Historic Structures

Pabst Theater, Milwaukee Wisconsin

Date added: November 17, 2009 Categories: Wisconsin Theater

Erected for the Pabst Brewing Company, the theater belonged to Pabst interests until 1953, when it was sold by the trustees of the Ida Pabst Trust to the Pabst Theater Foundation, Inc., organized by the Lynde Bradley, Allis-Chalmers, and Froedtert Foundations. This foundation, in turn, sold it to the city in 1961 (Milwaukee's Common Council approved the purchase in March 1960; the warranty deed is dated February 1961).

In 1870-71 Jacob Nunnemacher and his son, Hermann, erected a three-story brick building containing a theater, offices, and stores on the north side of Oneida Street (now Wells) between East Water (now North Water) and River (now Edison) Streets. Designed by Milwaukee architect Henry C. Koch, their building measuring 210 feet wide (east-west) and 75 to 80 feet deep, was named Nunnemacher Grand Opera House. It opened formally with an address by Alexander C. Botkin, managing editor of the Chicago Times, and a presentation of "Martha" on August 17, 1871.

Captain Frederick Pabst, of Pabst Brewing Company bought the block in 1890 and renamed it the Stadt Theater. The auditorium was refurbished and became the playhouse of Milwaukee's German stock company, previously quartered in the Stadt Theater on North Third Street. According to an article by Joan Saltzstein in Milwaukee magazine, the Chicago firm of Adler and Sullivan acted as consultants for the remodelling project.

The building, damaged by arson in 1893, was again struck by fire on January 14, 1895. The 1895 blaze damaged the building beyond repair. That year a new, Pabst Theater, was built on the site of the older Nunnemacher Grand Opera House.

The grand opening and dedication of the Pabst Theater was a gala event held November 9, 1895. It featured a march composed for the occasion, a prologue read by artistic manager and director Ferdinand Welb, brief remarks by business manager and director Leon Wachsner, a performance of an intermezzo from "Cavalleria Rusticana" and the comedy "Zwei Wappen." A November 9 article in the Evening Wisconsin reported that expenditures for building and furnishings amounted to "upwards of $300,000." The east section of the 1870-71 block, comprising four bays on Oneida Street, was relatively undamaged by the January fire. The ground floor area on the east end became the Pabst Theater Restaurant Cafe. This later was known as Peter Hammes's beer garden and then, during Prohibition, the Blackstone Restaurant. In the early 1930s this last surviving portion of the old Nunnemacher Grand Opera House was razed.

In seventy-five years of almost continuous use the Pabst has welcomed a dazzling array of talent presenting a kaleidoscopic variety of theatrical and musical performances. It began as a German theater, opening with "Zwei Wappen," a comedy by Oscar Blumenthal and Gustav Kadelburg that had premiered at the Lessing Theater in Berlin on November 18, 1894. Directed by Ferdinand Welb, who was also among the actors, the opening night cast comprised the Pabst's resident players and a newcomer from Germany, Flora Glasel, who made her local theatrical debut that evening. From the 1890s until World War I the Pabst featured German-language productions. These years were particularly rich ones in Milwaukee's cultural history, witnessing an impressive flowering of the arts and letters, and while none would assign exclusive credit for this to the city's German-Americans, all concede that their contributions-including the Pabst Theater-were very significant indeed, earning for Milwaukee the flattering nickname Duetsch-Athen.

The City purchased the Pabst Theater in 1961 and leased it out to theater groups and individual performers, an arrangement that was fairly successful until the new Performing Arts Center opened in 1970. During the first decade of the city ownership, many local organizations offered proposals for renovation of the theater, which was designated an official Milwaukee Landmark in 1967. In 1975 the Milwaukee Common Council approved the use of Housing and Community Development funds for the remodelling and restoration of the Pabst. This work was carried out under the direction of Mark Pfaller and Associates, architects. The Pabst re-opened in 1977 and the city continues to lease it out as before the renovation.