The Modern Day Businessman

It’s a Tuesday night in November. Truth be told, there’s not a whole lot going on in Milwaukee. Luckily, there is always a friend to be found at the Pfister. It’s dinnertime, so I pop into Mason Street Grill.  A lone man drinking martinis – this must be the traveling businessman.

David Howard is on the road Monday-Friday almost every week selling natural beverages. Reed’s brand ginger beer is the flagship product. “No way, that’s one of my favorites!” I blurt out. He hates being away from his two little kids, but he tries not to focus on it.  He  pulls out his smartphone to brag, and rightfully so. Two pairs of enormous brown eyes stare back at me from the screen and I gush.

Originally from Detroit, David really likes Milwaukee and passes through a few times a year. This trip he is pushing Kambucha, that funny fermented drink that is taking health food stores by storm. He’s thinking of snow crab tonight. And about the great massage he just got at the Well Spa. Those are comforts a man deserves for a week away from family.

He puts a piece of shrimp on a bread plate and nudged it my way. “You must be Italian,” I say  “Well, Israeli” he replied. “Oh yeah, we Mediterraneans love to share food. I come from a long line of food pushers,” I admit.  We both crack up at the truth of that statement and reflect on our own families.

David is eager to hit the town and begins grilling me when I tell him I work for a radio station. I give him some suggestions for live music on the East Side and I am on my way. I didn’t want to bother David for a photograph so I am going to plug for his delicious Reed’s Ginger Beer, which aside from its healthful properties, is fantastic mixed with rum or whiskey.

On my way out, I stopped by the lobby bar and a traveling salesman of a whole different caliber stops me in my tracks.

“Oh hi, I saw you earlier. Yes, yes, it was you sitting over there, right? May I join you at the bar?” He didn’t even stop to take a breath and before I had time  to respond,  he was moving his things to the seat next to me.

Bayard offers me a handshake and a sip from his hearty glass of cognac. One sniff and I feel lightheaded. He drinks it with a side of tea, something I have never seen before.

Bayard sells insurance. Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls is one of his big clients so he likes to visit The Pfister when he’s in town. We talk about the opulence of the space and my role as the narrator.”Everyone is a storyteller,” he insists, which certainly is true.

From Conneticut, but born in Beirut, Bayard has a lot of stories to tell. I learn about how his great-great grandfather founded  the American University of Beruit in 1861. As his family history unfolds, he peppers it with words in Arabic and brags about how he can haggle with taxi drivers like a true Arab. His family continues to support work in the Middle East, but they are all back here in there states.

As the evening winds down, I bid Bayard adieu and he urges me to keep on telling stories. “It must,” I smirk, “You too – we are all storytellers, right?”


94 Years Young

I’d say a 94th birthday is tux-worthy – wouldn’t you? Ron Fons not only sported a tuxedo, unhealthy but he also flew 7,000 miles to celebrate with his mother at her favorite spot in Milwaukee, the Pfister Hotel. It’s an annual tradition, and the only time he makes it back home to Milwaukee.

Sylvia nibbles on a crab cake, smiles and has a little twinkle in her eye. She is 94 years young today. Her diminutive presence is far from the vivacious Vaudeville celebrity she once was. Her specialty was tap dance, but she also played the clarinet, piano and sax. I ask her a few questions about her days as a performer and she took me all the way back to the beginning as a 10-year-old in Rhode Island.

“There were three of us, close in age, so my mother gave us tap dancing lessons. They piled us in a car and took us all over the New England states and we performed on stage and on the radio, and then in nightclubs when we got older,” recalled Sylvia.

She even sang me the first song she ever performed on stage. Can you believe she remembered all the words? Listen here:

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“It’s all in the genes, so I gave my kids music lessons,” she said.

While his brother became a concert pianist, Ron elaborated on how he dodged his musical destiny. It involves a high school band teacher with mad-scientist messy hair who threw sheet music at him in a fit of rage. That was pretty much the turning point. He works in information technology in Hong Kong, where he’s lived for the past 26 years.

Every time Ron comes in to town, he stays at the Pfister. And Sylvia started visiting to the Pfister with a friend many years ago (she can’t recall exactly how many) after her husband passed away. She loves the ambiance and the people.

Ron and Sylvia

“Most people don’t believe me when I tell them how old I am. My heart doctor told me I was going to live until I was 100 and you know, he was the second doctor that told me that!” she declares.

What’s her secret to staying young? “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I was always very active,” Sylvia brags. She credits tap dance and bowling for keeping her fit.

Once a performer, always a performer – after all, it is in the genes.

Tea for Two, at Blu

Sipping tea while overlooking the city on a clear day is a good day to be at Blu. I spotted a pair of dapper hats sitting in front of an impressive spread of tiered silver trays with scones, cookies, sandwiches and cakes displayed like a trophy.

Go figure – Gail, from Lake Mills, is a hat maker by trade. A cluster of beads, greenery and lace adorned her camel wool hat and an interesting smattering of necklaces tangled around her neck.

Tracy and Gail

Tracy donned the classic charcoal newsboy and thick black frames, looking professor-like in his wool blazer.

“So how’s the tea?” I ask.

“Oh well do you really want to know, because I love tea and I’ve had tea all over the world,” replies Gail.

I brace myself for her assessment. She points out her favorite treats: “This one right here, this scone – it’s like God!”

Gail gives the Pfister’s tea service a 99 percent. She docks it one point only out of respect to her guest Tracy, who doesn’t like cream cheese (which really is a staple in tea sandwiches, she understands). Her only other critique was that the tea butler should actually be called the tea sommelier because it is more accurate and proper.

So naturally, my next question is, “Where is the best tea you’ve ever had?”

“Oh I don’t know, no one has ever asked that,” she reveals (which surprises me) “I’d say the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills or the Hyatt Taipei. I got to sit beside Morgan Freeman and his mother in Beverly Hills and that was really neat.”

Afternoon tea at Blu is available Friday-Sunday and by reservation only.  Call (414) 935-5950 to reserve your spot.


Santa Has Arrived

This just in from Milwaukee, Wisconsin – there has been a Santa sighting at the historic Pfister Hotel. As far as we know, this has been the first sighting of the season. He and Mrs. Claus hitched a ride with some helpful firemen to do the honors of illuminating the colossal tree decorating the lobby.

Hundreds of families gathered as the Bel Canto Chorus serenaded with traditional carols.

Kids were going crazy – some crying, some laughing. They sat on his lap, wrote wish lists to North Pole, decorated cookies and sipped cocoa. It was a sight to be seen!

Santa and Mrs. Claus will reportedly retreat to the workshop to finish up some last minute gifts and double check the naughty/nice list.

There is no denying that the Christmas season is officially here.

You can find more pictures of of the Pfister’s Holiday Tree Lighting on their Facebook page here.

Santa and Mrs. Claus light up the tree

Steampunk Society Invades the Pfister

Just in case you had any preconceived notions about the Pfister clientele, allow me to challenge those. First, watch this slideshow:

These are steampunkers. What is a steampunker? Good question – I was also unaware of this counterculture until the Steampunk Society Milwaukee held their first Maker’s Fair last Saturday at the Pfister, organized in part by the gregarious Timothy Westbrook, Pfister’s Artist in Residence.

The group emulates the culture and costumes of the late nineteenth century and Victorian era. There is also a fascination with sci-fi elements and gadgets. Most people I talked with couldn’t exactly explain what a steampunker was, but described what drew them in.

Allizarin Crimson a.k.a. Kristin Poehls is a new member whose goal was to make just one sale at the fair. Jim Best has been involved for two years and started going to events something to do in his free time. For him, it was something more productive to do than playing video games. He uses old watch pieces to create pins and jewelry.

Clinger, adorned in a metal top hat and metal tie, calls it “A classy looking way to rebel.” He rode 10 miles to get to the Pfister on his ordinary bicycle. It’s his primary mode of transportation when the weather is agreeable. Anna Rodriguez sees it as a way to express herself. She loves the creative element and the costuming that goes along with it.

Bridget Sharon started the society in Milwaukee after seeing many of the same people from Milwaukee at the Chicago events. “I saw a lot of potential in it,” she said. “We used to do ‘invasions’ where we’d all decide to go someplace and show up in costume. Now, we hold monthly events to get together and grab drinks or socialize.” There are no requirements to be a member. Events attract anywhere from 20-40 people, but there must have been at least 100 steampunkers at the Maker’s Fair.

Bridget encourages everyone to check out a Steampunk Society gathering. I agree, you have to see this for yourself. For more information, click here.

Ben and Cassie

Ben and Cassie know a thing or two about weddings. On their second date, they DJed a wedding. Combined, they have been to over 250 weddings. As you can imagine, they had a pretty good idea of what they wanted for their own wedding before Ben even popped the question.

Cassie is the sister-in-law of Ben’s good friend. They met when she started working for Sound by Design and they hung out for about year while DJing before Ben asked her out.

Cassie and Ben blissfully happy

So here is the part you all want to know – how did he propose? It was an intricate cat and mouse chase that sent Cassie on an “errand” for her boss delivering a package to the Anaba Tea Room. Little did she know,  Ben would be there waiting on the rooftop and her engagement ring was actually inside the package she was supposed to be delivering.

“We knew we wanted to get married almost right away, it was just a matter of timing. We had been talking about it. I held on to the ring for a month before I decided the perfect way to propose because I wanted to surprise her,” admits Ben.

Anaba shut down the rooftop so Ben could light some candles and be alone with her when she arrived.  “She found me up there and knew right away what was going on,” he said. Of course, Cassie said yes.

The plan almost didn’t work though when a coworker offered to drop off the package for her since she was going that way. Luckily the boss intervened and insisted Cassie hand deliver the package.

Ben took her to dinner at Bacchus that night and  surprised Cassie again by arranging for her family and friends to meet them at Blu for a celebratory drink.

“It was a super overwhelming day. I was so anxious and nervous. This is the best part of the day now that she said yes – I can finally relax,” Ben exhales.

Now all they have to do is worry about finding a date and a venue for a June wedding in Puerto Rico. Something tells me wedding planning will be cinch for these two.


A Cup of Joe, with Joe

If you’ve ever been in the lobby lounge during the day, you’ve surely seen Joe drinking coffee.

Smartly dressed – dapper even. His black plastic comb is neatly tucked into his shirt pocket. He loves to dance and insists he convinced Mr. Marcus to keep a section of the original tile floor in the lobby lounge for dancing. He reads two newspapers everyday; “Well, it depends on the day. And sometimes, I only get to the headlines,” he concedes.

Joe Charney in repose…

Joe Charney is a storyteller through and through. In our 40-minute conversation I learned about the diamond business – from industrial diamonds used in WWII to the De Beers empire. I learned about his meeting with Santiago Calatrava and his parents’ neighbors’ daughter, who made the movie The Terminator.

He told it like this: “Hurd was the guy’s name that lived next door. He had a daughter. She was an enigma. A scrappy, skinny little thing that picked a fight over anything. He called up one day and said that his daughter  had made a movie and I thought what morbid thing could she ever create. Turns out it was a blockbuster – The Terminator. I was really surprised.”

He’s still pretty sharp. He must be in his 70s, though he tells me he’s 200. “I’ve been coming here for over 50 years – before Ben Marcus bought the place!” Joe declares. He likes the ambience and meeting people from around the world. He compares it to the Waldorf Astoria in New York, “It’s a place where the biggest names in business meet, where the hustlers and the swingers and the doers come together.”

The “dance floor”

I asked how he’s seen it change. “Less travel among salespeople and CEOs – probably because of  video conferencing and restricted budgets,” he offers.

Joe suggested the story of the day that I should tell is the aftermath of the election. “Let’s not get into politics,” I suggest.

Just as quickly as he brings it up, he digresses: “You know, the best things in life are either illegal, immoral or fattening.”  His wisdom is as brilliant as his stories.


And So It Begins…

First day on the job as the Pfister Narrator and I feel like I’ll get used to hanging around this place pretty quickly. Greeted by the bubbly Timothy Westbrook concocting another masterpiece in his studio, I walked in on what I thought would be a quiet Sunday because of the Packer game. I was mistaken. Brunch –the most extraordinary brunch I have ever seen–  was just wrapping up and sure enough, there was a TV hidden in that stately armoire, so the lobby lounge comforted a roaring chorus of Packers fans.

Within minutes of cozying up to the bar, Val asked if I drank alcohol and if I wanted to try something delicious. Two questions I rarely say no to. This was apparently a holiday tradition and a rite of passage for new employees. “Must try the Glog,” advised Timothy. It was warm, smooth and strong. Be sure to ask Val for a glass next time you are in.

I was happy to run into Ed Makowski, the third Pfister Narrator, and his adorable offspring Edmund. He recounted every detail about their trip to the art museum, but acted uncharacteristically shy when I asked to take a picture. Ed shared suggestions for getting to the good stories a few hidden spots in the hotel.

As you can imagine, the Pfister has been heavy on my mind the past few months, and by pure serendipity, I came across this article in the Shepherd Express. (I got my first break as a writer in the Shepherd.) It’s a quick read about the history of this gem and its founder, German immigrant Guido Pfister. It got me thinking about the modern application of this Historic space. I will be studying these paradoxes as they unfold and seeking out the characters passing through.

By all means, if there is something you are dying to know or some secret you’d like me to uncover – let me know via the comments or directly at More to come!