Riverside courting local, regional and national tenants
It's now public knowledge that the New Riverside Corp., which has leased the Riverside Theater for about 10 years, is ceasing operations there, but what's not clear is who is looking to replace them. Several names have been tossed into the ring, but only restaurateur Johnny "Mo" Vassallo has said he's interested.
"The tenant's lease expires in a couple months, and we have a meeting with the lawyers," said Mike Mervis of Towne Realty, which owns the Riverside building, 116 W. Wisconsin Ave. "Our assumption is that they are not going to continue to operate or to ask for their lease to be renewed. There are no shows scheduled going forward."
Although Mervis wouldn't get specific, he said that there is interest the theater.
"We have tenants, both local, regional and national that we are in active discussions with, and we are confident it will be up and running by the fall/winter season."
Locally, it's Vassallo who acknowledged interest in the space, which sits on the same block as several of his other properties. However, he refused to go into detail about his plans. "I'm looking at it and exploring the options," said Vassallo. "But we really can't talk about it yet."
New Riverside Corp. spokespeople have said that the Milwaukee Theatre hurt the venue's business, but others here suggested that wasn't likely the case.
"It's so hard to tell if it was due to Milwaukee Theatre," said Ellen Winters, executive director of the Westown Association and an accomplished jazz singer. "I don't know that they have same demographic. I think the arts have seen a decline in attendance overall. But because it's been a mainstay for so long, it's going to be news when the Riverside is struggling. I don't know that it's a matter of competition."
Gary Witt, who books The Pabst Theater, agreed.
"With the number of shows they're doing (at the Milwaukee Theatre), if the Milwaukee Theatre put you out of business, well, then you weren't doing too much to stay in business in the first place."
But according to Shank Hall owner Peter Jest, Milwaukee is a finite market that can only support a limited number venues.
"You've got the Milwaukee Theatre, you've got Potawatomi, and now the city wants to do this House of Blues thing ... Milwaukee is not Austin or New York or L.A. There can only be so many (venues). And there's free music all summer," said Jest. "This whole Pabst City development should wake the city up and show that we should support the venues that we have."
As a result, Jest -- who also books concerts in other venues like at The Rave, Alverno College and the Marcus Center -- said he is not interested in leasing the Riverside.
"Absolutely not. It's just not going to work, it just can't survive," he said. "I think someone will take it over, but I think it will be a very hard proposition."
Witt also demurred when asked if he had any interest in leasing a second venue just blocks from The Pabst.
"Nah, there's a big difference between what they do and what the Milwaukee Theatre does and what we do at The Pabst Theater," he said. "Both of those places are operated on the principle that others will rent them and give them a soul and a personality. And everybody that works here is here 11 hours a day and gives this place its soul.
"They are diametrically opposite to what we and The Rave do. We live in these buildings, we book the shows, consummate and raise them. They have to wait for Jam (Productions) or Clear Channel to call."
But Witt wouldn't absolutely rule out future expansion.
"I know that City Hall is really struggling," joked Witt. "I'd like to take that over, I think it'd be really cool for concerts. Seriously, we focus on our building and what we do here. I'm looking at expanding our e-members and to continue to forge ahead with partnerships to help make Milwaukee a cooler place to live. I hope that every theater in Milwaukee succeeds, because Milwaukee needs it."
Winters insisted that it's important to keep the theater open, both for downtown's image and for its performers.
"I think it's always difficult to see a performance venue struggle," said Winters. "We all go through these times when a new venue comes online, and others suffer for a while. I'm happy to hear that it will remain open as a performance facility. But you have to continue to reinvent yourself and that's very exhausting. I think Downtown certainly has the ability to draw people to that venue."
Frank said: Shank Hall blows. The owner, managers, and staff are all the meanest, nastiest bunch of fascists we've even encountered. Never have my wife and I been so poorly treated, and we'll never see a show there again.
steven said: pabstcity. includes HOB proposal. how commited is HOB that they looked at Milwaukee twice before and decided not to come here. Now that the PabstCity shysters have promised to build them a venue, to their specs, at NO COST to the HOB, they have decided to give a look. The HOB plan is for a 2 year lease! Not long term as one would expect, but a lease with a quick escape clause. Just like they did in Atlanta and San Jose, leving those cities after short terms. You people that talk about how great it would be to have a HOB here in Milwaukee have your collective heads up your arse. Research these things and find out what is going on before you start slinging arrows at those venues that have a stake in the city (Rave & Shank). The Mayor and We Energies are the ones that will profit here, no one else. The past experiences with TIF and the Milwaukee Theatre's woes should be a prime example of what is wrong here. Welcome the House Of Blues, but not with taxpayer money.
beavis guttenberg said: X - Look a little deeper. There are other promoters out there who have done or I should say would have done a great job bringing bands to Milwaukee if Jest hadn't blackballed them out of the business. I know a couple that had left the promoter biz because he made their lives miserable. Jest wanted the monopoly and had it in the 80's/early 90's, but since he treats his customers and area bands so lousy he's now limited to booking singer/songwriters or bands appealing to fortysomethings. The only promoter I know that didn't lose out because of Jest is Gus from the Unicorn because he wouldn't take any crap from him. I can't help but laugh everytime the HOB question comes up because the negative quotes always come from Leslie West (The Rave) and Peter Jest...promoters from 2 venues that look to lose the most from it.
X said: mkemusik-no I am not Peter Jest. I know Peter. Sometimes he sees competition where there is none, sometimes I don't like his methods, and I have told him so to his face. I don't wimp out by whining on a message board when I don't like what he does. He's flawed-but-I'm really curious. What is the name of the promoter or promoters who have brought more good acts to Milwaukee over the last 20 years? The name please. No one has. So even if you don't like him personally, have some respect for what he has done for the music scene here in Milwaukee.
Paul B said: Peter Jest should move himself and Shank Hall to Rockford, yeah that would be great! HOB, WELCOME to Milwaukee!
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