And So It Goes…

…said Kurt Vonnegut. A simplistic way to convey closure, to throw your hands up in the air and surrender, to explain the inexplicable.  And so I go, back to my life pre-Pfister, after six months of exploring, discovering, conversing, photographing, writing, and blogging. There is no simple way to explain what it’s like being a fly on the wall of the historic Pfister Hotel for six months.  I can’t deny the paradox of learning so many new things in such an old space. It’s filled with millions of stories, the fondest of memories, casual comforts and subtle luxuries. Even more, with hundreds of helping hands and smiling faces, The Pfister is home to some of the most caring and talented professionals I have ever had the pleasure of working with. It’s evident how much they genuinely take pride in their work. They adopted me as one of their own, but treated me like royalty.

Me and the boys
Me and the boys

So just in case you were curious, this is how it all began. Below, see the sample blog I wrote when I was vying for the position of Pfister Narrator. It has not yet been published, but it’s still one of my favorite stories, just because it’s so obscure and outlandish. Yes, it’s a true story, and it happened at the Pfister.

Cleaning House

“It really is a sickness, you know,” he insisted. Mike was in town for a week “on family business.” He quickly revealed that this family business was cleaning and selling the home of a recently deceased cousin who was a hoarder. I wasn’t going to pry on such a sensitive issue, but he was eager to explain: “We have been heaving crap out of his house for three days.”

I got sucked into this story with the most common pick up line, “So, you from around here?” He introduced himself as Rob and his friend, Mike. Rob’s flamboyant shirt was screaming at me and his sneaky grin was playful, not threatening. His childhood buddy Mike was along for the ride to provide moral support. He was sporting a tuxedo shirt, black cargo pants, steel-toed boots and a baseball cap. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his attire. When he explained that he was a certified Mercedes mechanic, also working as a producer in L.A., it made a little more sense. Their drink: Woodford Reserve Bourbon – straight up – with a side of water.

Both men are Kansas City natives and when they found out I was from Milwaukee, they began grilling me on all the hot spots in town. I quickly turned the conversation back to the family business and the hoarding. “I swear we have already filled four, 30-yard dumpsters,” bemoaned Mike. “Magazines, empty Godiva chocolate boxes; you name it, the house is packed to the gills!” Mike explained that his cousin took care of his paralyzed wife in that house for 33 years. He was, like most people, totally perplexed by the hoarding. Mike and Rob were sleeping on an air mattress in the five-bedroom house on west Good Hope Road. Rob had already made up his mind that he was going to hire someone from off the street to finish up the cleaning tomorrow so they could get the house on the market.

Desperate for some relief from cleaning, their realtor had suggested Blu as the premier spot in the city to get a cocktail. Mike and Rob were impressed with the diversity of the hotel and abashedly admitted that they wouldn’t mind finding some lady company to see more of the town with. That was my cue to step aside and let these gentlemen unwind. They were warm and obliging, confirming the fact that you don’t find friendlier folk than you do in Midwest.

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Creativity is Everybody’s Business

Maggie Kuhn Jacobus is not your typical executive. Nor is she your typical mom. After a successful carrer as an entreprenuer, writer, producer, marketer, and public relations exec, she took a six-year sabbatical to raise her kids in the lush and far-flung tropics of Costa Rica because she wanted to give them a creative and enriching childhood. “Select soccer and routines were the things I feared most,” she admits.

Maggie Keuhn Jacobus
Maggie Keuhn Jacobus

Kuhn Jacobus is back in her hometown of Milwaukee with teenage boys. She took the position of President and Executive Director of the Creative Alliance  in January and is passionate about linking, leveraging, promoting, and growing the creative industries in the Milwaukee region.

“Creativity is everybody’s business,” she insists at a reception in Cafe Rouge on Thursday night.  It’s evident that not only with her impressive professional resume, but also by her own personal choices that she is just the risk-taker Milwaukee needs to prove the impact of the creative industries on our local economy. Kuhn is a “Glass half full” type of leader and says “Risk is about possibility. We have to ask ourselves what can we do with what we have here in Milwaukee?”

Creative industries are responsible for $2 billion in wages here in Wisconsin, contributing to our region’s vibrancy. But until industries stop working in sillos, growth and development cannot happen. So, the Creative Alliance is set on connecting commerce and creatives.

The Creative Alliance is partnering with the Pfister’s Artist in Residence program and hopes to add more creativite residencies to corporations in MIlwaukee, among a long list of other tactics to bring the creative industry to the forefront of economic discussion.

Stephanie Barenz, the Pfister’s current Artist in Residence, also spoke to the crowd about her work as a full-time creative professional working in a corporate setting.  She is currently working on both a mentoring program with students at St. Marcus School (where her husband is a teacher) to teach them about writing and painting as well as a body of work entitled “The Carriers,” which explores how travel affects our perception of home. What a fitting proposal for a working studio in a historic hotel. Several of her intricate and thought-provoking paintings were on display, along with a diverse body of work from past Artist in Residence finalists.

Stephanie Barenz's artwork on display
Stephanie Barenz’s artwork on display

To really hit home her point, Kuhn Jacobus invited her favorite local band, Painted Caves, to serenade the crowd with exotic sounds, while they mingled and discussed how enriching and vital the arts truly are. The whole event was well choreographed and engaged like a creative leader does best.

 

Painted Caves
Painted Caves

 

 

Serving and Protecting By Day and By Night

Everyone has a very different version of a hero. They come in all shapes and sizes, and their acts even go unnoticed at times. Mike Nichols, a Pfister associate, working in loss and prevention (a.k.a security) fulfills his need to serve and protect not only at the Pfister during the evening, but also during the day, accomplishing heroic acts for American veterans.

A retired military officer and 23-year veteran, Nichols works for the Center for Veteran’s Issues in Milwaukee where he helps secure housing for veterans and their families. After a long career in manufacturing, he realized about a year ago that his heart was in helping others both here at the Pfister and among a population he respects and can relate to. We had a relaxed conversation about what he does and why he does it. See for yourself the way his face lights up when he talks about his Christmas morning type experiences working with veterans.

Sunday at the Spa

What’s a better gift than comfort and relaxation? I’d argue that there’s none. While some people see it as a luxury, others enjoy massage therapy as a part of their regular health and wellness routine – lucky people indeed.  The waiting room at the Well Spa one Sunday afternoon was filled with new guests and regulars: an athletic looking man, an anxious couple, a mother-daughter duo, and an older woman pouring over a magazine. Everyone was whispering and slowly slipping away from the chaos of their own worlds in the solace of the waiting room, where the Well Spa experience really begins. I was cautious to interrupt people, so I began observing with my eyes behind a tattered copy of People and waited for an opportune moment to approach a guest.

As the sleek, all-black clad therapists cycled in and out to escort guests back to their private suites,  Ashley and Michael’s eyes continued to widen. They smiled and peered over each other’s shoulders at the surveys they were filling out detailing their preferences for the treatment. It was obvious that they had no idea what they were about the experience.

So I just had to ask – “Is this your first time here?” Ashely chirped back. “Oh yes, this is our first massage and we’re going in together.”  It was a birthday gift from Ashley to Michael, who turned 24 on Sunday. “Michael was having some back pain, so I thought this would be good for him.”  A romantic couples massage is a perfect gift, in fact, it’s two great gifts wrapped up in one, as the giver also benefits from his/her own generosity.

Ashley and Michael have been dating for five years and married for three. They’ve lived in Milwaukee all their lives, but they’ve never been to the Pfister Hotel. After their massage, they planned to  continue the birthday celebration at dinner.

As more guests circulated out from the suites back into the waiting room, they moved a little slower, stood a little taller and their skin looked a little fresher. They marched back into the real world, hopefully better equipped to combat harsh realities like the weather, work, and stress. Thankfully this harmonious oasis is open seven days a week.

welcome to the Well Spa
Welcome to the Well Spa

5 O’clock Coffee Talk

It’s happy hour! What are we doing drinking coffee? It’s the kind of Friday night that calls for a martini – straight up.

I take my usual seat at the Lobby Lounge bar, looking around at the flurry of activity as hotel guests arrive for the weekend and the suits and gowns sashay in for their festivities. Tom takes the seat next to me, sipping a clear mug of caffeinated bliss, just like me. He’s another regular, but one that I haven’t yet met. Based on the way the staff flock to him to exchange pleasantries and jokes,  I presume Tom is a guy I’d like to get to know.photo

The new law-student bartender is reciting a litany of her favorite professors and Tom chimes in when he has a tidbit of advice. He went to Notre Dame Law School and graduated in 1987, but has been practicing law in Milwaukee and coming to the Pfister ever since.

Poshly dressed in a clean-pressed gray suit and contemporary tortoise shell frames that he repeatedly takes on and off his face, Tom is a criminal defense attorney. His hair, just a shade lighter than his suit, is neatly combed back. He’s delaying a congested highway drive back to Chicago, so he stays a little longer to chat with me. Oh great, since he’s been around for so long, maybe he’ll have an idea for a great story, I think to myself.

He asks what I do for a living and I begin to tell him about my position as the Pfister’s writer in residence and about my work with nonprofits. We find common ground when talking about the nuances and legal implications of grant writing.

Wait, what is happening? I am a turning into a character in my own story. He’s grilling me like a burger at a Memorial Day cookout. Or, well, like a criminal defense attorney. And I just keep slinging back answers, retracing my twenties with this man I don’t even know, but seems like an old pal. I am talking fast, two-cups of coffee fast. I took him from my life in college in Iowa City to my first job in Chicago, and then throughout the jobs and apartments in Milwaukee that I’ve occupied.

I tell other people’s stories, I am not here to tell mine! Somehow we’ve reversed roles and Tom is the storyteller tonight. He extracted biographical information from me that I never intended to share. Rather than reciprocate, the only information Tom shared was that he’s looking forward to retirement in Wisconsin’s north woods. “Maybe I’ll get a job at Wal-Mart or something. I am looking for an  opportunity with absolutely no fiduciary obligation,” he confesses.

And just as quickly as he arrived, he set off into the traffic to head home to Chicago. I didn’t quite get why he’s living in Chicago now  so I suppose his story will remain untold – for now.

He must be an amazing cross examiner.

 

Carla and Tommy

“I made a song!” she declared with a Christmas-morning smile. Dan invited her over to the piano in the lobby to play a few notes. “He knows that Jeff always plays ‘Summertime’ for me, because that’s the song my mother used to sing to me when I was a baby girl,” Carla explained as a juicy tear welled up in her coffee-colored eye. Now, her adoring husband Tommy calls her baby girl.

Carla and Tommy Shircel have one tradition – they celebrate their anniversary every year at the Pfister Hotel.

“Dan asked me to pick the first three notes and from there, he taught me how to compose a song. It’s called ‘Carla’s Song.'” She continued to boast about her song like she had just earned an A on a term paper.

Carla and Dan, the piano man
Carla and Dan, the piano man

Carla and Tommy met in 1994 and wanted to get married at the Pfister on April Fool’s day, but had to settle for March 31.

“I started coming here when I was this big,” Carla puts her hand about two feet from the ground, which translates to about four years old. “This has been my home-away-from-home. We used to sit here in the lobby and watch the Circus Parade,” she recalls.

Her Aunt Rosy was a catering manager and after all these years, she still works at the Pfister in the engineering department.

Carla and Tommy’s wedding ceremony, back in 1995, was held in one of the suites and the reception continued in the Cafe Rouge before they left directly for Jamaica. Tommy had just started a new job with Rockwell Automation and because he didn’t have much vacation time, he went into work the morning of his wedding to afford them one extra day on their honeymoon.

“There is so much history and culture here. It feels you’re walking into your grandma’s big mansion, doesn’t it?” insists Carla. “Every bride has posed on that marble staircase, I know I did!”

Walking in the front door is Carla’s favorite view of the Pfister. As a devout Italian, she particularity loves all of the Italian frescoes. Every year they return to the Pfister to celebrate and they always pick a new room to stay in. Carla and Tommy had dozens of funny stories about run-ins with celebrities, maids, Charlie Pfister’s ghost, and more. They finished each other’s sentences. I guess that  happens when you share 18 years of memories. And may they continue to share many more, at the Pfister.

Carla and Tommy
Carla and Tommy

 

Pfister Files: Rosemary Steinfest

Over the next few months, I will be dusting off pages from the Pfister’s history books and sharing bits of the Pfister’s prolific history. This is the second post in this series.

Rosemary Steinfest is a bona fide rock star. She was the first and still, the only woman general manager of the Pfister Hotel. Now, after raising a family and a successful career, she golfs most every day, if she’s not at Zumba class or planning a party.

After meeting the legend herself at the Pfister in December, I knew I wanted to know more. We gabbed on the phone since she’s enjoying her retirement in sunny Arizona. I sat in the cafe imaging her warm presence radiating like the neat cup of tea keeping me company.

Rosemary Steinfest
Rosemary Steinfest

Rosemary began working as Ben Marcus’s personal secretary in 1956. She had previous experience in the movie industry with MGM pictures so Ben hired her on the spot. At the time, Ben only had 25 theaters; he didn’t own any hotels.

Throughout her 40-year tenure with the Marcus Corporation, Rosemary held the titles of director of sales, director and sales and catering, VP of the Marc Plaza hotel, and more. Of course, her most memorable position was general manager of the Pfister Hotel from 1986-1996.

She still remembers the day they promoted her. “We all attended dinner in the English Room, my children were there, and then they told me about the new position. I was so proud.” I asked what some of her favorite memories were as GM. “What can I pick out of 40 years, that is a very long story!” she retorted.

“One year, when I was in charge of coordinating the employee United Way campaign, I was really into dancing so I taught all the department heads how to do the electric slide. I did a lot of things with the employees, as opposed to as their boss.”

She admitted that it was not easy being the only woman in the executive world, but Rosemary didn’t let it get to her. “I kept my stance, and Ben and Steve always stood behind me,” she said.

Rosemary enjoyed traveling and organizing meetings for groups like the Historic Hotels of America and Preferred Hotels, as everything was of the highest caliber. “I booked all the baseball teams and the Packers. They spent one night somewhere else and wanted none of that, so I took care of them. I even brought in Regis Philbin for the Centennial,” she reminisces proudly.

The Pfister Time Capsule
The Pfister Time Capsule

Organizing the Centennial celebration in 1993 was by far her biggest undertaking. She created and closed the time capsule in the lobby. Have you ever noticed it? I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t, so I ran out to find it after we got off the phone. The beautiful emerald marble statue stands about four feet tall, right at the bottom of the staircase as you enter the lobby. It’s set to be opened in 2093 at the Pfister’s 200th anniversary.

“It was a wonderful career. Having worked there for so many years, I met all the presidents, dignitaries, and I also have so many fond memories of all the people I worked with.”

A Milwaukee native, Rosemary moved to Phoenix when she retired in 1996. She says she has a wonderful group of friends down there and they do everything together, including travel. Though she’s moved on to sunnier skies, Rosemary will always be an important part of Milwaukee and the Pfister’s history.

Working to Give

Proudly showing off her black fleece sweater with the embroidered Pfister logo, I may have just met the Pfister’s biggest fan tonight. She and her husband were certainly fans of Jeff. Like any good bartender, he took to the attention like a moth to a flame and kept them entertained in the bustling Lobby Lounge where they were perfectly content taking in all the action.

Patty had neatly bobbed blonde hair, her rosy cheeks held up a pair of oval specs, and her meek smile was warm and inviting. Burt was in a collared shirt that peeked out loosely over the top of his sweater and had tousled mad-scientist hair.

They visited the Pfister every couple of months, whenever they had time.  They live in the southern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a mere three-hour drive to Milwaukee. This time they came to town to tour the Pabst Mansion, which they would recommend to anyone who has an interest in history.

“I know who you are, we did our research on this place before we came,” Patty told me as I took the seat next to her and egged on Jeff to continue with his antics.

“Oh no wait, are you going to write about me?” her eyes widened as she asked.

“Only with your permission,” I replied. This was the first time I had met someone so nervous to talk to me.

“So what do you do for a living?” I inquired, trying to break the ice and set Patty at ease.

She kept silent and Burt said he was a computer programmer. Without saying anything, Patty slid a business card across the bar, without even making eye contact. I examined it closely: “I trade stocks for a ‘giving’” it read.

“You make money and give it away for a living? That’s so cool, I have to write about you now!” I blurted out.

“For a giving,” she corrected me.

A devotee of CNBC’s Jim Cramer and his teachings on “Mad Money,” Patty took it upon herself to learn the ins and outs of investing to generate some cash for charity. Not just a noble pursuit, but creative and enriching too. I was really in awe, so I begged to share her story.

She looked at me incredulously, consulted Burt and finally resigned, “Ok you can write about me.” I thought I was pushing my luck by asking her to take a picture, but I roped Jeff into the shot and she happily complied.

Jeff and Patty
Jeff and Patty

Patty follows Cramer’s advice as a guideline, and then makes her own decisions, “Although he’s not always right, I learned the hard way,” she admitted.

Patty does most of her giving in her hometown of Menominee, providing scholarships, donations to the animal shelters, local park and law enforcement, as well as many anonymous donations. She  has also provided significant funding to the Friends of St. Mary’s Hospital Green Bay owns the naming rights to an athletic field in Menominee.

“I’ve been doing this for about 10 years now,  and I  have given away over $50,000 in that time,” she said.

As the Lobby Lounge continued to fill up with party-goers and diners looking for a night cap, I gave up my seat and the bar and said goodbye to Patty and Burt. They were looking forward to a relaxing courtesy of their “Bed and Breakfast” package, and I couldn’t be happier that the Pfister was pampering two such lovely, generous people.

The Art of Storytelling with Ex Fabula

No professionals needed – just enthusiastic amateurs. That’s my kind of club. ExFabula has been organizing live storytelling events in Milwaukee since 2009. Founding member Megan McGee takes pride in helping people discover that they have a story to tell and showing them how to do it. There is only one rule – all five-minute stories must be true. And, each event has a theme that storytellers must stick to. “The themes aren’t a way to restrict people, they should just be starting off point,” explains Megan. “Eventually everyone connects with something.”

Andrew Larsen got involved last fall and has been telling stories at several of the monthly events. He clears his throat and his baritone voice booms sarcastically, “I like the hearing the sound of my own voice.”  By day, Andrew is a history teacher at Marquette and a passionate advocate for the art of storytelling. “History is really just a collection of stories,” he says, and he often uses storytelling to engage his students. “It’s fun telling stories,” he confesses, “Its is how people used to entertain each other years ago before technology. American culture has taught people to be really passive. Live storytelling allows the audience to take an active role in their entertainment.”

Andrew Larsen and Megan McGee
Andrew Larsen and Megan McGee

I met Andrew and Megan in the Pfister lobby to talk about their upcoming event and was able to coerce Andrew into sharing a story.  (See below) “There are a few key elements to a good story,” he explains, “The delivery certainly matters and it helps if its relatable.” Andrew’s poise, confidence and articulation definitely shine through when the spotlight is on him.

At each event the are scheduled storytellers and people who volunteer that night.  Funny stories always go over well,  but are not the only effective ones. “The story I liked the most was actually serious, it was about a very challenging conversation with my father,” admits Andrew.

Think you want try your hand at storytelling? The theme for the next ExFabula event on Tuesday, March 12  is “Green.”  The event will be at Club Giribaldi in Bayview and admission is $5 at the door. About half of the crowd are newcomers and half are regulars. Andrew plans on telling a story and assures that it’s a very supportive atmosphere. “Our audience appreciates people who are brave enough to tell their stories, Megan chimes in. “Every story inspires another.”

For more information on ExFabula or the event on March 12, click here.

See Andrew tell his story “Blind Date” that he told last month at an ExFabula event.

 

Fred Pfister: Part 2 of 2

“My grandmother used to save this stuff and my mother was a saver too. Now that I am all alone in the house, rather than just throw it away, I wanted a way to preserve it,” Fred Pfister said about the beautiful handmade clothing his grandmother created. We couldn’t be more flattered that he has entrusted the Pfister Hotel to preserve his family’s legacy. Before we tuck  away these artifacts for safe keeping, Timothy and I felt such unique, delicate garments deserved one more walk around the hotel. And lucky for me, they fit like a glove.

The maroon jacket, made from traditional linen with decorative, silk ribbon appliques, dates back to the early 1900s. The wicker boning on the inside was very rare for the time; most tailors used whale bone. Fred’s grandmother Margaret made the jacket for herself – she sewed all of her own clothes. Timothy helped me carefully place the jacket over my shoulders and immediately I felt like a character in a black-and-white photograph. The sophisticated bun perched atop my head, created by the WellSpa, solidified my look as a true Gibson Girl pin-up of the Belle Epoque.

The pink satin dress belonged to Fred’s mother, Helen. She loved to dance. The cool satin cascaded down my body, stopping to rest on each curve. As I slipped into it, I felt myself morph into Helen Pfister. Fred explained that his grandmother made the dress for Helen to attend a wedding party.  The above-the-ankle hemline and flared bottom allowed for movement when she would glide and turn. Helen loved to waltz, but she didn’t care much for  the flappers – she thought they were too risque. Helen waltzed right into the arms of her husband Fredrick Pfister at the Milwaukee Club (right across the street for the Pfister Hotel) and spent the next 60 years of her life with him.

Helen’s silk crepe blouse was originally black, but over the years, has faded to a rich olive hue. It’s embellished with iridescent glass beads and a high, pointed collar. Both the blouse and the dress date back to the late thirties, though paired with denim, the blouse looks contemporary and chic.

Thank you to Fred, who allowed us to revitalize these objects of art and preserve the memory of Margaret Faubel and Helen Pfister. Fred dutifully cared for his mother until she died in 2003 at the age of 94.

To see part one of the Fred Pfister story, click here. All photos courtesy of Carol Rice Kraco and Kraco Photography.

 

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