The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jul 1, 1998 

Brats and Bricks by William Janz

A woman plans to visit Milwaukee because of bratwurst and a brick.

For many years, Jane Frances Cryan has lived in San Francisco, which, we all know, has its charm earthquakes, a so-called golden bridge that isn't golden, and a fisherman's wharf where entrepreneurs troll for tourists.
However, San Francisco fails miserably in the most important comparison with Milwaukee it doesn't have good sausage, "which I miss very much," Cryan said.
        Her hometown is Milwaukee, which has the best of the wurst and that brick she wants to visit. This strange story started 56 years ago, and it started a few weeks ago.
        Cryan, who was born in St. Joseph's Hospital in 1942, wrote to the hospital recently. She said that her father had never paid the bill for her birth.
        However, he had an excuse: "He was an irresponsible musician, incapable of being domesticated," she said.
        He recognized musical notes, but never fiscal ones, and didn't pay bills, including the first his daughter incurred, the one St. Joseph's Hospital charged for her birth.
        "I'm embarrassed," Cryan told the hospital. "Could you look it up and tell me how much I owe you?"
        During a telephone interview, she said she had memories of her father playing piano in Milwaukee clubs, including that satanic blot on the city's past, that horrendous den of iniquity, the Empress Theater, which employed women to walk off stage wearing much less than when they had walked on.
        "I remember clearly, when I was 4 or 5, my dad put me in the back row of the Empress Theater, where he was playing," Cryan said. "I remember a woman in a red dress on stage."
        Her memory, thank goodness, does not include what happened to the dress.
        "As my father aged, his drinking habits got out of hand, the poor guy," Cryan said. "Now I'm getting older, and wiser. I've found life is tough for most people, and I'd never judge him. He spent his life playing beautiful music, so I'll pay the bill he didn't."
        Her parents divorced and now are dead. A graduate of Washington High School, Cryan went to San Francisco for the first time because she'd been corresponding with Jack Kerouac, the point man of the Beat Generation. Some people called him a writer, some people called him a typist, but he proved that mixing booze and drugs wasn't good for either of those occupations.
        When Cryan arrived in San Francisco, "Jack was supposed to meet me, but... he was stoned out of his mind in Mexico."
        It wasn't long until she asked herself a pertinent question: "What am I doing with these crazy people?"
        She returned here, and then returned there, out of reach of the battered Beats. Recently, maybe because she's getting older, maybe because she watched a TV show that stressed the importance of paying debts, she contacted St. Joseph's about that long ago bill her mother had told her about.
        "We couldn't find the bill, so we took our best guess," Larry Widen, director of marketing, said.
        He said $50 would cover that long ago debt, in which Cryan was an active participant but was a tad too young to be fiscally responsible. Widen suggested that she purchase a brick for a walkway in Sister Jeanne's Park, across the street from the hospital. The park was named after Sister Jeanne Gengler, a longtime hospital president and benefactor.
        Cryan sent the check with an appropriate inscription for the brick: "With this brick, the debt is paid."
        In a letter to Widen, Cryan said, "Hail to the good people in my hometown, cheers for the bratwurst, which I miss very much, and alma mater Washington High School. I haven't visited Milwaukee in 10 years (other than tours on the Internet) but the next time I do, I'll visit my brick."   Back to topics

Theater Stirs Consumer and Cultural Behavior

Marketing Democratic Art to Working Class and Middle Class

According to the "Music and Drama" section of the March 26, 1898, Milwaukee Journal, high-class vaudeville is recognized by the theater-going public as the most popular form of amusement now in vogue, nor is there any reason why this should not be so. A vaudeville programme is made up to afford the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest number... the most appropriate and popular number on the [Alhambra's] bill is that marvel of perfection in instantaneous photography, the American Biograph with panoramic pictures of the ill-fated battleship Maine as she lay in New York harbor prior to her disastrous trip to Havana. Alongside of her lies the Massachusetts, the two noble vessels making an inspiring sight to all patriotic citizens. Another picture of interest to all in these times of contemplated war is that taken of the Spanish warship Viscaya, while steaming out of New York harbor, after the short visit she made us about three weeks ago enroute to Havana.
The Milwaukee Journal's description and the accompanying advertisements are early attempts on the part of exhibitors to target middle-class consumers while also attracting an immigrant working-class audience by offering inexpensive "high-class" entertainment (see Merritt). Indeed, in January the Alhambra Theater had already included "Lumier's Cinematographe" [sic] as part of its "$1.50 show [the 'legitimate' theater ticket price] for a quarter."
        The Alhambra's utilitarian description of the vaudeville program anticipates later descriptions by film historians of film as the "democratic art" (Jowett), which Judith Mayne has criticized for "mythologiz[ing]... movie houses and nickelodeons [as] the back rooms of the Statue of Liberty" ("Two Spheres" 73) For Mayne, "consumerism [in the 1890s] offered the image of a homogeneous population pursuing the same goals – 'living well' and accumulating goods. The movie-theatre seemed to offer an ideal space for the exhibition of this image, for workers and middle-class people alike needed only to pay a small admission price in order to share equally in the spectacle offered on the screen" (69). Mayne thus acknowledges the ideological function of early cinema and "vaudeville [which] provided a context for the public space of the movie theater as both cross-class entertainment and as standardized performance" (77). Yet Mayne also uses the model of the immigrant filmgoer to escape the dominant paradigm of the "passive" classical Hollywood spectator:
        I will argue... that while cinema quickly became an agent of the new culture of consumerism, it also kept alive fantasies of resistance to that culture. Since the mythologies of early cinema tend to portray the immigrant-spectator as little more than a passive consumer of the moving-picture show, the roles of "fantasy" and "imagination" in the film-going experience are open to misunderstanding. Fantasy may imply "escape," but it is also a potential form of resistance, an imaginary refusal of real conditions of existence.
        What one is supposed to make out of this "imaginary refusal of real conditions of existence" is somewhat unclear, yet Mayne's argument (first published in 1982), like Gunning's "cinema of attractions", needs to be understood within the context of larger trends in film historiography during the late 1970s and early 80s. In the end, Mayne's claim that immigrant spectator "actively" resisted the dominant ideology of early film images becomes highly problematic when applied to the reception and exhibition of Spanish-American War films. Indeed, if we shift or expand our focus to include ideologies of race and imperialism in addition to ideologies of ethnicity, gender, and consumerism, it becomes increasingly difficult to place politically progressive fantasies and daydreams in the minds of immigrant spectators in response to Spanish-American American War films.  Back to topics

Special to the Journal Sentinel, Posted: May 23, 2006

Ledgers, Photos Bring Back Vaudeville by Larry Widen

A Life in Theaters

Charles Braun spent his life working in Milwaukee's theaters in an age when they were most people's main entertainment destination. By the time he died in 1968, Braun had worked at nearly 30 Wisconsin theaters.
In 1905, at age 13, Braun was selling candy at the Bijou Opera House at the corner of N. 2nd St. and W. Wisconsin Ave. Within two years, he had worked his way up to assistant treasurer at the Crystal, a vaudeville theater up the street.
        A decade later, Braun attracted the attention of Thomas Saxe, who, with his brother John, ran Saxe Amusement Enterprises, which was on its way to becoming the most powerful theater chain in Milwaukee.
        The Saxes hired Braun to manage the Miller Theatre, a property that Saxe Amusement Enterprises operated in conjunction with Miller Brewing Co. just north of Wisconsin Ave. on what is now N. Old World 3rd St.
        For the next 12 years, Braun booked hundreds of singers, dancers, comedians and other vaudeville performers for the Miller stage. According to a pocket-size notebook filled with Braun's handwriting - part of the material donated by his granddaughter to the Milwaukee County Historical Society - one of his favorite acts was Ted Healy, who at $8,500 a week was the highest-paid vaudevillian of his time.
        In 1922, Healy played the Miller with a young Moses Howard, who would later become Moe of The Three Stooges.
        One of Healy's gags that evening got a raucous laugh, according to Braun's notes. "Hecklers in the audience don't bother me. A good smack in the mouth always stops them. Now, if I could only find a way to handle the men."
        Braun kept meticulous records of how each performer's act went over with the audience along with some personal observations. One entry next to another comedian's name says, "Drunk. Don't have him back."
        In 1932, after a short stint managing the Garfield and Modjeska theaters, Braun left his job with the Saxes to strike out on his own.
        He managed theaters in Hartford, Lake Delton, Viroqua, Richland Center and a dozen other Wisconsin communities.
        True to his roots, Braun was still putting local performers who could sing and dance onstage in between the motion picture showings at those theaters well into the 1960s.
        Entries in the journal from the late 1950s document the cost to run his car around the state for 17 weeks ($249.35) and the revenue from a theater concession stand (15 cents for a bag of popcorn and 10 cents for a 9-ounce cup of soda).
        Such tidbits fill in the details of local history. And giving them to the Milwaukee County Historical Society, Sue Braun said, means her grandfather's legacy will be preserved.
        "It's best to have his papers and photos in a place where everyone can have access to them," she said.  Back to topics

Back to ARTICLES topics
SEARCH Astor Theater Site