My Milwaukee

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Envy of Chicago mixed with contempt for it, its dirt and its crime, the noise of its streets, the supposed rudeness of its citizens. Milwaukeeans nervously went there for cultural weekends but always came back with tales of being over-charged or otherwise treated shabbily. I see now that they had a point. There was a calm, almost a serenity, to life in spacious, cleanly Milwaukee. But I wonder now if we were not just rationalizing our envy of the Great Other Place, comparatively speaking so raffish and rude but, yes, also darkly exciting.

Especially in comparison with the typical Pabst Theater offerings (in particular I recall a Hot Mikado that even to my innocent eyes was visibly tacky). If you are a connoisseur of fabled brewing names, you will recall Pabst’s Blue Ribbon brand. You probably will not know the Uihleins, but they owned the Schlitz Brewery (“The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous”), and their name adorns the auditorium in the newish Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, where the Milwaukee Symphony now plays. Odd, isn’t it, that these great brewing names persist in Milwaukee only on cultural institutions? The breweries themselves have long since been sold and vanished from the city. One suspects that some Milwaukee phlegmaticism, some Germanic stolidity, prevented the owners from moving nimbly against the likes of Budweiser. In both their philanthropies and the fall of their businesses, they were preceded by the Blatzes, whose founding father, Valentin, was the first—in 1875—to have the cosmic idea of taking beer out of kegs and selling it in bottles.

The Brewers play in a fine new stadium but languish on baseball’s lower rungs.

Sometime in the 1930s his son, Emil, had caused to be erected in Washington Park, designed by no less a figure than Frederick Law Olmsted, the Emil Blatz Temple of Music, an Art Deco bandshell where, in the summers, Mr. Blatz, rotund and genially beaming, was often present for “Music Under the Stars” concerts, which always starred a well-known soloist like Paul Robeson or Jeanette MacDonald. The singing, a couple of sober arias aside, was light-minded. John Charles Thomas always favored us with “Shortnin’ Bread” as an encore. A feature of these occasions was a request by the singer that the lights be dimmed. Then everyone in the audience would raise a match or cigarette lighter in the air, creating the effect of several thousand fireflies in beauteous conclave. Much oohing and aahing followed; everyone felt good about contributing to a minor act of magic.

It is a measure of the decline of German cultural hegemony in Milwaukee that it was considered ethnically prudent for the orchestra to be conducted by a Pole named Jerzy Bojanowski, whose efforts were held in contempt by the Milwaukee Journal ’s all-purpose reviewer, Richard S. Davis, himself a disappointed opera singer who settled for being the city’s cultural arbiter. It was thought, though never proved so far as I know, that Bojanowski would draw Poles, by then the city’s largest ethnic group, to “Music Under the Stars.”

My mother agreed with “Dickie” Davis’s opinion, but she was, or had been, knowledgeably “musical,” as none of my friends’ parents were. As a young woman she had forsworn college to study singing and appear in local concerts and operettas. Once a week she had boarded a train for Chicago, where she studied with Mary Garden, then the mistress of the electrical tycoon Samuel Insull and of that enviable opera house he built there. Mom still warbled a bit, at the wedding of her friends’ children (I remember her practicing “Oh, Promise Me” at our piano), and to her Jerzy Bojanowski was better than nothing.

I quite liked the “Music Under the Stars” concerts: blankets on our laps against the cool evenings, the stage glowing in the distance, the sleepy ride home in the back seat of our old Ford. Sometimes if the breeze was just right, the hops and other grains simmering in the huge vats of the breweries sweetly perfumed the night air.

The breweries have largely disappeared now. But so has the Rust Belt culture that supplanted genteel, Germanic “Old Milwaukee.” During World War II the South Side factories, staffed by all those Poles and other Middle Europeans, had boomed. Those lowering plants—they sometimes covered blocks—produced everything from farm equipment to electrical switching gear, and a suburban father who had an executive job at Harnischfeger or Allis-Chalmers or the Allen Bradley was thought to be set for life. No one could imagine Milwaukee’s being anything but “Tool Shop to the World,” as people sometimes referred to it.

That prosperity persisted well into the postwar era, fueling the local cultural revolution. If you move a few steps west of the Pabst on Wells Street, you will come, for instance, to the shell of a building once owned by the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company, which now houses the Milwaukee Rep’s three theaters. It is probably the city’s most imaginative adaptation of the old to the new. I liked the rooted ruggedness of its facade, the sense of permanence it implies for the local arts scene.

For dogged persistence, though, you can’t beat sports—not in Milwaukee anyway. Making my way farther west, I encountered no less than three vast indoor arenas: the Arena, which until 1988 housed the professional basketball and hockey teams; the Bradley Center, where those teams now play their games; and the Auditorium, of which more later.