On vacation: In Old Milwaukee

My family and I will be returning to Milwaukee for our vacation in about a week — a return and vacation I’m looking forward to. We’ll be trying to recapture the delight that was last year’s vacation; I wrote about it below, last August. See you at the Pfister and Karl Ratzsch’s (now under new ownership, I understand, but it looks as good as ever).


pfister-milwaukee-wisconsin-104963-1I’ll spare you the gory details of how my family and I ended up in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for our vacation this year; let it just be said that when in the deepest valley we sought out a place where our daughters might be happy and comfortable — a hotel with a pool — and checked in, tired and the worse for wear after a four hour drive, at The Pfister in one of the older sections of the city. My wife had grown up in Milwaukee, but mostly in its suburbs, and after eight years or so of visiting almost yearly I’d never actually set foot downtown. As it turned out, better late than never.

We spent four days and three nights at the hotel — itself a gem, designed by Henry C. Koch and opened in 1893. As the cliché goes, they don’t make them like this any more: a high vaulted ceiling rising three floors above the lobby, cherubs flying merrily through a pink and white sky, and the kind of heavy mahogany reception desks that you only see in movies these days. As we settled into our sixth floor suite, with a bedroom and a sitting room, I was comforted by — well, by the permanence of the furnishings, a far cry from the pre-fab furniture and fixtures of contemporary hotels. Here, too, the ceiling was high, the door and wall mouldings wooden rather than stucco. After the swim, we took a little tour of the hotel, which boasts the largest collection of Victorian art in any hotel anywhere in the world (though a second’s thought makes you wonder just who the competition is), mostly located on the second, third, and seventh floors of the hotel. These hallways were particularly quiet; we didn’t come across any Victorian art aficionados, and I confess I’m not one myself. But the art itself reflected the design of the hotel, also completed in the late Victorian era, and vice versa. The Pfister isn’t a glamorous hotel — it’s too sedate for that, and this quality was maintained when Ben Marcus bought the hotel in 1962, attaching a 13-story addition which didn’t compromise the original structure (the pool and a lovely cafe sit atop the addition) — but it is solid, it is elegantly comfortable.

The lobby of the Pfister hotel.
The lobby of the Pfister hotel.

I suppose it was this atmosphere that led me to think of what T.S. Eliot called the “Permanent Things,” an idea associated with 18th-century Toryism rather than what passes for conservatism in the Republican Party and Fox News today. “Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things,” Eliot wrote, “liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things.” These permanent things can be found in architecture and in cities too, as well as in religion and culture, and though Eliot doesn’t define precisely what these permanent things are, his friend Russell Kirk took a stab at it: “By ‘the Permanent Things’ [Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.” It is also a sense of wonder and an acceptance of human modesty in the face of experience that should remind us of our place in the universe. Even a hotel can exhibit that sense, in the design of its high ceilings, the permanence of fixtures even in a place, such as a hotel, which serves transience, surrounding human beings — well, in the case of the Pfister — with art. Nor does that art stop with the Victorian era; the hotel also supports on-location artists and writers, who document the hotel and those who pass through it through creative acts.

The Pfister staff, for the most part, exhibits that personal reticence which is I suppose a part of the makeup of the stereotypical Midwesterner. But there are exceptions, and I suppose those exceptions demonstrate the permanent things of community that make life worth living. One evening in the lobby of the hotel we found ourselves near the concierge’s desk, looking at some of the paintings on the walls, when the concierge, a rather older man wearing a cravat and a formal suit, took notice of us. He leaned down to Goldie and Billie and said, “There’s something I’d like to show you. There’s a painting of a dog on the seventh floor, and his eyes follow you around wherever you go in the room. Come with me.” So, playing hooky for a few minutes, he left his desk and led us up to the seventh floor, where Goldie and Billie were mesmerized by the dog in the painting, whose eyes indeed follow them around the room. “I want to show you one more thing,” the concierge said. He pulled a large chain of keys from his pocket and opened the door to a huge, empty ballroom that looked out over the city from high windows, wrought-iron electric chandeliers (the first to be installed in Milwaukee) dotting the ceiling. The girls ran around the room — nearly the size of a football field, though I’m sure this is an exaggeration — as the concierge shared a few stories of guests at the hotel — Barbra Streisand, John F. Kennedy — and a few stories about its history. This ballroom was indeed luxurious, and the girls (not to mention their parents) were awed by its opulence — all presented, by a thoughtful staff member, specially for a rather tired family for the East Coast.

The Pfister was built in the early days of the city, which itself was settled in the middle of the 19th century first by French Catholic missionaries and fur traders and then, a little later, by German and Eastern European immigrants, who established the breweries which gave the city its reputation as a beer capital of the world. Wikipedia tells me it’s the 31st largest city in the United States, and strolls through the neighborhood suggest that, despite the apparently inescapable urge toward modernization that includes skyscrapers and rather ugly modern buildings, there’s some permanence in the architecture here, too. Many of the commercial structures put up in the late 19th century, like the Pfister, remain in use, and they’re maintained rather well; there’s something of a nightlife downtown, though as a New Yorker I was a little shocked to find just how empty the sidewalks were even in the middle of the day, in the business district. Shocked and, I suppose, relieved by the lack of furious activity, too. There’s still a small-city German feeling to the town (and at Karl Ratzsch’s, a restaurant in business since 1904, I had some of the best sauerbraten I’ve had in years).

Karl Ratzsch's restaurant, 320 East Mason Street
Karl Ratzsch’s restaurant, 320 East Mason Street

On the plane back home to New York the other day, I thought about how to bring a little of all this back to New York — a city itself defined these days by the impermanence of the pop-up gallery and store and theatre, the narcissism of the selfie. It may be quite impossible of course; New York left the 19th century behind some, well, some 115 years ago, and that’s that. But there were a few suggestions.

On my walks through Milwaukee I stopped a few times at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, a few blocks from the hotel, a Catholic church that nonetheless eschewed a great deal of the Baroque and Romanesque trappings of other American cathedrals of the era. It was originally built in 1847 but destroyed by fire in 1935; restorations were complete only in 2002. I visited it in the afternoon, when few people were in the church, surprised by its simplicity — a simplicity which itself, ironically, engendered those feelings of modesty and wonder suggested through thinking of the Permanent Things. The Catholic Church is of course an ancient institution and only lives now because — well, one begins to suspect that it lives now, in places like the Cathedral of St. John, because there is something of a human and spiritual truth to it that can’t be shaken by modernity. The Milwaukee cathedral partakes of both. Much of the artwork and the stained glass is remarkably contemporary, most of it created by Milwaukee-area artists (a virtual tour of the cathedral can be found here). We brought Billie and Goldie here, too, late one afternoon, and one of the deacons of the church (I think) was just closing up; for us, he turned the lights on over the altar, illuminating the Corona pictured above, and he kindly shared a few of his own thoughts and highlights of the cathedral.

I can’t say whether the girls felt awed or modest in the cathedral; I’m not sure they know exactly what those are quite yet; and this was their first visit to a Christian church, too. We are all New Yorkers, but I hope we were able to bring a little of this Milwaukee back with us. I could never live there, I don’t think, for a variety of very practical reasons. But I hope we do get back; we all need these reminders of the Permanent Things.

The Corona at St. John's, designed by Arnaldo Pomodoro and Giuseppe Maraniello
The Corona at St. John’s, designed by Arnaldo Pomodoro and Giuseppe Maraniello

Friday roundup

When the good old democracy
of the twentieth century got on in years,
it sent messengers in all directions
to find the reason for misery in the world.
When the messengers came back,
they came to know from East and West,
North and South, from all computers
–the incorruptible, as they say–
that democracy itself, good and old,
was the cause of all misery in the twentieth century.

Hans-Jürgen Syberberg
Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977)
Part One: The Grail

This week I was only able to get to Michael Riedel’s Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway, which I reviewed here.

Hitler-Syberberg-posterI’ve been toying with the idea of revisiting a few of the enthusiasms (Foreman, Barker) that led me to begin this blog more than ten years ago, and a quick look on YouTube turned one of them up. Next year, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s eight-hour Hitler: A Film from Germany will celebrate its 40th birthday; I first saw the film upon its US release in 1980. At the time, and even now, I consider it one of the great films of the twentieth century and one of the great films about the twentieth century. It’s an intimate chamber play with grandiose Romantic ambitions, and though I found it extremely powerful on the big screen of the Walnut Street Theater in 1980, it may play even better on television or on the small screen of the computer monitor. It pulls together, at one and the same time, the growth of mass communication (especially film), fascism, Richard Wagner, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, and of course the title character in an essayistic, mammoth contemplation of history and cruelty. As Susan Sontag described it in an essay about the film:

Syberberg assumes importance both for his art (the art of the twentieth century: film) and for his subject (the subject of the twentieth century: Hitler). The assumptions are familiar, crude, plausible. But they hardly prepare us for the scale and virtuosity with which he conjures up the ultimate subjects: hell, paradise lost, the apocalypse, the last days of mankind. Leavening romantic grandiosity with modernist ironies, Syberberg offers a spectacle about spectacle: evoking “the big show”called history in a variety of dramatic modes—fairy tale, circus, morality play, allegorical pageant, magic ceremony, philosophical dialogue, Totentanz—with an imaginary cast of tens of millions and, as protagonist, the Devil himself.

A few years ago, the Facets company released a DVD of the film, but it is now out-of-print. Below, however, is the first part — titled “The Grail” — of Hitler: A Film from Germany, thanks to YouTube. Try it; 15 minutes, I think, and you’ll want to see the other seven-and-three-quarters hours.

Regards to Broadway

Michael Riedel, Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Nobody with an ounce of interest in theater, whether spectator or artist, can walk past the Broadway theaters on 42nd, 43rd, and 44th Streets without feeling a little thrill. They are at their most seductive at night — marquees lit up, crowds waiting patiently on the sidewalk despite a shiver of anticipation — but even during the day, they are magnetic. It could be the pullquotes in foot-high letters advertising the shows inside; it could even be the closed doors, suggesting private activities taking place behind them. But very few can walk down these streets, day or night, without the instinct that they’re being pulled inside. They promise glamour, entertainment, escape, and much more than this besides.

In recent years Broadway has become near-synonymous with the profer of crowd-pleasing, empty-headed spectacle, as a Disneyland perversion of a sublimely human art — especially since the revitalization of the Times Square area at the turn of the last century — but this is not quite true. There’s no real absence of serious drama on Broadway, although of course it’s the musicals that attract the tourists; playwrights from Anton Chekhov to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller to August Wilson and Stephen Karam are all running or on the schedule for the next few months. Those who disdain musicals can walk ten minutes to the Roundabout or any of the theaters specializing in new, straight American drama — Playwrights Horizons, The New Group, the Signature Theater Company — between 9th and 10th Avenues on 42nd Street. These theaters, too, are the recipients of the largesse that turned the theater district from a crime-ridden cesspool in the 1970s to the splashy, family-friendly nightlife hub that it is now. And while the Public Theater and the New York Theater Workshop remain firmly ensconced in the East Village, they too have eyes towards Times Square as they plan their upcoming seasons, hoping for a transfer that might support their more esoteric work, as A Chorus Line did for Joe Papp in the 1970s (and Hamilton is doing now). America has no official national theater because it already has an unofficial one.

Because Broadway theaters are purpose-built and require large tracts of land, Broadway has always been primarily about real estate and municipal politics, especially in midtown Manhattan, where real estate is at a premium. This inevitably has an effect on the decision on what shows are presented in these theaters; both producers and theater owners have salaries and taxes to pay, just for starters. But that hasn’t prevented these owners and producers from showcasing aesthetic, even avant-garde risktaking. A few years ago, when I was writing more about theater and drama, I concentrated on artists like Richard Foreman, more notorious for their aesthetic experimentation than their commercial success, and even they spent time in Broadway houses, Richard Foreman directing producer Stuart Ostrow’s play Stages at the Belasco Theater in 1976 (it closed after 13 previews and one performance); more recently Ivo van Hove has been having rather better luck.

5669d6de0302e.imageThe Belasco is owned by the Shubert Organization, which is at the center of New York Post reporter Michael Riedel’s recent Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway. Riedel started at the Post as its theater columnist in 1998; he is more a journalist and reporter than a critic (though he’s not shy about making his own tastes known in his weekly column) — more Walter Winchell than Ben Brantley, and maybe more necessary for all that, keeping that frisson of Broadway excitement and gossip alive more or less on his own. But Razzle Dazzle is more than dish (there’s plenty of that to satisfy our lower urges). Riedel graduated from Columbia University in 1989 with a BA in history, earning magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa honors — and it’s this, perhaps, that served him best in writing the book, an anecdotal history of Broadway art and business in the post-war era.

And Broadway is a business. The Shubert brothers purchased their first theaters in the early years of the twentieth century, steadily steering the organization successfully through the Depression (real estate is never a bad investment in New York, even through economic disasters) and into the years after 1945. Irascible and hard-headed men, they were also seduced by the sensuality of the theater they presented, becoming more eccentric and larger-than-life than some of the fictional characters that paraded around the stage in their theaters. But worms turn, and as they began to die off there was a struggle for succession between the family and the de facto managers of the organization, Bernard Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld. Eventually Jacobs and Schoenfeld came out on top, but not after grueling conflicts. In 1972 an organizational coup put the theaters in the by-now very capable hands of this pair of lawyers, and most of the book details the pair’s ensuing efforts to keep their theaters open and steer the industry away from the economic disaster that was brewing in New York.

Riedel suggests that, in some way, Jacobs and Schoenfeld saved not only Broadway and Times Square but New York City as well. This is over-reaching, but certainly there was a great risk that most of the Times Square theaters would have fallen to the wrecking ball in the 1960s and 1970s without the Shubert Organization’s increasing influence. (As it happened the Organization would find itself ironically supporting the destruction of the Helen Hayes Theater in 1982 to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel — but Times Square in 1982 was not what it had been in 1962 or even 1972, and the trend to landmark historic New York theaters was not yet in full swing.) And if Broadway fell, well, American theater may have suffered a stinging decline too.

Michael_Riedel_web_t837Riedel describes the politics and the business with uncommon relish. It’s an exciting, largely unremembered story, and Riedel’s journalistic flair renders the history utterly absorbing. Razzle Dazzle is a remarkable page-turner, uncommonly witty and, at times, extraordinarily sharp in its observations and vivid asides. The deeply-researched first half of the book (Riedel did his homework well, interviewing scores of veterans of the Shubert Organization as well as its friends, enemies, and friendly competitors) is also necessary preparation for the second, which details the renaissance of the Broadway theater, especially musicals, in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s here that Riedel goes into particularly dishy — let’s call it “deep-dishy” — mode on most of the street’s commercial successes, including A Chorus LineNine, The Phantom of the Opera, and Cats, as well as some of its more disastrous failures, including Peter Allen’s Legs Diamond and Chess. Although the creative personnel on these shows were mercurial and often consumed by personal demons, the business personnel weren’t far behind. He also details the questionable roles of the New York Times‘ Frank Rich and Alex Witchel and — most enjoyably — impresario David Merrick’s final salvo at them and the Times. I noted very few missteps — the inspiration for Guys and Dolls came from the stories of Damon Runyon, not “Runyan” as Riedel has it; and the main characters of the musical Mack & Mabel were Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett, not Mabel Norman and Max Sennett, which would kill Walter Kerr, New York Times theater critic and author of The Silent Clowns, if he weren’t already dead — but these are pedantic quibbles (though, in a work of history, spelling counts).

Like it or not, Broadway is the national theater. It was there that its greatest playwrights, directors, and theatrical composers and lyricists developed and are presented, and this continues to this day. Maybe it’s Razzle Dazzle‘s greatest merit that the book makes you want to go back to Broadway again to take part in its often bizarre life — the life, backstage and onstage, of the American theater. Razzle Dazzle is, along with Brooks Atkinson’s Broadway and William Goldman’s The Season, one of the few books indispensible to understanding and appreciating the remarkable daring, absurdity, risk, and often failure, both onstage and off, of America’s dramatic life. A paperback edition is due in October, but don’t wait. Read it today.

From the archives: A tale of two cities

Originally published July 8, 2015.

vienna_berlinPaging through Vienna-Berlin: The Art of Two Cities from Schiele to Grosz for a few hours last night, I was struck by the very different sensualities of these cultures — different but not entirely dissimilar. Sensuality was of course a key element of these cities, from the history-ridden bourgeois decadence of Austria’s capital, soaked in hundreds of years of polyglot, multicultural Habsburg behavior, to the always novel, always fast Berlin, the young city on the rise, itself seemingly without a history. Today’s Vienna is perhaps my favorite city, and (a little surprisingly) I’ve never visited Berlin, though from what I’ve heard it’s not entirely unlike New York.

I’m not sure that it’s for me, really. Which is also a surprise, since the New Objectivity that sprang up in Germany after 1918 is something of an obsession. But just as the Expressionist movement and the New Objectivity movement in the arts complement and comment upon each other, so do Vienna and Berlin. The explosion of sensuality and sexuality in literature, the visual arts, theatre, music — these took place simultaneously in both cultures. Arthur Schnitzler is regarded as square one in modern literature for the depiction of sexual, sensual romantic behavior and the hidden death drives that compel them to expression (which is why Freud admitted that Schnitzler had gotten there first), but Germany’s Frank Wedekind wrote his first play, Spring Awakening, in 1891, while Schnitzler’s notorious Reigen was completed six years later, in 1897 — the German Wedekind, an important influence, perhaps the most important, on the early Bertolt Brecht. Both plays are very much products of their peculiar cultures.

There was a healthy communication between both cities in the early years of the twentieth century — both the German and Austrian Secession movements began within only a few years of each other, and art from each of these countries regularly crossed the border to be exhibited in the other. But there are also profound differences between the Expressionism of Schiele and Klimt and that of the artists of Die Brücke. That said, I can recognize in the fetishistic portraits of Grosz, Dix, and Schad the same sexual drive that fired the men and women of the Austrians two decades earlier.

Ultimately it’s a matter of my constitution, I suppose. Fin-de-siècle Vienna was a city of coffeehouses and contemplative splendor; inter-war Germany a city of cabarets, power, and speed. The former appealed to me then, and now — which doesn’t mean I can’t recognize how the latter grew from the former, and the horrifying war that rendered the former an anachronism, the latter the future — sexuality and sensuality included. It bothered Robert Musil, and it bothers me. Still, the New Objectivity is our world, and I’m there, too.