The Story Behind the Milwaukee Public Library’s Local Rock Poster Collection
Last year, the Milwaukee Public Library (MPL) digitized its collection of local concert and show posters, bringing one of its most unique collections to the public and encouraging users to engage in the process of memorializing an important chapter of Milwaukee’s cultural history. The Wisconsin Concert Poster Digital Collection includes hundreds of show’s posters, mostly from early 1980s Milwaukee-area venues.
The collection is the work of Steve Bertolas-Jeske. As a high school junior in Germantown, a friend turned Bertolas-Jeske on to the music of bands such as the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls and Devo – stuff that wasn’t getting played on local radio. “As a kid, my bedroom walls were covered in posters of the Fonz, Bugs Bunny and Spiderman,” Bertolas-Jeske said. “In middle school these were replaced by rock posters.”
Bertolas-Jeske’s grandparents lived on Van Buren Street in those days, just a block from Brady Street. On weekend family trips into the city, Bertolas-Jeske and his sister would explore the neighborhood as the adults played cards. “We quickly discovered Brady Street,” he said. “Compared to our suburban neighborhood it was fantastic. Cool shops and quirky people.”
Visiting Brady Street became a regular weekend outing when Bertolas-Jeske got his driver’s license, and when it came time to decorate his college apartment in Whitewater, he found Brady Street’s telephone poles to be an unlikely source of local color. In the early 1980s, Bertolas-Jeske recalled, Milwaukee’s music scene was “buzzing,” with nearly every bar featuring live bands. The main way of promoting these shows was with posters and with Brady Street being a haven for young people, its telephone poles were plastered with cheaply-produced show bills and flyers.
One of the most interesting features of this collection is the fact that these posters were meant to be disposable. They were made cut-and-paste style, photocopied and stapled up. Bertolas-Jeske used a pocket knife to carefully remove the staples and would even occasionally go a few layers deep to acquire a poster that had been papered-over. Some posters in the collection even have scorch marks on them, a result of the old Brady Street game of trying to set “poster fires” on the polls with a flicked cigarette.
“A few were obtained directly from a band member who was putting them up as I happened to walk by,” Bertolas-Jeske said. “My most memorable acquisition was from this tall guy named Spot. He would walk around the East Side in a long coat putting up posters for the Violent Femmes… Years later I figured out that this was Brian Ritchie, the band’s bass player, doing some leg work and promoting the band.”
A collector since childhood, Bertolas-Jeske eventually covered four walls of his Whitewater apartment with show posters. He focused on bands he liked and graphics that caught his eye but grew to appreciate the paper and ink craft of the posters. He said that the local music scene changed drastically when the drinking age was changed from 18 to 21 and he eventually fell out of the habit of collecting the posters.
In 2002, Bertolas-Jeske began to thin out his various collections and decided to donate the posters to the library. The posters remained a bit of a secret gem at the library until this past year, when a digitization project gave the collection new life, complete with metadata tags that can be used to sort the posters by band and venue. The collection drew a considerable amount of attention from local music fans. Liz Kaune, MPL’s Digital Projects Librarian, said that as links to the collection made their way around social media, people who had shared Bertolas-Jeske’s habit of saving show posters began discuss their own collections. Eventually, Kaune set up a Flickr group where people could contribute images and memories.
Bertolas-Jeske also hopes that the new accessibility of the collection leads to a greater exploration of this era. “My hope is that others will be able to add their posters from this wonderful time in Milwaukee music to MPL’s online collection,” he said. “I am glad [the posters] have found a good home.”