A Pfister Take on “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”

Each year, on the day after Thanksgiving, the Pfister Hotel holds its annual tree lighting ceremony.  Featuring cookies and crafts for the kids, the fabulous carols of the Bel Canto Chorus, and a special appearance by the jolly ol’ man himself, this year’s ceremony was as memorable as those past. But did you know about the work that goes into setting up our tree?  For hours prior to the ceremony – starting on Thanksgiving day, the tree is tirelessly assembled by a fantastic group of people.  And just to give them their due, we’ve captured all of that work in a minute and a half.

Twas the night of Thanksgiving
And all throughout the hotel
Holiday magic was happening
Compliments of Santa’s Secret Decorating Elves

The Pfister tree went up overnight
To the amazement of staff and guests
The elves were frantically working
Scurrying back and forth I can attest.

As Friday dawned bright and early
The lobby was full of holiday decorations
The garland, the bows, and the ornaments,
The last minute preparations.

For soon the lobby would be full
With children squealing in glee.
Santa would soon be arriving
To officially light the Pfister tree.

The Bel Canto Chorus began signing
Their voices in perfect tune
The carols they were lovely
And they helped set the right mood

The radio then buzzed
“JOE TO OMAR COME IN”
“OUR SPECIAL VIP HAS ARRIVED”
“WITH MILWAUKEE’S FINEST FIREMEN”

Omar than made the announcement,
The crowd hushed to hear him say
“BOYS AND GIRLS I HAVE A SANTA SIGHTING”
“AND HE’S COMING ON A FIREMAN’S SLEIGH”

The doors then burst open
Santa marched down the lobby aisle
Up to Omar he strode,
With a jolly laugh and big smile

“THIS TREE IS JUST LOVELY”
Santa said with a grin,
“BUT I THINK WE NEED TO LIGHT IT UP”
“TO LET THIS CELEBRATION BEGIN”

“10-9-8-7”
The crowd and Santa cheered with great glee.
“6-5-4-3-2-1”
“NOW LIGHT UP THAT TREE”

The she was aglow
As were many the faces
Santa visited with each child
Sticky hands and sticky faces

The day it was grand
The Pfister tree shines so bright
Merry Christmas to all
And to all a good night.

By Michelle McCarragher

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

Every Three Seconds

“You want to know about Indian culture?” he asks with a raised brow.

I pick up my pen, square my shoulders, and give an affirmative bring-it-on nod.

The lobby lounge is relaxed after a full day of visitors and tourists trafficking through the hotel. I’m having an evening coffee at the bar and my guest, Murali, is unwinding with a glass of whiskey. His flight from India touched down only a few hours ago. He’s in the t-shirt business and his work carries him all over the globe: Sri Lanka, Australia, Europe, Japan, Singapore. He’s in Milwaukee for the first time.

“I left home for work as a young man. I have traveled with my work ever since,” he says.

An exporting entrepreneur in his early 40s, Murali tells me that he lives in the southern region of India now,400 kilometers from his native city.  With his extensive travel schedule, I ask how often he gets to his home village.

“Every year,” he says. His dark eyes are piercing and certain.  “I travel home every year to worship at my temple. It is wonderful.”

Murali tells me about the full day at his home temple, with 150 families together from sunrise to sunset. He even clears napkins from the bar and a tray of mixed nuts to illustrate the generations and linkages of men who worship with him.  He continues worship traditions in his new city, of course, but explains how each region of India will have varied approaches and styles.

“There are 24 states in India and more than 24 languages,” he says.  “Even 60 miles away, there is a different language.  The celebrations are similar, but will look different from region to region.”

“After living away for so long,” I ask, “does your native city always feel familiar when you visit or oddly foreign?” Murali has been cordial with me so far, but understandably guarded. He lets his first smile peek through when I ask about “home.”

“My native city is always home.” Murali says.  He pauses for a moment, his face becoming serious again, and adds, “Things do change where green fields are now homes or shops. Everywhere in the world, things are becoming commercialized. Still, we appreciate tradition.”

I ask about these traditions and Murali lists just a few of the festival celebrations from his culture. There’s a River Festival, a Sun Festival, a festival for studies and a festival for the harvest.  Each month, he says, there is a different celebration with a different focus, and even a different food.

“Each celebration is regenerating,” he says.  “If you think about it, the total of these celebrations are essential for human beings,” he says.

“Which is your favorite?” I ask.

“Diwali,” he says, taking my journal and pen to write the title correctly.  Diwali, Festival of Lights, is held in November or October and is India’s biggest and most important holiday of the year. It is named for the rows of clay lamps that Indians light outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects us from spiritual darkness.

“Every family will have new dress, there are firecrackers and sweets, servants get bonuses, brothers will visit sisters. It is a time for families to come together,” he says.  “The first Diwali after a couple is married is a big celebration for the entire family. The first Diwali with my own wife was in 2000. It will always be my favorite.”

“As a kid, did you value these traditions,” I ask, “or did you learn to really appreciate them once you were an adult?” Murali didn’t hesitate: he’s always cherished his culture and traditions.

“In my childhood, we woke up at 4:30 in the morning to be at the temple by 5am.  We all were there, praying to God,” he says. “We all prayed with the same movements. We had the same ritual of exercise.  We all eat our evening meals on a new banana leaf.  There is even a way to lay in the bed. Yes, these things create a culture, but they are also essential to the body.”

I think about his world, and the certainty it suggests.  I can admit that I have wrinkled my modern and Western nose at the notion of tradition, focused too intently on familiar expectations won’t exist or might be forbidden elsewhere in the world.  In talking with Murali and witnessing the joy he holds in simply describing his traditions to me, I’m better able to appreciate the sense of foundation and purpose that occurs he gains from a culture steeped in prescription and rich tradition.

The more Murali tells me about his village, holidays, rituals and memories, the more relaxed and talkative he becomes.  He speaks from a grounded place, a clear understanding of his journey through the world.

“Ancient priests wrote many things about timing. Every second, for example, three people are born in the world,” Murali says, settling back against his chair, his eyes fixed on mine. “The destiny and the ancestry of those three people can be charted by the sun and the stars.  The people born just one second later will have a different destiny. Our ways are ancient. This is what we believe.”

As much as our cultures may differ, I learn that Murali and I share quirky similarities.  First of all, we were born only eight days apart. Secondly, we are both raising preteen girls.  Third, we both have surrendered our memory to digital gadgets.

“When I started my business, I kept 200 phone numbers in my head,” he says. “Now with the mobile phone, there’s no need.”  I laugh because the only number I have committed to memory is my mother’s.  (If I ever lose my digital address book and find myself in an epic crisis with only one permitted phone call, I’ll have to cross my fingers that she’s not in the audience of a stage play with her ringer silenced.)

“The young people now are a digital generation,” Murali continues.  “Anything they need to know, they pick up their phone and have an answer in seconds.  We used to memorize everything.”

I ask if he uses technology readily or reluctantly.  “Oh, I use it,” he says. “I have to. For business, conversations that used to take a week or two weeks happen instantly now.”

I ask if he uses programs like Skype to talk with his daughter while he’s on the road.  Murali loosens his second broad smile.  “Whatever it takes,” he says.  “Every Sunday when I am home, she asks questions about my travels. So many questions. I miss that.”

I smile. Love and family are certainly universal concepts … and food.  Murali turns to greet a delivery person with a fragrant bag of takeout.

“Food from my country,” he says to me with a smile.

I begin to pack my things, and thank him profusely for his time and generous cultural lesson. Murali finishes paying for his dinner and settles his bag atop the bar.  He turns his attention back to me and gives a slow nod.

“You are most welcome,” he says.  “Next time, I will tell you about Indian food.  That will take an entire day.”

 

Co-Conspirator

Co-Conspirator

I’m on a stakeout.  Granted, I’m not disguised as a delivery person or hiding behind a newspaper. There are no binoculars or dark shades involved. No two-way radio tucked into my sleeve.  Although the excitement tickling my gut might suggest that I’m crouched behind a dumpster aiming a telephoto lens, I’m actually perched on a low bench in Blu.  It’s a handsome crowd and most are here to watch the fireworks.  One person is here to rewrite history.

Larry is at a table with his girlfriend, Stephanie. I’ve known her for a while, and Larry has been like a little brother to me for more than 10 years. About a month ago, he called to ask if I could be on hand when he proposed.

“She’s always loved fireworks,” he said. “Last summer, I remember turning to look at her and her face was all lit up with lights and she was smiling like a big kid.  I remember thinking, ‘I absolutely love this woman.’”

Of course, I coo.

“I didn’t tell her in that moment, though,” Larry said, disappointment still lacing his words. “I don’t know what stopped me.  I told her, maybe, the next day. But at the fireworks?  Man, that would’ve been perfect.”

The missed opportunity nagged at him.  When he was ready to propose almost a year later, he was determined to create an unforgettable event.

“If I pull this off,” he said, “History just might smudge away that fact that I dropped the ball that night, and she’ll always associate my ‘I love you’ with fireworks.  Maybe our kids will even retell the story that way.”

A conspiracy in the name of love and posterity? I’m in.

I’m at my post, crammed awkwardly between the bar, a married couple to my right and an adult family of six to my left.  Everyone faces the window, watching the steel-grey sky surrender to nightfall.  I’m making notes in my journal about the crowd, the mood, the floating constellation of lights from boats in the marina and, of course, Larry and Stephanie. Like many other couples, they’re sipping champagne, holding hands, planting kisses, listening to the jazz band, enjoying a romantic evening. I look at my watch. 9:05. My stomach begins to flutter.

The wait staff hustles to and fro delivering champagne and towers of hors d’ouerves to the tables. When a waiter appears beside him, Larry looks alarmed and I imagine his heart thundering beneath his shirt. He’s made arrangements for a custom dessert with “Will You Marry Me” written in chocolate. Not yet. Almost, but not yet.

9:20

The band is back from a mini-break. The singer begins “I Will Always Love You,” and the banquet staff approach Larry and Stephanie with their dessert.  It takes a moment for its true sweetness to register, and Stephanie begins to smile and giggle.  Larry produces the ring box and lowers himself to one knee.  I’m not close enough to hear his actual proposal (should’ve invested in the wire tap kit, after all) but I could hear the whisper rippling around us, “Look, he’s proposing!”

Exactly –seriously- exactly as Larry and Stephanie stand to embrace and kiss, the sky erupts in light and fire.  Larry turns to the crowd and confirms, “She said yes!” The entire lounge cheers.

Later that night, I ask Stephanie if she had any idea.  She said she had none.

“I called her parents and all of her girlfriends to make sure this went off smoothly,” Larry said.  “I even made sure that we were dressed up so all the pictures would look nice.”

“You really covered your bases,” I said.  “When did you start planning?”

Larry recounts how he met with her parents early in the year, requested time off from work back in March, started scouting locations in spring, engaged accomplices in early summer, etc.  All the while, Stephanie is admiring her ring.  Our eyes meet, and she laughs.

“Don’t mind me,” she says.

“So, how’d he do? I ask.

“This was perfect,” Stephanie said, planting another kiss on Larry’s cheek.  “It was everything, and it was perfect.”

Stephanie rested against Larry’s arm, smiling up at him as she draped a wrist over his shoulder. We were all silent, indulging in the gaze. The ring dressed her hand beautifully. Stephanie radiated. Larry beamed. The diamonds winked with fire and light. I am still smiling after we hug goodbye and they have head to the elevators. Smiling, and I have no doubt that their children will long tell love stories about fireworks.

The Great Conversation

 

I was sitting in Timothy Westbrook’s studio this afternoon. It is a few days after his first successful gallery showing and already the man is back at work. While Timothy constructed new fabric joining cassette tape and wool I listened to the repeating slick/slack/creak/crack sound of his loom in motion. With the new dress in the works I sat thinking about the ongoing, timeless, human dialogue we seem to have termed “The Great Conversation.” This may seem strange or lofty material to be considering at work, but when surrounded with artwork on every wall you do feel like you’re having a regular dialogue with the artists. In this case, when Tim is working, you can have a conversation. Sitting in this artist’s studio/gallery, the below is something I observed. Considering, and offering to, that great conversation.

 

Timothy Westbrook rendering at his hand and foot powered loom.

The art created

these many human years

 

the sculptures

composed symphonies and jazz,

finger paint family portraits.

All of our literature,

film and photography

dance and theatre and

elaborate costume

 

The Dadas, the punk rockers

the Impressionists

and the Rococo

 

Even cave paintings and

Damien Hirst too

 

Every work

is a flare shot into the clouds

of a dark star-speckled sky, a prayer,

a boomerang flung quietly in to the ether,

 

Hopeful

 

that on the other end

they make contact

and are returned

by someone who

grins and responds,

 

“Me

too.”

 

 

The Secret

 

A young girl

tells her grandfather

she’s learning to write.

 

She explains

the yellow pencils

and blue lined paper

 

She tells him she’s learned

how to write her name.

 

“Well that’s magnificent!”

he exclaims,

“I’d love to read your handwriting.

Will you write something for me?”

 

 

She shakes her head,

“But Grandpa,

you can’t read it yet,

 

“I’m just practicing.”

 

Her grandfather smiles

and leans down to whisper

gravelly grinning decades next to her face

 

“My dear,

that is the great secret.

 

Even when you get good

at handwriting, or anything else,

even when you grow up

and get big like your parents,

even when you’re old like me,

 

every shoelace

and every signature

 

is still

just

practice.

 

Let me show you…”

he explains,

wrapping his fingers

around the yellow Ticonderoga

#2

 

“We can practice

together.”

 

Travel By Association ~ or ~ Travel Lite

 

Travelers. Travelers everywhere. Transient folks of every stripe walking, running, sitting, working, swimming, eating. Carrying luggage. Grabbing a cup of coffee. Adding sugar to their tea. En route toward somewhere. Arriving from someplace else.

Ah, airports. All of humanity distilled to a small area becoming a sudden, immediate culture. Unique and specific to that individual moment. The energy of not knowing what awaits on the other side of the tarmac touchdown chirp. I haven’t seen an airport in awhile but all the travelers inside this hotel make me feel as though I’m spending my time in a very relaxed version of one.

The experience of travel. Not just the carrot dangle destination, but getting there as well. I have these conventions, habits which only happen when traveling. I always try to arrive at the airport early to immerse in the vibe of transience, and chuckle about the seriousness of the TSA folks. After checking my luggage I order a Cinnabon roll slathered with frosting (reserved for airports alone). Then I might have a beer, even if the sun is out. I don’t have anywhere else to be and I’m not driving. Then I buy a new magazine, which I generally don’t read until reaching my destination. The reading material is only for the rare event that my neighbors prefer not conversing as much as I enjoy it.

There’s a curiosity and a titillation which exists inside places of travel or temporary residence. The immediacy that your only time to get to know all these people exists between now and your destination or connecting flight. A chance to learn from someone who may not look like you. They might only speak your language in words that provide the most * POP * to get their point across. They might not speak your language at all. They probably won’t share your political views, and will have completely different political issues in their city, or state, or continent.

I like having the time constraint of only the flight duration to try and understand another person.

There is also no accountability. You have no emotional attachment to another traveler, their past, or their future. Conversely, they hold none toward you. People are free to confide in one another regarding experiences or feelings they may not otherwise discuss openly with family, friends, or even their spouse. A person can tell a stranger all the details of their life they don’t care to be reminded of when they wake up the next day, fully rested to experience their new surroundings.

These things are all great, but what about when you can’t travel? When you’re busy.When a vacation is not in the budget. Times when work is too busy or you’re immersed in your studies. When family requirements may not allow for time outside the immediate zip code.

Despair not fellow hearts diagnosed with an incurable case wanderlust!

I invite you to indulge in something I refer to as Travel Lite. The Lite Beer of travels. This is travel by association. Chances are you’ve never met Doug from Virginia and heard his recommendations on California wine. Or Rick’s afternoon spent downhill skiing while in Dubai. Sandra’s experience working as a city planner in New York City. The bird dogs Ole has raised over the years. That time when the locals told Erica and Steve they weren’t crazy, that probably was a pointing dorsal fin, and that South America does indeed have freshwater sharks (as they dried with towels on the beach).

That is the lovely thing I’ve learned over the past few months. Any time you have a spare hour you’re able to stop in at your friendly neighborhood upscale hotel for a dose of travel lite. It’s as if all the best about travel has been brought to you. Except the food and drink is better and cab fare is cheaper than airfare.

 

Generations Dance

 

The Pfister specializes in weddings. They seem to happen here every weekend, sometimes a few concurrently. Here’s a poem about something we’ve all seen at weddings: The Generations Dance. You know, the one where all the married couples get up and gradually leave as the number of years they’ve been married are ticked away by the announcer.

 

* If you’d like to hear a spoken recording of this poem, please scroll to the bottom to listen or download *

 

Without further ado…

 

After the bride and groom

danced

their first as

man and wife

the disc jockey invited

all married couples

to the dance floor

 

Ok couples,

please exit the floor

if you’ve been married for…

 

Just One Day!

 

The crowd chuckled and applauded

as the newlyweds retreated

to greet family

and acquaintance alike

 

One year!

 

The groom’s sister

left with her husband

 

Two years!

 

A few young couples walked off

and joined at the bar

for a round of tequila shots

 

Five years!

 

Brought a sea of

first-time parents

and experienced

uncles, aunts, and coworkers

working on their second,

third, or fourth

pair of rings.

 

at

Ten years!

 

There was a mass migration

and children started to applaud

as their parents returned

to the round table.

 

After

Fifteen years!

 

A woman shouted

“Oh no fella-

you’re not going anywhere yet!”

 

By

Twenty years!

 

Their kids were off paying

nervous attention to their dates,

trying to disregard

that their parents were

“Oh My Gosh I can’t believe

my mom and dad are out

on the dance floor doing that.”

 

The folks at thirty years

left the dance floor

with more deliberation,

searching to place their feet

beyond the exact place

the parquet floor ended

and the carpet began

 

at thirty five years

the couples walked off

pressing their weight

against one another’s

clasped hands.

 

By the time

 

Forty years!

 

Rolled around

four couples remained

and they weren’t paying attention

to anything except

the sway of the song

and the partner in their hands

 

When

 

Fifty years,

ladies and gentlemen!

 

arrived

two couples remained

and they shared

sidelong chuckling glances at

their competition

 

Finally after

 

51 years

 

52 years

 

53 years

 

54 years

 

ladies and gentlemen

only one couple remained on the floor

and the husband then took hold of his wife

in the most deliberate

and delicately graceful

dance lead

I’ve ever seen,

 

his grasp so absolute

her response

near telepathic

I wondered

if anyone

could know anything

as well as they knew

one another

Part 2: The Talking Piano of Dr. Jeffrey Hollander

 

As mentioned in an earlier post I’ve put considerable thought toward how to chronicle Jeff, his playing, and more specifically his playing at the Pfister Hotel. There are several occasions when I’ve left the hotel and driven home in silence because after hearing him at the piano anything on the radio sounded like a frivolous muck.

Different ways to “capture” Jeff battled with one another in my head. Photographs, photographs of his hands, photographs of his facial expressions while playing. Brief videos of the way his hands dance across the keys. Recording the audio of him playing and with no dialogue whatsoever. A poem about his playing, about piano as a whole, about piano history, about jazz and American folk musics being high art. A conceptual piece called The Silent Man, about the piano player in the corner who wields the loudest voice in the room without speaking at all. But in the end I decided to interview Jeff and partner our interview with his playing layered throughout. What better way to document him than to record exactly what he does?

During our conversation Jeff discusses how he started playing piano at the age of 4, his college level education beginning at age 7, who he considers his timeless contemporaries, and the years of inspiration the Grand Hotel of the West has provided him.

Below is former Pfister Resident Artist Katie Musolff’s rendering of Dr. Hollander, in the hotel’s hallway for all to see. To listen simply click play on the good doctor’s piano below, or click download to listen later.

 

Listening to Dr. Jeffrey Hollander- Part 1

 

This is the one I’ve avoided writing. The elephant in my room. The profile I’ve put off for five months while I watched and listened quietly in the background, leaning against a column with my arms crossed wondering how it happens and how to write about it.

Every time I’ve listened to Dr. Jeffrey Hollander play the piano I’ve had a clear desire to write about him, to chronicle the man and his work. I’m a music fan but I’ve never been a musician. I can converse in a limited manner regarding jazz and even less when it comes to classical composition. But we all know when we’ve been able to observe an art which resonates within us. There has been more than one occasion when I’ve listened to Jeff play and I feel like he’s reached inside of me and turned my ribs into piano keys. Then, there I am in a hotel lobby and suddenly sniffing and clearing my throat amongst a roomful of travelers.

When Jeff’s playing within the setting of the Pfister Hotel it’s almost as though you’re attending a private concert. Sometimes he’s behind the piano for lunchtime, sometimes evening, other nights he plays late. Often, in the late morning sun there are only a few other people who happen to be on their computers or reading while he plays, looking around the room to catch eyes and smile to anyone whose ears have perked. I still haven’t wrapped my brain around the fact that some people come to work and get paid while listening to Jeff play multiple times a week.

So what’s my deal? Why haven’t I just gotten over it and written about the guy already?

My conundrum is this: How do I presume to be able to ask questions of someone regarding an activity, a vocation, a way of life they’ve lived for 70 years?

The irony is that Jeff is a surprisingly engaging musician. Beyond being an approachable musician, he’s a nice guy. Throw out your image of the stormy, brooding genius and replace it with a guy who will tell you about the composer of the piece he’s playing, why they are important, and will ask if there is anything you would like to hear.

In most musical performances there is a barrier between the performer and the audience. Sometimes it’s literal, for instance a stage (Or those weird cages that only exist in tough guy bars in movies like Road House.), but even if there is no obvious stage there is a perceived separation between performer and listener. This makes sense, as playing music is difficult. It requires concentration. For most people an instrument, or painting, or basketball requires most of the individual’s brain power. I know I’m not a very interesting person to sit with when I’m typing. Jeff, however, likes talking when he’s playing. He invites the audience to engage him. His entire face lights up when someone sits at the table closest the piano and begins speaking with him.

There are no shortage of stories about Jeff’s playing. He’s performed all over the world and has played at the Pfister for well over 20 years. Many hotel staff members have their own song, a song he knows they enjoy and he begins playing when they walk through the lobby, or arrive for their shift. Concierge Peter Mortensen’s is “Kiss Me Again” by Victor Herbert. One time a little girl asked if he’d ever heard of a song she liked called “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which made Jeff grin. She sang, lighting up the entire lobby, while the doctor backed her as the smiling rhythm section.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched people, clearly in thought and on their way to an appointment, stop in stride upon realizing the music that they’re hearing. They then look back and forth toward the sliding doors and longingly toward the man behind the piano. Realizing the happenstance musical moment they’ve stumbled into they’re earnestly considering how much time before they absolutely need to leave to arrive on-time.

This has happened to me dozens of times over the past five months, which is probably to blame for the timid sense of awe I’ve acquired toward Jeff. I want to capture him accurately and I don’t want to screw it up.

So, now that I’m getting over my stage fright in approaching this easygoing guy, Part 2 will be about Jeff and his piano. Tonight, as he always does on the first Thursday of every month, Dr. Hollander will be performing in Blu. The series is called Rhapsodies in Blu, and entry to the 23rd floor is free. I encourage you to listen to him dance across the keys before reading Part 2 about the man and his music in the very near future.