Milwaukeeâs jewel box, The Pabst Theater, was built in 1895 by brewing magnate Captain Frederick Pabst, (left) and was designed by architect Otto Strack in the tradition of the great European opera houses. Its opulent Baroque interior includes an Austrian crystal chandelier, a staircase crafted from white Italian Carrara marble, and a proscenium arch â highlighted in gold leaf â framing the stage.
The Pabst Theater rose from the ashes of a theater known as Das Neue Deutsche Stadt-Theater (The New German City Theater), which had been built by Captain Pabst in 1890. When informed of the fire while on vacation in Europe in 1895, Captain Pabst reportedly cabled "Rebuild at once!" In a remarkably short time â just 11 months â the theater was rebuilt.
The new building had many innovations that were later copied by other theaters. State-of-the-art fireproofing measures included having a superstructure of cast iron and concrete â with only the stage floor and window frames constructed of wood â and the traditional "fire curtain" (which can be lowered to separate the audience from the stage) was a unique fabrication of wire mesh designed to outlast most any fire. Semi-cantilevered construction for the balcony and gallery eliminated view-blocking columns common to theaters of the day, and backstage the theater boasted the first use in the city of a complete permanent steel counterweight system to fly scenery and draperies, and the first use of an all-electric lighting system in the United States. The theater repeated an element that had been present in the Stadt: the use of names of notable artists inscribed about the cornice of the drum-shaped auditorium. At the Stadt, the names had been of German notables; at the Pabst, other nations are represented as well. The dominant ornament in the auditorium is a seven-foot tall statue of Apollo, flanked by the muses of Drama and Song, upon the apex of the proscenium arch.
The theater was extensively renovated in 1928, then restored to its original style in 1976, making it one of the most beautiful theaters in the United States. With a full proscenium stage that includes a hydraulic orchestra pit, the theater is suitable for virtually all performing arts including theater, opera, dance, and music. The auditorium is drum shaped with two balconies, and stunningly decorated in reds and maroons with gold and silver accents. A magnificent crystal chandelier that weighs over two tons hangs over the auditorium. Measuring twelve feet in width by sixteen feet high, it is lowered to seat level once a year so that its 33,000 running inches of Austrian crystal can be cleaned.
In 1989, The Pabst Theater was connected to the new $120 million Milwaukee Center, which includes the Milwaukee Center office tower, Wyndham Hotel, and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. A walk down the colonnade that links the theater to the center is like a walk back in time, as the ceiling becomes higher, the decorative columns change from modern to more ornate, and the lighting adjusts from modern and indirect to Austrian crystal fixtures at the entrance to the theater lobby. Along the way, displays of memorabilia from the early decades of the Pabst Theater line the walls, including displays titled "Leading Ladies," "Music Makers," "Voices," "Wisconsinâs Own," and "Lunt and Fontanne."
The latest renovations to the theater, begun in 2000, were designed to increase patron comfort and make the theater fully accessible to handicapped and elderly patrons. Two elevators were installed, accessing all five floors of the theater. The Gallery was remodeled with 300 larger, plush, seats put in to replace 398 notoriously uncomfortable straight-back seats. The theaterâs ventilation system was modernized, more restrooms were added, and the lobby was expanded to include Cudahyâs Irish Pub, which opened in September 2001 and offers pre-event and intermission cocktails. The Pub, surrounded by glass to look like an outdoor patio, also is available for rentals.
Today, The Pabst Theater is the centerpiece of Milwaukeeâs downtown theater district...a magnificent example of architecture of another time and era that serves performers and audiences of the 21st century as it did at the turn of the 20th century.