By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 09, 2006 at 5:27 AM
At some point during the creation of “The Making of Milwaukee,” a five-hour miniseries tracing the history of our city, writer and historian John Gurda stopped counting the hours he had put in.

But he’s the first to admit that he wasn’t alone.

“Claudia Looze is the director,” Gurda said recently via telephone from Northwestern Mutual Life, where he is researching a history of the company. “She is the one who really made this her labor of love for the longest period of time.”

The three-part series, based on Gurda’s 1999 book of the same name premieres on WMVS Channel 10, Milwaukee Public Television, on Oct. 9, 10 and 11 at 7 p.m.

“The book sold about 17,000 copies, which is great for a local history book, the simple fact is not everyone reads and I felt it was very important to tell the story in a medium that could be approached by everyone and I spoke to channel 10 and they felt the same way. There should be a definitive video history of the city. Began back in 2001 to raise funds and kind of conceptualize.”

The project was daunting on many fronts. But first of all, Gurda had a convert a narrative history of Milwaukee into a script adapted to a completely different medium. And then Looze had to translate that script into a program with enough locomotion to keep viewers’ attention.

“Marrying the text to visuals was challenging,” he said. “Working on the script, I had to have some sense of how you could illustrate it and not always with insurance that there as something out there to illustrate it. And it was more a matter of deciding what to leave out and writing for TV, which is quite different, shorter, snappier sentences.

“Also, Claudia had to avoid the lock step template of (pacing). So, there are recreations, animations, special graphics effects.”

Those features are especially important to the earlier sections of the show, since they cover the period before World War I when films of Milwaukee start to become available.

In addition to having access to countless photographs in the collection of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, which had published the book, Gurda and Looze were able to draw on the WTMJ-TV news archives, which had just been donated to UWM.

“It was serendipitous that WTMJ had donated its collection of newscasts going back to the 1950s,” he said. “It was uncatalogued but it was a real treasure trove.”

Gurda added that the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra bassist Maurice Wininsky, who scored five hours of music for the project, was another that stopped watching the clock early one.

“What turned out be essential to making the script sing and that was music,” Gurda said. “It really adds to the emotional power.”

Gurda said some of his favorite moments in the project are a series of vignettes that Looze created.

“There’s a lot of information here and what Claudia did was at various times she’d let the series breathe by putting in 3- or 4-minute essays with visuals and Maurice would put music under them. There’s St. Josaphat’s, and Jones Island, there’s a photo essay of when it was a fishing village.

“There is a really nice section on the socialists in Milwaukee at a time when we’re in a something of a low point (and) people feel the government is compromised its important to look back at a time when Milwaukee was a beacon of clean government. That’s a great, great segment.”

The project isn’t over when it airs this week, Gurda said. First off, there are plans to shop it around to other stations.

“The hope is that it will be picked up on the state level and it’d be obviously of interest to neighboring communities and maybe PBS’ ‘American Experience.’ But I think realistically, the main audience is in this metropolitan area.”

An educational component was key to the project from the get-go, he added. A Web site with a 146-page teaching curriculum will be launched soon and the same team of educators that created the curriculum will return to update it after teachers have had some time to work with it.

“It also will have long life as a teaching resource. When we raised money, we wanted to make sure we could share the past with the future, we got money that was devoted exclusively to creating a curriculum. Every school and library in the area that wants it gets it for free.  That was one of the conditions of the project. That’s very important to us.”
Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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.