By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 05, 2006 at 5:16 AM
Milwaukee’s reach is astonishing. For a city of middling size, it’s tentacles reach far and wide. For example, while chatting with Bob Marley aficionado Roger Steffens about two decades ago, I learned that Ras Rojah, as he’s often called, spent some time in Brew City in the 1960s and he created his long-running one-man show here.

“In 1965, I auditioned for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater,” recalls Steffens, who maintains a Reggae Archive in California of astonishing depth and breadth and his Marley knowledge is second to none.  “The auditions were being held in New York City, in whose suburbs I lived, at the tiny Greenwich Village theater in which "The Fantasticks" was  -- seemingly endlessly -- playing.”

Steffens impressed at the audition and was one of five actors chosen to come to Milwaukee to apprentice at the Rep, when it was based in the Miramar Theater on Oakland Avenue.

“Kalt's German restaurant was the theater's unofficial lounge,” Steffens says. “Among the other apprentices was Andrew Robinson, who went on to play the crazed kidnapper in the first Dirty Harry movie. We took home $41.53 a week, and I was never happier in my life.”

Steffens, who is a natural born storyteller – as well as a radio host, journalist, author and more (skills which he usually makes use of in conjunction with his love of Jamaican music) – has a lot of memories of his time in Milwaukee and one of them is of the accidental creation of his long-running one-man poetry show.

“On one bone-chilling February night I was warming up my voice in the dressing room declaiming an E. E. Cummings poem,” he begins. “A local English teacher from West Division High School was ‘jobbing in’ for the current play. She was a warm-hearted African-American woman with a deep love of the language, and when she heard me reading Cummings aloud, she said, ‘Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. Would you like to come to my 8 o’clock English class and read poetry to my students?’

“I considered the challenge of a young white guy (he was 23) with a provocative handle-bar moustache and red beard showing up at the crack of dawn to read poetry to a mostly black student body, but I was ripe for a challenge.  The next morning, after performing poems by Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and -- of course -- my favorite, cummings, Ms. Featherstone asked if I'd like to do some Shakespeare.

“I'd been a fan since the '50s of the late monologist, Lord Buckley, who translated everything into the ‘vernacular of the hip,’ metamorphosing ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’ into ‘Hipsters, flipsters and finger-poppin' daddies, knock me your lobes.’ I tried this approach with ‘Macbeth,’ telling the story in hipster terms, and the kids dug it, so much so that when I segued into the famous dagger speech, they hung on every word.”

The response was so good that the teacher asked Steffens to read to her next class, too. And he was, once again, a smash success.

“ By the third hour they had gathered all the English classes held at that period and moved them to the gym, where I played to a couple of hundred students each hour till the end of the school day.  The Milwaukee Journal heard about it, and published a piece on the front page of The Green Sheet, headlined, ‘Young Actor is Hip on Macbeth, Makes Teens Dig Shakespeare.’ And thus, my one-man show, ‘Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry’ was born, and I began to get requests from schools throughout Wisconsin and Northern Illinois, to come and do the same thing.”

Steffens continued to perform the one-man show for more than a decade afterward, appearing in every state in the union except Alaska.

“I shall always have a very warm and special place in my heart for Milwaukee where it all started. Many of the local poets I met there became part of my standard repertoire, especially the wackily unique Bob Watt, scion of the city's '60s underground poetry ferment, who wrote deliberately bad poems so you could compare your own against his and come off feeling much better about your own. He called himself ‘an insincere Zen master" who exterminated cockroaches for his Rid-A-Pest company by telling them to leave. And they went.”

Despite his fond memories of Brew City, Steffens – who continues to travel extensively making presentations on Bob Marley – hasn’t seen Milwaukee in decades. But he keeps hope alive.

“I haven't been back to Milwaukee in 30 years, and miss it very much. I've always hoped to bring my ‘Life of Bob Marley’ multi-media presentation to a local college, so I could reunite with the many friends I made there all those years ago.”
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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.