devouring theatre, film, and food
Under two hours north of Chicago by Amtrak (or 4 hours if your train is cancelled), Milwaukee, Wisconsin offers an affordable, quiet, distinctly Midwestern getaway. Despite my friend’s recommendation to rent a car in her hometown, my date and I opt to walk our way in downtown Milwaukee’s heart, which might have hobbled the radius of our adventure, but allowed us to avoid looking after a 2,000-pound metal baby.
“We are of hearty stock,” remarks Peter Mortensen, chief concierge at The Pfister Hotel, as he recommends an outdoor street festival occurring during our stay. I check my phone: it is 15 degrees and snowing. Instead, we opt to explore the accommodations at the Pfister Hotel. While some travelers might lodge in a modern Hilton or Holiday Inn, the historic Pfister allows guests to unwind and rewind through the history of a hotel built before the turn of the century – the 20th century. Built as a gateway to the West in 1890, the Pfister boasts an extravagant lobby which is filled with bar patrons throughout the night. Every president since McKinley has visited the Pfister, a fact often quote by hotel staff and locals. Upon entering a King Suite, a documentary about the Pfister plays on two televisions, and a hefty books on its history sits by complimentary dried fruit and nuts.
Walls throughout the hotel are adorned by a fantastic Victorian art collection, worth more than the hotel itself during an early sale. The Pfister not only houses art, it creates it: a one-of-its-kind Artist-in-Residence program allows an artist access to a studio/gallery space on the hotel’s ground floor for one year. The unique opportunity gives an artist publicity for their finished works, an opportunity to engage hotel patrons enthusiastic about art, and the discipline to create several pieces during their stay – one of which is added to the Pfister collection.
Our art of choice was theatrical. Housed in a converted power generation plant, the Milwaukee Reparatory Theatre is celebrating its 60th anniversary. We were lured to its production of “End of the Rainbow,” a musical drama by Peter Quilter imagining the months leading up the death of Judy Garland in 1969. While the box office attendant didn’t speak to us, the performance did. Hollis Resnik’s Judy is playful and plagued – switching effortlessly from a hammy smile to the violent rage brought on by prescription drug cocktails. Dan Conway’s smart set switches the action between a lofty London hotel suite, which Judy insists is the smallest in the building, and the venue that houses her six week engagement. The gig has been organized by her soon-to-be husband Mickey (Nicholas Harazin) – her fifth beau, for those counting. The play is not shy about making a judgment on Mickey’s role in Judy’s eventual demise, or celebrating the role the homosexual community played in her life, symbolized by her compassionate pianist Anthony (Thomas J. Cox). Directed by Artistic Director Mark Clements, “End of the Rainbow” gives Judy-lovers a chance to see her sing again on stage and some closure in the form of a fictional fly-on-the-wall account of the struggles that lead to her death.
An evening of Pfistering and Judy Garland is enough to make any homo hungry, so my date and I found a local Italian join for dinner. Louise’s, an Italian eatery with high-tops and booths, gave off an upscale Applebee’s vibe and kicked us off with goat cheese croquettes, a classy take on cheese curds. Our entrees were artichoke ravioli in a sherry wine tomato sauce for my date and veggie-filled tortellini with marscarpone, ricotta, and parmigiana cheese for yours truly. After an exhausting day of travel, we decided to forgo the lengthy wine list for stiffer martinis – the menu listed Stoli in their signature cocktails, but I opted for Kettle One. The star of the dinner, though, was the bread – a collection of soft-baked bread baked with sautéed onions, cheese, and served a mixture of olive oil and balsamic dressing for dipping.
The next morning we found ourselves taking in Milwaukee’s view of Lake Michigan, the exterior of the Milwaukee Art Museum (next time!), and the Milwaukee Country War Memorial Center. The war memorial provided respite from the cold and a gave us humorous look at the military propaganda of our past.
Eager to clean some plates to help in the war effort, we began our search for our next meal. Brunch, rarely celebrated on Saturdays in Milwaukee, found us at Kil@Wat, an American restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel (most downtown Milwaukee restaurants are attached to hotels). The meal was competent, though not remarkable. My date’s omelet was tasty, but my “Southwestern Skillet” felt like “Nachos with Eggs.” I’m not sure what else I was expected when the menu clearly heralded “cheese sauce.”
Milwaukee is a quaint city, with simple pleasures, and a vibrant and rich culture – if buried between a few inches of snow. Originally a gateway to the West, Milwaukee is a still a door – only this one opens into the past.* For those willing to brave the cold and the Amtrak trek, the city lets you unwind through time, and in the Pfister’s concierge’s words, “rinse the soul.”
*The only thing cheesier than this ending were the goat cheese croquettes.