We Are The Sesame Street of All Hotels, People

I am a man of a certain age who is able to proudly claim to have been raised in part through the counting, alphabetizing, and sharing lessons regularly doled out on the standard bearer for all great children’s programming, good old Sesame Street. Even into my forties, I still have bold images of the residents of Sesame Street, the flesh and bones ones as well as the felt and fake-hair ones, playing and working side-by-side.

I found myself thinking hard about what made Sesame Street such a magic place as I enjoyed a recent Pfister event. Our new Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson recently kicked off her year in the studio with a sparkling night of art and celebration. One of the highlights of that night was a performance by a group of young artists from The Florentine Opera.

Outside of the obvious talent displayed by these singers as they filled the Pfister’s Rouge salon with soaring melodies, I took note of something else that was special about these performers. They all might have shared the same megawatt capacity for smiling and charm, but the faces that displayed those smiles did not all share the same pigment of skin. I find myself thinking more and more about race in this country as discussions come front and center about how we as a nation can work and play better together now and into the future. That’s why it’s nice to know that right here at home at the Pfister Hotel, the spirit of Sesame Street and all its lessons of inclusion feels alive and potent.

I have made it a habit when I enter the Pfister to look up and see the SALVE motto hovering over the lobby, the hub for all guests as they arrive and start a visit. SALVE, that “all are welcome” ideal, is not just a gilded adornment that floats in the air at the Pfister. You realize it is a real boots-on-the-ground reality as your eyes descend from the heavens and you see that the mix of men and women who make up the life of the hotel as guests, drop-in visitors and associates is as varied, ecletic and diverse a gathering as the mind can conjure. Walking through the Pfister lobby on any given day is sort of like taking a stroll down the best kind of Main Street, USA, one where you only take a moment to think about race and gender because you pinch yourself and say, “Wait a minute…I’m somewhere where I’m not thinking about race and gender.”

That sort of Main Street, USA reminds me a lot of Sesame Street, a place where no one cared what you looked like, where you were from, or how fat your wallet was. I’ve met many spectacular individuals as I’ve enjoyed being part of the fabric of the Pfister, and I realize now that I’m struck by how little time I spent recognizing their differences but instead focused on all our shared similarities. The Pfister’s doors are literally open around the clock to anyone, no matter what step they take in the grand walk of life.

Pamela’s opera singer friends presented a showcase of mixed repertoire to kick off an evening of artistic joy, but I was really swept up by their opener, a German language version of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Somehow it all seemed so right, a quirky mash up of something that was unexpected but familiar all at the same time. The tune had a “life is good in this place” sort of feel about it as the room filled with cheer. It’s a feeling that I have every time I’m at the Pfister, and one that I fondly carry forward into adulthood with a full heart of acceptance and appreciation that first started to glow in my youth when my some friends from all different walks of life told me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street. I never expected it, but I’m sure happy that I’ve stumbled upon Sesame Street at 424 Wisconsin Avenue in my dear hometown.

I hope you enjoy this musical ditty as much as I did.

The Brunchers, or Mooning Over Each Other and Some Eggs

As a baby, nurse Ted screamed during his christening party some 73 years ago filling the 7th floor with bouncing baby echoes.

As a boy Ted walked to school past the entrance to the Pfister every day in awe of the obvious grandeur inside.

As a man of distinction, Ted wisely understands that the best way to woo a lady is to humble brag his way to a date by masterfully cooking an Italian feast and casually doing all the dishes to boot.

As a Sunday bruncher, Ted had the Eggs Benedict.

His love and companion Ian did, too. As she poses for a picture with her beau, she gives a smoldering vixen look for the camera. She breaks it with the sweetest smile, and her courtly companion gives her arm a tender squeeze. I make a mental note to give my squeeze a squeeze…I want to be just like this two.

Ted and Ian have invited me for coffee. Ian explains to me that Ted has stories—many, many stories. In the time it takes to drain my cup of jo, Ted proves her right.

Ted freely and happily shares all the bits about growing up in the Third Ward where families lived close to each other in apartments and homes that were the undisputed center of Milwaukee’s Italian community. Ted reminds me that back in the day you didn’t just have the family you lived with, but you also had the folks in your building and on your block watching your back and bringing you a plate of food when you needed it most.

We discuss opera, as Ted is a fan. He learns that my wife works in the field, and says, “You’ve got something I want…your wife.”

I know he’s not a cad, because he’s so polite and well dressed, and Ian, who is clearly a lady of great refinement and bearing wouldn’t put up with any shenanigans. She tells Ted to tell me “that one story.” I lean in because I love “that one story” that everyone seems to have.

Ted tells me he was a family friend with long-time Milwaukee music impresario John-David Anello. Annello decided in 1932 that Milwaukee needed a grand opera company and formed the Florentine Opera. Serving as principal conductor, Anello did what he needed to get a show up, even if it meant putting his own money where his mouth was. Ted remembers sitting around the dining room table with Anello years after the company had formed, trying to sort out a particularly sticky problem.

“He had a tenor pull out of this production of SAMSON AND DELILAH at the last minute,” explained Ted. “It was a disaster, and we needed to find a replacement quick.”

Calling around, they found a young singer who had gotten panned in Detroit and slammed in Washington, DC, but he knew the role. Anello got him on the phone at Idlewild airport just before he was to head back home and convinced him to come to Milwaukee on short notice once he promised to wire the dead broke tenor some money to get to town.

“The performance was a triumph,” recalled Ted. “And at the opening night party Maestro Anello lifted a glass to the tenor who had saved the day and claimed he would be one of the greatest singers of our time. His name? Placido Domingo.”

Ted has that Zelig kind of quality. He was the guy standing next to the guy during some classic moments. But for this always curious gentlemen, one of the most important moments in his life was when he first met Ian.

Ian recalled the set up for their first meeting. “I had been invited to a Lutheran group for singles, and I thought, ‘Oh…how boring!’ But my friend in the group said they were having an Italian dinner, and I like Italian food, so I gave it a try.”

Ian showed up and discovered that a feast had been prepared. When she found herself seated next to Ted and discovered he was the chef, curiosity soon got the cat. Watching him clean up all the dishes after dinner, didn’t hurt either.

A date was planned, and Ted went to Ian’s home to pick her up at the appointed time. Entering Ian’s he was greeted with, “I can’t talk to you right now!” Ian had just started a job as a crisis counselor for an airline, and she had a telephone receiver strapped to her ear dealing with families who had questions about a plane crash that had just happened. It was an auspicious first union, and hours later they had their first real date and second shared meal. This time, it was Chinese food that Ted ran out to pick up.

“I knew she was a special lady when I watched her handle the concerns of all those people as she dealt with their feelings and the plane crash,” said Ted. “You wanna talk about a WOW moment—that was it.”

Ted and Ian are truly partners, and their time together at the Pfister for a shared brunch is only part of a full day to come. The coming hours could mean a movie date, some quiet time at home, or a simple walk. Wherever they go from there, they agree that brunch has kept them full for the day. It will be a light meal that evening, and if I were a betting man, I’d say that there’s no way that Ted would let Ian touch a dirty dish.

Artists Among Us

The Pfister is well known for its Victorian Art collection and for supporting the arts in Milwaukee, but did you know how many amazing artists they have on staff? One of the best parts about working here has been meeting and hearing the stories about the incredibly and diversely talented staff. You never know who you are going to meet at the Pfister. The waitress in the cafe takes vintage photographs, the server in banquets creates mixed-media masterpieces, and the manager booking your event is an opera powerhouse.

Once you hear Catering Sales Manager Kristine Baker laugh, you will know that she’s a soprano. She attended the UW-Green Bay with the intent of becoming a teacher, but halfway through her first semester she realized that working with kids wasn’t the right fit. The choral director at her high school was really passionate about what he did, making it easy for her to get engaged and discover her love for music. In college, her advisor encouraged her to audition as a voice major and she thought, “That sounds like fun!”  It involved a lot of voice lessons and recitals, but she did also take center stage.

Kristine played the role of Pamina in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Dido in Dido and Aeneas. “When you are an opera singer, you always want to die a couple of times, it’s great fun,” she reveals. “Pretty much anything that is a Puccini soprano, I love, it just fits  my voice really well.” But she has always wanted to sing Rusalka – an intricate Czech opera.

At the Pfister, Kristine stays connected to the arts and nonprofits by planning annual galas and fundraising events. As we talked in her office, she sat with the posture and alacrity of Catholic school kid on the first day. Her smooth blonde hair spilled down her shoulders like honey oozing out of a jar.  Growing up, she sang in the church choir and performed solos in high school. “When you are from a small town (Merrill, WI) there aren’t a lot of options nor was there a lot of competition,” she admits.

When she laughed from her belly it was like she was singing scales. “My voice type is a meaty, heavier sound. People usually turn and stare when I sing in church.” Though I begged her to serenade me, Kristine was recovering from a cold. “It takes a lot to keep your voice healthy. You’re so reliant on your instrument,  you’re voice always has to be on. Pollen, even soda, can really mess with you,” she laments.

“But do you sing in the shower? Do you sing karaoke?” I asked, still totally intrigued by her talent. “Actually I have never sang karaoke, I think it would bug me if I heard all of those people singing songs wrong.” Kristine  sings at home in her music room and  continues to take voice lessons.

“Sopranos are bountiful,” she admits, “But I plan to audition with local groups like the Florentine Opera and the Skylight Music Theatre to begin performing again.”

Kristine Baker
Kristine Baker