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On Sept. 18, the Broadway Theatre Center – home to the Skylight Music Theatre and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre – celebrated its 30th anniversary with an event in the beautiful Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway.
“It was a very special night for us,” recalls Skylight Executive Director Susan Varela, as we stand amid the Cabot's baroque splendor.
“(Artistic Director) Michael (Unger) edited together a film of a concert that was performed on this stage 30 years ago, exactly that day. And we had a few of the performers from that night here in our audience.”
In addition there were board members, current staff and many others on hand at the fete.
And there is plenty to celebrate. The complex stands as a tribute to the hard work of many who envisioned the site as an arts hub, even before its Third Ward neighborhood had transformed from warehouses, light industrial and surface parking lots into the booming residential, retail and entertainment district that it is today.
In fact, the Broadway Theatre Center itself helped to kick that development into high gear.
Another film showed at the recent party hinted at the road that led to the creation of the lively complex, which, it turns out, was not an easy one.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Born in Germany, Oscar R. Pieper arrived in Milwaukee with his parents in 1876 and immediately found work in the booming grocery business. In 1885, he opened his first store on Juneau Avenue.
Later moving to the wholesale side of the grocery game, Pieper focused initially on tea, coffee and spices, but later expanded into other items. By 1896, his was the second-largest such business in the city.
In 1907, Pieper hired architect Carl Ringer to design a warehouse to stand on a plot of land on the east side of Broadway, just north of Menomonee Street, that had been vacant since the great Third Ward fire of 1892 ripped through the neighborhood.
Ringer – who drew buildings across the street, and around the Third Ward and city, too – designed a four-story orange brick building of incredibly solid construction. Even today inside the building one can see the huge joists – they appear to be about 12”x18” – that support the floors.
In the basement you can see the impressive limestone foundation.
In 1918, Pieper brought his sons Carl, Walter and Robert, and his brother H.J. Pieper into the business, and five years later, they added two more stories to the building. That work is visible in the masonry on the north side of the building.
It is at those top two floors that most of the building’s decoration is located, including a lovely cornice and its stone cartouches.
When Pieper died in 1929, he not only left money to his wife Emma and their sons, but also to seven employees of the O.R. Pieper Co., as well as more than $4,000 to area charities.
Though the company still existed into the 1970s, it sold the Broadway building to Hack’s Furniture in 1954, and the latter used it for storage.
In 1973, Chuck Cicirello (aka Chuck Balestreri) opened The Factory, a gay nightclub on the ground floor of the building.
According to the LGBT History Project, “The Factory is THE Legendary Milwaukee Bar – it is remembered for its large size and high ceilings, innovative decorations and schemes, and was one of the first in the Midwest with a DJ and light show (this was pre-disco!). Thus The Factory was perfectly positioned to be a smash hit when the age of disco came. It opened with 2,400 square feet of public space, and about doubled over time. Its advertising originally read ‘If you want to make it, make it at The Factory.’
“Starting around September 1975, the Factory was also known as The Inferno; initially a large devil's head (or dragon's head) was suspended over the dance floor, which periodically snorted 'smoke' or fog over dancers.
“Then in mid-1977, another attempt was made to rename the bar; this time to On Broadway. While advertising used that name (‘On Broadway – Devilishly Divine’) for the next few months, customers still routinely called it The Factory. By the time the owner opened the Broadway Health Club above the bar in February 1978, it was again advertising as The Factory.”
Cicirello later opened two more locations of The Factory, but this one closed in 1982, when the owner sold everything inside at public auction and the Hack family listed the building for sale.
(NOTE: Watch OnMilwaukee for a much more in-depth story about The Factory.)
By 1986, local alternative theater company Theatre X – where Willem Dafoe got his start – sought to acquire the building, which its managing director Moe Meyer had had his eye on since 1984.
“Can a small theater company with $200 in the bank swing a million-dollar real estate development deal, start a center for contemporary arts and become, overnight, a major force in Milwaukee’s cultural future,” asked the Milwaukee Journal's Tom Strini in February of that year.
“The answer appears to be yes. An investors group put together by the chronically impoverished Theater X paid about $300,000 Tuesday for a vacant, rubble-strewn, six-story warehouse in the old Third Ward area.”
With the ambitious goal of $1.5 million in upgrades in the following years, Theatre X planned to kick off a first phase of renovations and open the new Contemporary Arts Center by autumn.
The quartet of investors (Joel Lee, Nancy France, Jerry Rubin and H.G. Taylor) was planning to build condos for themselves on the top four floors and allow Theatre X to use the lower two floors and the basement, with a 99-seat theater and eight-seat cabaret bar on ground floor; an art gallery, rehearsal hall, dance studio and offices on the second floor; and, in the basement, dressing rooms and scenery and costume shops.
Theatre X’s Meyer, was to surrender that position to take over as executive director of the new center, which was also to get a donation of an adjacent parking lot and a concrete block shed from the previous owners, Sydney Hack and Florence Hack Bernstein.
Theatre X made a quick turnaround on some basic work – donated by Kelmann Construction – on the bathrooms and cleaning and painting the ground floor so that it could begin to sell tickets to performances to be held in the semi-portable black box theater structure it moved over from its space at the Lincoln Center for the Arts.
But, reported Strini, these upgrades were, “temporary and stop-gap. (The building) was a mess last February, when Moe Meyers showed me around,” he continued in a September 1986 article.
“When I took a look at it again last week, it hadn’t changed much. The old roof and plumbing and electrical systems were still there. None of the four private donor/investors who had purchased the upper floors and given the lower two and part of the basement to the arts center had moved in or begun to renovate.
“The center’s board of directors, through its construction manager, was in the middle of delicate negotiations with the city building inspector in order to secure a permit to allow Theater X to run ‘My Werewolf’ in the building Oct. 3 through Nov. 2. The first phase of renovation, should have been completed by now, but will have to wait until next year, at least.”
In addition to fundraising issues, Strini noted that Meyer’s contract was not renewed when it expired because, he wrote, delays were attributed to a lack of attention to necessary paperwork and for having, “alienated long-time contributors and friends of Theater X, as well as actors.”
According to architect Sherrill Myers of Beckley/Myers – which had also worked on the conversion of the old Oneida Street power plant into The Rep’s Powerhouse Theater and which was donating its services to this project – financing and the complicated relationship with and between the investors had taken longer than expected.
"We’re in a messy, agonizing stage of negotiating with them. The legal work is close to being done, but there’s a lot of detail to be worked out, in the way the basement will be split up and where the elevators will be placed, for example. All four investors have to agree on everything.”
Although Theatre X staged performances in the building, the project appears to have, at best, limped along very ploddingly.
That is until 1991, when Skylight stepped in and offered to trade its home – an old tire recapping facility at 813 N. Jefferson St. – to the four investors for the Broadway building.
The trade was to take place at the conclusion of the 1992-93 Skylight season and gave the company a much larger space. It also gave the Broadway investors a building on the desirable Cathedral Square Park.
“The Broadway building, now known as MKE, has housed Theater X since 1986,” wrote Strini. “Theater X will stay on as a tenant of the Skylight, and the opera company is looking for a second tenant theater company.
“Theater X will work in a 99-seat theater on the north side of the ground floor. The Skylight will perform in a three-tiered, 375-seat proscenium theater by Beckley/Myers Architects. The design is modeled on the small, jewel-box houses of Europe. The opera house will be built in a new wing extending south onto what is now a 60-foot by 120-foot parking lot.”
By the time the news was reported, the Skylight had already raised $1.53 million, thanks to important contributions by the Jane and Lloyd Pettit Foundation, the Milwaukee Foundation and the family of former managing director Colin Cabot.
At the time, Skylight estimated it would need $3.97 million to complete the project, including renovating the warehouse, building the theater wing and financing the move between buildings.
Costs rose and so did the fundraising goal, which ballooned to $5.9 million, including a $300,000 endowment, but the project progressed and was completed. In the meantime, Skylight found its tenant, which was Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
The first show staged by Skylight was Mozart's "The Magic Flute," which ran Oct. 6-24. The Chamber Theatre opened its first show in the 352-seat Cabot Theatre (named for Colin Cabot), “The School for Scandal,” exactly a month later.
From Oct. 1-31, Theatre X presented “Theatre Women,” which it described as, “an inspiring series with five main stage performances and late night series (in which) local and nationally known performers will present contemporary and original plays, comedy, feminist theater and performance art.”
In 2004, after an internal dispute, Theatre X folded.
The stunning baroque Cabot Theater, lined with tiers of classic-style opera boxes, was designed by artist David Birn, based, it is said, on a small theater that Cabot saw in Rochefort-sur-Mer, France.
On Aug. 26, Cabot, who had morphed from employee to passionate volunteer, got together about 80 singers, musicians, actors, board members, staff, friends and others to test the acoustics.
“As a piano trio, brass ensemble, pit band, singers, actors and tap dancers plinked, fiddled, blew, sang, spoke and tapped, the rest of us scampered among the tiers, scribbling out perceptions of sound at the various locations on forms provided by the Skylight,” wrote Strini, who was a participant.
“We also opened, closed, removed and rehung the curtains on the walls behind each level of seating. How does the new Broadway Theatre Center sound? How does it feel to make a sound there? Great, and great.”
Then, on Sunday, Sept. 26, an important ceremony took place.
That day, the ashes of Skylight founder Clair Richardson were placed beneath the stage in a shrine that remains to this day.
Richardson had asked that his ashes be interred beneath the Skylight stage – and they were put there at the Jefferson Street location upon his death in 1980 – because, he is believed to have said, “there are things you will only do here over my dead body."
“About 400 fans, many in costume, paraded under sunny skies Sunday afternoon behind the North Water Street Tavern Band from the Skylight's former home, at 813 N. Jefferson St., to Catalano Square beside the new center at 158 N. Broadway,” Jay Joslyn wrote in the Sentinel the next day.
“Speakers paid tribute to the unique energy Richardson exerted in keeping the Skylight alive in its lean early years. Colin Cabot, who succeeded Richardson as producer and who spearheaded the campaign to build the center, called Richardson his mentor. He said Richardson's philosophy of producing within a budget had been the moving force of the center campaign.
“Sprague Vonier, who co-founded the Skylight with Richardson, carried the urn in the parade and turned it over to Cabot, who placed it under the new stage. A spotlighted sign over the orchestra pit declared, ‘Welcome home, Clair.'"
To this day, a shot glass on the shrine is kept full of Jameson’s, and woe betide the venue and its technology if the whiskey should evaporate.
More than once, hiccups have occurred when the glass has been empty only to be mysteriously rectified when the dram was refilled.
As you can imagine, whenever there’s an issue with sound, lights or pretty much anything else, the first thing that’s checked is the level of liquid in Clair’s whiskey glass.
These days, the lower level houses Skylight dressing rooms and the orchestra pit – as well as the shrine – and the first floor is home to the main entrance, the orchestra level of the Cabot Theatre, a production area and the black box Studio Theatre.
On the second floor is the bar (which has a great vintage back bar) and the lovely salon (where this writer was married), as well as the Skylight paint shop.
There are offices on the third floor and Skylight’s artistic, production and education offices are on the fourth floor, along with rehearsal space and a green screen room.
The fifth floor houses the offices of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Renaissance Theatreworks (the latter performs, however, at the Next Act Theatre across the river in Walker’s Point), and the top floor has more office space, including the Skylight's administrative offices.
But the star of this show is clearly the Cabot, which you’d never expect is in here if you’d only ever seen the exterior of the building.
“Colin Cabot has become a friend,” says Unger, as we stand in the Cabot Theatre. “I've talked to him quite a bit. And I'm really impressed with how well they put this theater together. Sometimes you walk into theaters that are designed by architects only and the theater systems just don't meet up.”
“I'm actually very, very pleased with this theater as a physical plant. First of all, the house is amazing, but the systems are good, too. Like the fly space. Not all theaters have fly space and that's a luxury. And we could do trap doors if we needed to. There's a scene shop if you want it right there. The dressing rooms are spacious, the light board's great, sound board's great.
"So I think the plant works really, really well. It’s's a really good place to create.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.