Pabst Theater Group leader seizes the ‘upside of down’

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:17 pm

Gary Witt had never run a theater before he was hired as the executive director and president of the Pabst Theater in 2002. Since then, the Pabst has been transformed into one of the true cultural forces in Milwaukee. Long gone are the days where the Pabst is only known as a place to see “The Christmas Carol.”

With Witt at the helm, the Riverside Theater and Turner Hall Ballroom have been added to the organization. The number of Pabst’s subscribing e-members has grown to more than 135,000, and the nonprofit arts group continues to evolve, putting on events like Fish Fry and a Flick at Discovery World, Lebowski Fest at Cathedral Square, and – new this year – a concert at the Miller Caves and an upcoming show at the Marcus Amphitheater.

BizTimes reporter Dan Shafer recently interviewed Witt about how it all got started, the organization’s growth over the past 11 years and what’s next for the organization, its historic venues, and the city they call home. The following are excerpts from that interview.

Q: In 2002, Michael Cudahy bought the Pabst Theater for $1 from the city. Then, he hires you as one of his first major moves. From what I understand, that was a three-hour interview that you had with him, and then he hired you. Is that what happened?

A: “No. He called me originally because of the artist I was working for because Mike does a jazz party at his house every year, and Karrin (Allyson, the Grammy-nominated jazz singer who Witt consulted for before joining the Pabst) was one of the artists he was going to consider booking. He and I talked regarding that. He was 79 years old at that time and he was looking on the Internet and found me, which was cool.

Broken Social Scene played at the Pabst Theater in 2010.

“I came up here originally because I was going to assist him by kind of headhunting for the job then, and just interview people for it because I understood the business better than he did – entertainment and things like that. We had lunch the first day. I’ll always remember how Mike showed up wearing his normal blue sport coat with brown shorts on and boat shoes, and he had an Early Times in his hand at like 11 a.m. After we had lunch and left, Mike and I sat in his Saab…we talked for about three hours sitting in his car. It was just a great conversation, because I suppose Mike and I have a lot in common in that we’re both believers. That doesn’t always create good things being said about you unless you’re successful.

“It was a really interesting thing because he had this beautiful, beautiful building – the Pabst – and you also had this really incredible, unique guy who was this once-in-a-lifetime guy to meet who was a mentor and a believer. He basically chose somebody who never had experience running a theater before to come in and take over this theater. Perhaps it’s best that he did, because otherwise, everyone else would have delivered exactly what this theater was over the years.”

Q: So that was 2002, when you were hired, and at that time it was just the Pabst Theater, it wasn’t the Riverside and Turner just yet. When did those come under the same umbrella?

A: “We took over the Riverside in October, 2005, really based upon the vision of John Kersey and Joe Zilber (both of Zilber Ltd.). We changed the theater with the Zilber folks and made some great investments in the theater and spent about $350,000 in new seats for the lower level, put another $1 million in at the beginning, and monthly, we do updates, painting and whatever it is to make this place special. So, October, 2005, we took over the Riverside, and Turner came around the same time (of year) in 2007.”

Q: The Pabst, Turner and Riverside have always been these community assets, but they weren’t always fully realized as those assets.

A: “Well, Riverside was dead. It had been kind of run into the ground prior to that and was really abused.

“Turner Hall hadn’t really ever been run well in over 60 years or used in 50 or 60 years at all. The beauty of it is, out of all those things, though, is that we had the confidence that we could take what we did in the Pabst and move it to the Riverside and take what we did at the Riverside and the Pabst and move it to Turner because of one thing. And that is that in an industry that is based upon the simple matrix – selling something – we made a firm decision to not sell first, but to build a community first. The real idea was essentially to build a community and not to sell.

“Community was the whole key to everything. We knew from the very get-go. A key thing to remember, always, is that there’s an upside of down. When we started in 2002, there wasn’t any kind of real entertainment community built in Milwaukee, and not having one means that you can start from someplace that you’re knowledgeable of and you can only get better – it can grow. We took advantage of the upside of down by focusing specifically on building a music community.

“Then, more than anything, to focus on providing for that music community – not just saying, hey, we’ll take your email address, we’ll email you – but by giving them a promise that when we book a show, you’re going to get the best seats at a show, not scalpers in town or the guy sitting in his Spongebob underwear maxing out 10 credit cards buying out one tour.

“(We made) this commitment that e-members would get the best seats, that they wouldn’t have to buy them from scalpers…that we’d bring a consistent flow of performances to the city of Milwaukee, which we do like 450 shows a year now, (and) that we wouldn’t be the place that carries one beer and sells it for nine dollars. Taking people’s estimate of what their entertainment experience is like and overachieving is an awesome thing.”

Q: Was that your goal from the outset, to build community?

A: “When we built our first website (and) our first email community, we defined at that time that our goal was to be able to speak to people and have a conversation with them rather than sell to them. Anybody can sell. But in this generation, it takes a different kind of line of communication to actually have a conversation with people because they’re so used to being abused by being sold to 24 hours a day.

“We prefer to think of this as a beautiful experience that you’re able to share with people. It’s not just about selling tickets for the highest price to get them in the door. We want everything to be a great experience from the moment they purchase the ticket to the moment they come to the venue to that time that they leave. And not only the time that they leave, but after a show is over, we send out an email to all the ticket buyers for each show that has a link of images and videos and the opportunity to buy artist merch to get a T-shirt from the band or something directly from the band.

“What happens is just like everyone today in this generation, they want to not only do something but they want to share what they do with everybody else. Then, all of a sudden, you have a show that ended on this day that doesn’t actually end. It keeps living; it keeps moving forward. And on top of that, it gets shared well beyond that to 100 to 200 times more than the people that actually saw the show itself. It’s important to be able to not have it just be a show.”

Q: A couple numbers, here. The Riverside Theater’s revenues tripled from 2006 to 2011.

A: “Did they?”

Q: Yes. $2.1 million to $6.2 million. The Pabst had only one year with revenue under $4 million since 2007 ($3.8 million in 2009). Revenue jumped a lot from ’06 to ’07 (from $3.1 million to $4.4 million), it jumped a lot from ’02 to ’03 (from $816,000 to $2.7 million). The year before you started, revenues were $308,000, correct?

A: “Yeah.”

Q: And now, it’s more than $10 million?

A: “Well, it was really more than $12 million last year. This year, it’ll be more than $15 million.
“You have to remember, during all those years, what was the economy doing? One of the fascinating things about what we’ve been able to accomplish is that we’ve done all these things during a period when the economy was at its worst phases.

“All these people who bash Milwaukee all the time and talk about how things are not growing here, they’re all so far off. Because, really, I didn’t realize that while all the Alterras were being built in the last five to six years that the city was suffering; I didn’t realize that while Joe Bartolotta added all those restaurants; I didn’t realize that while Mike Eitel and Eric Wagner added all the restaurants for the Lowlands Group that the economy was as bad as it was. This city is growing dramatically.

“Now you’re in a situation where new generations are moving back, and that’s important. When they do the news reports, they don’t look at those people. They ask (old) people what’s happening in the city. Really, dude, you go to bed at 9 p.m., don’t ask me what’s happening in the city if you go to bed at 9 p.m. Don’t ever ask anybody to gauge what’s happening in the city if they go to bed at 9, because obviously, they don’t know what’s happening.”

Q: Looking back over the past ten years, can you point to any specific tipping point or turning point in the Pabst’s transformation?

A: “In any company, the outcome or the results that you’re able to achieve are based upon the individuals within the company that create those results. Every personnel decision you could look at that was made was extremely important, and it actually marks a tremendous difference between us and every so-called nonprofit in town. What you do find within the Pabst organization is there are no retreads from local arts groups in our organization. That was an important decision to make because there’s a circle of people who lose their job at the symphony and go to the ballet, they lose their job at the ballet, they go to the opera, they lose their job at the opera they go to the Marcus Center and whatever. Those are all people who, to be honest, are somewhat trained to accept losing money as an outcome. While we’re a nonprofit, we’re seeking at the same time to be not for profit but not for loss either, to create a profit annually. This year, we’re $1 million over sales from last year.”

Q: Who were those key hires and when did they happen?

A: “The first key hire…was Matt Beringer (hired fall, 2003). He came right out of college and one of the important factors for me was that Matt was actually booking shows in college (at UW-Oshkosh). Without Matt Beringer, Milwaukee would not have as much comedy as it has. Milwaukee leads the way and leads the U.S. in the amount of comedy that we present. It’s ridiculous the amount of comedy that’s done here.

“With Matt’s help and Matt’s focus, we’ve grown in areas like, you know, we’re going to do the Duck Dynasty guys, we were the first people to ever book the Mythbusters people, etc. What that’s really done is it’s helped us to become successful because we’re different than most of the promoters because we book everything. If you look at our roster and what we have on sale now, basically, we have an opportunity to appease or please anybody with the entertainment that we do.”

Q: There’s certainly been a variety of events you bring in. Among other events, there’s been the increase in comedy and Turner Hall is a popular wedding venue now.

A: “Yeah, we do 35 weddings a year. We were just named one of the top ten wedding sites in the world, actually, (by Portland-based Lexia Frank Photography) which I was totally blown away by.”

Q: Tell us about the “Envisioning the Seen” roundtables.

A: “Those are really important because everything we do and all the efforts that we’ve made thus far, we know that we don’t only focus our business on making us better. Part of a way for us to grow our business is for us to make the city better. That’s not as altruistic as it sounds, because realistically, the better the city is, the better every business that operates in the city does. It is also altruistic because our goal is to do things and be involved in things and have the Pabst play a role in making the city better.

“We want to be a part of helping to allow people to shape it who are the people who actually use downtown. It’s not fair that some guy sits in a radio station and gets paid large dollar amounts just to say things to disrupt or to increase their ad revenue coming in, while not thinking about the overall outcome about how it impacts the growth of the city. We don’t want those people to control the city; it’s that simple. The newer generation that’s not as influenced by radio, that’s not necessarily as influenced by reading the daily paper, that isn’t as influenced by television because they DVR it and they go right past all the stuff that’s supposed to scare them, they’re the people who actually use the city. It’s the reason why the city is growing. The people who listen to Mark Belling or Charlie Sykes aren’t necessarily the reason why the city is growing. There are people who do listen that are part of it…but they no longer dominate the conversation.

“But again, here’s the cool thing: we want everybody to participate in the shows that come downtown. We’re just as willing and apt to book Ann Coulter to come to our venue, which we just announced, as we are to have Bill Maher come here.”

Q: Are you going to do any more shows at places like the Miller Caves or the Marcus Amphitheater, different venues around town?

A: “I think you can count on us continuing to do more shows. Sometimes…our ability to expand in those areas is going to be based on those partnerships. I would – tomorrow – do more shows in the Miller Caves and do more shows with the folks at MillerCoors at their location, but that’s going to be up to them because they are a very large corporation.”

Q: What’s next then, both for the Pabst and for the city of Milwaukee?

A: “I have no idea what’s next for the city. You have a mayor for that.”

Q: From a cultural standpoint, though.

A: “I think you can continue to see the city grow. Summerfest just had another tremendous year. I’m very hopeful that the future of the city includes the Bradley Center in some way. We feel it’s very, very important for the BMO Harris Bradley Center to survive.

“So what’s next for the city of Milwaukee? Hopefully, a continued growth of this era of what it is that we’ve been lucky to be a part of. Really, I see it much more driven by the Alterra (Colectivo) folks and the great restaurant scene that’s exploded here. Milwaukee sells itself short on a daily basis. We look up to Madison and say, ‘That’s the college town,’ but there are more college students in Milwaukee than there are in Madison. And by the way, last time I checked, when summertime happens, Madison has no power because the college students all leave it. And last time I checked, when summertime happens, we have even more power in the city of Milwaukee. Great things happen in the city, like Summerfest, like Festa Italiana, like Bastille Days. Our city is actually much, much stronger in regards to the college neighborhoods and things like that. We feel incredible about the potential for Milwaukee, and I think we’ll see many more things happen.”

Note: the online version of this article is an extended version of what appears in print. The print version also refers to the Pabst Theater Group as the Pabst Theater Foundation and has been changed for the online version per the group’s request.

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Dan Shafer, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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