Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Milwaukee Has a Singing Mayor Again

Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson tries singing at city's 176th Birthday Party, before a big turnout of politicians.

By - Jan 31st, 2022 05:01 pm
Happy 176th Birthday Milwaukee! Photo by Michael Horne.

Happy 176th Birthday Milwaukee! Photo by Michael Horne.

After a one-year absence, the City of Milwaukee Birthday Party was once again held live at the magnificent Grain Exchange Room downtown. It drew about 170 civic leaders and a fair sampling of candidates to the historic Chamber of Commerce Building from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 27. The highlight of the celebration, the signature annual event of the Milwaukee Press Club, was the presence of a singing mayor after a 16-year drought. That highlight occurred when Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson invited other elected officials to join him onstage for an a cappella rendition of “Happy Birthday.” We’ll get to that in a bit. But first: the party!

The masked and vaxxed event celebrated the 176th anniversary of the incorporation of the City of Milwaukee on Jan. 31, 1846. As is the custom, the party had a theme. This year it was “The City of Champions,” a reference to the victorious Milwaukee Bucks who took home the NBA Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy last year. Also celebrated, and depicted in a whimsical cityscape cake by Aggie’s Cakes and Pastries, were the “unsung champions,” the

 … essential workers, first responders, public health and medical experts, teachers, and media representatives who continue to provide critical care and important information to our community during these unprecedented and trying times.

Governor Tony Evers briefly addressed the audience, jokingly admitting it was nice to be in a building that is older than he is. (It is also much more ornate.) He then pivoted to the serious business of money. Earlier that day he announced plans to send a $150 check to all Wisconsinites from an unexpected budget surplus of nearly $3 billion. An additional $750 million would go to K-12, technical college and university education funding. “One of the reasons we have a surplus is Milwaukee,” Evers said, tacitly acknowledging the city’s role as the “engine of Wisconsin’s economy.”

Politicians Make the Scene

Gov. Evers, who is running for re-election this November, was just one of many candidates for public office at the event, some of whom like Johnson, Sheriff Earnell Lucas, and State Senator Lena Taylor, are running against each other (in their case, for mayor). Looking out into the crowd the chivalrous Cavalier invited elected officials up to the stage for the birthday song, asking first for Sen. Taylor to join in, which she did, clad in a bright red jacket over a basic black skirt and blouse. County Executive David Crowley, who is not facing re-election, was there in a trim black suit, belting out the birthday song near Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet, who eschewed her judicial robes for a bright patterned dress accessorized with a broad black belt.

Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes is not seeking re-election, but instead is headed to a Democratic primary election for U.S. Senator to replace Republican Ron Johnson. Dressed in a blue sport coat over a grey sweater and a tieless striped shirt combo, Barnes posed for a photograph with Corri Hess, a Wisconsin Public Radio host and current president of the press club, dressed in a pleated ensemble in splotchy black patterns over a burgundy base.

Other Interesting People

Mary Schanning was there with her husband Craig Schanning, presumably arriving au pied from their pied-à-terre located just a block away. Mary Schanning was appointed as the General Counsel/Chief Administrative Officer of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. in December following a brief tenure as the attorney for the Department of City Development, to which she decamped after a long stint in the City Attorney’s office as soon as Tearman Spencer was elected to that position in 2020. One of her first acts in her new job was to advertise for a lawyer to assist her with the nonstop legal juggling act that is the essence of the entertainment business.

She spent some time chatting with her former DCD boss, Lafayette Crump. (Spencer’s absence from the event mercifully spared her the obligation of interacting with that former boss as well.) The Schannings also visited with Ald. Scott Spiker, one of the few of that position to be seen at the party, although former Ald. Terry Witkowski showed up for old time’s sake. Also visiting with a former boss was Joel Brennan, who, as the head of the Department of Administration, was the Evers administration’s top cabinet member until his resignation Jan. 17 to become head of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. The Brewers Hill resident says he looks forward to his new job on W. Freshwater Way, and much prefers his new 2.5 mile commute to his previous 90-mile slog to Madison.

The Return of a Singing Mayor?

Milwaukee’s civic calendar provides three opportunities for mayoral vocalization. They are the City Birthday Party, the Fourth of July and the City Christmas Tree lighting ceremony. Since the acting mayor only took his position on December 23rd, he missed his chance to show his pipes for the tree celebration, so the birthday party represented his debut. Experts tell us that the song is best performed in the key of F-Major, but nobody does that. In ensemble performance by elected officials (or even normal people) the tune is rendered simultaneously in the key of each singer’s whim presenting a musical cacophony that is the vocal equivalent of an orchestra tuning up pre-concert. If Johnson is to make a return appearance as mayoral vocalist in the Fourth of July, he will first have to win a primary election in February, and then the general election in April.

Previous Singing Mayors

Milwaukee’s most prominent singing mayor was Carl Zeidler, (1908-1942). Zeidler had an impressive baritone voice and boyish good looks which even his supporters considered to be among his most significant political attributes. In October 1940, he sang “God Bless America” at the Eagles Club with an audience of 10,000 young servicemen about to be shipped off to war. Zeidler resigned his office in 1942, joined the Navy, and was lost in a German submarine attack of the USS LaSalle on November 7th that year. He was succeeded by 74-year old John Bohn (1869-1955) who was not noted for being a tunesmith. Nor was Frank Zeidler (1912-2006), Carl’s younger brother, who served as mayor from 1948-1960, known for his public singing.

Things were different at home, his son Michael Zeidler, a Riverwest resident tells me:

When we were youngsters in the late 1940s-early 1950s, Frank would play the piano and we would sing, usually the folk songs of the era. [The Zeidler Family Papers includes a copy of the 1913 songbook “Some Songs for Socialist Singers” — Ed.]

Zeidler goes on to say:

But I can’t remember one time that he would sing in public. It could have been a reaction to the loss of his brother. It was never articulated as such, though.

Perhaps that was just as well for the collective ears of the Body Politic. As Richard S. Davis, the Milwaukee Journal columnist who was named as “Journalist of the Century” by the press club in 1985, noted upon Zeidler’s election:

 He is no great shakes to look at, cannot sing for sour apples, has an almost perpetual furrow in his forehead, would much rather read than talk, and must be set down as an introvert, while overall appearing ―somewhat frail.

Frank Zeidler was succeeded by Henry Maier (1918-1994), who lost to Zeidler in 1948, yet was to become America’s longest-serving mayor, in office from 1960 to 1988. Maier often appeared with a full brass band and no shortage of accordion accompaniment, going so far as to pen the words for the Summerfest Polka, which he recorded at the Dave Kennedy Recording Studios in Milwaukee in 1968, performing it as often as you could stand it.

John Norquist (1949-) followed Maier in office in 1988 and served until 2004. When he ran in his first mayoral primary, he would often be asked the stock question of “what set him apart from the others?” Norquist would respond by rising from his chair, drawing himself to his full 6-foot nine-inch height, as if to point out that in politics the victory often goes to the tallest. He would follow that by singing a couple of bars of Maier’s polka, so as to assure the voters that they could count on the continuity of this important mayoral tradition. Norquist frequently sang at events public and private and was probably at his best at the Christmas Tree lighting ceremonies. Even in retirement he sang, most notably at his 70th birthday party in Chicago in 2019 where he was accompanied onstage by Milwaukee stars Mike Sieger, Juli Wood, Robin Pluer and John Sieger.

Norquist was followed by Tom Barrett, who did not sing along at the holiday ceremonies, and probably lip-synched any “Happy Birthday” renditions he was forced to endure. When he took office in 2004 his silence shattered the illusions of this writer, who at 50 years of age, had known none but singing mayors since he was a child of six. Now, nearing 68, and with the sunset looming, will my final years and my dimming ears be once again comforted by the soothing sounds of mayoral music as they were in childhood?

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Categories: Plenty of Horne

2 thoughts on “Plenty of Horne: Milwaukee Has a Singing Mayor Again”

  1. Thomas Gaudynski says:

    Can we have a forum pre-primary for auditions? Seems like an important qualification. Who cares what brewery or sports team the candidates like.

  2. John Norquist says:

    Summerfest Polka

    Go to Milwaukee, how humming a city you’ll see.
    Sing in Milwaukee, tra la la la la lee
    Prosit Milwaukee, so gaily and so free
    Milwaukee Milwaukee Milwaukee
    A happy place to be!

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