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The Marcus Center Turns 40

Milwaukee's Memorable History of Performing Arts

Aug. 27, 2009
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The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, a venue that has hosted artists ranging from Bob Hope to Bob Marley, from Alvin Ailey to cast members of Zorba the Musical, turns 40 in a few weeks. In addition to top-flight symphony music and theater productions, the Marcus Center boasts an impressive, varied history, including a concert featuring 25 tuba players all dressed in Santa Claus outfits and the largest gathering of clowns and mimes ever assembled in the United States. It’s also the only house in the world where Rudolf Nureyev was streaked by a naked man who jetted across the stage.

Plans began as early as 1945 for a war memorial to provide for “art, music, drama, public discussion and social assembly.” A $5 million, three-auditorium center was proposed, but controversy over location scaled back plans to the Eero Saarinen-designed War Memorial on the lakefront.

Construction on what became the Marcus Center began with Chicago architect Harry Weese’s blueprints in June 1966. Plans called for a major music hall, a thrust stage auditorium for live theater (intended as a rehearsal space for the Florentine Opera) and a recital hall. Milwaukee County agreed to establish two parks in conjunction with the new center, Red Arrow to the east and Pere Marquette to the west. The boat landing on the Milwaukee River was the precursor to the current RiverWalk.

The Performing Arts Center, as it was known until a decade ago, officially opened Sept. 17, 1969, at a price of $12.7 million. The gala opening included the Milwaukee Symphony, Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor and guest appearances by stars of the American Ballet Theatre. Touring acts during the first month of operation included the New York Philharmonic, Duke Ellington, National Ballet of Canada, Hildegarde and Louis Armstrong.

There were a few early glitches, of course. The set for the Milwaukee Rep’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was built offsite and didn’t fit the Todd Wehr stage. And parts of the immense golden curtain in Uihlein Hall unraveled and pelted musicians of the Milwaukee Symphony. Overall, however, the center proved to be a huge success, and avoided major structural changes for nearly 30 years.

Renovations Needed

Renovations became necessary in the mid-’90s when some of the travertine marble encasing the building began to fall to the ground. Other changes included an enlarged lobby, acoustic refinements and backstage improvements. The Performing Arts Center, Milwaukee County and individual contributions shared the $22 million expense. In honor of the largest single private donation, the name of the building was changed to the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, though the facility is not part of the Marcus Corp.

The reopening on Nov. 6, 1997, featured local arts groups, Aretha Franklin, artist Peter Max and soprano June Anderson.

According to union stagehand Jeffrey Hicks, the backstage renovations were sorely needed. “In the 1960s, it was not uncommon for architects to design theaters without regard for backstage practicalities,” Hicks says. “When the decision was made to renovate the building, all department heads from both the front and back of the house were consulted, and the results were fantastic. For instance, the movable orchestral shell, a new idea in 1966, took nine men to shuttle it in place. After the redesign, it takes only four. Today the center is considered one of the best-equipped venues in the country.”

The center’s three main performance spaces are Uihlein Hall, with seating for 2,305, and Vogel Hall and the Todd Wehr Theater, both seating just fewer than 500. Filling those seats is vital to the Marcus Center’s financial success.

Balancing the Budget

“The center conducts no annual fund-raising, but has managed to achieve a balanced budget every year,” says Paul Mathews, president and CEO of the Marcus Center. “We rely solely on earned income so as not to compete with arts organizations. The center receives 28% of its operating budget from the county, which today translates to $1.28 million, an amount which has held steady for years.” The Bradley Pavilion, rented out for weddings and corporate events, brings in additional money as well.

One of the largest income earners for the center is the popular Broadway touring series, in which Broadway hits come to the stage in Milwaukee. “Our Broadway series is responsible not only for earned income for the center, but also for hundreds of thousands of dollars spent at local hotels, restaurants and shops, both by local patrons and visiting artists,” says Heidi Lofy, vice president of marketing and public relations.

Supporting Resident Groups

“We schedule the Broadway series around our resident groups,” Mathews explains. “We consider ourselves a collaborative partner with our resident groups, and we will always provide them with affordable, nonprofit rates and other support.”

Resident organizations include the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Ballet, Florentine Opera, First Stage Children’s Theater, Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, City Ballet Theatre and Hansberry-Sands Theatre. The building also provides office space for the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF).

“The center maintains a full staff, and over 200 volunteers,” Lofy says. “Our house staff is professionally trained in first aid and emergency preparedness, and consistently receives the highest praise from visiting artists and shows.”

Fortieth anniversary celebrations have already begun with a month-long run of The Phantom of the Opera. A new series of gospel music performances begins in September, and more festivities will soon be announced. As Mathews says, “It’s going to be a memorable year!”

Photos by Miranda Chaput


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