A Dearth of Drips at Water Summit 2015

Today, the Pfister Hotel is swarming with guests who are excited about the opening day of Summerfest.

So, let’s talk about the most important thing about Summerfest.


One thing that you pick up on after spending some time at the Pfister is that this hotel is not just about luncheons, business travelers who use their expense accounts to buy gin and steaks, and pretty bridesmaids. Nothing wrong with any of those, of course, especially the pretty bridesmaids (so sue me, I’m smitten with the bridesmaids). But what you really quickly understand about the Pfister is that on a very regular basis, there is some pretty progressive stuff happening in our hallowed halls.

Which brings me back around to the most significant thing about Summerfest, and that, my friends, is water. Some would argue that music is what defines this mega watt festival, while others would pick a fight with me over beer and food. I’ll admit I’ve been touched by the significance of enjoying a fried eggplant strip or 37 over the years, and I remember being there reeling at the end of a Violent Femmes concert many years ago as my high school girlfriend discovered she had lost her car keys. But I know that all these superb characteristics of a world-class music fest can’t hold a candle to water. Water would even put that candle out in one swift dousing, and easily, like a boss.

This week, the Water Council has gathered at the Pfister to discuss the water and its global impact during Water Summit 2015. To my mind that’s sort of like having a meeting to discuss the future of breathing. It’s elemental, it’s important, it’s necessary to daily life, and Summerfest would just be some dusty festival under the baking summer sun if it weren’t for the refreshing cool Great Lake breezes that pierce through the mass of humanity enjoying the world’s biggest music fest. You take away its fresh water setting on the shores of Lake Michigan, and Summerfest loses something basic, a sense of connection to the greater universe, an openness that really is defined by the eternal passageway of water. The beer is cold and nice, for sure, but water is where it’s at.

It is, for me, a great source of comfort that while revelers press against the starting gate to enter the Summerfest grounds, there are meetings happening at the Pfister in which visionary global business leaders, scientists and engineers are thinking about best uses for water and the communal impact of conservation, innovation, and sustainability practices. This is some high minded stuff happening as Water Summit 2015 brings together great minds from around the world to discuss, debate and challenge assumptions on the world’s relationship to water and how we humans use it.

I spoke to some very fine experts who seemed to be rushing from one discussion to the next as they dug into important ideas surrounding water, its sources, and its applications through all areas of life. I find myself wrapping up chats with these men and women by saying, “Thank you for the important work you’re doing.” Like typical engineers and scientists, the good souls discussing new ways to study and think about water seem to shyly shrug, not really wanting to bask in any sort compliment, but quickly wanting to delve back into work surrounding solutions to global water challenges.

In the midst of the ebb and flow of the Water Summit, I met some young people who are going to eventually shape and change our world, and I’m happy to know that they are smarter than smart and also poised and know how to clean up nicely. As part of Water Summit 2015, college and university students from around the globe are participating in a learning opportunity called, Wetskills. Wetskills is an international movement that allows students to work in four person teams to tackle water related challenges. Thomas, Jessica, Matthew, Ferris and Paul were snapping pictures in the lobby of the Pfister when I suggested I take a group shot of their posse. I also wanted to hear about the work they were doing as part of their two weeks of immersive learning and team building.

They explained that they were prepping for a pitch contest, a sort of Shark Tank kind of experience where all the innovative ideas presented had to do with solving some water related challenge. Paul gave me his pitch in under a minute…he and his team want to bring garbage disposals to the Netherlands, and he compactly told me that there are issues related to this that he and his team address in some creative ways.

Jessica told me that her team was working on supporting farmers and their water issues related to run off from growing cycles. She and her team have plans to help communities get engaged in the process of evaluating and monitoring run off levels by a series of simple and effective implementation tactics. I asked if any part of their plan involved giving locals surrounding farms rulers so they could measure the depth of water in ditches. Jessica was kind and smiled rather than slapping my face.

On the topic of Summerfest, I asked if the gang was going to be able to visit during their stay. They hedged a bit, mentioning that they hoped to have the time. But at the end of the day, they all seem to be fully underwater with work, and for now, that’s a really good thing.

Back to the Future

“Don’t you remember when police officers had the baseball cards?”

This happens a lot. Though I’m Milwaukee-born, I’m an Army brat and didn’t fully experience the city until I moved back an adult.  Subsequently, I miss many of these “remember back when” references of my Milwaukee-bred peers.

“Don’t you remember??” he insists.

Gabriel is a true son of Milwaukee. I met him over a decade ago when he was a radio personality for WMSE.  As we pass one another in the lobby, we both do a double take, hug, and fall into our usual rapid-fire exchange. The last time we bumped into each other this way, we stood talking in a grocery store parking lot. This time, at least, we had chairs.

“So, let me get this straight,” I say. “Once upon a time, Milwaukee police officers walked around with baseball trading cards in their pockets?”


“And handed them out to the kids on their neighborhood patrols?”


“And it became your life mission to restore this tradition because …?”

“My son.”


I settle back in my seat. The evening bustle of the front lobby sweeps back and forth in front of us as Gabriel tells me about his project, Cops4Kidz.

“The officers who patrolled my neighborhood as a kid, they gave us cards,” he said, recalling how he and his friends had often hoped for football or basketball card, too.

“I mean, we took ‘em,” Gabriel says with a laugh. “One, they were free. Two, they were still sports cards.”

All grown up, Gabriel instantly thought of those cards while out walking with his son one afternoon. His son was seven at the time and they saw an officer at the end of the block.

“We were coming from the library, and I was already feeling like SuperDad that day,” Gabriel says, his face filled with animation.  “I decide to go for the bonus round and score my son a pack of cards.”

Gabriel’s grand plan fizzled on two counts: his son was afraid to speak to the police officer and the neighborhood cops didn’t carry trading cards anymore.

“It was such a small but such an enormous thing,” Gabriel said, his face serious now. “I knew the officers in my neighborhood and they knew me.  Simple, but it went a long way. I wanted to see what I could do to help bring it back.”

Gabriel started with a string of phone calls to various precincts and district headquarters.  Once he reignited their interest, he contacted national distributors for sports cards and secured boxes and boxes of cards for baseball, football and basketball. Once he began placing cards into the hands of beat officers, Gabriel imagined other possibilities.

“I approached Summerfest about hosting an all-star game between police officers and teenagers. This summer was our third year,” he said. “Our motto is ‘let’s meet on the playground and not the battleground.’ ”

I ask about his son, who’s 14 now, and what he thinks about the work Gabriel is doing.

“He loves it.” Gabriel says.  “Especially helping with the games. Plus, he can see there’s no reason to be afraid of police if you haven’t done anything wrong.”

I raise an eyebrow.  Gabriel raises his hands in mock surrender.

“Yes, I’ve had my issues with the police,” he said.  “Arrested in front of my own house for not having my ID on me, handcuffed in an alley another time because I looked like a robbery suspect. Yes, I’ve been through the drill. But the police force isn’t made of up of boogey men. There are more good humans who happen to be cops than bad ones who got the job. It’s all about building dialogue.”

I give him a slow nod.  “So how does all this bring you to the hotel today?”

“See that man over there?” he says, pointing his chin toward the lobby lounge where two tall and distinguished looking black men were looking over menus. “He was the community relations officer who first helped me with this.  He’s retired from the force now, but he still checks up on me from time to time.”

In fact, he’d told Gabriel about a tribute event to honor NBA legend and Bucks icon, Oscar Robertson. Gabriel’s eyes light up as he rattles all the names he hopes to see passing through the lobby.  I can easily see the little kid in him, stacking his favorite cards in a pencil box for safekeeping.

“You’re just a big kid,” I say teasing.

“Of course I am,” he replies. “Of course I am.”

Rocks in their Pockets

They were like the prologue for a coming of age film, an assuring glimpse at how adulthood will frame their childhood adventures. John, with his salted hair, and Perry, with laugh lines softening his eyes, fell into the couch beside mine talking and laughing with the fluid shorthand of longtime friends and the loosened inhibitions of Summerfest beer. They were neither obnoxious nor loud, but generated an energy that pulled me in like static.

“Ours is a timeless tale,” John boomed when I asked them to tell me their story.  His smile was confident and his blue eyes were sharp behind his glasses.  That he answered me with his best movie announcer voice signaled that he was also a seasoned wise guy.

“Not timeless,” Perry said, admonishing John with a shake of his head.  They were both dressed casually in short pants and short sleeves. Perry’s shirt was neatly tucked. He turned to me to repeat, “It’s not timeless. You can’t say it’s timeless.”

“We’ve been coming up here for years,” John said, his thick hand slicing the air in front of him. “It used to be, like, an enormous pack of us back in the day.”

“Not a pack,” Perry corrected with a sideways smile.  “It was, like, eight of us.”

“Eight can be a pack,” John said, turning his shoulders to face Perry. After they exchanged a few rapid rounds, John sliced the air again, his vintage Schlitz t-shirt sloping the curve of his stomach “Okay,” he conceded, “we were a large group.”

They were practiced in this sharpening of one another, this joust. They’ve been friends for more than 25 years, meeting in high school at the northern ends of Chicago. They agreed that they had become instant friends.

Even after handing me this point of fact, I couldn’t help imagining much younger snapshots of them: knobby knees with scratched and examined scabs, bicycle races, rocks in their pockets, swapped comic books, and exploring together.  Always together.

“He’s been my best man twice,” John said.

“I did a pretty good job both times,” Perry said when I asked for which wedding he had been the better Best Man.  “Although, I might’ve done too good of a job the second time.”

Perry snickers at a memory and John cosigns by looking back over his shoulder and tossing a laugh to his friend.  John had been engaged in a separate lively discussion with the couple just joining our circle-of-couches community, but still managed to train an ear for one of their private jokes.  Always, always together.

Within the span of thirty minutes, John and Perry had turned our sitting area into a studio party. There’s a talent agent charting the arc of his career.  A young couple sighing that they’d been awkwardly confused as siblings all night. The mysterious would-be emcee wrapped in a head scarf and unseasonably heavy clothing. The managing editor with a love for comic books. And we’re all laughing. We’re all letting loose. We’re all at ease. We’re all drawn to the alchemy that is Perry and John.

When they return to their suburb, they’ll return to their very grown up selves as executives and family men.  They will commute.  They will negotiate.  They will work in the yard.  They will consume news and media. They will manage their expenses. They will plan for another summer.  They will navigate new scenes in their endearing, “timeless” tale. Always, always together.

The Pfister Picks: Summerfest’s 45th Anniversary

Peter Mortensen, our Chief Concierge at the Pfister, knows a lot about Milwaukee. He’s been helping people have a great time in this city for over 25 years. While he knows the ins and outs better than most, it doesn’t take a concierge to know that Summerfest is the biggest event in Milwaukee all year!

Watch as Peter gives a little history lesson about Summerfest’s origins and speaks with John Boler, Summerfest’s VP of Sales & Marketing, about what’s new this year!

This is a special year in Summerfest history; it’s the 45th anniversary. In celebration of the Big Gig’s 45th birthday, Discovery World is showcasing a special exhibit featuring Summerfest memorabilia including autographed instruments, photographs and much more. The display will go on through the fest and into September.

Summerfest is also creating an interactive timeline to be displayed at the fest as well as online. Explore tons of photos taken over the course of the festival’s history and even submit your own photos.

What concerts are you looking forward to the most?

Patronage and the Everyman


The Campus Theater in Ripon, Wisconsin was the first business opened by company founder, Ben Marcus.

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.

The Business Journal’s Milwaukee Brand Madness

Let the madness begin. We know it’s not March, but The Business Journal Milwaukee has launched a NCAA tournament-style competition to see what’s your favorite local brand.

They have selected 64 of the area’s most famous and iconic brands. Now they want to hear who’s your favorite by casting your vote.

We’re excited to be selected for this unique competition, but we know it’s not going to be easy. We have a tough draw in Region 4, however, we are confident in our abilities to advance because of our experience, gracious service and impeccable style.

But we are not overlooking the competition. Our bracket is full of heavy hitters, including: Kohl’s, Summerfest, Lakefront Brewery and our first round opponent Snap-On Tool.

This is where we need your help and support. Please head to the Business Journals Brand Madness page to vote for us to advance to the next round. You can cast your vote each day for the next several weeks and help make us Milwaukee’s Favorite Brand!

Thanks for your help and support. We look forward to sharing this victory with all of you.

Making Music

A couple recently told me that playing cribbage was part of their secret to a long, happy marriage.

After being married for thirty years, “there are only so many TV shows you can share,” said Tim and B.C. as we sat with crisp, cool drinks in hand, waiting out the heat of the summer afternoon in the air conditioned lobby before they head to Summerfest.

Tim’s dad used to play with the grandkids, as a way of bonding with them.  A few years ago, during a family reunion over the Fourth of July weekend, Grandpa sat in the lobby with seven grandkids clustered around him, learning the game.  His German relatives played a particularly cutthroat version where if a player missed points, the opponent got to pick them up.  Ouch.  I bet those kids can peg a mean score as a result.

When not playing cribbage, the family took a “nostalgia tour” of Marquette, where Tim and his sisters and parents all went to school.  They went to Summerfest, watched the Big Bang fireworks, and generally hung out in the Pfister’s lobby – “the best in the world.”  Tim’s sister apparently commented on the infamous Bloody Mary that’s served here, garnished with the usual veggies and also some Wisconsin sausage, “it’s a meal!”

These two, Tim sporting a blue Hawaiian short and B.C. bedecked in gold earrings and a big smile, are regulars to the hotel because of its proximity to Summerfest, for which they are in town.  Just up from the Northwest side of Chicago where they live, Tim and B.C. are huge music buffs.  They unashamedly admit that it might surprise people to know they are most excited about seeing Milwaukee’s own homegrown cover band, The Toys.  Though, they’re hoping to catch Michelle Branch after The Toys’ show is over.  We scan the entire 10-days’ lineup together, and they both remark over the classic rock stage headliners.  It’s a true tribute to the genre with (deep breath) Hall&Oates,REOSpeedwagon,Styx,BlueOysterCult,Cinderella,PeterFrampton,KansasLeon RussellandAmerica (exhale)!

I share a story about picking up America by America on vinyl when I was a kid.  Tim, clearly trying to get a handle on what year I might refer to when I say ‘kid,’ asks, “was that the only way you could music when you were ‘a kid’?”  No, cassettes were also big at that time, though eight-tracks could also still be found.  B.C. pipes up, “I never really cared for America.  Their sound was ‘too nice’ – I like music with a little more edge.”

They banter back and forth briefly about what this might mean and, somehow, this triggers a story from Tim about George Harrison’s song, “While my Guitar Gently Weeps.”  He recalls reading it in an issue of Rolling Stone Magazine: Apparently, Harrison brought his song to McCartney and Lennon, who poo-poo’ed it.  A short while later, Harrison was giving Eric Clapton a ride home and asks if Clapton will come in and play the song.  Clapton replies, “No, can’t do it.”  Harrison asks, “Why not?”  Clapton answers, “You’re the Beatles, you don’t do guest musicians.”  But, he’s ultimately convinced, goes into the studio and records the song.  A while later, Harrison, McCartney and Lennon get into one of their tiffs and Harrison storms off.  McCartney turns to Lennon and says “If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday, get Clapton!”

Milwaukee: Where the Music is

Another couple, over glasses of wine, also regales me with music tales while they wait for a friend.  They’re here to hit up Sugar Land and Bobby Friss, and used to come to town from Madison to play the local slots when they were part of a band.  Their stories, as musicians, are juicier, and not quite suitable for public consumption but were just the sort of amusement that gets shared between drinks with other music aficionados this time of year.  They briefly lament the local bands not getting good coverage or time slots any more, so I throw two names for them to check out – local bands who they’ll be sad to have missed, but who both made good impressions at the Big Gig this year: Wil Phalen & the Stereo Addicts and Juniper Tar.

If there’s one thing Milwaukee doesn’t have a shortage of these days, it’s really good local bands making really good music.

Meanwhile, girls in matching shorts, tanks and cowboy hats stroll by, arms linked.  Britney Spears is playing the Marcus Amphitheater tonight, and I’m guessing that’s where they’re headed, though they could surprise us all and show up to sing along as America belts out “Ventura Highway,” in the fading sunshine.

Summer in the City. . . of Festivals

Patriotic Flowers

It’s summer in Milwaukee.  Finally.  We know the calendar has said it’s summer for some time now, but the weather simply hasn’t cooperated, as evidenced by the city’s wavering between the wet, cold of March and the hottest, most humid dog days of August.  Not only has the mercury risen and the sun come out to tan the hides of hundreds of folks cavorting on Bradford Beach, but the clearest sign of the season has begun: the fireworks have been shot off, PrideFest has passed, the festivals are here!

Boasting large cultural fests like the Lakefront Festival of the Arts, Festa Italiana and Irish Fest, street festivals like Locust Street Days or Summer Soulstice, and numerous church festivals across the city and its suburbs, Milwaukee’s self-appointed (and well-earned) nickname is the “City of Festivals.”  And, currently in full swing right now, is the biggest festival of them all: Summerfest.

Centrally located to the Summerfest grounds means the Pfister is packed to the Jason-Mraz-fedora-brim with fest-goers.  They group together with friends, and the children tag along behind their moms.  Coolers are being dragged or carried, backpacks are stuffed with sunscreen.  The ladies are (mostly) tanned and adorned in skirts and heels, summer dresses and wedge sandals, capris and flip-flops with glittery sequins or earthy embroidery.  The men in tees and plaid board shorts, jeans and tanks, sunglasses (some still wearing them inside), but especially: hats.  Besides the numerous summer straw fedoras made popular by the aforementioned visiting musician, there are black glittery cowboy hats, jaunty leather types, paddlesport visors, and fitted baseball caps. The variety in fedoras, however, is particularly astounding, and those wanting in on this fashion can find some splendid samples at the Brass Rooster, newly opened in Bay View.

The abundance of exposed skin also results in a revelation of tattoos: colorful flowers on a lady’s back, a line of stars down the back arm of a man, a girl in a yellow dress with a variety of black & white/gray landscapes and portraits – one on her shoulder is a particularly stunning Marilyn Monroe.

There is a strong juxtaposition of summer attire with Roc’s tails and vest or Peter’s grand mustache and wide tie.  This only makes the traditional, formal dress of the concierges stand out even more, creating an air of elegance that is nearly theatrical, were it not for their easy-going laughter or kind directions on how to take the trolley loop around downtown.


Of course, it’s also the Fourth of July weekend and guests have arrived from all over to spend their holiday here. There’s one guy who managed to bring all the summer fashions together.  He stands at the check-in desk wearing all of the above: the t-shirt, plaid shorts, flip-flops, straw fedora, backpack AND has a cooler!  I meet a fabulously flamboyant male ballet dancer from San Francisco who is here on a mini family reunion of sorts, a beautiful redhead from Tucson celebrating a hometown birthday with her longtime friend (and artist-in-residence) Shelby Keefe, and a couple from Illinois who has fled domestic festivities in favor of a holiday weekend away with their sweet, adorable 2.5yr old Basset Hound named Gertrude.

Gertrude is a charmer: her giant paws with exercise wristbands of wrinkled skin bunching around her ankles, pumpkin-fed soft fur, long and unbelievably silky ears, gorgeous tri-color markings, and those soulful eyes make a deadly combination.  Her “parents” are thrilled to be able to bring her with them on their getaway.  They even took her up to the seventh floor where, vacant of any conferences or group bookings, they found a veritable playground where they could play fetch with Gertie*, who normally would take off (as hounds are wont to do) and not come back as she followed a scent outdoors someplace.  They loved that employees would walk by and smile, nod, say hello, maybe give Gertie a belly rub and go on their way.  “It’s so wonderful to stay in a place where we can walk around with her inside, or play a little in a big, empty space and it’s okay!”  Gertie shows her gratitude by licking my bare toes.


I think how it’s too bad that Gertie won’t be allowed in the one place everyone else is sure to be tonight between 11pm and 3am: in the Café at the Pfister, enjoying their inaugural ‘Summerfest Late Night Buffet’ for only $19.95.  Who am I kidding?  Gertie will be so tired from galloping around her new playground, she’ll be fast asleep on a big, fluffy bed next to a bigger, fluffier bed while the rest of Milwaukee listens to music, drinks, dances, and eats long into the holiday night.


*Gertrude has no idea how lucky she is, as she shares her nick-moniker with Milwaukee’s most famous animal: a duck, also named Gertie, whose bronze statue stands by the river, a symbol of hope.