Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
Spend enough time with Gary Witt, and life starts to resemble a cable TV drama written by Aaron Sorkin. Think of it as “The Newsroom” meets Almost Famous. Like “Newsroom” fiery protagonist Will McAvoy, Witt is a man driven by firmly held principles and a healthy ego, and his story is distinguished by a mix of unfettered idealism and unprecedented success.
For the past decade, it has been Witt’s mission to build the Pabst and Riverside theaters, as well as Turner Hall, into the finest music venues in Milwaukee. In 2002, Witt took over as executive director of the Pabst Theater Foundation, which manages the Downtown theaters, and the numbers speak to the job he’s done: About 400,000 people attend around 450 events held at Pabst venues every year, generating $10 million in revenue in 2011. That’s up from $308,000 in 2001, the year before Witt took over.
But for Witt, putting on concerts is about more than just show business.
“We’re not just booking shows. We’re helping to change a city,” Witt says while taking a load off inside the Riverside’s artists’ lounge on a sweltering midsummer afternoon. At his side is Sam, a 5-year-old pitbull mix that hangs out regularly at the Pabst venues, benefiting from an “open dog” policy that several other staff members also take advantage of. The area has a rec room feel, with walls lined with old-school arcade games and stacks of vinyl records. Like the 53-year-old Witt – whose jeans, untucked shirt and casual black jacket garb is more fitting for a coffee shop regular than the head of a major arts organization – this section of the Riverside seems a lot younger than it actually is.
The artists’ lounge once looked “like a lunchroom in a school,” Witt says, mentioning atmosphere-killing white floors and white drop ceilings. That was before he ordered renovations and hired a battery of staff members – including a sous chef, a pastry chef and a barista – whose job it is to pamper the entertainers for the handful of hours they spend in this space before and after concerts.
While many venue operators might see this hospitality as a means to an end – keeping the talent happy, so the money keeps rolling in – Witt talks about it in uniquely moral terms. It is part of his vision of the Pabst venues as sacred places Where Things Are Done The Right Way. Witt has a gospel, and it’s rooted in comfort. If you build a comfortable place, people will come. “Our belief creates our moral compass for how we do our business,” he says. “This is more like an evangelical movement than a job.”
An evangelical movement? For a bunch of music venues? Is this guy for real? People have been asking that question about Gary Witt for years, going back to when the Chicago-area native was picked to run the Pabst in spite of a resume that included jobs at various jazz record labels but no experience overseeing a theater. (Witt is also a musician who once played drums in a rock group called Decadence, which might be the most simultaneously awesome and terrible band name ever.) At the time, local philanthropist Michael Cudahy had just set up the nonprofit Pabst Theater Foundation and purchased the Pabst from the city for $1. The venue had a decidedly unhip reputation as the place you went to see A Christmas Carol every December; it was no more associated with rock ’n’ roll than Bob Hope. Cudahy chose Witt based on a three-hour interview and a gut feeling that he could change that perception, but in the early years, there were plenty of doubters as the Pabst struggled to establish a new identity as a viable place for concerts.
From the beginning, Witt says his goal was bigger than just selling tickets. He wanted to foster a community of loyal customers around this entertainment scene that would look to the Pabst and its sister venues as beacons of a newer, younger Milwaukee – not just for Milwaukeeans, but also for people outside the city. This is another core tenet of Gary’s gospel: Finding ways to attract fresh blood to the city is vital for Milwaukee’s future, and he sees the Pabst venues as an integral part of that.
Witt applied this vision of a more youthful city to his own staff, flushing out the old and adding employees fresh out of college whose lack of experience he regarded as a plus. The idea was for the Pabst to be an atypical Milwaukee theater, a place run by music fans and marketed as a showcase for cool bands that might not come here otherwise.
“If we would’ve started this thing and looked at how everybody else promoted shows, we would’ve made none of the decisions we made,” Witt says. “We didn’t know what the rules were, so therefore, we were unafraid to break them. We did these things because we thought it was the best way to do it. Not with an eye toward short-term success, but an eye toward building a long-term business.”
This is precisely the sort of talk that drives Witt’s detractors crazy, the incessant suggestion that he’s right and they’re wrong. A 2007 Milwaukee Magazine story about the shifting of the local music scene’s tectonic plates was full of critics chiding Witt for his uppity attitude in a business not exactly known for high-minded and pious characters. “He’s a brat with his hands in Michael Cudahy’s pockets,” said an anonymous source. “Do a show with your own money sometime,” snickered another. The most telling put-down from Witt’s shadowy hecklers described him as “this new guy stirring up a lot of shit.” Even Witt would probably agree with that one. Only now, after 10 years, Witt is the new establishment. And he thinks Milwaukee – not just the entertainment scene but the city overall – is a lot better off for buying into the gospel he preaches.