The Pabst Theater occupies a prominent
post in both Milwaukee's downtown theater district and in Wisconsin's state history.
Built in 1895, the Pabst is the fourth oldest continuously operating theater in
the nation. The Pabst Theater was designated a National Historic Landmark of the
US on December 10th, 1991.
First slated to open in 1890, the original building, known as the Stadt Theater,
burnt to the ground in a fire. For years this handsome opera house served the city
well, but by 1890 the need for a larger site for the German's theatre led Frederick
Pabst, a former captain on the great lakes steamers and now head of the brewery
bearing his name, to purchase the opera house and drastically remodel it. He christened
it Das Neue Deutsche Stadt-Theater (or The New German City Theater). Vacationing
in Europe at the time when informed of the fire, Captain Frederick Pabst reportedly
cabled to 'rebuild at once' and the Pabst Theater was born. His architect on staff,
Otto Strack, determined to not to lose his second structure to disaster, designed
the Pabst Theater to be one of the most fire-proof theaters of its day.
Strack designed the Pabst Theater in the traditional style of European Opera Houses,
modeling his structure on the German Revivalist style. His building included many
innovations for theaters built at the end of the 19th Century. The Pabst Theater
included one of the country's first fire curtains, all-electrical illumination,
and a very early air conditioning system which used fans and large amounts of ice.
The Pabst Theater also contained an electric organ, which was extremely rare for
theaters at that time.
The Pabst Theater enjoyed many seasons of German touring companies and also hosted
resident German theatre groups, along with the occasional English language event.
As World War I approached, things changed drastically for the Pabst Theater. No
longer were German touring companies available, and in the days that ensued, anything
German in nature was certainly discouraged. By the 1920s, most of the productions
were in English and the theater was utilized for other events such as political
rallies, religious ceremonies, and concert performances by companies including the
Chicago Symphony. As the decade wore on, the popularity of motion pictures and a
steady decline in traditional theater forced significant remodeling. Gone were the
boxes, the pipe organ, the stage elevators and the unique fire curtain. Gone too
was the Captain Frederick Pabst himself.
The Great Depression years followed with reduced patronage, but little change to
the Pabst Theater. In 1953, a foundation was formed of three local foundations to
own and run the Pabst Theater. During this time such names as Liberace, Louis Armstrong,
Liza Minelli, Jack Benny, Rita Moreno, and Dave Brubeck graced the Pabst stage in
between film showings.
In 1967 the city sought local landmark designation for the Pabst Theater, which
it received. The Pabst then sought listing on the National Register of Historic
Places from the federal government. It was granted in 1972, and the awarding of
that designation was the springboard for the accumulation of public and private
funds to finance a major refurbishment.
Aside from the production every December of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's "A
Christmas Carol," the modern day Pabst Theater is too small for larger productions
and many touring groups. This realization puts even more emphasis on making the
theater suitable for both diverse productions as well as maximum use of its seats.
To this end, a campaign was resumed in 1998 with the object of reseating the gallery
with seats for now larger Americans. In 2002, local philanthropist Michael Cudahy
offered to purchase and run the theatre through his foundation. Mr. Cudahy has been
instrumental in the revitalization of the Pabst Theater.
Today, the Pabst Theater can hold 1,279 people and is a traditional proscenium stage
theater with two balconies. The Pabst Theater hosts approximately 100 events per
year, including music, comedy, dance, opera, and theater events. The auditorium
itself is drum-shaped and is decorated in reds and maroons with gold and silver
accents. Perhaps the most notable feature in the auditorium is the 2-ton Austrian
crystal chandelier that hangs over the seats. The Pabst Theater also has a staircase
crafted from white Italian Carrara marble and a proscenium arch highlighted in gold
leaf, which frames the stage.
Throughout the decades, hundreds of top performers have made stops at the Pabst
Theater. Early on, pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, actor Laurence Olivier, and ballerina
Anna Pavlova graced the stage of the Pabst Theater. Recently, performers such as
John Prine, Tito Puente, Pat Martino, the BoDeans, David Byrne and Alan Parsons
have performed on the stage. Each year numerous jazz headliners perform at the Pabst
Theater as the venue is home to the Hal Leonard Jazz Series. One of Milwaukee's
favorite Christmastime traditions continues to take place at the Pabst Theater -
the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's version of "A Christmas Carol."
144 E Wells St
Milwaukee, WI 53203