Symphony Move Huge for Downtown
A big win for the orchestra and Downtown, with a minor impact on Marcus Center.
It sounded like a revolution for Milwaukee’s performing arts scene. In one week we were met with news that both the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Milwaukee Ballet were poised to build their own performance space, meaning the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts would lose two of its main tenants.
As it turns out, the Ballet story, reported by OnMilwaukee.com, is quite misleading. Two sources close to the situation told me the ballet will not be leaving the Marcus Center and Anne Metcalfe, a spokesperson for the ballet, says “I can confirm that Milwaukee Ballet is not intending to build its own performance space.” But they might be looking to move their offices and ballet studio, now located at 504 W. National Ave., to a Third Ward location. Metcalfe would say only that “To best fulfill our mission, a possible new home for the Ballet has long been a consideration. We continue to explore options.”
As for the orchestra, there have been discussions of the MSO finding its own space for more than 30 years, which made me wonder about its $120 million proposal to renovate the old Warner movie theater at 212 W. Wisconsin Ave. into a symphonic hall. But I’m now convinced the project could and should happen and that it will be hugely beneficial for both the symphony and for Milwaukee’s downtown. This could plug the last major hole in Downtown, helping usher in a resurgence of W. Wisconsin Ave. and the Grand Avenue Mall.
MSO president Mark Niehaus says the project has a “triple bottom line” impact: (1) helping the symphony control its destiny and hike its earned revenue, (2) saving and preserving a gorgeous historic building (“We’re probably the only tenant big enough to do this,” he says) and (3) sparking a renaissance on Wisconsin Ave.
There’s actually a fourth bottom line, though it’s an artistic one: the old movie theater has far better acoustics than the Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall, where the symphony has performed for nearly five decades. Back in the early 1980s I wrote a column for Milwaukee Magazine about the hall’s acoustics, with musicians offering countless criticisms. It simply wasn’t a good hall acoustically and fell short both in delivering a full, balanced sound for audiences and allowing musicians to hear each other.
Former music directors like Lukas Foss complained about the acoustics while his successor Zdenek Macal tended to push for a louder sound to make up for the problem. This was pointed to as a reason the MSO was panned in a 1989 performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, with the New York Times’ Bernard Holland infamously declaring “the Milwaukee Symphony is not a very good orchestra.” (Even then this was a rare critical pan.)
In the 1990s improvements were made in the hall, including the addition of a system to electronically enhance the reverberation, which helped, but didn’t eliminate the basic problem of the hall’s configuration. Uihlein “is about as wide as it is deep, whereas the Warner theater is more of a shoebox,” Niehaus notes — meaning longer than it is deep, like most of the great symphonic halls. “Uihlein is much better for theater and opera and ballet.”
As far back as 2001, the symphony did an acoustical test at the Warner, Niehaus notes. The Marcus Corporation, which owns the theater, spent considerable money to eliminate its old division into a duplex theater, simply so the sound of the entire hall could be tested. A plywood stage was built and the orchestra tried out the hall for an entire day. “It was an unqualified success,” Niehaus recalls.
Niehaus was then the symphony’s principal trumpet player and he was struck by the Warner’s wonderful, “naturally reverberant” acoustics. In 2012, Niehaus was hired as MSO president, and it may not be entirely a coincidence that the first viable attempt to create a new hall has been overseen by a former musician. (Though Niehaus says it’s all driven by business reasons.)
The symphony was left performing in a hall where it couldn’t get the prime holiday dates, because the ballet had it locked up for the Nutcracker. But the situation got worse after the Marcus Center, under pressure to lower its annual subsidy from Milwaukee County officials, began booking touring Broadway shows in the mid-1990s.
As a result, Niehaus notes, only 23 to 25 of its 40 weeks of performances are held at Uihlein, with venues like the Pabst, Riverside, St. Josaphat Basilica and others filling the gaps. Worse, the dates it can get for Uihlein are often the less desirable ones. Even worse, the MSO typically has to wait till the dates for the Broadway shows are filled before they can nail down guest musicians and conductors.
All of these constraints significantly reduce the earned income potential of the symphony. With its own hall, the MSO could skip bad times like Easter Week, and maximize boom times like the Christmas and New Year’s season, while avoiding concerts in smaller venues like churches and being better able to compete with other orchestras internationally to nail down top performers and conductors. The MSO could also gain further revenue by renting out the hall for the 12 weeks it’s not in use. And with Gary Witt’s empire of the Pabst, Riverside and Turner Hall nearly at capacity, the refurbished Warner would give him another unique architectural gem to sell to touring acts.
The project as envisioned would purchase and develop the neighboring two-story building at 200-208 W. Wisconsin Ave. It would be connected to the new concert hall through an adjoining wall and converted into an expanded lobby, which could include a bar area, box office, coat check and restrooms. And all the revenue from the bar and other revenue makers would go to the symphony. The theater building has 12 floors and Niehaus may reserve its top two floors for a penthouse-level small performance space that could bring in more audiences and revenue.
The theater building’s basement could provide dressing rooms for musicians and small warm-up spaces. The MSO would also save money spent trucking instruments in and out of Uihlein; they would simply stay at the symphony’s new home.
Niehaus says the MSO has raised half of the $120 million needed, which would include $20 million in endowment money. Much of it is pledges contingent on the project happening but some of it is cash given as venture capital to get the project rolling. As for the problem the Milwaukee Art Museum faced, when its Calatrava project ran over budget and ate up the endowment money intended to spin off annual operating support, Niehaus says “we will have a guaranteed maximum price negotiated with a contractor before a shovel hits the ground.”
Music lover Myron Heaton, who created the Grand Warner Theatre Trust to save the historic theater and whose organization has now essentially been folded within the MSO effort, say Niehaus has faced a divided donor community, with “some not wanting to leave Uihlein, some wanting to build a new hall, and some favoring a move to the Warner.”
Grand Warner Theatre (2013)
But Niehaus exudes confidence about raising the money, and selling the project. For older suburban MSO fans, a location on Wisconsin Ave. may be daunting, but he notes the Water Street was hardly a prime location when the PAC opened in 1969.
And the reality is that Downtown’s west side is about to explode, with the Bucks arena and Live Block soon to open, with some 700 residential units being developed on or near Wisconsin Ave., with aggressive new local owners redeveloping the Grand Avenue mall, with a glitzy new hotel project likely to fill the empty block on 4th and Wisconsin, and with Marquette University expanding as far east as 7th street. Symphony goers will be able to park in the Grand Avenue’s huge parking lot, which gets most of its current customers during the day; the mall’s co-owner Tony Janowiec is thrilled about the MSO plan and is nationally known for creating a pleasant, convenient experience in his parking lots.
As for the impact on the Marcus Center, it will lose at least 23 weeks of rental income, but I’m told it amounts to well less than a tenth of its $11.3 million annual budget. Marcus Center President Paul Mathews was out of town and unavailable for comment, but County Executive Chris Abele expressed confidence the Marcus Center would do fine.
“There are some scalable costs [to reduce expenses] and I wouldn’t underestimate the Marcus team’s ability to fill up more dates,” he says. “If I were on the Marcus Center’s board I would be talking not about the loss but where the opportunities lie.”
As for the symphony’s relocation, Abele, a former MSO board member, hailed it as a home run. “Uihlein Hall was not really designed for a symphony,” he notes. “The Warner building is architecturally distinctive, it’s right downtown, and it’s going to have an increasing density and activity around it. The is as optimum a time for the symphony to move as there ever will be.”