Milwaukee – A City of Theaters

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Milwaukee - A City of Theaters
Northern Lights Theater. © Christopher Hillard

Since the 19th century’s German language playhouses, the city has built and renovated countless facilities for theater

Milwaukee - A City of Theaters
Northern Lights Theater.
© Christopher Hillard

From watching shows from my Dad’s light booth as a kid, to being directed by the incomparable, unconquerable Barbara Gensler at Shorewood High School, to acting and directing in my own right at college, theater has been a near constant in my life. So I have a bit of a bias when it comes to not only theater, but also theaters. Personally, I find few moments more exciting than the slow dim of the house lights, nor experiences more intimate than the connection between performer and audience.

Like our ancestors sitting around the fire, enveloped by night and listening intently to a storyteller, we are transported by theater, however briefly, from our world to inhabit another. Today the night and the fire are artificial, yet the echoes of those early days where the gods brought the rain and spirits inhabited the trees are unmistakable.

Theater has been an important part of Milwaukee culture since the city’s beginning. According to Peter C. Merrill in his book German American Urban Culture: Writers & Theaters in Early Milwaukee German language theater performances began in Milwaukee in the 1850s and were a major cultural force until the Great Depression. Between 1850 and the 1900 Milwaukeeans built no less than 16 theaters and halls that were tied to German-language performances, no doubt contributing to Milwaukee’s moniker as “The German Athens of America.”

Of these early theaters only the Pabst (which did not open until 1895) remains. Indeed, while German-American traditions around brewing have remained a fixture in the public consciousness, this blossoming of German American culture that encompassed theater, writing, lithography, music, architecture and political discourse seems to have largely receded from our collective memory. []

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