Restoring the Pabst - the rebirth of a splendid theater

By Louise Kenngott
Published in The Milwaukee Journal - September 19, 1976

Restoring the Pabst

THE GRAND old belle had been scared more than once.  Money losses, closings, sales.  It didn't look good.  Visions of another parking lot loomed large.  Her friends were powerless.  She was old, dingy, and in serious need of help. 

She'd had a glorious lifetime. Starting on that glittering Saturday evening in 1895, she'd been hostess to the finest entertainment in the world.  She'd worn her name proudly then, carved high over the front door. Pabst Theater. Milwaukee's finest.

In her youth, she favored the German theater.  Every Wednesday, crowds came for the best German language productions of Schiller, Lessing, Hauptmann, and even Ibsen. Friday evenings belonged to those with a modern flair; it was 'free speech" night. The most avant garde of German poetry and plays had an audience then. But Sunday evenings were her favorite. Sundays brought operetta or light hearted comedy to the stage and standing room only crowds to the hall. 

Then, with World War I, she left her German image behind - students threatened to blow her up if she didn't. So, she became, understandable enough, an American, through and through.

And so she continued into middle age, gracefully whisking guests in and out those gilded doors for concerts, plays, ballets, operas, comedies.  But by 1928, the Pabst was in trouble. 

The pilings on which the theater stood had rotted through. And, after 33 years of constant use, the once lavish interior needed a face lift. No one wanted to come to a dusty theater.

So, a new fountain was laid. Unfortunately, a new interior was also devised. The original 1890s look was terribly out of date by now. After all, this was the Roaring Twenties, and art deco was the latest vogue. Out came the boxes that had graced the walls. Off came the elegant deep red wall color.  Down came one-half of the grand staircase. Out came the elegant center aisle on the main floor that had reached up to the balcony in twin promenades. 

Colors had a softer hue - more modern. Light fixtures were Tiffanyesque painted glass affairs. The space left by the removal of one arm of the staircase left a larger lobby for socializing, though the atmosphere had far less grandeur. There were two boxes left where 14 had once layered the theater sides.

ONCE AGAIN, the Pabst played hostess to a grand party of visiting artists. Caruso came; so did Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Basso Chaliapin filled the house with his famous booming voice; violinist Fritz Kreisler was greeted with showers of bravos. The parade continued. Myra Hess, Horowitz, Marlene Deitrich, Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo, Broadway shows, the Chicago Symphony. They all loved the Pabst. 

But as good as the entertainment was, the Pabst kept losing money. In 1953, Fred Pabst sold it to the Pabst Theater Foundation. Then, in 1960, the Milwaukee Common Council bought the theater from the Foundation for $250,000 and leased it back to the group for a nominal amount. It was an effort to keep the Pabst running, hopefully running in the black. 

Refurbished in the 40s, the hall kept up a good appearance through good times and bad. In 1961, the aging hall was again dressed in new finery. Fresh paint was applied, and new carpets were laid.  But even that didn't help. It would take a lot to restore the old luster. The backstage area was sadly out of date. Dressing rooms, built under Wells Street, terrified performers as cars and trucks roared overhead. The Pabst was past her prime. 

By 1967, gloom set in. Questioned as to whether they thought the Pabst should stand or meet the bulldozer, a surprising number of leading Milwaukeeans responded that the gracious hall was a leftover better done without. After all, the Performing Arts Center would soon open its doors - why hang onto a relic? Responses to a Common Council questionnaire suggested that a photo study of the hall should be made - and then the Pabst should be leveled. 

Luckily, there were those who objected strongly to this view. And, out of negative remarks came some hope. Those who loved the theater won out. The City of Milwaukee decided, before the year was out, to operate the theater as a "city landmark" with the aid of funds from a federally assisted beautification program. Architects were consulted. New plans suggesting everything from an arched brick and glass entranceway to an adjoining rathskeller were proposed. 

Initially, talk centered on a "carefully planned, but modest remodeling program." Plans called for updating reruns of previous refurbishings.  Paint, carpets, curtain, lights. But the facts soon made such ideas impractical, at best. 

Mark A. Pfaller Associates, the architectural firm called in to work on the theater, reported that the structure needed work.  Supports had to be reinforced; those old under-the-street dressing rooms should be closed up and filled in. Electrical work had to be brought up to contemporary standards; heating needed modernization, and air conditioning had to be installed.

Plumbing, lighting, and stage equipment would have to be redone. The orchestra pit, built originally for a group of 25 or fewer players, should be deepened and enlarged. A hydraulic elevator should be added to raise and lower the pit- when raised, it would extend the stage onto a thrust platform suitable for modern theater; as it lowered, it could carry equipment, costume trunks, and props to the basement.

Then, after the technical improvements, would come the aesthetics. The grimy exterior should be sandblasted. And the interior had to be redone. Years of grit and dust had obscured all but the brightest of the ornamental paintings; the seating was cramped and the chairs were old fashioned and uncomfortable; and the curtain had to look of a relic from a haunted house.

By 1974, the City of Milwaukee decided to go ahead and do a partial renovation of the theater. Initial plans called for an expenditure of $475,000, barely enough to cover the technical problems necessary to make the Pabst a workable theater. 

But the commitment had been made. The city wanted the theater restored. And as early as 1962, August Pabst, Jr., a great-grandson of Captain Frederick Pabst, builder of the theater, had promised to underwrite part of the renovation costs. As the workmen arrived at the door, the city pledged its continued support. 

WITH THE co-ordinating efforts of architect Mark A. Pfaller and his son, Mark F., contractors, artisans, electricians, started to haul heavy equipment, men and ideas into the theater.  But it would be the artisans - under the direction of Conrad Schmitt Studios - who would make the changes that would be most visible to the casual visitor.

Back in 1928, Conrad Schmitt - an old Milwaukee firm of designers, decorators, and artists - first took its expertise to the Pabst Theater.  It was called in then, during the theater's first major refurbishing, to come up with new designs. Art Deco was the newest fad; it was what people wanted for the Pabst; and the artists complied.

From 1928 until 1974, Conrad Schmitt Studio built its files on the Pabst Theater. Called in whenever fresh paint, modernization, or new curtains were needed, the studio came to know the quirks and beauties of the old hall. As reference, the artists kept records filled with valuable tidbits - a two inch square piece of the original curtain, for instance, and the name and color of the paints used - even the number of hours the 1928 crew worked overtime at $.85 an hour.

Conrad Schmitt is now run by a father and son team named Gruenke - Bernard O. and Bernard E. And in the late '60s, when plans for the restoration were being discussed, they suggested that the Pabst should be taken back to the way it looked on opening night, 1895. 

To be sure, neither the 12 boxes nor the double staircase could be resurrected. And the great chandelier was long gone. But the mood, the feel of the original theater could be recaptured. 

The Gruenkes and their staff consulted the Conrad Schmitt files and spent hours talking things over, and experimenting to find just the right colors for walls, moldings, and ornamental plaster work.  Sometimes up to 20 colors would be tried before everyone was satisfied. Always, the paint colors were mixed by hand to get just the right, subtle shades necessary to give the hall a mellow, warm glow.

Once the artists had a general idea of what colors they would use, they moved into the theater and started cleaning.  For that they used a giant vacuum cleaner, a machine that ate dust with the power of 2,100 pounds of compression. After that came soap water and clear water rinse. 

Within the hall itself, artists applied up to seven coats of paint.  First came a stain killer to neutralize the paint already on the walls. Then came a primer, followed by an overall background color, the secondary color, a glaze - gold or silver - and, finally, color highlights. Every bit to paint went on by hand. Small paint brushes fit into every crack. Gold and silver came in tubes and went on with the consistency of glue. Like glue, it took 48 hours to dry. 

The hallways and outside walls presented one of the restoration's most challenging problems. What could be done to make them look authentic? 

Originally, the walls had an incredibly rich texture - a combination of paint and stenciling that suggested red silk brocade. Today's artists sought to partially recreate that effect, but at a reasonable cost. Young Gruenke explained how they did it:

"We used a high gloss red paint, and then, after it dried, worked on the effect," he explained. "We finally settled on using a rag, dipped in deep red varnish, rolled up and down the wall by hand. It was an unbelievably slow process, and only one man could do all the walls. The rag rolling was as individual as handwriting. If two men did it, the walls could have come out looking different as two different handwritten letters."

By the time they finished, the artists had spent two years at the Pabst and had covered the building's interior with nearly 40 different colors of paint. But don't try to count the colors.  You won't find them all. 

Gruenke told why: "You don't see all the colors, you feel them. Believe it or not, there were even more colors used in 1895. But remember that 1895 belonged to a rather honky-tonk era. Things could get a little gaudy. We've hinted at it with the red walls, but we kept the rest of the colors limited because we wanted to bring out the grace of the building."

Still, a lucky theatergoer or two will find that there are plenty of little bright color patches throughout the hall. They're hidden so well that they elude all but the sharpest inspection.

"Decorators love to pull tricks," said Gruenke. "They love to put little joking splashes of color in unlikely places. I won't tell you how many there are in the Pabst - or where they are. That's for theatergoers to discover. And while they're looking, they can look for the names of the artists who did the painting. Artists always sign their work; we found the 15 signatures of the painters who worked on the hall in 1928. Someday someone will find our names.

AS IT OPENS its doors this week, the same Pabst Theater which once looked like a leftover without a future can proudly claim that with persistence, farsightedness, and financial support, it is ready to start a new life. In the last two years, dozens of skilled workmen have restored its splendor. The Pabst Brewery and family contributed $500,000 to the cause. The city gave $1.4 million, and the federal government added another $600,000. 

With the exception of the boxes and the stairway, the Pabst now looks very much as it did in 1895. But the restoration has gone beyond the veneer. The Pabst is not a museum, but a modern, practical, usable theater. A new Klinger pipe organ fills the two remaining boxes. A crystal chandelier, designed to fit 1895 tastes and fashion, cascades down from the ceiling. New plush seats fill the main floor and balcony - the old ones, recovered, were saved for the gallery.

In every detail, the Pabst has taken a giant step back in time; it is ready to relive the glory that began on opening night, November 9, 1895.  Already, the theater is booked for nearly every night through the end of the year. The 1977 calendar is quickly filing up. The word is out - the Pabst Theater is alive again.

Pabst Restoration

Crowning the proscenium arch is Apollo, the god of music, and two muses representing comedy and tragedy. It was assumed that the original architect wanted the plaster figures to look as if they had been cast in bronze. Artists form Conrad Schmitt Studios - James Kosmicki, left, and Bernard E. Gruenke - worked last summer to achieve that effect. They gilded and lacquered the figures, then antiqued them with a green glaze.

Glazing ornamental plaster

Leonard J. Gilgenbach, also with Conrad Schmitt, glazes a portion of the ornamental plaster work near the ceiling of the auditorium.  The workmen in these photos were standing on a ceiling high scaffold.


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