Holiday Season Begins

Last year I took a seasonal job selling Christmas trees in Florida. Why Christmas trees? Why Florida? Because it’s seasonal and the job is over soon. It’s nice to spend a month in the warmth. They paid for my travel, a house we shared on the beach, and all my meals while in the FLA. There exist customers who are glad to pay healthy prices to take their time selecting a special tree. They also enjoy that healthy Wisconsin farm boys, for a fee, deliver their chosen tree to their house and set it up. (Wherever, however, turn left, keep going, keep going, YES! No, back a little. Yeah, yeah, that’s it. What do you think honey, is it crooked now? Maybe a little farther…)

My employer in the Christmas tree trade was a gentleman I met briefly before he excused himself to answer a telephone call. I went back to my eggs and speaking with the person seated on my other side. We were all grabbing breakfast at a restaurant with a counter, “counter culture” as my poet friend Louisa Loveridge Gallas likes to say. The guy walked back in from his phone call to announce one of the most preposterous things I’ve ever heard come out of a person’s mouth, “Well, one of our guys hurt his back and can’t come sell Christmas trees in Florida this year.” He started querying healthy young men in earshot. “Frank; Ed- any of you guys want to, um, come sell Christmas trees in Clearwater?” It sounded too strange to be fictional, so of course I jumped at the chance. Working as a poet/bartender/artist it’s nice to do some real physical work every now and then. We opened up our enormous tent on Thanksgiving and it was the first time in my life someone said to me, “Happy Thanksgiving!” on a 70+ degree day. I’d probably be in Florida right now if I hadn’t landed this fantastical job titled Narrator.

Accompany of Kids serenades our guests from stairs leading to the second floor.

I wonder what my dad would say if he could hear me tell him about the duties of the Narrator. My tool and tie maker father was the king of 60 hour work weeks before retiring earlier than he would have liked. “Let me get this straight…your job is to hang out and talk to people and write about it? Where’s the work in that?” Don’t worry dad, I’m still working a couple other jobs, it’s not all hanging out and glasses of water, room for cream in my coffee, shooting the breeze…

Yesterday was the Black Friday dreaded by folks in retail. Personally, I didn’t step foot in a store. We joined all the families who came to the hotel to participate in celebrating the tree lighting ceremony. To quote an Australian gentleman I met here last week the event had me, “Absolutely Gobsmacked!” Milwaukee area families and visiting guests enjoyed complimentary champagne, egg nog, build your own cookies and cupcakes for the kids (ok– adults too, I confess). Accompany of Kids was on-hand to serenade all with holiday songs. To top it all off the Milwaukee Fire Department safely escorted Santa and Ms. Claus for a meet and greet with small a city of excited children.

Grrr, baby. Very grrrrrrr. Even our cats dress up in their seasonal best.

As I look at this lovely holiday display in the lobby, which I did not deliver or set up, there are Milwaukee area families dressed in their best to come downtown and share laughs and pictures with people they may not have seen since a tree stood this time last year. It’s Saturday now and it’s no longer a chorus, rather, Lou Cucunato is playing piano next to the marble sculpture of Guido Pfister. Last year this time I had work selling and delivering Fraser, Douglas, and Noble fir trees after meeting a guy at the local breakfast counter. This winter my “work” is lounging with a tree in my periphery while speaking with guests enjoying a cocktail or a meal at the counter. The piano player just got done with Sway by Dean Martin. People often say the holidays are stressful. I suppose. But why focus on that? Now Louie’s piano is on to My Way by Sinatra. Good. I’ll keep in line with the man. To quote a letter from Frank, “Loosen up. Swing, man. Dust off those gossamer wings and fly yourself to the moon of your choice…”

Generations of Serendipity Swirl Through the Pfister

It’s not every day a person informs you the place you work probably had a hand in their family escaping the Holocaust.

This past weekend the Pfister was blessed to host the wedding of Mr. Wiley Norden and Ms. Marissa Mullen. Marissa recently followed her career to Chicago but left her heart in Milwaukee. With the man willing she decided not only to marry in Milwaukee but wanted their big day to contain components specific to the city. Area beer, wines, and cheeses were par for their course and Marissa wanted them to be encompassed within a prominent Milwaukee landmark. When looking at potential locations the Pfister surfaced as a viable option and once dates were nailed down schedules meshed. But Marissa had yet to discover the deep connection her family had with the Pfister Hotel.

The postcard Marissa's great-grandfather sent home in 1938. The Mason Street tower behind the 1893 structure wasn't added until the 1960's.

In the interim Marissa’s mother, Sharon, inherited a treasure trove of family letters and correspondence, some of which were sent to and from the “Old Country.” In their case Sharon’s family were German speakers native to Czechoslovakia. Sharon has yet to learn German so the text itself didn’t tell much of a story. Except, however, one postcard contained an old photograph of the Pfister Hotel, dated 1938. This immediately piqued Sharon’s curiosity, given that her daughter had decided to hold her wedding at the Pfister.

Sharon’s grandfather, Ernest Prager, (therefore the bride’s great-grandfather) owned a wool coat and glove lining company in Czechoslovakia and in the 1930’s began branching the family business beyond Europe. No one is certain why he was in Milwaukee but at the time Milwaukee created more leather garments than anywhere else in the world. It’s likely Mr. Prager was meeting with the Pfister and Vogel Tanning Company to discuss business and stayed in Charles Pfister’s flagship hotel.

As history has revealed the 1930’s in Europe was shaping up to be a bad time and place for those of Jewish heritage to continue to safely raise their families. Mr. Prager could foresee the political winds and started looking for a place to relocate his family. Ernest came to the United States to establish business contacts and begin the process of gradually moving his family to the States. They ended up moving to Gloversville in Upstate New York, and, yes, the town’s name is quite literal. The Prager family moved to where there was an ample supply of gloves requiring imported leather, which became Ernest’s new line of business.

Charles Prager, son of Ernest and Valerie, met his wife Harriet in Gloversville. After marrying in 1947 the couple moved to Milwaukee where they gave birth to three lovely daughters; Sharon (Marissa’s mother), Renee, and Diane. No one quite knows whether Charles realized his father had spent time in our city.

The Pfister of 2011, complete with the rear tower and parking structure installed in the 1960's. The Milwaukee Club sits across Jefferson and behind the photographer is the Federal Building.

So…fast forward to 2011. Ernest Prager’s great-grand daughter Marissa meets Wiley. Wiley is an absolutely suitable suitor and the two decide to marry. Wiley and Marissa choose the Pfister Hotel for the place to invite their families to join together. But they make the decision without being aware that her great-grandfather stayed here decades previous to moving to the U.S. while beginning the process toward citizenship.

Before I get too mired in kismet let me say Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

L’Chaim!

Thanks to Wiley Norden and Marissa Mullen for allowing us to share in their special day and to Sharon Mullen for telling us her family’s connection with the Grand Dame of the West. Please give a listen on the player below to hear Sharon Mullen tell her family’s story.

 

Serendipity swirls around the Pfister by Ed Makowski

The Unexpectedness of Travel


We're all a-blur of inertia coming from and going...

One can plan all the details of a trip but one can never plan the end result. I spoke with this fella in the Pfister’s Lobby Lounge. His name is Joon and he’s a Chicago native who moonlighted in Milwaukee before moving back home to th’Windy.

This past summer Joon was able to travel all over Europe including a stop in Denmark. Once  in Copenhagen with a friend they roamed around the city, finding the Copenhagen they’d always heard about. But they also stumbled into the Copenhagen where drug dealers protect their turf regardless of how many cuddly green bicycles are parked nearby. Joon lived, without bodily harm, to tell the tale and even kept his beloved camera safe. But why hear me re-tell the story? Click the player below to hear for yourself!

 

 

 

 

Joon Kim at the Lunch Counter by Ed Makowski

Veterans Day at the Pfister

Patrick's hat and cocktail resting on the bar while resident mix maven Valerie serves guests.

This past Saturday I asked Pfister Chef Concierge Peter Mortensen (found out chef translates to “chief,” and not strictly the cuisine variety. Yep, I asked.) to grant me a tour of a few rooms and unique suites. The Pfister is actually two buildings, the initial 1893 Wisconsin Avenue building and the 1960’s tower addition which stretches the hotel to Mason Street. I wanted to get a feel for the subtleties of each. Saturday morning there was time prior to check-in so Peter and myself raced around the two buildings. Just in case…Knock knock knock. Knock knock. “Good morning, Concierge…”

After my whirlwind tour I sat in the lobby lounge and ended up meeting David and Patrick. These wonderful Polish “Sout-Side” gentlemen were in town for the Veteran’s Day parade. Amongst many things we talked Milwaukee history, state politics, brandy. Growing up David and Patrick’s neighborhood on the South Side featured a deli which carried several different types of European sausages. A Hungarian made the Hungarian sausage. A German immigrant ground and cased the bratwurst. A Polish employee…and so on.

What stuck with me most was Pat’s experience during his tour in Vietnam. He explained that there was one day which defined his time serving there and his life as well. Pat graciously allowed me to record him telling the story he doesn’t tell very often.

It’s pretty rare that the storyteller relays something so serious as, “I feared for my life. Then…I feared nothing,” and by the end is laughing from his belly. My new friend Pat is a class act.

This interview originally aired Veterans Day 2011 on 89.7 WUWM during the Lake Effect show. To listen simply click play below.

My barometer for if an interview is this simple criteria: After arriving at my destination, would I sit in the car to hear the end of the story? If yes, then the work is worth sharing with people. If no, then I chalk it up to a learning exercise. This one is definitely “sit in the car” worthy.

To all of our veterans- Thank You.

Patrick’s Vietnam story told at the Pfister Hotel for Veterans Day 2011 by Ed Makowski

The Pfister Hotel and Johnson Controls grew up together

An example of the first thermostats Johnson Controls installed in the Pfister Hotel. Reflected is a painting on the opposite wall of Pfister piano player Dr. Jeffrey Hollander. His likeness was rendered by previous resident artist Katie Musolff.

Did you know the first building to (ever!) have temperature controls in each room was the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin? During the Industrial Revolution Johnson Controls and the Pfister Hotel grew up like two kids on the same block. Both also grew to garner international recognition in their chosen fields. I met with Johnson Controls Head Archivist Ken Wirth to hear their intertwined stories.

We couldn’t leave the guest of honor out of the conversation, so Ken and I talked over coffee in the hotel’s lobby lounge. This interview originally aired November 1st, 2011 on 89.7 WUWM during Lake Effect and is introduced by Lake Effect Executive Producer Mitch Teich. To listen simply click the player below.

 

Good thing we have Wisconsin weather! (to thank for the electric thermostat) by Ed Makowski