By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 27, 2024 at 9:02 AM

Operating community centers and dozens of playfields throughout Milwaukee, running sports leagues in many neighborhoods and offering a variety of classes at schools around the city, Milwaukee Recreation has a long tradition of meeting residents of all ages and abilities where they are.

old truck
An old-style Rec 'N Roll truck.

But for many years, Milwaukee Recreation has also expanded that reach via the Rec 'N Roll Mobile, which is full of everything needed to make fun wherever the vehicles park.

Milwaukee Recreation has had a number of mobile units and we share photos of some of them here.

Milwaukee Recreation first Rec ‘N Roll Mobile, was launched in 2002 with a $20,000 grant received in 2001 from the Helen Bader Foundation – now Bader Philanthropies – that was provided to rehab an old MPS delivery truck, equip it with lots of fun games and equipment and fund staff to run it.

The “playground on the move” aims to bring fun recreational activities to Milwaukee kids ages 5 to 15 who lack access or have limited access to recreational spaces, facilities and activities.

Rec 'N Roll Mobile once had inflatables, which have been phased out to make more room in the van for other games and equipment.

That means priority in scheduling goes to places like temporary housing facilities, family resource centers and housing developments, food pantries and church groups. These types of organizations are encouraged to learn more and request a visit via Milwaukee Recreation’s website.

The Rec ‘N Roll Mobile carries a wide variety of supplies, including arts and crafts supplies, carnival games, board games, balls, sports equipment and a first aid kit.

The Star Wagon mobile planetarium.

Although Milwaukee Recreation has had a variety of mobile units over the years, including Crunchy the Garbage Truck – as well as a snake show, a long-lived theater program, a mobile planetarium and a museumobile, among others – the Rec ‘N Roll Mobile was the department’s first mobile playground.

The Rec ‘N Roll program built upon the department’s already popular Wacky Wheels Skate Van, managed for nearly 40 years by Milwaukee Recreation supervisor James “Bosco” Miller and his team. 

Miller became a local celebrity with thousands of visits to playgrounds and schools over the decades.  Many who grew up in the city fondly recall Miller parking the van on a neighborhood playground, setting up a speaker system to play music and teaching them how to roller skate.

In its first year, 2002, the Rec ‘N Roll Mobile parked at 18 different centers. Visits lasted three hours and the van would visit two sites a day. Some sites were visited weekly, others every two weeks.

Looking at a scheduling calendar for the first summer, nearly every weekday was booked and even some weekend days were, too.

“I liken it to the ice cream truck of the recreation department,” said a key organizer of the program, Lynn Greb – who is now the senior director at Milwaukee Rec – that first summer.

“When it pulls up everybody gets really excited.”

snake truck
The mobile Super Snake Show.

But, said Greb, the impact would be more than simply good times.

“The benefits of the social interaction,” she told at WTMJ-TV reporter, “and the gain by playing the games is really important.”

Lori Strong, Cheryl Moore, Excell Moore and Clementine Allen were among some of the other staffers who would play key roles in getting the Milwaukee program going. Similar programs exist in other cities, too.

The Rec ‘N Roll Mobile program won recognition and awards right out of the gate, including earning a Silver Star Award from the Wisconsin Park and Recreation Association.

Rec 'N Roll Mobile sack races.

The program hit a roadblock in recent years – in the form of the pandemic – but it has returned over the past year, according to Milwaukee Recreation supervisor Kali Norton, who oversees the department’s mobile outreach program.

“We now have two new interchangeable Milwaukee Recreation mobile units that can be stocked with playground games, roller skates, video games, carnival games or anything else depending on what is needed on a given day,” she says.

“This will make the mobile units program more flexible.”

It also means the Rec ‘N Roll Mobile is primed to keep rollin’ on.

(NOTE: This article was written for Milwaukee Recreation's institutional history project. While the topic was provided by Milwaukee Recreation, the content was not.)

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.