It was March 11 and the Pabst Theater was riding high.
Comedian Dave Chappelle was in town, winding up his two-date, four-show sold-out run. But even with the joy of the performances, the coronavirus pandemic was bearing down on the nation.
“The second show ended at midnight and we didn’t get out of there until 6:30 the next morning,” said Gary Witt, CEO of the Pabst Theater Group. “And that was the end of touring for us, for a long, long time.”
For the first time since March, the Pabst is opening its doors for a big event Tuesday.
And it’s political, with President Joe Biden coming to Milwaukee to participate in a CNN Presidential Town Hall at 8 p.m. central time.
“The world will be looking at the legendary, historic Pabst Theater,” Witt said. “The world will be looking at Milwaukee.”
The event will be socially distanced, with the president fielding questions from a small, invitation-only audience of Democrats, Republicans and independents. Anderson Cooper will serve as moderator. It’s scheduled to run for an hour.
CNN and the Pabst have a longstanding relationship. Back in 2016, the network held a town-hall style event at the Riverside Theater for Republican primary candidates, including Donald Trump.
Last year, CNN contracted to use Turner Hall as its base of operations during the Democratic National Convention. But the pandemic played havoc with the convention, which was turned into a mostly virtual production with the main events held in Wilmington, Del. The Riverside and Turner Hall are both part of the Pabst Theater Group.
Mark Preston, CNN’s vice president of political special event programming, said the network approached the Biden team after the election to see if the president would want to discuss his agenda.
Preston said the White House was interested in doing an event in the Midwest and mentioned several cities, including Milwaukee.
“Milwaukee is a great city to work in,” Preston said. “People are very easy to work with, they’re smart and know the issues. It reminds me of home. I’m from Boston.”
The network and the Pabst said they will observe protocols for COVID-19, which include following state and city health guidance.
Biden’s first major political trip as president
The event marks Biden’s first major political trip as president outside of Washington, D.C.
“We’re definitely blessed that we have the president at this time in history willing to come out and take questions right now,” Preston said. “We just got over the second impeachment trial of the former president. COVID is on the decline … the economy is a mess.”
The White House said Biden will use the trip to make the case for passage of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the visit provides an opportunity to highlight the importance of having a strong relationship between the city and the Biden administration.
“I want to thank him for including states and cities in his relief package. I want to thank him for increasing the supply of vaccinations, which is a major, major issue,” Barrett said Monday during a virtual news conference.
Barrett said he wanted the president to know that Milwaukee is taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously and would urge him to boost the supply of vaccine.
Witt is eager to make sure the event runs smoothly. The Pabst has always prided itself on its back of the house operations right down to its chef, pastry chef and barista.
Key to making this event work, he said, is use of the Marcus Corp.-owned arts hotel Saint Kate, which is next door to the theater.
“We have to be in the business of making things as easy as possible,” he said.
Around 25 stagehands and another 20 Pabst staffers are working on the event, along with CNN’s team.
The economic fallout of the pandemic has been devastating for live music venues like the Pabst and others throughout Milwaukee and the nation.
Witt said the Pabst Theater Group revenue has plunged 96% from the $26 million of revenue it recorded in 2019.
“You lose everything you had,” he said. “That’s pretty much what happened.”
Witt was among the co-founders of the National Independent Venue Association, which pushed Congress to provide financial aid to the beleaguered industry.
Last year’s $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill included $15 billion for a grant program for live entertainment venues, movie theaters and cultural organizations.
Witt said he and others are eager for the application process to begin.
The Pabst and other Wisconsin venues also got a lifeline from a $16.7 million state program. The Pabst was among four Milwaukee-area venues to each receive $395,308.
The Pabst has kept 65% of its full-time staff employed during the pandemic, Witt said and he and others are focused on the future.
“If we’re going to sacrifice this much and lose everything we’ve had, we should be able to come out of the pandemic stronger and be a dragon slayer,” he said.
The Pabst’s first planned public events since the pandemic — a series of limited capacity shows with local actor John McGivern — were originally set to start Feb. 26. The shows have been pushed back and are now scheduled to begin April 23.
“When will we be fully back?” Witt said. “Anyone who tells you they know that date is probably not telling you the truth. I can say I have a lot of dates on the month of October right now.”
Witt said that if he got a few minutes to speak with the president, he wouldn’t focus on the problems plaguing his industry.
Instead, Witt said he’d make a pitch for a Katrina-style response to boost Milwaukee’s economy while also pushing for a high-speed rail link to Chicago.
“I want access to those 9.5 million people (in Chicago and its suburbs) just like a vampire has access to blood,” Witt said.
He said he’d also encourage the president to return to Milwaukee and put the Democrats’ 2024 convention in the city.
“I’d make the pitch that cities like Milwaukee deserve all the exposure we can get,” Witt said.
Biden in Milwaukee
Piet Levy and Alison Dirr of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.