By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 03, 2005 at 5:30 AM Photography: Jeff Sherman

{image1}It's now public knowledge that the New Riverside Corp., which has leased the Riverside Theater for about 10 years, is ceasing operations there, but what's not clear is who is looking to replace them. Several names have been tossed into the ring, but only restaurateur Johnny "Mo" Vassallo has said he's interested.

"The tenant's lease expires in a couple months, and we have a meeting with the lawyers," said Mike Mervis of Towne Realty, which owns the Riverside building, 116 W. Wisconsin Ave. "Our assumption is that they are not going to continue to operate or to ask for their lease to be renewed. There are no shows scheduled going forward."

Although Mervis wouldn't get specific, he said that there is interest the theater.

"We have tenants, both local, regional and national that we are in active discussions with, and we are confident it will be up and running by the fall/winter season."

Locally, it's Vassallo who acknowledged interest in the space, which sits on the same block as several of his other properties. However, he refused to go into detail about his plans. "I'm looking at it and exploring the options," said Vassallo. "But we really can't talk about it yet."

New Riverside Corp. spokespeople have said that the Milwaukee Theatre hurt the venue's business, but others here suggested that wasn't likely the case.

"It's so hard to tell if it was due to Milwaukee Theatre," said Ellen Winters, executive director of the Westown Association and an accomplished jazz singer. "I don't know that they have same demographic. I think the arts have seen a decline in attendance overall. But because it's been a mainstay for so long, it's going to be news when the Riverside is struggling. I don't know that it's a matter of competition."

Gary Witt, who books The Pabst Theater, agreed.

"With the number of shows they're doing (at the Milwaukee Theatre), if the Milwaukee Theatre put you out of business, well, then you weren't doing too much to stay in business in the first place."

But according to Shank Hall owner Peter Jest, Milwaukee is a finite market that can only support a limited number venues.

"You've got the Milwaukee Theatre, you've got Potawatomi, and now the city wants to do this House of Blues thing ... Milwaukee is not Austin or New York or L.A. There can only be so many (venues). And there's free music all summer," said Jest. "This whole Pabst City development should wake the city up and show that we should support the venues that we have."

As a result, Jest -- who also books concerts in other venues like at The Rave, Alverno College and the Marcus Center -- said he is not interested in leasing the Riverside.

"Absolutely not. It's just not going to work, it just can't survive," he said. "I think someone will take it over, but I think it will be a very hard proposition."

Witt also demurred when asked if he had any interest in leasing a second venue just blocks from The Pabst.

"Nah, there's a big difference between what they do and what the Milwaukee Theatre does and what we do at The Pabst Theater," he said. "Both of those places are operated on the principle that others will rent them and give them a soul and a personality. And everybody that works here is here 11 hours a day and gives this place its soul.

"They are diametrically opposite to what we and The Rave do. We live in these buildings, we book the shows, consummate and raise them. They have to wait for Jam (Productions) or Clear Channel to call."

But Witt wouldn't absolutely rule out future expansion.

"I know that City Hall is really struggling," joked Witt. "I'd like to take that over, I think it'd be really cool for concerts. Seriously, we focus on our building and what we do here. I'm looking at expanding our e-members and to continue to forge ahead with partnerships to help make Milwaukee a cooler place to live. I hope that every theater in Milwaukee succeeds, because Milwaukee needs it."

Winters insisted that it's important to keep the theater open, both for downtown's image and for its performers.

"I think it's always difficult to see a performance venue struggle," said Winters. "We all go through these times when a new venue comes online, and others suffer for a while. I'm happy to hear that it will remain open as a performance facility. But you have to continue to reinvent yourself and that's very exhausting. I think Downtown certainly has the ability to draw people to that venue."

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.