Event bookings picking up at Milwaukee Theatre

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With usage up 49 percent last year at the Milwaukee Theatre, Wisconsin Center District officials are hoping the theater will shed its longtime reputation of being one of the city’s most under-performing venues.

By teaming up with a Los Angeles-based promoter and hosting a wider variety of events at the theater, the district increased the number of contracted events from 39 in 2015 to 56 in 2016 and the number of event days from 51 to 76 year-over-year.

The Milwaukee Theatre.
The Milwaukee Theatre.

And while there is still room for improvement, district officials believe the theater is finally on the right path.

“Our management team has done an outstanding job recognizing our venues needed better utilization and more creative ways to use these venues,” said Scott Neitzel, Wisconsin secretary of administration and chairman of the Wisconsin Center District board. “We want to continue to improve that. We’re not there yet, but we are going in the right direction.”

With more than 4,000 seats, the 108-year-old Milwaukee Theatre, 500 W. Kilbourn Ave., is one of the state’s largest and most ornate theaters.

Since its opening in 1909 as the Milwaukee Auditorium, the building has welcomed prominent figures including President William Howard Taft, President Theodore Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jerry Seinfeld and David Bowie.

In 2001, the Wisconsin Center District made a $41.9 million investment to transform the auditorium into a modern assembly, concert and theatrical venue. Following a two-year construction project, the building reopened in November of 2003 as the Milwaukee Theatre with 4,087 seats.


But since then, the theater’s performance has been questioned. Critics have complained that so much public money was spent on a venue that hosted few events. Some even called for the building to be demolished.

Russ Staerkel, Wisconsin Center District president and chief executive officer, said one of the theater’s biggest problems has been that when it was renovated, the intent was for the third phase of the convention center to be completed. If that had happened, convention business would have been tied in to the theater, Staerkel said.

“The plan was to host opening night events (at the theater) and incorporate part of the convention at the theater,” Staerkel said. “The completion of phase three has not been done. People say it’s underutilized. Well, yes, I’m never going to argue that fact. I don’t know how many people would try to cross two four-lane thoroughfares of traffic in subzero weather to use the theater.”

Between $24 million and $25 million still is owed on the Milwaukee Theatre for the 2003 renovation project, which will be paid off in approximately 2032, Staerkel said.

The current convention center, the Wisconsin Center, which was built in 1998, is 266,000 square feet, with about 189,000 square feet of exhibit space.  A second phase of the convention center opened in 2000, and a third phase was planned to the north but never was completed.

The Milwaukee Theatre rotunda.
The Milwaukee Theatre rotunda.

The Wisconsin Center District owns and operates the convention center, the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and the Milwaukee Theatre. When the new Milwaukee Bucks arena opens in 2018, the WCD also will assume responsibility for that venue.

The district and many city stakeholders are again pushing for the third phase of the convention center to be completed and are currently looking at possible funding sources for the $225 million to $240 million project.

In the meantime, the district will continue to attempt to attract more people to the Milwaukee Theatre. In early 2015, the district partnered with California-based Venue Coalition, a “booking advocate,” that works with different venues across the country to drive events.

Jeff Apregan, president of Apregan Entertainment Group/Venue Coalition, believes the Milwaukee Theatre will continue to increase its event bookings.

“There is competition in every market and Milwaukee is no exception,” Apregan said. “There are many venues, plus Summerfest and the other festivals, that affects the decisions artists make for their touring plans.”

Apregan said that the Milwaukee Theatre is a fantastic venue and while 4,000 seats is not perfect for every show, the theater’s ability to be scalable and convert to 2,500 seats makes it great for nearly every artist.

“I’m excited about the venue,” he said. “The management team is very aggressive and they want to see things happen. What’s important is getting people in that building and giving them a good experience so they can come back. We’re having a lot of positive experiences and that speaks volumes in getting people thinking about Milwaukee.”

The theater has found great success focusing on urban and Christian shows. Stand-up comedians Katt Williams and Chris Rock are each scheduled to perform at the theater in the next few weeks. On April 1, the Men of Christ 2017 Men’s Conference will be held there. The venue also will host Patti Smith and Her Band on March 9, which is likely to sell out.

Other non-traditional events are being held at the theater, including wrestling, dance competitions and graduations. In May, there are five graduation ceremonies scheduled.

Staerkel said the relationship with Venue Coalition and another organization, NiteLite Promotions in Palatine, Illinois, have brought the Milwaukee Theatre a number of events.

“Now we are back on the map,” Staerkel said. “We’ve thrown different events on the calendar, gotten busier and people know we are part of the landscape.”

Staerkel and his team also have reached out to Paul Mathews, president and CEO of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and Peter Jest, owner of Shank Hall and promotion company Alternative Concert Group, so when a show doesn’t fit at the theater, they can make it work elsewhere and vice versa.

Jest said the Milwaukee Theatre is a difficult venue because it is so large. By comparison, the Riverside Theater and Marcus Center each have about 2,400 seats and the Pabst Theater has about 1,400 seats.

“It’s hard to find acts that can draw more than 2,500 people,” Jest said. “That’s why there are zero stadium shows and about 11 shows at the Marcus Amphitheater.  At the time, (the Milwaukee Theatre renovation) didn’t make much sense. But it is a very nice theater. It’s set up for a good presentation and it is a good thing for the future of Milwaukee.”

Staerkel is hoping all of the venues in the city succeed because it’s good for the community.

“In Milwaukee, there are a lot of places for people to spend their entertainment dollar,” Staerkel said. “Four or five years ago, the economy wasn’t so great. Now, the economy is a little bit better and that all ties in. We have a new vision and we’re bringing in what people want to see in Milwaukee.”

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