Actor's love for Milwaukee runs deep
"Oakland is kind of a tough place to live. This was one of the things that led me to connect with the people of Milwaukee," says Larry Laverty, actor and Oakland, Calif., native who spent 11 years off and on training for Olympic speed skating competitions in Milwaukee.
While he lived in Milwaukee, Laverty also hooked up with talent agents here and in Chicago, modeling in print ads and billboards that later launched him into an acting career.
"I was told I had a face that people liked in the Midwest," says Laverty.
Laverty, the one-time Olympic hopeful and now actor living once again in Oakland, maintains a strong affinity for Milwaukee and its residents.
Laverty's first trip to Milwaukee was in 1985. Before that he had been living in Idaho, where he was going to college, and thinking about getting back into athletics.
"I decided I wanted to give it a try before I got too old," says Laverty, who was a runner in high school.
For fun, Laverty went out on the ice with his sister, a competitive figure skater. The only other time Laverty had gone skating was at a friend's seventh birthday party. He enjoyed going around and around on that Idaho hockey rink so much that, at 23 years-old, Laverty decided he was going to become a world-class speed skater.
His goal: First the World Cup team, then the Olympics.
After doing some research, Laverty called the coach of the U.S. Olympic team and also a former Olympian living in Milwaukee to help him figure out how to achieve his goal.
Laverty started spending the colder months of the year training at the outdoor track in the Wisconsin State Fair grounds. Laverty continued to train at Pettit National Ice Center, 500 S. 84th St., after it was built in 1992. As a U.S. Olympic training site, Pettit plays a key role in producing many competitive speed skaters, including Apolo Anton Ohno and Bonnie Blair, who won five gold medals.
According to its website, Pettit is "the only indoor sea-level oval in the U.S. available to our country's athletes" and thus a primary training site for the 2014 Olympic games in Sochi, Russia, which is also at sea level.
Laverty's deep affection for the people of Milwaukee began with Caroline Burbey, whose house on Dana Street, just west of 84th Street and north of Interstate 94, was home to many of the speed skaters training a few blocks away at the Olympic center.
"We all called her Mrs. Burbey. She was a saint to many skaters," says Laverty.
The first three years Laverty trained in Wisconsin he didn't have a car and would explore the city by bus on his off days.
"It wasn't until Pettit was built that I got to see Milwaukee during the spring and summer. Most of my memories are still of snow, of cold," says Laverty.
Once Laverty got a car, he would take modeling jobs in Madison and Appleton, but also drove regularly into Downtown Milwaukee, where his talent agent's office was located.
"I remember the image of the Miller brewery from the car really well. And the smells," says Laverty.
Laverty also developed life-long friendships with Rob Giefer and Julie McMahan of Muskego.
"They're both saints to me. Many of us get a little help along our way from folks who seem to show up out of nowhere. These are two in my life."
Laverty shared an apartment with Giefer on South 79th Street from where he could walk to training. Laverty remembers paying Giefer $100 to $200 for rent each month until one day Giefer told Laverty that he wanted to help him realize his dreams.
Giefer covered all the rent from that point forward.
"Rob said he supported what I did. It was pretty over the top," says Laverty.
When Giefer and McMahan started dating their support for Laverty didn't stop. The couple bought a house in Muskego and Laverty continued to live with them there, driving in to Pettit for training.
"I owe them an incredible debt," says Laverty.
Laverty was 25-years-old when he competed in his first race. He remembers skating against a kid who had already been skating for 20 years.
"His family had skates on him as soon as he could walk."
After 11 years, two former Olympians each told Laverty that he had finally mastered speed skating, but at 36-years-old, Laverty could tell that his body wasn't recovering in the ways it used to after the rigorous training.
Laverty didn't fully realize his goal of Olympic competition, but that never diminished his love for Milwaukee.
Laverty remembers the time in the late '80s that he went to his first Packers game with the producer of a theater company from Green Bay.
"It was a losing season for the Packers, but everyone was so friendly, showing me to my seat, getting me drinks. When the Raiders lose there's fistfights in the stands. I was converted to a Packers fan that day."
Laverty attended Boise State in Idaho twice, first for a degree in business administration and returning for a degree in political science. It was during this last stint in college that Laverty took an acting class – and caught the bug.
But it wasn't until 1989, while in the midst of speed skating training in Milwaukee during the cold months and returning to California in the off season to race bicycles, that Laverty decided acting might be a career choice.
He has now acted in over 100 films and TV shows.
During his bike-racing days, Laverty worked at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Laverty has also performed with Second City in Chicago and the Groundlings in Los Angeles.
And while no longer as frequent a visitor to our fair city, Laverty maintains his fondness for Milwaukee – and its corner taverns.
"Pubs on almost every corner, like in England. They're not like the bars in California. Milwaukee bars are social spaces, gathering places," he says.
Laverty's next project takes him to Ireland. He's working on a film that begins shooting there later this year.
Here is a clip of Laverty as the Sheriff in GMD Films 2008 release, "House of Bedlam" (with false teeth):
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