The Experience Only a Concierge Can Craft

 

Historic Turner Hall Ballroom very much alive on 4th Street in Milwaukee.

It is the people who are the best at what they do who are the most difficult to write about. How do you document the seam which is so well constructed that it appears seamless? I’ve been trying to figure out a way to explain the concierge position for quite some time. Pfister Chief Concierge Peter Mortensen is a terrific storyteller, in addition to being an stellar concierge. Peter has a love for both the arts and Milwaukee history, both details which lead him to the story he tells below.

Peter and I traveled to record this piece in Milwaukee’s historic Turner Hall Ballroom. Since this is the place where his story resides, I felt it impolite to leave the topic of our conversation out of the conversation. You may notice Peter’s voice has a deep echo, and that’s because we were sitting in the middle of the cavernous ballroom on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

Below, Peter regales us with the story of how a man living in Milwaukee, in 1892, wrote the world’s first pop music hit. Here is an old video of the song After the Ball as introduced by the songwriter himself, Charles K. Harris. Then, to hear Peter talk about the music coming full circle one hundred years later with performers Joan Morris and William Bolcom was ice cream scooped onto the cake. Click play or download below to listen to these gems of Milwaukee’s past and present.

 

 

Like Chocolate Cake For Breakfast

 

That’s the best way I can describe this Narrator experience. My last few posts will be going live over the next couple of days and my successor will be at work getting acquainted with the speed and rhythm of this sparkling old gal on Wisconsin Avenue. From an artistic standpoint it’s been like getting to eat chocolate cake for breakfast every day. The staff have been great. They’ve been generous with information, gracious in introducing me to guests and other coworkers, and ever tolerant of my constant game of 20 questions.

Every day I’ve arrived at the hotel the guests, employees, and structure itself have all been potential colors across my palette with which to paint this experience. So here we are, having arrived at the point of final conclusions.

Well, fellow writer, here’s what I have to leave you with. My two cents for you to take or leave. The rabbit hole is in front of you. Do you take the red or blue pill? This is your garden to till, and you determine how fruitful the result.

* Get a gym membership. There are pastries all over this place. They taste too good. Too good! Hopefully your will is stronger than mine in the face of bakery.

* Tip well. Especially in the beginning. You will be loved even more.

* Conversation is give and take. The first part of that is give. Most people aren’t familiar with being interviewed but most everybody knows how to have a conversation. For people to get comfortable enough to tell you the good stories it’s often necessary to offer something about your life, sometimes before they do.

* Don’t get too over concerned about the writing. They chose you for a reason. Write it. Post it. Exhale. Have a drink.

* Don’t be afraid to ask. The more you engage the staff the more they will engage you. The people who have been here a long time are a wealth of knowledge. Several people have worked at the Pfister longer than I’ve been alive! But if you don’t ask they won’t necessarily offer their information. Some of them have seen decades of faces working here and it might take a while before they recognize yours.

* The concierge has a list of events for the week. I liked to ask what was coming up to be present for the ones which sounded the most interesting to cover.

* I’m pleasantly surprised there was a job to do and that we (as humans) haven’t entirely traded our social skills for laptop computers and backlit telephones. I wonder if after book publishing became widespread, social types feared the world would shove it’s head in a book and never again converse.

* My favorite meal is breakfast. Any time of day, breakfast feels like starting all over again. The Cafe at the Pfister makes terrific breakfast until 2pm.

* Guests will expect you to know about the hotel’s history, art collection, and surrounding downtown area. The more information you can offer, the more credibility it will provide the ethereal Narrator title when trying to answer the question, “So, what is it that you do here?”

It’s been a great fun half year. The experience has felt akin to being a part of a theater production, or a circus. Except the circus is stationary and the carnival-goers are the travelers who come to visit you. Strap yourself in and take the ride up that first roller coaster climb…

 

Dancers Sparkle Across the 7th Floor

 

 

Dancers perform for the judges. More than five couples usually share the dance floor. The elaborate network of temporary overhead lighting ensures that all is seen.

This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the Wisconsin Dancesport Championships. The company has a long history with the hotel as they’ve held the annual event at the Pfister all these years. This high-heeled party brings dancers from across the country to compete at their specialized steps.

It is interesting to see the dancers’ posture and gait change depending upon which dance is announced. For example, to an untrained eye (mine) the tango appears stiff and exacting. The foxtrot takes on a more sly, playful, and sensual body movement. During waltzes dancers’ bodies become languid and graceful, flowing toward the next position. Dancers are on display everywhere across the 7th floor in varying stages of preparation, warm-up, cool down, and rushed focus to perform last minute wardrobe alterations. There are rumbas, cha chas, jazz dances, solos, the jitterbug, salsa dances. The list goes on to nearly every dance you’ve ever (or some, in my case, never) heard of. During competition fellow dancers between heats applaud and cheer for their friends and colleagues.

An impromptu city of vendors springs up wherever dance competitions take place. They are prepared to satisfy all of the dancers potential needs from shoes to outfits and photo/videography. I spoke with the shoe vendor in the foreground and she observed that she would likely spend one week at home this month.

 

Between competition dancers relax and recharge throughout the cafe and lobby lounge. The women wear makeup which reminds me of my theater days and the men stand at attention as suitors with impeccable posture. Coaches critique improvements necessary before the next time they hit the floor. The vibe is that of a large extended theater company from all walks of life.

My favorite part was to watch the shadows swim across the dance floor as dancers moved in and out of the light.

One can’t help but wonder about the impact shows such as So You Think You Can Dance have had on these competitions. I would imagine the larger exposure of dance offered to the modern lexicon has brought an influx of new blood in to the dance community.

Shadows of fabric tornado across the wood floor.
Each dress is designed to be more eye catching than the last. Men's pants are loose and look comfortable but I imagine serve the purpose of accentuating leg movements.

 

Artist Timothy Westbrook's costume display on the 7th floor. Could celluloid cassette tape be the new sequin?

 

I tried to imagine any other environment where an event such as a ballroom dance championship could be held that would be as fitting as the Pfister Hotel. Nothing came to mind, except possibly some fantastical land which exists only in a poet’s imagination. Standing amidst the assembled bustle of  thoroughbred peacock dancers which have taken up residence inside of the crown jewel of the Marcus family, the two feel so fitting you wonder where the dance stops and the hotel begins and vice versa. The delineation between stage and spectator blurs to a point that the fray is as much a part of the experience.

Swing dance high steppers.

 

 

A brick and mortar structure can be lovely standing by itself but without the people to breathe a kiss of life into it’s hallways, it is just a pile of well placed bricks, doors, and floors. The unique events and personalities passing through these doors create the personality of the Pfister Hotel, possibly even more so than this lovely house which Guido and Charles built.

 

Roc’s Road to Milwaukee

There tend to be patterns of why people live where they live. Often times they got a job nearby, or that’s where they went to school, or possibly their spouse’s family is from the area.

Roc is a concierge at the Pfister and his path to Milwaukee definitely did not follow any of these typical routes. Roc and his Quaker lineage hail from Northwest Indiana. In his home state Roc had been a teacher of Latin, German, and English before becoming involved in starting non-profit organization. The organization provided the beginnings of what we now know as head-start programs, urban transit and information offices, and elderly health care programs. This would have been a fulfilling enough life for most, but Roc was then made aware that a member of his family was in need of serious help. Already in his 50’s Roc up and moved to Milwaukee to try his hand at parenting for the first time.

If you’ve ever met Roc behind the concierge desk you know that the man is a terrific storyteller. Below I’ll let you hear his story as he tells it. Click Play or Download below to hear Roc’s experience of arriving in Milwaukee and his sentiments on how invigorating later-life parenting can be.

 

Service Regardless of the Situation

 

Picture this:

You work at a hotel. A man checks in to the hotel with arms in plaster casts sticking straight out from his body. Later in the day the man calls down to your desk and explains that he’s not certain how to get himself dressed for the day.

What do you do?

Concierge Roc tells the story of how he teamed up with Annie, the Pfister’s Head of Housekeeping, to satisfy the needs of a guest in a whimsically compromising situation. No matter the job at hand, they’re always glad to serve.

Click Play below or Download to listen to this brief chuckle of a story.

 

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.

Milwaukee: The Best Deal In Chicago

The view from the 7th floor East on Wisconsin Avenue.

Ah, big brother Chicago. Just two hundred years ago we were part of the same Illinois territory.

People come to Milwaukee for many reasons. Business. Dinner. Conventions. Celebrations. Sporting events. Art openings. Museums.

Visitors ask certain key questions which lead me to conclude they’re not from Milwaukee. This line of conversation usually takes place after someone says, “So how do I get a cab around here?” or “This place is great, where else should I visit?” Or they call the water drinking oasis a fountain instead of a bubbler.

I’ve noticed a trend of Chicagoans visiting us just for fun. Upon discovering this I always ask what their impressions are. Being a life-long Milwaukeean I’m curious to hear how our city is perceived.

Below are some of the most common observations of Milwaukee followed by explanations I’ve been able to piece together.

* “It’s so inexpensive here.”

That’s true, part of the reason is the sales tax “Down South” is 9.5%, compared with our 5.6%. But also being a smaller city things are just cheaper in Milwaukee. Smaller population=more resources to go around.

* “That art museum on the lake is incredible!”

You’re right, we are lucky to have had our most recent addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum designed and built by Santiago Calatrava. But years before that the art museum has an interesting story. The core of the museum’s pieces were donated by Frederick Layton, also the namesake of Milwaukee’s Layton Boulevard. Mr. Layton, along with John Plankinton, their fortunes in cattle and pigs. The Layton School of Art was started shortly after his death and when closed in 1974 was listed in the country’s top 5 art schools.

Just to the North of the Calatrava addition is what Milwaukee residents refer to as the War Memorial. After World War II an architect from Finland named Eliel Saarinen was commissioned to build a Veteran’s Memorial. Despite Eliel’s passing in 1950, his son Eero took over to complete the project on Milwaukee’s Lakefront. With construction supervision by Milwaukee architect Maynard W. Meyer and Associates, this floating building was created. The building appears to hover above Mason Street on geometric legs of reinforced concrete.

Completed in 2001 Santiago Calatrava’s addition comprises a few different areas including the Quadracci Pavilion which regularly holds weddings, openings, and other special events. Windover Hall looks out toward the lake as though one is inside a glass wrapped ship hull. Atop Windover Hall is the incredible moving sculpture known as the Burke Brise Soleil whose wings literally open at 10am, close and reopen daily at noon, then close for the evening when museum locks up.

The Milwaukee Art Museum is a four block walk from the Pfister Hotel.

* “Everyone here is so nice to us!”

Oh well gee shucks, ma’am. That’s really kind of you to say. But you should meet my cousin John. He’s a really, really nice guy. Are you hungry? I just made this pie for you…

* “That brewery tour was so much fun.”

What made Milwaukee famous… 

It’s true we are a beer city. Prohibition was more than a small stumbling block to the city’s industry but brewing culture is thriving in Milwaukee. So much that we named our baseball team after the people who make beer. Although Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz are no longer producing themselves, many brewers have taken up the cause. Visitors are able to tour Miller which has existed in the Valley for well over 150 years. If something smaller is your flavor we’ve got many options including (but not limited to) Sprecher, Lakefront, Milwaukee Brewing Company. Tours also take place at the Best Place; the bar, gift shop, and former board room inside the Pabst Brewery complex. With all the talk of beer it’s easy to forget craft distillers just past the Harley Davidson Museum, Great Lakes Distillery, who are on the cutting edge of producing rum, absinthe, vodka, and many other liquors.

* “Dinner was great last night, we’re trying to decide between our options tonight. Which would you recommend?”

Our restaurants are a bit of a great secret around here. According to Zagat we have 3 of the country’s top 30 restaurants in the area. I love getting dinner at Mason Street Grill, and they have a spectacular happy hour.

* “It’s so easy to get around this city, there’s hardly any traffic ~or~ We took the train here, it’s been such an easy trip; an hour here, an hour back. ”

This makes sense, Milwaukee’s metro area has about one fifth the population of Chicago and it’s suburban outskirts. Milwaukee also has a growing bicycle population and network of bike specific trails which cuts down on four-wheeled commuters. In addition our bus system has been revised recently and ridership is up. Milwaukee is also fairly spread out, our population isn’t too densely packed into any one area.

* (and probably the biggest compliment) “We’d both rather live here but then we’d have to commute every day to our offices in Chicago.”

Even if you don’t drive it is surprisingly easy to get between Chicago and Milwaukee. There are several bus options. The Amtrak Hiawatha route from ‘The Windy terminates in downtown Milwaukee a mere 12 blocks from your favorite hotel.

For all these reasons and more our Illini brethren are discovering that a mere 90 miles to the north Milwaukee might just be the best deal in Chicago.

Experiencing UW-Milwaukee’s 2012 Women Leaders Conference

Gloria Steinem signing books following her speech kicking off the day. While I snapped this photo she said these exact words, “Well- rebellion keeps us young, right?”

To my dismay I realized that the UW-Milwaukee Women Leaders Conference scheduled to take place at the Pfister Friday, March 30th was sold out. I’d hoped there was a possibility to watch from the perimeter and take in a little of the conference.

Thursday evening I was in the lobby lounge speaking with pianist Dr. Jeffrey Hollander regarding a Pfister blog I’ve been working on about the man. There was a woman seated at the table closest Jeffrey and the three of us talked for a bit. In conversation I asked if she was local or from out of town. She explained that she was involved with Friday’s conference. My new acquaintance then asked what I was getting into at the hotel and I explained the Narrator position and how I had hoped to cover the conference in some capacity. It turned out I was sitting with Jan Allen, UW-Milwaukee’s Director of Business, Engineering & Technology in the school’s Continuing Education Department. Completely by mistake (does serendipity make mistakes?) I ended up being invited to check out Friday’s activities. You never know who you’re going to meet at this hotel…

By 8am Friday morning, like countless times before, the Pfister’s 7th floor ballrooms were transformed to fit the needs of the event. A banquet spread of breakfast foods and coffee cakes, teas, coffee, and soft drinks welcomed conference-goers on their way into the Grand Ballroom.

Kicking off the day’s events was keynote speaker Gloria Steinem. I tread lightly in suggesting I can introduce you to Ms. Steinem as there is little need for introduction. She is a journalist, publisher, and activist (and a wearer of many other hats). Steinem co-founded Ms. magazine and has worked for over half a century toward the changes she’d like to see in the world. I encourage reading this March 16th New York Times article about Ms. Steinem’s long career. Steinem’s speech, “The Longest Revolution,” included her Top 10 list of priorities and conclusions to keep in mind moving forward. Following her speech there were a few minutes for questions and lucky participants were able to ask the questions they’ve always wondered of the longtime lightning rod. Having Gloria Steinem speak injected the day with a feeling which reminded me of the phrase, “We are the ones we have been waiting for” (line from a poem by June Jordan which can [and should!] be read here).

After Gloria’s speech there were several sessions which ran concurrent. It was difficult to choose which one to listen to but what caught my eye was Lora Hyler’s Where Are the Women? Taking a Seat At the Board: How Women Directors Impact Company Success. Ms. Hyler detailed the positive impacts companies have seen when women are in high positions. She charted breakdowns by gender and race of who leads the world’s companies. She explained methods women can use to break into leadership groups which can resemble an old boy’s club. Hyler stressed that the key was to find ways to communicate effectively with superiors and colleagues, regardless if that communication takes place in boardrooms or on the golf course. Ms. Hyler also explained that after one woman is admitted to a board of directors it is generally easier for women to follow in her steps. Before the session was over participants shared experiences and strategies of how to grow in their careers and climb above the proverbial glass ceiling.

Speaker Chris Heeter out for a break with canine companion Tuu Weh.

Before lunch I was able to see Chris Heeter speak on a few different topics. Ms. Heeter founded The Wild Institute and has decades of experience guiding outdoor groups.  Her speech was titled You girls out here all alone? The Wild Side of Leadership. With a bittersweet chuckle she explained that she couldn’t recall how many times a solitary man had asked their group of women that silly question whether out on the trail or paddling. Chris also has a great deal of experience working with sled dogs and explained how communication between dogs and the human guiding the sled could be a useful analogy for the working world. For an immediate understanding of her perception of the leader’s role she began by explaining that with a dogsled the leader guides from an observational post behind the dogs. Chris speaks with a wisdom and exuberance that is difficult to convey in mere typed words. Both she and her canine companion Tuu Weh left an indelible impression on attendees.

Between the lunch and afternoon sessions I was in the elevator and a woman looked over to me. She leaned in while her whole face smiled and she asked,  “What do you think of the conference so far?”

Beyond asking my impression it was clear that she wanted to make sure to engage me and encourage the idea that- even though I happen to be a guy- it was okay for me to have an opinion.

“Well…” I weighed the day’s experiences up to that point… “There has been a lot of great information and valuable things I’ve heard, but most of it hasn’t been gender specific. It seems unfortunate that there exists a need to term it a Women’s Conference for this information to be disseminated from one place.”

“Exactly,” she laughed as we exited the elevator, “that’s the point! If only we could help the entire world arrive at that conclusion. We’re getting there…”

The Pfister’s British Invasion

In 1964 everybody wanted to meet these guys.

Do you remember 1964, what happened after blues and rock and roll exported across the Atlantic Ocean and came back from a stop in England? The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, Donovan, The Rolling Stones, and of course The Beatles. When those four lads arrived in the States there was pandemonium along every stop. Each airport was crowded with admirers. Imagine a limousine driver trying to wade through a sea of screaming high school girls. These four gentlemen had not a moment to themselves once they hit stateside. Countless young ladies tried anything just for a handshake, a wave, a photograph, or even an up close glimpse of The Beatles.

A couple nights ago I met with a woman named Chris who remembered seeing The Beatles at the Milwaukee Arena, today known as the U.S. Cellular Arena. The year was 1964 and two 5th row seats cost less than $5. Nearly 50 years later she sat down to tell me about seeing the band all those years ago. Chris also told me about the rumor which lead to her own variety of “British Invasion” following the show.  Listen below to her vivid recollection of seeing the Fab Four and where she tried to find them after the concert.

The Pfister’s British Invasion by Ed Makowski