Pabst Theater

The Pabst Theater is an indoor performance and concert venue and landmark of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States. Colloquially known as "the Pabst", the theater hosts about 100 events per year. Built in 1895, it is the fourth-oldest continuously operating theater in the United States, and has presented such notables as pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, actor Laurence Olivier, and ballerina Anna Pavlova, as well as various current big-name musical acts.

Pabst Theater
Grande Olde Lady
Southern façade c.1970
Full nameCaptain Frederick Pabst Theater
Address144 E Wells St
Milwaukee, WI 53202-3519
LocationEast Town
OwnerPabst Theater Group
OperatorPTG Live Events
Broke groundDecember 1894
OpenedNovember 9, 1895 (1895-11-09)
Renovated1928, 1976, 1989, 1998, 2002
Construction cost$300,000
($8.69 million in 2018 dollars[1])
ArchitectOtto Strack
Venue Website
Pabst Theater
Architectural styleGerman Renaissance Revival, Late Victorian
NRHP reference #72000063[2]
Significant dates
Added to NRHPApril 11, 1972
Designated NHLDecember 4, 1991[3]

The Pabst is known for its opulence as well as its role in German-American culture in Milwaukee. It is officially designated a City of Milwaukee Landmark and a State of Wisconsin Historical Site, and was also designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991. It is sometimes called the "Grande Olde Lady", being the oldest theater in Milwaukee's theater district.

The Pabst is a traditional proscenium stage theater with two balconies, for a total capacity of 1,339 people. It hosts approximately 100 events per year, including music, comedy, dance, opera, and theater events.[4] The theater also has a hydraulic orchestra pit, adding to its suitability for virtually any performing arts event. The auditorium itself is drum-shaped and is decorated in reds and maroons with gold and silver accents. A large, 2-ton Austrian crystal chandelier hangs over the auditorium. The theater also boasts a staircase crafted from white Italian Carrara marble and a proscenium arch highlighted in gold leaf, which frames the stage.

The theater features a historic organ, which once provided accompaniment for silent films. The instrument is a 4 manuals; 20 ranks opus of M.P. Moller.[5]


Brewer Frederick Pabst purchased the Nunnemacher Grand Opera House in 1890 from Jacob Nunnemacher and his son, Hermann, and renamed it Das Neue Deutsche Stadt-Theater (The New German City Theater). The structure was damaged by arson in 1893, and subsequently completely destroyed by fire in January 1895. Pabst ordered it rebuilt at once, and it reopened as The Pabst Theater later in 1895.

The Pabst was designed by architect Otto Strack in the tradition of European opera houses and the German Renaissance Revival style. He made it one of the most fire-proof theaters of its day, as well as one of the most opulent.

The Pabst played an important role in the German American culture of early 20th century Milwaukee, when the city was known as Deutsch Athen (German Athens). The venue was home to the German-language productions for many years, due to declining revenues began scheduling performances in English by 1918.

The Pabst has undergone several renovations, the first of which occurred in 1928. In 1976, after a long decline, it was restored to its original style. In 1989, a colonnade was added connecting the theater to the Milwaukee Center. The latest renovations took place in 2000 after the Pabst Theater Foundation purchased the facility. Michael Cudahy began the renovation fundraising by contributing $1 million. Work included adding two elevators, public restrooms, replacing some seats and upgrading the ventilation system. The theater also added Cudahy's Irish Pub in an expanded lobby space.

As the Pabst Theater was designed after the best German Opera Houses, its acoustics are outstanding.[6]

Technological innovations

Otto Strack employed many technological innovations when designing the theater, including one of the country's first fire curtains, all-electrical illumination, and a very early air conditioning system which employed fans and large amounts of ice.[6] The theater also contained an electric organ, an innovation at that time. The theater is believed the first to employ a counterweight system for hoisting scenery, which was installed after World War I and remains in use today.

Other uses

In 2016, the Aaron Biebert documentary, A Billion Lives, made its North American premiere at the Pabst[7] and in 2017 the Pabst hosted the premiere of Batman & Jesus by Milwaukee native Jozef K. Richards.[8]


The Pabst Theater has the names of 15 notable artists inscribed about the cornice of the drum-shaped auditorium: Ibsen, Wagner, Molière, Aristotle, Michelangelo, Dante, Aeschylus, Thespis, Homer, Raphael, Shakespeare, Garrick, Beethoven, Goethe, and renovator Bernard O. Gruenke of Conrad Schmitt Studios.

See also


  1. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved January 2, 2019.
  2. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. April 15, 2008.
  3. "Pabst Theater". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-06-30.
  4. "Pabst Theater". Wisconsin Presenters Network Guide. 2006-04-19. Archived from the original on April 19, 2006. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
  5. "M. P. Moller (1928)". Organ Historical Society. Retrieved 2018-09-07.
  6. Leahy, Doyle Brian; Fay, Mark (2009). Encore!: the renaissance of Wisconsin opera houses. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press. pp. 75–91. ISBN 978-0870204302. OCLC 314840141.
  7. Sparango, Jane (July 27, 2016). "Award-Winning Documentary "A Billion Lives" Premieres in North America Aug. 6 at Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee, WI". Oak Creek Patch. Wisconsin. Retrieved 2018-08-07.
  8. "Mythinformation Conference". Mythicist Milwaukee. Retrieved 2017-02-06.

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