- 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
Outside the Arena there is a courtyard containing many plaques commemorating Wisconsin’s sports heroes. I spent more time than I would have imagined wandering through this Hall of Fame, for it recalled dozens of the legendary figures of my childhood: Elroy Hirsch and Pat Harder, from the University of Wisconsin’s great 1942 football team; Jolly Cholly Grimm, who skippered the minor-league Brewers and became the last man to manage the Chicago Cubs into the World Series, which they lost to Detroit in 1945; and Don Hutson, the Green Bay Packers’ legendarily elusive end and place kicker.
I was nearly overcome with nostalgia. I think I may have given the impression that I spent most of my childhood skulking in darkened theaters, improving myself. Or having improvement thrust upon me. But that’s not so. I loved our nights at Borchert Field even more than I did “Music Under the Stars.” The stadium was a local shame, a one-deck wooden structure that seated only about 10,000 people. Even by the standards of the American Association, the Triple A minor league in which the Brewers competed, it was considered shabby, though I liked it then and like it better in retrospect. Wherever you sat, you were close to the action, and you could read dismay, delight, and determination on the face of every player at every turn of fate.
I do like Milwaukee’s firm sense of tradition, the way it tends and guards its past.
Even so, my father and his friends held that the first postwar civic task confronting Milwaukee was tearing down Borchert Field and replacing it with a great new stadium. They were operating out of an early version of the “If you build it, they will come” theory, and they were right. The county built a fine new stadium, and the Boston Braves moved in the minute it was finished, at last making Milwaukee “big league,” a phrase often wistfully on my father’s lips when I was growing up.
Put simply, sports—or, perhaps more properly, the yearning for them—was the central metaphor of my Milwaukee years. It was what gave the rich Germans in their lakeside mansions, the Poles in their duplexes on the South Side, and the pallid suburbanites like my family a common cause. Yet it seems to me that their yearning has not quite been fulfilled. Yes, the Milwaukee Bucks play in the fine new Bradley Center, but the last time I looked, they rested in the cellar of the NBA’s central division. County Stadium, like Borchert Field before it, has succumbed to the wrecker’s ball, and the Brewers play in a stadium with a retractable roof, but they languish on baseball’s lower rungs. I guess you could say that Milwaukee is now big league by my father’s definition, but more marginally so by mine. More and more, as I trudged around town, the impression that the civic emphasis has shifted was reinforced.
This is exemplified by the last of the three great arenas I encountered, the Milwaukee Auditorium. It was, when I was a kid, a large oval, surrounded by several tiers of seats with a vast stage at one end. In those days it was home to every sort of spectacle: political and labor rallies, balls and fetes and marching-band competitions, the circus, and major sporting events (I once saw Don Budge and Bobby Riggs play a tennis match there when they were competing for a largely mythical and, I would guess, sparsely rewarded professional tennis championship on a cross-country series of one-night stands).
The event I recall most sharply was a one-night stand by the Metropolitan Opera—Lauritz Melchior in Tannhäuser —which entranced me for a while before I succumbed first to restlessness, then to sleepiness. The stage was too distant, everyone was bawling away in German, and supertitles had not yet been invented. In the days preceding Tannhäuser the local newspapers had made much of the fact that this was the first time the Met had visited Milwaukee in something like 40 years. I’m not sure how the papers played that long hiatus. Was it a measure of our provincialism’s profundity? Or was this brief encounter a sign that we were about to awaken from our long cultural slumber? I do know what my parents thought. They were eager that there be a good turnout for the opera. It would encourage other great performing arts companies to stop off in Milwaukee.
Now the auditorium could better accommodate them. For the old oval has been gutted and replaced by a huge stage facing more than a thousand comfortable seats curving gently around it. It would be suitable for an opera company. Or a rock band. Or, heaven forfend, Riverdance . The manager who gave me a tour of the renovation was utterly confident of its viability. He was particularly proud of the restored murals that adorn its several lobbies, soft pastel representations of local history. They are very pretty, very nostalgic. I do like the way Milwaukee tends and guards its past. It seemed to me that almost everywhere the idea that it had not arrived at its present position accidentally, that it had a tradition it did not want anyone to brush lightly aside, was firmly put forth.
This impression was fixed finally for me when I at last reached the Public Museum, another place I had passed many a rainy Sunday. It occupies a new building across the street from the county library, with which it once shared space. Its featured exhibit is a technically impressive reproduction of various biospheres dating well back into prehistory. Its featured dioramas show ecological scientists exploring the banks of the Menominee River Valley, which bifurcates the city on an east-west axis and over which a two-track wooden viaduct somewhat thrillingly carried streetcars from downtown to a station at the main shopping center in the suburb of Wauwatosa. If you didn’t look down, you could enjoy a sensation close to flying.