- 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 Great Dictator ).It 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
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.
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.
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.
The new wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum dominates this portion of the gently curving, very beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline. The first work of the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to open in the United States (in 2001), it features soaring movable “gull wings,” which can be adjusted to take advantage of changing light conditions—a truly spectacular facade. I did not pause long to admire it though. I was on a mission. For the object I remembered most fondly from the old Layton was a sentimental painting by Eastman Johnson, The Old Stagecoach . It portrayed, yes, a disused stagecoach with a bunch of kids clambering on it, pretending, I guess, to fend off an attack by marauding Indians or road agents.
I don’t know why the picture lingered in memory, except that it was very brightly painted and vigorous. More important, I could have a kid-to-kid relationship with its subjects, not available when I confronted the more staid art Mr. Layton had collected. But wandering the long, narrow corridors of Calatrava’s museum—which, interestingly, links to an earlier architectural masterpiece, Eero Saarinen’s 1957 design for the museum (artistic Milwaukee is more comfortable with architectural modernism than I would have guessed)—I could not find it. I found a lot of large, recent abstractionist works. And to my surprise I came upon a gallery containing some good eighteenthand nineteenth-century European works in the neoclassical mode, one of which offered an unexpected jolt of recognition. The smooth marble statue of a dying Greek soldier had been the first thing you saw when you entered the old Layton Gallery. Now, at last, I learned its proper title, The Last of the Spartans , and its creator’s name, one Gaetano Trentanove, who made the piece in 1892. It is utterly of its time and not, I suppose, interesting to ours. Yet it is, I think, a rather good piece, well made and accurately bespeaking a different age’s unambiguous relationship to ennobling death.
Still, I found no stagecoach. I asked a guard about it. She was one of those large, calm, flat-voiced, carb-laden ladies that are still a Milwaukee specialty. “Oh, everyone asks about that,” she said, cheerfully directing me to some stairs behind me. At their bottom I confronted an excellent portrait of Mr. Layton (also by Eastman Johnson), beyond which I found much of his collection and, in a place of honor, the picture I sought. It has what I can only describe as a weird, kitschy energy. There’s something a little demonic about these children; it’s easy to imagine them growing up to be gun-toting, gun-loving Americans. Nearby there were a number of nice Remingtons, which, in their way, carried out that idea—horse soldiers imperiling their lives in the cause of Manifest Destiny. But other basement galleries contained more pacifistic Middle Western landscapes. I found myself responding to their realism rather more than I had to the featured abstractions in the main galleries.
Odd, isn’t it, that the great brewing names persist here only on cultural institutions?
I thought: You can take the boy out of Milwaukee, but you can’t take Milwaukee out of the boy. And: As the twig is bent… . Let’s face it, the Milwaukee in which I was born and raised was all reality, no metaphors allowed. Art, we were implicitly taught, held the mirror up to life. If it did not, we laughed quizzically at it. “Why,” an adult confronting some modernist enigma was bound to say, “my eight-year-old can do about as well as that.” I’ve advanced beyond that stage. I’ve learned to “appreciate” abstraction. Or at least to keep my big mouth shut in its presence. Yet in truth the most resonant images I carried away from Calatrava’s curious masterpiece were the more realistic ones.
I had another nostalgic mission to fulfill on this windy Saturday, something I hoped to find at the Milwaukee Public Museum on the western edge of downtown, a long, healthy walk from the lakefront. I headed east on Wisconsin Avenue, turned right at Water Street, poked my head in at old First Wisconsin National Bank building, where my grandfather’s law firm was once located, then continued on to the city hall, which my architectural guidebook tells me was inspired by guild halls of the Flemish Renaissance (who knew there was a Flemish Renaissance?) and which was, upon its completion in 1895, the third-tallest building in America. That’s so Milwaukee. It would never want to be first in any competition: too pushy.
I strolled past the handsomely renovated Pabst Theater. It was here that I heard my first symphony concert; the Chicago Symphony played a few gigs there annually. Just 90 miles south of us, Chicago shadowed our lives in those days. It had everything we did not. Besides its great orchestra, it had a famous art museum, a truly grand opera house, two major-league baseball teams, and even two National Football League teams. It boasted theaters in which Broadway shows hunkered down for runs of six months or more. It had famous architecture and glamorous hotels and restaurants in which movie stars were known to rest or to dine between trains. Much network radio, including the serials I was addicted to, emanated from there. On visits to Chicago we often went to see network radio broadcasts. You could attend local radio broadcasts in Milwaukee—Heinie and his Grenadiers, “the band with a million friends,” oompahing away in the auditorium at WTMJ—but it wasn’t quite the same thing.
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.
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.
All of this was very nice, the center of much better school trips than I had known. But I wondered … I wondered if it was possible that a waxy representation of Solomon Juneau, around whose trading post Milwaukee had slowly accreted, was still on display. I turned into a dimly lit corridor behind the ecology dioramas, and there he was, still frozen in time, as he had been when I was a boy, his wife doing chores in their little cabin, one side of which was open so we could study its pioneering primitivism, an Indian bearing some furs approaching Solomon, who eyed him in a manner neither suspicious nor particularly welcoming. Near this diorama were others showing pre-urban history: a British captain who had sailed through the Great Lakes to make a landfall here, French voyageurs , their canoes pulled up on a riverbank, treating with the Indians. It astonished me to see these childhood friends, if one may dare the word, on well-maintained display—beyond which, you will not be surprised to learn, was an “Old Milwaukee” street: fake cobblestones, slightly less than full-scale representations of nineteenth-century shops and houses. Peering in their windows, one glimpsed nineteenth-century artifacts: cookware and clothing, toys and dolls, bedsteads and sofas.
I don’t recall that street; it must be a later addition to the museum. But I wonder what a modern kid, used to the interactivity of contemporary museology, makes of that stasis? Does it stir his imagination, as once Solomon Juneau, in his enigmatic silence, did mine? Or is it one of those mysteries with which childhood is filled, something grownups think is good and to which one must assent, lest he be judged, as my father judged some friends of my childhood, “an odd duck” and not lovable in the way in which that much odder duck, Gertie, was?
Walking back to the Pfister along Wisconsin Avenue, past the faux skyscraper—just 21 floors—where once my father kept his office, I wonder how long Milwaukee, or any city like it, can sustain the kind of living relationship with the past that I’ve seen today. I’m not particularly talking about repurposed buildings now. That sort of reconstruction is fashionable everywhere (a friend of mine, an architect, recently told me of a deconsecrated cathedral in Europe that has been converted into an art gallery). I’m talking about the fact that modernism is, at the popular level, a homogenizing force. We all live today under the United Colors of Benetton. We may have, as Milwaukee annually has, a Circus Days parade, in which the old horse-drawn wagons rumble through the streets, calliope sounding. We may still happily tour the Harley-Davidson factory (imagine the historic home of the transgressive Hawg being in conservative Milwaukee). But these are rather idle exercises in nostalgia. I can’t believe they resonate deeply with the average local.
One night I was taken for dinner to the old Third Ward, which like nearly every former produce district in every American city, has been turned into a yuppie haven, all bistros and boutiques, but with the nineteenth-century buildings intact. I asked my hosts, old high school friends, how they would characterize the city, now that the breweries were mostly gone and the factories were mostly in decline, and they were somewhat at a loss. They guessed that noisy young people around us were employed in the service industries. Northwestern Mutual now occupies three vast buildings; the First Wisconsin National Bank has mutated into U.S. Bancorp, which is truly a national bank (with a skyscraper headquarters matching its aspirations); Midwest Airlines, a relatively new entity, has a spanking-new home office on Wisconsin Avenue. Information-age start-ups are everywhere. But their employees, at play, strike me as distressingly typical of their generation everywhere. They are of the higher clerkship, the modern equivalent of those glum and sweaty Polish factory workers of yore, though they are, of course, edgy and sweatless. They do not exude local character. You could plunk them down in a dozen other cities and I suspect they’d feel right at home.
Like my hometown, all the cities—Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis—are losing population and jobs, some of them at rates much steeper than those of Milwaukee, which lost about 6 percent of its population between the last two censuses and has an unemployment rate almost double the national average. Driving around the city, I saw huge neighborhoods that had once been tidily working class manifestly turning into slums. It’s true the suburb where I grew up, Wauwatosa, is preserved in amber. I checked, and the house I lived in and the houses of all my friends are still there, and as well kept as they were 50 to 60 years ago. Something like two-thirds of the metro area’s 1.7 million inhabitants no longer live within the city’s borders, though as I talked to my high school friends, it became clear to me that they are the contributors (and board members) who keep the downtown cultural center up and running. It is a new form of boosterism, and if they have to bring Doc Severinsen in to lead the Pops concerts series at the symphony, that’s all right with them. I am my mother’s son; it’s better—a lot better—than nothing.
Moreover, I think these institutions are sustainable. They have their deficits, I’m sure, but they also have their constituencies, and you can move a ball club more easily than you can a repertory theater or an orchestra.
I wonder, though, if the Times Cinema is sustainable. It has been in business at this location—it opened as a newsreel theater in the mid-thirties—almost as long as I’ve been alive, and it is a bit like the house I grew up in a few blocks away, quite unchanged. Its marquee is as welcoming as ever. The lobby is as it was—smaller than I remembered, though what isn’t?—with what appears to me to be the same clock on the wall above the candy counter. It also seems that its 500 seats are the same ones I happily wriggled in so long ago. The big difference is that the rear-projection system has been replaced by a more conventional one. That the theater persists, essentially unchanged, without having been multiplexed or becoming some dubious religion’s tabernacle, is cheering to me. So many of its dear competitors have simply been erased.
You could argue that it, too, has been “repurposed.” It mostly runs cult films for a geeky audience. I don’t suppose its manager—also the projectionist—and his partner are getting rich on the enterprise. I have no idea what its future in the onrushing digital movie age is. But for now it abides. And given that I grew up to be what I am—someone who has devoted his life to the movies, as a critic, a historian, a documentary filmmaker—it is the most important living link to the boyhood enchantments that enthralled me and gave me the first push along the path that all unknowing at the time, I chose. Or was chosen by. Maybe the Times is not a Milwaukee landmark, but it is one of the few extant landmarks of my early life. Lurking in the lobby as my film unreels on its screen, as I hear the laughter Charlie still stirs, a pleasant contentment settles upon me. Past and present connected, I am home at last. After the show my friends and I go oWisconsinut for beer and brats, which taste as good as they did 60 years ago.
As the last destination on my walking tour proved.