back end of the property to expand capacity. But the original hotel, opened in 1893, is splendidly preserved. The lobby is all burnished wood and gilt fixtures. Upstairs the rooms are large, and the solid masonry construction totally soundproofs them. If you stay on one of the first three floors, the wide corridors lead to an atrium, permitting a dignified, old-fashioned descent to the lobby.
My first morning in town I inquired of the concierge if the Layton Art Gallery, which I remembered as a rainy-Sunday destination of childhood and which I recalled being nearby, still existed. A squat classical structure, it had been created and endowed by a prosperous English-born meatpacker, largely to house his collection of nineteenth-century genre paintings. I was told it had been torn down but that at least some of its collection was now to be found in the new art museum on the lakefront.
Strolling there, I noticed that the vast stone post office was still functioning, that Chapman’s department store and Des Forges bookshop were gone, but that the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company’s massive neoclassical headquarters (it was built on the bed of a spring-fed lake and has rested, since 1914, on 6,000 wooden pilings) still dominates the street. What is no longer present is the Northwestern Railroad station across from it. My father used to take me there, when I was very small, to watch the trains pull in and out—especially the 400, so called because that was the number of minutes it required to make the journey from Chicago to Minneapolis. An antique mobile popcorn stand, once permanently parked in front of the station, its flickering gas lamp always lit, has moved to the Wisconsin Avenue bridge.