By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Feb 22, 2012 at 5:15 AM

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, 144 E. Wells St. 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.

Fly loft
The fly loft

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.

behind the scenesX

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."

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 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.