“I’ve learned a lot from people,” says Joseph Charney, who has been a regular at the Pfister since the ‘50s and still visits at least three times a week.
Charney, who is semi-retired from the real estate business, is usually at the Lobby Bar, drinking a coffee and reading his paper. But the drink and the news are just time-fillers between conversations.
“Wisdom does not come easily and wise people always look for good conversation,” says Charney. “When you’re living, you’re always learning. It doesn’t stop in college or after college.”
If the Pfister awarded honorary degrees in conversation, Charney would deserve a doctorate. He has clearly met many, many people over the years inside the hotel and has forged long-term friendships with the concierge and bartenders.
“Have you seen her plaque?” he asks me, nodding at the bartender.
“What plaque?” I ask.
“Valerie,” he says. “Where’s your plaque?”
“It’s over there,” she says, pointing to a corner.
“It’s no good over there. Show her your plaque,” he says.
I look at the plaque. It’s a Best Bloody Mary In The City type plaque.
“Nice plaque,” I say, then turn to Charney. “You ever drink cocktails?”
“I’m not interested in drinking,” he says. “Until after 6 o’clock.”
“What are your favorite cocktails?” I ask.
“In essence, it could be anything from an Old Fashioned to a mint julep in summer. It varies so much. It’s what hits you at the time. I’m not one of those people that has a set way of eating. ‘It’s Tuesday and therefore I’m eating chicken.’ No, I’m not that way. Whatever comes up, comes up,” he says.
Charney is the same way with people. Whoever sits next to him at the bar is a candidate for conversation. He tells me about a couple who were at the hotel waiting on the completion of a railroad car they purchased.
He also spoke of a man who had recently switched careers.
“He had been working for a great diamond conglomerate, and they were always watching everyone. They would watch the person sent out to do the job and another person was watching that person. It was a very secretive corporation and they were rather stringent, always checking everyone all the time, and it got on his nerves and he finally left the company,” says Charney.
The man went to work for a large beer company and told Joe he had just returned from Russia, where he bought some breweries.
“Beer? In Russia? I thought they only made vodka,” says Charney, chuckling. “But even more interesting is he told me the hairs on the back of his neck weren’t raised up anymore because there wasn’t anyone watching him all the time.”
Charney grew up in Whitefish Bay and Shorewood. After he graduated from high school he went on a work study program overseas and traveled through Europe where he developed a deep appreciation for art and architecture.
He started coming to the Pfister in his twenties.
“I enjoyed the place immensely. They had real musicians rather than DJs. The Crown Room was on top of the hotel. I saw an up-and-coming Joan Rivers. And Jack Jones. So many great singers and performers. It was glorious,” he says.
Charney got married in the later sixties – his wife is now deceased – and the two often ate in the English Tea Room. Charney has one son who was married at the Pfister’s Imperial Room a few years ago.
“It was beautifully done. It was impeccable,” he says.
A couple hundred guests came from all over the country and they were surprised by the sophistication of Milwaukee, the beauty of the Pfister Hotel and the size of Lake Michigan.
“‘I thought you lived on a lake?’ a guest said. “But you live on an ocean!’ They couldn’t get over that they couldn’t see the other side of the lake from the shoreline,” says Charney.
Before Ben Marcus bought the Pfister Hotel in 1962, Joe tells me it was operated by a couple of businessmen from New York. Apparently they asked Joe, who was known for his savvy business practices, for entertainment ideas.
“The winter was terrible that year and I got a call from them and the snow was coming down and they said, ‘what can we do to bring people into this hotel and to liven it up?’”
Because Latin American music was very popular at the time, Joe suggested they go to Mexico and hire a great band with a dynamic lead singer and bring them back to the hotel. So they did.
“The group came here and the biggest snow storm hit the city you ever saw and nobody came to the first show,” he says.
A week later he got another call from the owners.
“We don’t have enough waitresses! We don’t have enough bartenders! The place is mobbed!” they said.
At one point in his life, Charney says he was offered the job as head of entertainment at a hotel in the Bahamas. He declined because he already had a successful real estate business as well as a family.
“It turns out they then sold that hotel in the Bahamas to a man. His name was Hugh Hefner. That was the time of the Playboy plane and the bunnies and he would take his staff and clientele and fly them down to his hotel in the Bahamas. Guess I missed out on that,” Charney says, smiling.
Then he stops talking and looks at me for a few seconds.
“You are going to be awed by the people who show up in this place,” he says.
I look at him for a few seconds. “I already am,” I say.