Urban spelunking: Behind the scenes at The Pabst Theater
Gallery: Behind the scenes at The Pabst Theater chandelier cleaning
Even in the most familiar places, there are hidden secrets: different angles, unusual views that offer a new look at an old friend.
Consider The Pabst Theater. Certainly you know what it looks like from the street and, more than likely, you've seen it from a plush seat, too. Have you noticed that just outside the box office doors, between the theater and the adjacent Milwaukee Center, you can catch a towering view of City Hall in the slightest sliver of light?
Get someone who works there and has some keys to show you around and you'll find even more rarely seen spaces.
The Pabst Theater was built in 1895 by Capt. Frederick Pabst, after the Nunnemacher Opera House – designed by Henry Koch – that had occupied the site for 25 years, burned, leaving only an eastern portion that became a cafe until it was demolished in the 1930s to widen Water Street.
The Pabst, designed by Otto Strack, went up in just 11 months and cost $300,000 to build. The theater was renovated in the 1920s, at which point the building's foundation was replaced.
The theater had hosted performances by the likes of Richard Strauss, Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso, Noel Coward, John Philip Sousa, Arturo Toscanini, Katharine Hepburn and Sir Laurence Olivier, among many others.
By the late '50s, the theater was in need of help and the City of Milwaukee purchased it in 1960. A decade later there was talk of demolishing the building, but Mayor Henry Maier stepped in and led a movement to restore it. It reopened in September 1976.
In 1989, the building's north lobby was added to connect it to the new Milwaukee Center and two years later, The Pabst was designated a National Historic Landmark.
After Michael Cudahy purchased the building from the city, it again underwent restoration and Cudahy's Irish Pub was added to the lobby on the site of the former Pabst Theater Cafe.
The Pabst stage has seen performances by Isaac Stern, Ravi Shankar, Wynton Marsalis, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price and, in more recent years, many of the best bands in contemporary rock and roll.
I went spelunking in the theater one day with The Pabst's Andy Nelson and we climbed ladders, checked out the views from the roof and saw the awesome backstage set up to make the downtime most bands experience more pleasurable.
"I'm spoiled," Nelson says. "I get a daily backstage pass to the fourth oldest active theater in the United States. My first Pabst Theater show, as a fan, was in January of 2005. It was Bright Eyes with CoCo Rosie, and Tilly & The Wall. I remember thinking, how have I never been here? I felt like a young Indiana Jones discovering this ancient hidden palace. I was overwhelmed with civic pride that day. I was hooked. Less than three years later I was working here."
To get backstage, you can take the steps, or you can ride the elevator-like front portion of the stage that when completely lowered, doubles as the orchestra pit. When it's at the middle level, seats are bolted in and it provides the first few rows of audience seating. Fully elevated, it adds about six feet of depth to the stage.
When it's at the bottom, you can see the storage space beneath the floor of the theater, where The Pabst's organ – no longer used – is stored.
The carpeted backstage is like an amazing adult game room. There are video games, a turntable with a selection of vinyl, a cooler full of drinks, changing rooms, showers, comfy chairs and more. And that's just what you can see on a day when the theater is idle, says Nelson.
"What I didn't see from my seat in 2005 was what really goes on backstage," he says. "We have a master chef, sous chef, pastry chef making some of the best food I've ever tasted. We have an Alterra barista slinging drinks for the artists.
"It's a relaxing and vibrant environment back there. Typically, touring artists are not offered that kind of hospitality and never get off their tour bus. In Milwaukee, it's different. They not only get off their bus, they know they're in Milwaukee."
Climb up the metal spiral staircase in the wings and it leads up to a series of tiny dressing rooms that are only used for big theatrical productions that require large casts.
About two flights up, there's a panel in the ceiling that opens. Engineer Samir Wahab – who has been at The Pabst since 1975 when it was being remodeled and is its living memory – grabs a ladder, hulks it up the narrow constantly curving staircase and sets it up beneath the panel.
He climbs up, opens the panel and disappears into the ceiling. We follow and find ourselves in the super-cramped space housing the organ pipes. The pipes occupy what had been the "royal boxes" that were closed off during the 1920s renovation. There are giant wooden pipes that are square and of varying heights and there are countless metal pipes that range from nearly cigarette sized to the size of the sewer pipe in your house.
If you peer closely enough at the black felt covering the large opening that afforded great private views of the stage, you can catch a glimpse of the main house seating.
Further up the spiral staircase you can see decades and decades' worth of graffiti scratched into the cream city brick. My favorite is the 1980 Lenny and the Squigtones scrawl. The "Laverne & Shirley" spin-off band featured Michael McKean – aka Lenny – and a Christopher Guest on guitar, billed as Nigel Tufnel (making it something of a proto-Spinal Tap).
While, up on the roof you're not high up enough to be able to get a great panorama, you feel like you can almost leap across and scale the City Hall tower, making it one of the best views in the city.
We've spent more than an hour checking out the catwalks above the stage, the ropes used to raise and lower backdrops, the basement, the physical plant, the old box office, the administration offices, the lighting box ... almost everything you can think of. But there's more and one could spend days, weeks or more checking it all out.
"There are so many nooks and crannies in this place that you can only crawl through," says Nelson, who has seen more than most have.
"My hands were black and my pants and hair were covered in dust when I was through. All the original brick from 1895 is along the back and has random names carved into it. All the way at the top there is this hauntingly awesome area with ropes and pulleys. I'm always discovering a new part of The Pabst that I haven't seen before."
Anyone who's interested in seeing behind the scenes at the Pabst Theater --- AND MANY OTHER VENUES ALL OVER MKE --- should put DOORS OPEN MKE on their calendar. This year DOM will take place on the weekend of Sep 22. Sponsored by Historic Milwaukee Inc --- the first annual DOM was last year / and drew 1000s of people who wandered around the venues Sat & Sun. City Hall Bell Tower Tours, about 100 buildings were open to the public for Free. GO HERE FOR MORE INFO: http://doorsopenmilwaukee.org/ * Explore behind the scenes at the Pabst, the Riverside, and lots of other cool spots. * Sign up as a volunteer, work for a few hours -- and you get some extra perks!
The Pabst Theater is by far my favorite place in the City of Milwaukee. I love everything about "her." I can't even explain how much I would love to experience a tour like this. I'm so jealous!
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