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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That was Joe’s answer when I asked how old he was. His response was shared with a grin in that adorable way that only people up to a certain age are excited to tell you how old they’re going to be.
Joe started with the Pfister as a busser at the ripe young age of 18. After time spent cleaning tables Joe moved on to being a food runner and from there he has become a bartender. Joe bartends upstairs in Blu on occasion but most nights you can find him downstairs in the lobby lounge. This is where he prefers to spend his workday, as he prefers the relaxed vibe and the ability to spend time getting to know his customers.
To be fair; calling Joe a rookie isn’t entirely accurate. He has worked at the Pfister Hotel for 4 years.
The other day Joe and I were discussing houses. I just bought a fixer-upper in the Harambee neighborhood and Joe asked about my buying experience and challenges faced thus far in remodeling. Joe said that he’s thinking about buying a house. Maybe a single family, maybe a duplex. Something that a couple of handy buddies can move in and help him fix up in exchange for cheap rent. He gets that far-off glassy gaze while describing his house. “Somewhere that can be my own place with a pool table and a garden and I can make it my own.”
“How old are you anyway, Joe?” I finally asked him. That’s when he told me he was going to be 22.
“How many 22 year olds who want to buy a house and put roots down?” I found myself thinking. This is the biggest reason I waffle on whether or not to call this guy a rookie.
Joe is the youngest bartender currently pouring drinks between the Pfister’s lobby lounge, Mason Street Grill, and Blu.
Possibly as a result of being a young he is interested in discovering new things. Joe is always quick with the best place to get a bite of food, try an innovative cocktail, or find an under-the-radar music venue. He knows who has the best hot wings, and where the burgers only cost a buck on Thursdays. He’s got his pulse on the city and it would be a traveler’s loss not to ask this young man his recommendation. I call Joe a rookie not because of a lack of experience, but because of the youthful excitement we all hope to keep fostering as we grow older.
It’s true that at 22 he may not yet be a walking recipe dictionary for every variety of fruit juicy martini, or ironically named shaker filled with frou frou creamy sweet shots. But his youthful manner is very much a boon to the young man. Joe doesn’t lean behind the bar with the sneer of a bartender who has “seen it all,” and as such hasn’t developed a bedraggled ambivalence to the world. Joe hasn’t seen it all. The world is still relatively new to him. He hasn’t heard it all, and he’s not developed the presumption to assume how your story is going to end when you’re in the middle of telling it. This guy is interested in hearing about your hometown, your last vacation, or an artist whose work he hasn’t previously been exposed to. Joe has the current experience which one cannot buy, the experience of being in the middle of one’s glorious youth. But for the mere cost of a glass of beer, you can enjoy Joe’s company. Which is almost as good as being young again yourself.
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.
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.
The Medici Family were bankers from Tuscany, Italy. Their initial family monies were made in the textile industry and they were influential in developing the double entry bookkeeping system. During the renaissance they owned Europe’s largest bank.
I’m sure their advances in bookkeeping are fascinating but that is not generally why the Medici name has survived throughout history. The Medicis were great patrons of the arts and sciences. Artists so highly regarded we don’t bother speaking their entire names; Masaccio, Donatello, Brunelleschi, da Vinci, and even Galileo.
The first time I saw a concert in Summerfest’s largest amphitheater I was 15. The headliners were Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, and Ziggy Marley. I won two tickets by being the 14th caller though a radio giveaway. I took a friend from theater camp, and it was the first concert I was allowed to attend without any parents present to shepherd the teenage flock. As I think back, oddly enough, I worked at a Marcus owned KFC at the time.
Yesterday evening the Marcus Corporation kicked off their UPAF fundraising campaign at the Pfister. It was a night of camaraderie, speeches, prizes, and fantastic food and drink. Employees were encouraged to donate to the United Performing Arts Fund, an entity of which the Marcus Family have been patrons for many years. UPAF’s current tagline is, simply, “Life’s better with the arts.”
Mr. Marcus spoke at the event last night. I type this with a bit of a chuckle because their have been three Mr. Marcus’ over the years. Ben Marcus started his company in 1935 by opening a movie theater in Ripon, Wisconsin. His son Steve took the company helm in 1988. In the past few years grandson Greg has taken over as CEO.
Greg Marcus referenced Oklahoma City, where the company operates a lovely historic property called the Skirvin Hotel. He said Oklahoma City recently invested a great deal in their infrastructure and arts and culture community. Mr. Marcus added that this was met with some grousing by the city’s long-time and retired residents. They didn’t view the expenditure as important as they weren’t certain if they’d see the fruits of their monetary seeds. During this dialogue within their city someone asked, in response, if those folks would like to see their grandchildren. The question was met with shrugging and head scratching. Greg explained that, “If you want to see your grandchildren a city needs to be somewhere your children can be gainfully employed and not desire to move to another city. But we can’t have jobs alone, a city requires an active culture worthwhile for residents spread their earnings throughout the community. So, if you don’t want to have to drive to Tulsa, or Dallas, or any other city to see your grandchildren, Oklahoma City needs to be the place your kids want to keep living.”
This type of conversation crosses my mind when I’m at Milwaukee’s Lakefront, one of it’s festivals, or one of our many county parks. These places don’t exist on accident, and we don’t have free and public beaches because the real estate is undesirable. Decades ago, centuries even, people decided that those areas were worthwhile to keep public to increase our collective quality of life. The idea of shared park space was relatively new, as European royalty often enjoyed exclusively any desirable land. Ken Burns’ documentary on the topic was titled, succinctly, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
I may be getting a little off the direct topic, but I see a parallel between patronage toward the arts and the coexistence of natural spaces for us to share. They both require the conclusion, whether by one person or many, that,
“This has value to me.”
Over the last six months, I’ve been able to gather the stories of people traveling through Milwaukee, native Milwaukeeans, and everyone in between. But years before that a few people got together and decided that there is a history, a contemporary living history, that is worth documenting. They decided that Milwaukee and the Pfister Hotel are worth it, and they’ve invited artists and writers in to actively chronicle our contemporary lives within this cream-bricked city. I’ve been lucky to capture a few of these stories, reassemble them, and hand the bouquet back over for you to experience. Whether you’ve been a reader, a hotel guest, a new friend with a story, a conscientious employee…you’ve all acted as patrons.
I look out from Blu’s 23rd floor windows. Summerfest is visible and far to the south in white lettering across a blue background reads The Marcus Amphitheater. The venue in which I saw that first concert the summer before my junior year in high school. Summerfest; that musical playground of my teenage summers. Which someone built just for me and everybody else.
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.
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.