By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Feb 14, 2024 at 3:15 PM

As the first scheduled performance at The Pabst Theater Group’s new venue approaches, contractors are hard at work on the 450-seat Vivarium, 1818 N. Farwell Ave.

PTG has announced that it has received approval of its final occupancy permit from the City of Milwaukee for the venue, which Molly Grace will officially inaugurate with a Feb. 22 show.

A free show has also been announced for Tuesday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. with Milwaukee's Wave Chapelle and Adorner.

The all-ages hall was announced in November as a replacement for the nearby Back Room at Colectivo, which PTG had been booking since 2015.

"I know in the media there's been a lot of discussion around big new venues getting built in Milwaukee – so we, of course, went small," said PTG CEO Gary Witt when the venue was announced. "We went small because small venues in Milwaukee are where fans discover artists and, even more importantly, it's where artists discover Milwaukee.

"Artists yesterday and today begin their careers (in smaller venues), and I think it's incredibly important that that's what this venue is all about."

When I stopped by late last week, the Vivarium space was taking shape and workers were doing everything from painting to installing woodwork to HVAC to electrical and more.

The work has reached that stage where you wonder how they’ll ever get it ready in time, though it always seems to come together in the end.

The Kubala Washatko Architects designed the project and Findorff is the general contractor leading the build-out.

The bar is under protective wraps.
Bar rendering
Here's a rendering of how the bar will look.

Although things like the bar were still under protective wraps, it was possible to get a sense of the venue, which occupies part of a 1925 auto garage and dealership that was later renovated into retail spaces.

Out front, in addition to a parket for bike parking, there will be an awning jutting out over the sidewalk and the stairs up to the venue entrance, where there will be a ticket office window facing the exterior. Just inside the door in the vestibule there’s another ticket window.

The vestibule.
Ticket window
One of two ticket windows.

The vestibule has a wood plank ceiling with uplighting. Flanking a moss wall the size of a garage door are two pairs of doors accessing the venue.

Immediately to the left inside is a coat check and beyond that, the bar, which will have another moss wall behind it. Along the opposite wall there will be a drink rail.

The stage is at the opposite end of the room from the entrance.

A quartet of skylights running along one side of the space has been augmented with four more on the the other side.

The exposed ceiling supports will be adorned with greenery and the whole space will be full of plant life, according to Pabst Theater Group General Manager Paul Smaxwill.

Vivarium, Witt has said, derives from Latin for "place of life."

men's room
The men's room.

Each bathroom has six units and beautiful tile.

“We tried to do as much as we could locally,” Smaxwill says as we stand in the still unfinished men’s room. “Sourcing from local companies. Kohler fixtures, sinks, (Elvari) mirrors were provided by Bradley Corp., local tile, everything. The woodwork out there is from northern Wisconsin."

Wabeno-based Bill Connors crafted the woodwork from trees harvested up north.

wood paneling
Wood paneling.

“We tried as much as possible to keep everything in-state and kind of celebrate the city,” Smaxwill adds.

There's a warm, earthy rust colored paint that should contrast nicely with the planned greenery in the space, and the layout is simple, easy to navigate and comfortable and while it still feels intimate, it also feels more spacious that the Back Room. (And with more restroom capacity!)

“You’ll be able to pop in here efficiently, go grab a drink, it'll be an experience, hopefully, unmatched at a venue this size,” Smaxwill says.  

As much as PTG considers the concert-goers’ experience, it also invests heavily in the artists’ experience and the backstage facilities here are no different.

Backstage rendering
A rendering of the backstage area.

In back there’s an accessible guest restroom; an artists' bathroom with a shower; private dressing rooms with murphy bed, seating and desks; a communal space that will have amenities like a TV, vinyl and a turntable, plus more seating; a laundry room with washer and dryer and a garage that artists can use if they arrive in a van or other vehicle that will fit.


The furniture in here was designed and built by David Ribbens and the the wall sconces and the pendant lights backstage and throughout the venue were created by Milwaukee's Charlie Niedzalkowski.

“Most venues this size in the city don't necessarily have these amenities,” says Smaxwill. “So we feel good about the fact that they’ll be able to take a nap in the dressing room, watch TV and play records out here, grab a shower and have a private bathroom within the artist compound.

Pendant lights
Two pendant light fixtures.

“They can can go out and explore the neighborhood, but if you want to take it easy on tour they’re going to be covered back here.”

Of course, the route to the stage is easy, too, since it’s just on the opposite side of the one of the backstage walls.

“It's understanding the fact that if we treat the performers well, they feel it and they reflect that (onstage),” says Smaxwill, “and the audience wants to come back. The way you reflect your experience in the city, how well you've been treated, is in the show you put on.”

The venue also has a variety of production spaces and the like, too.

View from the stage area.
Looking out from the stage area.

With a capacity of 450, Vivarium has more flexibility than the Back Room, which was limited to about 300.

“It will have similar shows,” says PTG’s Sara Peronto, “in the sense that we can do stripped-down shows like the Iron and Wine thing (in November 2021) – he's obviously a bigger artist that wanted to play smaller places for that tour – comedians, up-and-coming singer/songwriters, podcasts, book tours. Colectivo was really good for jazz shows.

“So we have flexibility with it and it's nice because we own it so we can do what we want with it. We have the ability to try new things. We have the ability to do a private event if we want.”

Toward the stage
Looking toward the stage.

But first, the workers must finish their tasks, which everyone is confident will happen, despite a few standard delays along the way.

“You always want to be a little bit further ahead,” Smaxwill says, “but we're pretty proud of the work we've done and cognizant of the work ahead. We're proud and we're confident.”

But, he cautions, there will be some small, most likely not immediately noticeable tasks that will be completed after Vivarium opens to music fans, and, he expects it will adapt over time.

“We've been talking about how this space won't start as what it becomes,” he says. “It's going to be literally a place of growth and you won't know, practically, how you need to pivot and stay attuned to the artist experience until you’ve done shows for a while here.

“But that’s always our intent: developing backstage and (both) the artist and guest experience to keep people coming back.”

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.