Amateur Night at the Star Theater, 1906

If anyone has watched American Idol or even grew up watching the Gong Show, you know how amateur night works and how funny it can be. Back in 1906, there were several burlesque, vaudeville theaters in Milwaukee which offered their own amateur talent shows giving people the opportunity to perform in front of an audience and win prize money if they were good enough.

The following article from the Milwaukee Free Press covers one night in an anateur talent show at the Star Theater. The Star Theater was located at N. Plankinton Ave. on the east side and north of Michigan St. It was torn down in 1914 for the expansion of Gimbels. The picture below shows how it looked.

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The article that I transcribed here tells about several performers who tried to win the first and second prizes offered and either won or lost horribly. It is fun to try and picture a packed theater watching these amateurs perform!

Milwaukee Free Press, March 25, 1906
Get the hook! A Night With Amateur Thespians at the Burlesque Theater
Hook

It takes a brave amateur to face the audience that assembles at the Star theater on Thursday night. But numerous Milwaukee folks, who think they possess talents, vocal, histrionic, acrobatic or terpsichorean, make their appearance there once a week and endure an ordeal calculated if they survive it to make real professionals of them in one trial.

Thursday night is “amateur” night at the Star, which means that after the close of the regular performance, the amateur aspirants for theater fame are allowed to do their turns, and take what’s coming to them, if they fall short. Most of them do, as a rule, and howls of derision from all over the theater but especially from the gallery, assail the awkward beginner.

“The hook, the hook! Get the hook! Get off!” shout the spectators.

These cries are the signal for the backdrop to be lifted, while a stage hand reaches forth a long pole, terminating in a sickle-like prehensile contrivance that grasps the performer and hustles him away back, while the drop descends and hides him from view.

The scheme works so effectively as to suggest it might be used as a test for some professional players who persist in inflicting themselves on a suffering public, and who might thus be discouraged and induced to go to work for a living.

But the chief purpose of “amateur” night is to furnish hilarious fun for the spectators. For the lamer the efforts of the amateurs, the more excuses to cry “Get the hook!” and enjoy the forcible removal of the tyre from the stage.

But to the closer observer of the player and his art, “amateur” night affords some interesting object lessons. The most conspicuous failing in the novice, even though perhaps possessed of natural aptitude and talent, is lack of confidence. And this is noticeable the instant the performer sets foot in view of the spectators. It is betrayed by the hesitating step, when walking toward the middle of the stage, and by the seeming fear to go as far as the center, as though the performer dared not get too far away from the wings. And then if it is a song the amateur is about a perpetrate, the first two or three bars are scarcely audible.

With the professional, the behavior is in striking contrast to this. There is not a vestige of timidity in his confident stride, ingratiating smile and loud voice. And confidence is half the battle.

Last Thursday night at the Star one of the amateurs was a colored boy, who was down for a song. But he was too timid to walk down the stage in front of the leader, and feared to let his voice out. It was a musical organ, but he had not sung two notes before the crowd in front Began to yell:
“Get the hook! Take him off!” And they did.

The boy’s gingerly walk and feeble beginning betrayed stage fright. That was nuts to the gallery but disastrous to the lad.

A child soprano, a girl of 10 or 11 years, quite pretty also made a bad start, whereat the people in the gallery hooted and clamored for “the hook” but it is not used on girls and she bravely sang two verses though she looked anything but happy. The demonstration made her lose the key in the first verse and the result was torture to the ear.

There were nine acts on the amateur programme, of which the fifth afforded the most hilarity. It was the acme of asinine amateurishness.

Two brothers, it was announced, would oblige with comic songs. They had no sooner appeared than pandemonium began. Their costumes were outlandish, but in the remotest degree funny, and their make-ups hideous, their faces reflecting garish daubs of red paint, in no sense comic, picturesque or human. They were perfect exemplifications of amateurism entirely untamed and uncontrolled. When the orchestra started to play, they did not begin to sing, but looked foolishly at one another, grinned in a silly way over the footlights, until at last the backdrop ascended and one of the freaks was hauled off. But the other remain for fully five minutes longer, not seeming to comprehend that the act was over. It was a pathetic exhibition.

Then came the gem of the programme.

“Mickey Daly will sing,” was the announcement.

And a black-eyed little girl with raven hair and olive complexion, resembling rather a daughter of southern skies, than of the Emerald isle, came out and sang “Cheyenne.” Her voice was full of sympathy and her eyes twinkled expressively as she sang. Deafening applause greeted her, and in response she sang “That Little German Band.” She made no gestures, but her countenance spoke volumes.

The next act was a wire walking performance, by Master Nevaro, Jr., whose brothers are professional equilibrists. The boy performed difficult feats with professional-like confidence. He was awarded the second prize, $2, the first prize, $5, being given to the little Daly girl, by vote of the audience.

G. Reno, a youth of 21 or thereabouts, made his appearance as a buck and wing dancer and the spectators started in to howl him off, but cries of “Get the hook,” didn’t fluster his feet a bit, and they were all he was using. He just smiled and kept on dancing, until finally dexterous steps changed the hooting into applause.

Mr. Schlieve, the “iron jawed man, chair balancer and rod breaker,” appeared on the scene followed by a suckling pig, which he lured about the stage, with a bottle of milk equipped with an attachment which piggie easily to his mouth. The spectators laughed heartily at the pig, who betrayed no amateurish anxiety over his act, and while they laughed, Mr. Schlieve took off his coat and vest, and began to balance aloft, from one to five chairs, their weight all resting on his jaw. So he escaped the peering his absurd facial make-up would have unquestionably provoked had he appeared without his little pig.

The amateur diversion closed with a peppery two-round go between two bantam-weight brothers, that proved thoroughly enjoyable.

The amateurs appear at the stage door of the Star, on Thursday night, before the regular show begins and stage manager Hoolihan takes their names and arranges the order of their turns, which as a rule do not exceed ten in number. they provide their own costumes, though as a rule they appear in their ordinary street attire, and are allowed to make up their faces, should they use grease paint, which they seldom do, unless perchance an amateur imagines he is cut out for a funny man.

Building History Database

For those of you that know only the blog section of the website you may want to explore a little further. There is a steadily growing and updated database of downtown Milwaukee buildings. This database lists brief histories of existing and old buildings, some of which are long gone.

You can use the “Downtown Building Database Search” many different ways by searching by architect, building name or just by looking to see what is newly added to the list. I have been taking pictures of existing buildings to add to the database, finding older building images to scan, and doing extra research to find more information. This resource will continue to expand so check back often!

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Hidden History of Milwaukee

Join OnMilwaukee.com’s Bobby Tanzilo for a behind-the-scenes tour of Milwaukee’s past. Sail out to the Breakwater Lighthouse, scramble up the wings of the Milwaukee Art Museum and dig up the city’s roots on the corner of Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue. Seize the chance to do a little urban spelunking and explore basilicas, burial grounds and breweries. Ring the bell in the city hall tower, and take a turn around the secret indoor track at a Montessori school. No space is off limits in these untold stories of the Cream City’s most familiar places and celebrated landmarks.

This is Bobby Tanzilo’s latest book about Milwaukee’s history and it pulls together many of the stories he has told in his On Milwaukee columns. He will be on hand to talk about the book and answer questions.


Here is a recent interview from On Milwaukee.

Boswell Books
2559 N. Downer Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53211
Wednesday May 21, at 7:00 pm

About the Author: Bobby Tanzilo is managing editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he moved to Milwaukee when he was 17 and has lived in nearly every neighborhood in the city. He earned a BA-Mass Communication at UW-Milwaukee and is author of The Milwaukee Police Station Bomb of 1917, as well as three other nonfiction books. He lives in Milwaukee with his family, where he serves on the school governance council at his children’s Milwaukee Public School, and is creator of the website, SchoolMattersMKE.com.

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2014 ‘MONDO MILWAUKEE’ Boat Tours

‘MONDO MILWAUKEE’ AFTER-HOURS BOAT TOUR RETURNS FOR SECOND SEASON

The Milwaukee Boat Line will offer a second season of the popular Mondo Milwaukee Boat Tour detailing the city’s scandalous and hidden past via the rivers and lake. This year’s first Mondo tour will be held Thursday, May 29th from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., departing from 101 W. Michigan Street. Additional Mondo tours will be held on the last Thursday of each month: June 26, July 31, and August 28, also 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Hosted by local author and historian Matthew J. Prigge, the tour includes all-true stories about such off-beat topics as the old downtown vice and brothel districts, the deadliest disasters of the lake and rivers, the years when the Milwaukee mafia ruled the Third Ward, and long-forgotten mass graves on the city’s waterfront.

“Mondo Milwaukee gives a history of the city that is rarely told. It’s a great mix of bawdy tales, forgotten disasters, and wild stories that all helped to shape our city,” said Prigge. “It’s the only after-hours tour we’ve got in Milwaukee. Last year’s response to the tour was overwhelmingly positive. This year is going to be even more fun.”

Prigge is a PhD student in the history program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) and has spent the last three summers leading tours of the city for the Milwaukee Boat Line. His articles on Milwaukee’s history have been featured in several publications and have won awards from local and national organizations. He has written a book detailing some of the strangest and most savage forgotten events of Milwaukee’s past that will be published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press in 2015.

A full bar and snacks will be available throughout the tour. Tickets cost $17.99 each. They can be purchased online at mkeboat.com/tickets or dockside the night of the tour. Visit facebook.com/mondomke for updates.

For more information, contact Matthew J. Prigge at 920-901-4866 or at mjprigge@uwm.edu.

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South KK Row-houses

I love old photos and the Library of Congress has a great collection of online images that can be searched. There is a series of Milwaukee pictures by veteran Life magazine photographer Carl Mydans taken in April 1936. I have looked at these photos many, many times and most of them show areas of town that have been struck by “urban renewal”. As a result, you have to take for granted that these older areas of the city are forever gone.

Several of the photos have labels and descriptions that I know are not right and don’t make sense from what I know. The following picture is one of those that have bugged me and it has a description of “View from living quarters at 730 West Winnebago Street”. That area of Winnebago Street across from the old Pabst Brewery is long demolished after the Park East Freeway was built in the late 1960s. I have the large size of the picture as my PC desktop background so I see it all of the time and it was a surprise when I was driving back from Bay View on KK a few weeks back that I glanced over and saw houses that looked like those in the photo. It was an “aha” moment and when I got home, I looked at Google Maps and sure enough, these were the houses I was looking for and they, for the most part, still exist but in the wrong location.

Mislabeled historic photos can be found in many places. There is another one on the Library of Congress website that was identified wrong here and is actually around 9th & Clybourn. Gary Rebholz of Milwaukee German Newspapers Index showed me a few pictures on the Milwaukee Public Library digital collection website that had erroneous descriptions. They have since been corrected.

So the moral of the story is don’t believe everything you read about where that old photo is from. Chances are that somebody screwed up. Keep your eyes open – history is all around you!

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The row-houses as they look today with a few that have been torn down:
Houses

The Reed Street Depot

Many people have most likely heard of the seminal railroad station in Milwaukee called the Reed street Station. It can be hard to picture where it was located unless you have the right reference point. The top view looks south on South Second Street (Reed Street) and was taken for an article in the August 30, 1902 Milwaukee Journal. The second picture is from Google Maps showing roughly the same angle. The pink building is the same as shown in the older photo but where the station was is now a parking lot.

The article explains:

“How are the mighty fallen.” The fall of the mighty is rarely so well shown as in the present appearance of the old and famous Reed street depot, once the great railway center of Milwaukee. the old structure is shown as it stands today below the street grade, cut up into various divisions, plastered with signs and used for a dozen different purposes. This depot was the great union depot for Milwaukee after the roads about Milwaukee were formed into the big Milwaukee road of the seventies and the Chestnut street depot closed. It was there that all the road’s trains, as well as those of the Wisconsin Central and the Milwaukee and Northern centered, and it was there that the people of Milwaukee received President Hayes in 1879, and Gens Grant, Sherman and other noted soldiers at the time of the great reunion in 1880. For many years the diningroom managed by the late Col. W.S. Johnson was one of the famous railway eating houses of the country, and its excellence made it a strong competitor of dining cars and hotels.

Reed Street 1

Reed Street 2

Another picture of busy South Second Street looking north towards downtown, circa 1885, can be seen at the UWM Digital Collections website.

Bay View Tragedy

Another history event coming up is the annual Commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy. This will mark the 128th Anniversary of the battle between workers protesting for an 8-hour day and state militia in 1886. Seven labor heroes died in Bay View on May 5th of that year but their effort led to changes that we now take for granted today.

This is a public event held at the Historical Marker Site at the corner of S. Superior St. and E. Russell Ave. It will include speeches, a re-enactment by the Milwaukee Public Theatre, and a wreath laying by Anita Zeidler. The event is sponsored by the Wisconsin Labor Historical Society.

Bay View Tragedy Commemoration

Sunday, May 4th, 3:00PM
Special Feature: “Solidarity Singers” from Madison will sing before the program at 2:50PM

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Remember When…Everyone Read the Green Sheet Program

The Milwaukee Public Library will present Remember When…Everyone Read the Green Sheet w/Dan Chabot, its last editor, 20 years after it ended. A small display of Green Sheets, its features and a Peach Sheet can be viewed in the Central Library’s 1st floor hallway and the Periodicals Room on the 2nd floor through the end of May. A small sample of Remember When… and more Green Sheet features will go on display in the Frank Zeidler Humanities Room in early May.

You can register online or call Ready Reference at 286-3011.

Remember When…Everyone Read the Green Sheet
Dan Chabot, Green Sheet Editor (1981-1994)
2:00 p.m., Saturday, May 10th
Central Library Centennial Hall
733 N. 8th St.
Free street parking on Saturday, but time limits apply (most spots are 2 hrs.)

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Penny Lunches and the Women’s Vote in 1909

Monday night I attended a great lecture at Turner Hall by historian Paul Buhle and his wife, Mari Jo Buhle of Madison. Both are well published, retired academics with books chronicling the American left, activist and protest movements. They gave separate talks about the German progressive legacy in local and state politics which developed from the wave of immigrants known as the 48’ers. Mari Jo Buhle talked about early German American feminist Mathilde Anneke who was a fervent abolitionist and worked with Susan B. Anthony for women’s rights in the mid 19th century. She also talked about Socialist leader Victor Berger’s wife, Meta, who was elected to the School Board of Milwaukee with the help of the women’s vote in 1909. This was the first time women had the right to vote in Milwaukee but was limited to voting for members of the School Board.

Milwaukee’s society women came out in force during the April 6, 1909 election. It was a badge of honor to exercise this new found right to vote even though the power was limited. But sometimes the first steps are the slowest. Estimates of the number of women that voted ranged from 2,000 to 5,700. But the results were that three women were elected to the School Board; Meta Berger, Mrs. Simon Kander, and Mrs. C.B. Whitnall, all of whom had a profound effect on the Milwaukee school system.

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The big local progressive issue of the time was one pushed by Mrs. C.B. Whitnall and the Women’s School Alliance. It was something they had spearheaded several years prior – to provide school lunches to underprivileged children who might otherwise not get enough to eat. The program that was started was called the “Penny Lunch” because it provided a full lunch for the cost of a penny. It stemmed from the idea that children who were well fed will do better work than hungry children and will develop better. Dull children or unruly children became “docile and good students.” The low price gave the families the feeling that this was not complete charity and allowed them some feeling of self-respect. It was very successful since its start in 1902 and was funded by donations for many years to cover the $1,500 a year that it originally cost.

Initially the lunches were provided in the home of Mrs. Jennie Tietz near the Tenth District School and slowly expanded to other schools but by 1907 as the program grew, permission was granted to hold them in the schools. It took until September 1917 before the School Board took over the work and started serving the children lunches with a budget cost of $2,000/yr. Schools did not begin to have specially built cafeterias where children could eat en-masse until after World War I. By 1939, the system was serving hot lunches in all schools and had an annual budget of $23,254 of which only $1,600 was paid by taxpayers. The majority of lunches served in grade schools were fully paid by parents and the remaining lunches of poorer students were free.

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Milwaukee Free Press, March 31, 1909 – Advantages of the Penny Lunch
Milwaukee Free Press, April 7, 1909 – Women Voters at Polling Places, Thoughtful Women Turn Out At Polls
Milwaukee Free Press, April 13, 1909 – Penny Lunches For the Children

1911 Butterfly Theater Opening

Butterfly Theater Opening – September 2, 1911
(Originally posted March 15, 2009)

The short lived Butterfly Theater was opened on Saturday, September 2, 1911 on 212 West Wisconsin Avenue. The theater was razed eighteen years later in January of 1930 to make way for a more modern theater called the Warner. Although it was large for the standards of the day, it was outdated by the time talkies were the standard. The brilliant exterior shone with hundreds of lights and a large lighted butterfly along with enough ornamentation for a dozen other buildings. The sketch below was made by the designer of the stained glass on the exterior and shows in detail the huge woman/butterfly that was mounted on the facade. the butterfly measured 27 feet from wingtip to wingtip.

The interior had seating for 1,500 in the best leather upholstered seating. The balcony had sixteen box seats which sat eight people each and there were twenty-five additional box-seating areas on the main floor. A huge, expensive pipe organ was installed as well as room for a ten-piece orchestra.

Milwaukee Cinema Graveyard article.

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Butterfly