Additional research and reporting by Miranda Agee, Samantha Hernandez, Nicole Miller and Judith Moriarty
Illustration by Gluekit (with some images composed from photos by AP and Getty Images)
The talk show mogul was born in 1954 in Kosciusko, Miss., to Vernon Winfrey and Vernita Lee. Lee came to Milwaukee to find a job as a maid, leaving Oprah with her grandmother, Hattie Mae, on a Mississippi pig farm. Oprah came to Milwaukee when she was 6, then lived with her mother and her half-sister, Patricia, in one room in a rooming house at 2356 N. Ninth St. (the building is now torn down). Oprah attended Lee Elementary School, where teachers were so impressed that she was allowed to skip second grade.
After her mother had another son, Jeffrey, the family moved to a two-bedroom apartment. Other relatives and friends stayed with them in that apartment on and off. It was a tough time for young Oprah. When she was 9, she has recalled, she was raped by a cousin. Later, she was sexually abused by other male family members and friends.
At this point, she was attending Lincoln High School. Oprah remembers a teacher she had, Gene Abrams, who noticed her drive and potential. In 1968, he recommended her for an Upward Bound scholarship to attend Nicolet High School. She was very popular there, but recalls “feeling a sense of anguish,” as she told one interviewer, “because … I was the only black kid, and I mean the only one, in a school of 2,000 upper-middle-class suburban Jewish kids. I would take the bus in the morning to school with the maids who worked in their homes.”
Oprah tried to run away from home. Her mother sent her to live with her father in Nashville. Oprah had become sexually active, and at age 14 gave birth to a premature baby who died.
In Nashville, aided by the strict rules of her father, Oprah turned her life around, excelled in high school, and by age 19, landed her first job as a reporter for a radio station.
Vernita Lee, Oprah’s mom, still lives in Milwaukee in a high-rise lakefront condo.
By the time Speech got to Rufus King High School in 1983, he had been a DJ in his dad’s club at 52nd and Capitol since he was 13. He regularly held house parties where kids would flock to hear hip-hop music. “It was cool. I was on the forefront of introducing a music to a city that really didn’t know about this,” he says.
Born in Milwaukee in 1968, the leader of hip-hop/R&B group Arrested Development grew up in Wauwatosa at 9835 W. Concordia Ave. His mom was owner of the Milwaukee Community Journal newspaper.
They were one of the few black families in Tosa, and he was the only black child at his elementary school – until busing started. “I had this shocking and sudden influx of various types of black culture that was just thrust upon me in an all-white existence. You’re trying to decide, ‘Who am I? What do I most relate to?’ ”
Growing up in Milwaukee meant he wasn’t boxed in to an East Coast or West Coast style of music, he says, and was free to sample an eclectic mix from all around the country. His lyrics reflect his hometown too.
“Growing up, just hearing about the different issues that affected black people in Milwaukee influenced a lot of my songs. Songs like ‘Fishin’ 4 Religion,’ that was first an article I had written in the Milwaukee Community Journal,” he recalls. Also, the hit song “People Everyday” reflects Speech’s experience in Milwaukee and the feeling that he didn’t fit in with his Afrocentric clothes and dreadlocks.
The film critic and documentary filmmaker has made more than three dozen TV shows (including director portraits of Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg), written 37 books, and reviewed movies for Time magazine since 1972. But it was at the Times and the Tosa cinemas, both within walking distance of his house in Wauwatosa, that his inner movie critic was born.
“At some point, I started noticing director names on movies. I remember going to the library and getting books out about how movies are made.”
He grew up at 1721 N. 68th St. from the late-1930s through the mid-1950s, graduating from Wauwatosa High School (now Tosa East). His father was in the advertising business and his mother was mostly a housewife. In high school and college, he spent more time at the school newspaper than he did studying.
An only child in a very literary family, he saw his first Charlie Chaplin film (The Great Dictator) at age 8 at the Times. His mother would also take him Downtown and park him at a matinee while she went shopping. He’d sit in the cool, sparsely populated theater soaking up the cinema.
“When I came to consciousness in 1941 or ’42, the war was on. World War II was very formative,” he recalls. “Wauwatosa was very rock-ribbed Republican, but my family were Democrats.
“It was a pleasant and slightly privileged existence,” he adds. “I got the sense that things would all turn out OK. And they did.”
The future chief executive of Cisco Systems once had a bicycle paper route for the Milwaukee Sentinel. And for three summers, John Morgridge worked 16-hour days at 75 cents per hour at the Teeny Weenie Pea factory in Oconomowoc, using high-pressure hoses to spray down the equipment. The family of his then-girlfriend (now wife) Tashia had a home on Okauchee Lake, and when John would come over, he’d be so tired, he’d just crash on the couch.
There were other jobs, too. At the Lannon Quarry, he dug stone. In college, he washed walls at the Pabst Brewery. (“This was before OSHA,” he says. “Basically, we drank all day.”) He did road construction on Highway 64, and worked as a front-end brakeman for the railroad.
John loved the outdoors, and remembers camping in the woods on the Menomonee River. There used to be an insane asylum nearby, which made for scary stories around the campfire.
John and Tashia, sweethearts at Wauwatosa High School (now Tosa East), were both born in 1933. John grew up at 7624-26 Stickney Ave., a Wauwatosa duplex. Tashia lived in Milwaukee on Sherman Boulevard and attended University School (her grandfather was one of the founders), and then the family moved to Stickney Avenue in Wauwatosa. They haven’t forgotten their roots: In 2007, they pledged $4 million to help with the restoration of Hoyt Pool.
Boston Globe columnist and 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist Derrick Jackson is syndicated nationally, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s op-ed page. But he was shy and awkward, a “fat kid with massive acne” as a teenager, he laughingly recalls. After discovering that journalism gave him the excuse to go up to any stranger, he was hooked. “Just give me that notebook and pen and I became like Superman. I could walk up to anybody, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali.”
As a teen, he covered The Fifth Dimension, who were performing at the State Fair. He had a huge crush on Marilyn McCoo and was ecstatic about the assignment. “When Florence LaRue opened the door to the trailer, I nearly died. I became a bubbling mass of Jell-O,” he recalls.
His participation in a writer’s workshop for young minorities led to him working for the Milwaukee Courier and Star Times. Later, his UWM journalism teacher, reporter Harry Hill, got him a part-time sports writer position at the Milwaukee Journal.
Jackson grew up at 14th and Keefe (3404 N. 14th St.) in a bungalow with orange trim in a tight-knit neighborhood. “It was really old-fashioned stuff. People looked out for each other – neighbors knew what you were doing before you got home.” He graduated at 16 from John Marshall High School.
In high school, he reviewed The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the school paper, which led the vice principal to reprimand him for covering such controversial material. Yet Jackson challenged the administrator, asking “Do you believe in freedom of speech?”
“I realized the power of this craft I had fallen into,” he recalls. “For a working-class kid whose parents came from segregated education in Mississippi, I had the vice principal basically frozen in his tracks.”
“The first time he played at Summerfest, in the early 1980s, it was so crowded the aisles literally disappeared. If you wanted to go to the bathroom, you had no choice but to hold it,” remembers Sharon Jarreau, jazz legend Al Jarreau’s sister-in-law.
Al Jarreau was born in 1940 in a modest home near East Reservoir Street in Milwaukee. He attended Lincoln High School (now Lincoln Middle School of the Arts) and sang in church choirs, but concentrated on sports and was a talented baseball player. “The Milwaukee Braves were looking at him his senior year of high school,” says Sharon, “But he went to up north to Ripon College instead. That’s really when he got into the music.”
Seven Grammys, a few world tours and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame later, Al Jarreau still has strong Milwaukee roots. In 2004, UW-Milwaukee awarded him an honorary doctorate degree in fine arts. “He was so surprised,” says Sharon. “And we were all so proud of him.”
Growing up in Kenosha in the 1970s, actor Mark Ruffalo and younger brother Scott used to spend their money carefully – on candy, of course. “We’d take Mom’s purse to buy half-penny candy,” says Scott, a hairdresser in Los Angeles. “That’s two pieces for 1 cent! And 25 cents for a soda pop, anything from Orange Crush to root beer to Coke.”
The house Ruffalo first lived in with his Italian family was a standard three-bedroom home located at 75th Street and 21st Avenue. He was the oldest of four, followed by Scott and sisters Tania and Nicole. But then the family moved to a “beautiful, stylish place” with brass windows and fieldstone on Kenosha’s south side, Scott recalls. “That thing was cool,” he says. “Mark and I were always outdoors, building forts and other things.” Mark’s dad, Frank Ruffalo, describes the place as a woodsy area in a neighborhood of families. “The backyard was open. They always tore the place up,” he jokes.
Mark’s first 13 years were in Kenosha, through eighth grade at Lane Middle School. The family moved to Virginia Beach, Va., and then to San Diego. Today, Ruffalo’s father lives back in Kenosha, while his mother still resides in California.
Mark faced many challenges: his parents’ divorce, the struggle to develop a career, a best friend who committed suicide, and a brain tumor that Ruffalo survived after becoming a star. Those early years in Wisconsin provided a good base, Scott believes. “It was neat growing up there,” he says.
The worst thing about high school was my height,” recalls actress Kristen Johnston, known for her role on the hit NBC series “Third Rock from the Sun.” “I was 6 feet tall by the time I was 12. They took me to a bone specialist because they thought I was a giant.”
She came into her own at Whitefish Bay High School thanks to theater. “It was magical to me,” she says. Johnston performed in numerous high school productions and with the Milwaukee Players, the city’s community theater, always playing “the kooky side part.”
She had been a troublemaker while attending the Catholic grade school St. Eugene’s. “I was so loud and obnoxious and naughty that I caused a priest to say, ‘God damn it, Kristen!’ ” she laughs.
Born in 1967, she grew up at 6410 N. Lake Dr., a huge red brick house on the lake. “I used to ride my bike up the really brutal hill to go to Winkie’s.” She also remembers disappearing on the couch for days with Nancy Drew books, going to YMCA Camp Minikani in Hubertus and hanging out at Heinemann’s, where her favorite sandwich had deviled eggs and caviar.
When Kristen was younger, she couldn’t wait to get out of Milwaukee. But now? “I am so glad I’m from Milwaukee. I love everyone from the Midwest. There’s just an essence that people have – being open and friendly and kind. I get gladder and gladder as I grow older.”
Amy Pietz was at Oak Creek High School when the girl sitting behind her said, “I’m getting out of here! I’m going to the High School of the Arts.” Amy decided she would join her.
Majoring in theater and surrounded by creative people of all different ethnicities at the city high school, this changed her life. “I finally felt like I could be a storyteller of all different perspectives,” she says.
Born in 1969 in Milwaukee, she grew up in Oak Creek in a little three-bedroom, one-bath home in what was then a rural area. She recalls open expanses and walking past cows en route to school.
“I felt like an outsider in my own hometown, to be frank,” she says, and compares her family to the strange characters in You Can’t Take It With You. She was adopted, and when introduced to a huge part of her birth family earlier this year, her penchant for performing finally made sense – her birth mother is a singer and other members of her birth family are also performers.
Pietz was in the 1990s TV show “Caroline in the City” and, more recently, in the show “Aliens in America,” in which she plays a wife in northern Wisconsin, complete with an exaggerated accent (“okey-doke”). The regional connection attracted her to the role, she says. “I could not wait to impersonate my birth mother and adoptive mother.”
Chris Gardner had too many homes. He lived all over the central city – at Eighth and Wright, 19th and Meineke, 10th and Clark, 3951 N. 14th St. His family was poor, his stepfather was violent, his mother was in and out of prison. But his mother’s love made him determined to be a good father and a success in life.
Today, he’s a self-made millionaire and philanthropist based in Chicago, and his memoir, The Pursuit of Happyness, became a movie starring Will Smith. But Gardner retains a soft spot for his hometown. “Purgolders!” he exclaims, remembering the mascot of his high school, Washington.
Born in 1954, he attended Lee Elementary School at the same time as Oprah Winfrey. In his book, he remembers going to church, reading at the public library, frequenting Sy’s store. In the 1967 riot, he ran over to the Discount Center on Third Street, but got there too late for the primo looting – there was nothing left in his size. In high school, he was bused to a school outside his neighborhood, which is when he became aware of the two Milwaukees, white and black, a situation he says still exists today.
One of his favorite memories is the Fruit Boat – the old chain store and its location on the Milwaukee River. “Oh baby, the Fruit Boat!” he exclaims, recalling the smell of what seemed like every fresh fruit in the world.
At Roosevelt Junior High, he was elected class president. “I showed up wearing one of my cousin’s pimp suits – which didn’t fit,” he laughs. It was a shiny maroon burgundy, and it was so small, he looked like Urkel. A friend who introduced him said, “He does not have perfect attendance. He does not have perfect grades. He’s not even wearing his own suit!”
Gardner howls with laughter at the memory. “My theme is, it ain’t what you got, it’s how you use it.”
No drugs, drinking or detention for comedian Frank Caliendo while growing up in Waukesha.
Frank and his family moved to the Waukesha neighborhood of Singing Hills in 1978. His father, Frank Caliendo Sr., calls the neighborhood and Waukesha South High School good places to grow up: “Very low-key” with “a lot of good people.”
Frank Jr. was more interested in sports as a boy. He played football his freshman year and was an all-conference baseball catcher. And a very good student. When his father lost his job, all the sons – Frank, Ricco and Terry – worked part-time to help ease the family’s financial situation.
The future impressionist and star of “Frank TV” wasn’t a big jokester as a kid. But there were hints of what was to come. “Cleaning up down in the basement I see some scripts that he had written down,” his dad says. At UW-Milwaukee – he’s a 1996 graduate – Frank’s professors told him to try open-mic nights. He got a few laughs and gradually began to develop routines. At home, he entertained his family at dinner with Harry Caray and Columbo impersonations.
But to his dad, the most unbelievable thing Frank ever did was play a Scott Joplin ragtime number from memory on the piano. “There I saw some talent,” says Frank Sr.
Basketball was Tony Romo’s favorite sport as a kid.
In fact, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback (and Jessica Simpson’s boyfriend) didn’t start football until his sophomore year at Burlington High School in 1995. And he wasn’t flashy, but raw, smart and motivated. He’d do his homework on the bus to make extra time for practicing and watching tapes to improve his game.
Ramiro and Joan Romo gave birth to Tony in San Diego during Ramiro’s five-year Navy service, and the family moved back to Wisconsin when Tony was 2. They built a neat, 1,100-square-foot three-bedroom home at 768 Foxtrail Circle on a cul-de-sac near the Burlington Cemetery. It was an idyllic, middle-class atmosphere with a movie theater and Fred’s World’s Best Burger, both of which Tony patronized. Reliving that past is easy, as Romo’s parents still have the same house.
Tony was hyper-energetic as a kid. “I’m almost positive: If I’d have had him first, I’d have had no other children,” his mother told The Dallas Morning News. “He wore me out.” Tony came after sisters Danielle and Jossalyn.
As a teenager, he skipped video games with friends after school to practice passing. His mom was often his “receiver,” using a pillow to catch the football.
“Oh, you’re from the Midwest – of course.” Novelist Christina Schwarz gets this a lot in Los Angeles when her Pewaukee roots come up. “There is something more warm and friendly about people from the Midwest. I’m proud people recognize it in me,” she says.
Her first novel, best-seller Drowning Ruth, an Oprah Book Club selection, was set in Waukesha County. The novel is inspired by stories that her family members told when she was growing up. “The idea of my family’s history there was really palpable to me,” she says.
Born in 1962, Schwarz lived on a boathouse on Pewaukee Lake until she was 10 (W290 N3040 Hill Crest Dr., Pewaukee). She remembers cornfields and the smell of manure wafting through the air. She would swim or ice skate on the lake and make forts in the trees and bushes. Back then, many people only lived in the area during summer.
At Arrowhead High School, she ran track, played tennis, did drama and was a founding member of a dance troop. She remembers many trips into the city: taking a bus to Milwaukee, eating at Howard Johnson’s, going to the art museum, being scared by the War Memorial because of its name and imposing purplish structure.
Life has taken her far from her roots, but she still carries that sense of place. Recently she was sitting next to a woman on a plane who talked derisively about “the flyover places.” But to Schwarz, her intimate knowledge of that world has made her the writer she is today.
Now the head coach of the Phoenix Suns, Terry Porter moved so much as a kid that he doesn’t remember all the addresses. He attended three elementary schools, Parkman Junior High and South Division High School before playing college ball at UW-Stevens Point and then for NBA teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs.
Both his parents were originally from Tennessee and they moved to Milwaukee in the 1960s. As the youngest of six children, he remembers his two brothers always trying to toughen him up and taking him to the gym. Though the former Milwaukee Bucks coach played basketball in the summer leagues of Athletes for Youth, he didn’t play organized ball until his junior year at South Division.
His most vivid childhood memories are of youth centers, especially Commandos Youth Center on North Avenue and the LaVarnway Boys & Girls Club on North 15th Street. “Those two were probably my safe haven after school,” he says. He played basketball, pool, foosball and went swimming at those clubs, as well as the Franklin Boys & Girls Club (now closed) and the Hillside Boys & Girls Club near MATC. “No matter what neighborhood I moved to, there was always a Boys & Girls Club I could walk into and feel safe. It kept me out of harm’s way.”
The youngest of nine in a middle-class West Allis family, Dan Jansen credits his oldest sister Mary for getting him into skating. “One Sunday morning [my dad] decided to take her over to McCarty Park, which is only a quarter-mile from our house, to watch the North American Speed Skating Championships,” Jansen writes in his 1994 autobiography, Full Circle. “As she watched the competitors, she turned to my dad and said, ‘I can do that.’ And that’s how the Jansen family started skating.”
At Frank Lloyd Wright Middle School and West Allis Central High School (class of 1983), Jansen played football and baseball, but he was always leaving school to skate. “My mother was happy enough with my report cards, but used to gag when she got to the ‘Days Absent’ column,” he writes.
He’d end class by 2 p.m. to make it to State Fair Park for his workout. “For a kid, being the starting tailback at West Allis Central was still a lot cooler than being a national-class speed skater. ... But I didn’t care. This sport was my future,” he writes.
West Allis may be “the best place in the country” to develop a speed skater, he concludes. Jansen became an Olympic gold medalist and is now a skating coach for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks.
Born Jerome Silbermanin 1935 in Milwaukee, movie actor Gene Wilder lived at 3732 N. 54th St. References to his hometown are sprinkled throughout his 2005 memoir: eating pork at Manny’s Restaurant on North Atkinson and West Capitol Drive; attending a Sunday matinee (Double Indemnity) at the Uptown Theater; preparing (at age 16) a one-hour adaptation of Death of a Salesman,in which he played Willy Loman. “Along with two of my acting friends from school, we performed at churches and women’s clubs all over Milwaukee and then in front of 2,000 students at my high school,” he writes.
He attended Steuben Middle School. His family moved to 2525 N. Sherman Blvd., and he graduated from Washington High School in 1951. At age 15, he auditioned for the Milwaukee Players. He played Balthasar, Romeo’s manservant in Romeo & Juliet,and was in Much Ado About Nothing.
Fay Kolster, a high school classmate, remembers him in several class plays. “He was so good that even as a sophomore he got leads,” she notes. “I had occasion to work with him and his cousin, Jerry Mason, on an original musical at UW-Extension. We had great fun and were so encouraged with the response in Milwaukee that we took the show to Green Bay … in the winter. It stormed and no one came.”
In 1951 and ’52, Wilder appeared frequently at the Tower Ranch Tenthouse Theatre in Eagle River. Roles included Vernon in Summer and Smoke.
When he was accepted into the Actor’s Studio, he changed his name to Wilder, an homage to a fellow Wisconsinite: playwright Thornton Wilder.
The founding artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London still has a bit of Milwaukee in his accent, he told Cynthia Zarin of The New Yorker in a recent profile: “There are certain sounds … when I say ‘phone,’ there’s more of an ‘O.’ People think I’m Scottish or Irish, but it’s actually Wisconsin.”
Rylance was born Mark Waters in 1960 in England. The family moved to the Milwaukee area in 1969, but still spent summers in England. They first lived in Thiensville at 224 Woodside Ln., and then, in the mid-1970s, moved to 5721 N. Bay Ridge Ave. in Whitefish Bay. His father, David Waters, was headmaster at University School of Milwaukee, where Mark attended. He began acting there, playing Hamlet as a high school junior before moving to New York in 1978 to join the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He told Zarin that he listened to a recording of Hamlet (starring Richard Burton) at the Milwaukee Public Library to prepare for his role.
Longtime University School English teacher Mary “Peetie” Basson remembers Mark as a gifted, creative student who was involved in everything from soccer to student council. “He is uncommonly imaginative,” she says. “He carried a miniature edition of Hamlet around with him and read it in spare moments.”
Rylance left The Globe in 2005, and has had roles in movies such as The Other Boleyn Girl. He won a Tony this year for his lead role in the Broadway play Boeing-Boeing with Bradley Whitford.
Award-winning horror novelist Peter Straub claims he grew up in an entirely different kind of Milwaukee. “It was very different from its present-day self,” he says. “Art was nowhere in the picture, and the desire to experience it was exotic, even morally questionable. Milwaukee now is a brighter, happier, more prosperous place, with interesting things happening all over.”
Straub lived at 3323 N. 44th St. until the age of 5, when his family moved to 100th and Fiebrantz Street in Wauwatosa. When he turned 11, they moved to 160th Street in Brookfield. He remembers the long bus rides from Brookfield to attend University School. His favorite part about growing up was the libraries. “Every single Milwaukee library I walked into I fell in love with,” he says. He still has dreams about walking into the fiction room of the Downtown branch, seeing the tall shelves full of novels, and swooning.
A life-threatening car accident at age 7 required numerous surgeries, considerable time in a wheelchair, and led to a stutter he retained into his 20s. But the ugly experience gave him the mental tools needed to create his horror stories. “I learned about fear, terror, pain, loss and change,” he says.
Straub slips Milwaukee into many of his novels. He occasionally uses The Pfister Hotel, calling it the Pforzheimer Hotel. And when he visits, he finds Milwaukee charmingly changed.
As a teenager in Mukwonago, actor Eric Szmanda (of “CSI”) was a bit of a rebel. After reading Jerry Rubin’s anti-establishment manifesto Do It, he led an anti-censorship campaign when the high school basketball coach tried to ban students from wearing a T-shirt mocking the team.
“I was a little feisty,” he recalls. “It wasn’t that I had a problem with authority, but I had a problem with unreasonable authority.” Szmanda even filed a lawsuit with several other students against the school. “It’s so funny how passionate I was at the time. I definitely pissed off a lot of parents and teachers. I still think of it fondly.”
Born in 1975, he grew up in a duplex in the Hidden Lakes subdivision in Mukwonago, and then a ranch-style home in Vernon. His boyhood memories include swimming, canoeing, fishing, soccer, football and basketball. Also camping as a family, since his dad won a pop-up camper in a raffle at Obie’s bar in East Troy.
He says Mukwonago was “a nice place where people know your name, but not too small where people were in your business.” But, he adds: “Whenever we wanted to misbehave, we made sure to go two towns over.”
As a teen, he’d drive into Milwaukee to teen dance clubs like Metropolis and Club Maryland. Later, he would hang out in the Third Ward and go to illegal warehouse “rave” parties, trying to evade the cops. “There was quite a scene going on down there,” he says.
Tony Award-winning actor and singer Anthony Crivello is now playing The Phantom of the Opera in Las Vegas, but his memories are still vivid from his childhood at 2131 N. Holton St., just south of North Avenue.
Back then, the neighborhood was predominantly Sicilian and Italian. “I used to play where there were railroad tracks. It was all industrial below the Holton Street Bridge,” he recalls. He attended Pio Nono all-boys Catholic school (which merged with Don Bosco to become St. Thomas More in 1972).
During the riots of 1967, someone threw a firebomb in front of their house and he and his brother got a sniper’s bullet through their bedroom window. “We were in the living room and we heard a pop. Dad was walking though the house with a baseball bat. Someone had fired a bullet; it went in a window, bounced off the wooden closet door, and the bullet was sitting on the window ledge.” After that, they slept at a cousin’s suburban house until the unrest settled down.
His grandparents, first-generation immigrants who lived in the downstairs flat, made homemade wine and fresh tomato sauce in the basement. “It was amazing what my grandfather had growing in this little backyard,” says Crivello. “It was about 25 feet by 25 feet. He had two plum trees, and he also grew parsley and basil.”
Crivello wrestled and played football and soccer in high school, but his real passion was doing musicals. “My father worked third shift at the brewery, and he never made it to any of my games,” he says. “But every single production I was in, my parents were there.” Between Pio Nono, the Sunset Playhouse and New Berlin Community Theater, he had already done 12 productions by the time he left high school.
Retired baseball player and announcer Tony Kubek grew up in a tiny two-bedroom house at 2528 S. Fifth Pl., between Arthur and Harrison avenues. His mother came from Poland when she was 3 and lived in that house until she died at age 96 a few years ago. When Kubek was growing up, he lived there with his two sisters, three uncles and two aunts. When he later took his wife there, she said, “Where did you all live?!”
Born in 1935, Kubek graduated from Bay View High School and started playing professional baseball at 18. His father was a minor league player with the old Milwaukee Brewers and then worked in a tannery, at the Blatz Brewery and at the post office.
Kubek played ball in The Stars of Yesterday, a precursor to Little League. He also played basketball, track and football.
“I spent a lot of time on playgrounds,” he recalls. “I did most everything involving sports and almost nothing involving studies.” In 1952, the Braves moved to Milwaukee from Boston, and Kubek worked out with the team when he was in high school.
Of the neighborhood, he says: “When I grew up there it was predominantly Polish and German. Every other week when people got their paychecks, everybody was out drinking. Always a lot of fights, boisterous stuff on weekends. There were a lot of bars and a lot of baker shops.”
Kubek and his friends broke a lot of windows playing corkball in the street. “We’d go down to the brewery [eight to 10 blocks away] and get the corks that they’d put on tops of beer bottles, and hit it with a broomstick.
“Most people say sports kept you off the streets,” he adds. “No, it kept us on the streets.”
Five dollars was all it took for Rick Majerus to be around sports as a child. That was the cost to play for team Nemo Leibold of The Stars of Yesterday baseball league on Wick Field back in the 1950s.
Growing up in the Washington Heights area, the current St. Louis University men's basketball coach describes his surroundings as "idyllic." "We always played at Washington Park, where the old zoo used to be," says Majerus, who also coached at Marquette, Ball State and Utah. "From there we'd go to a couple drug stores to get slushies."
Majerus’ family moved into its first house on 53rd Street and North Avenue when he was in seventh grade. Previously they resided in two separate duplexes in the area, where he, his parents and two sisters occupied the top floor. Majerus attended St. Catherine's on 51st and Center through eighth grade, participating in typical Friday night Catholic Youth Organization dances and roller skating events at Pius XI High School. Occasionally he'd catch a 35-cent movie at the Uptown Theater with friends, "but sometimes we'd get in for free," he says. "My friend Mike worked for a paper route and delivered there, and I remember one time we saw a movie four times."
After grade school, Majerus ventured down to Marquette University High School, graduating in 1966. "When I didn't get picked up for a ride to MUHS, I had to hitchhike or take a bus," Majerus says. "We never could imagine anyone would harm us."
It was a great era, he adds, “a great city to be in during the time."
During the summers of 1940 and 1941, Walter Mirisch worked at The Oriental as a doorman and ticket-taker. The producer of nearly 100 films since 1947, including Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Magnificent Seven and In the Heat of the Night, Mirisch was born in 1921 and grew up in New York, yet he often visited his older half-brothers, Irving and Harold, in Milwaukee. In 1939, his parents moved to Milwaukee, and he followed shortly after. They lived in an apartment in the 1900 block of North Prospect Avenue, near the Shorecrest Hotel.
During the school year, he attended UW-Madison, but he still has fond memories of his carefree summers in Milwaukee and The Oriental. “I’ve always loved movies, and it gave me great access to a lot of movies,” he says. He vividly recalls how, in those days, the films came in these big cans. “I’ll never forget carrying those heavy cans up the stairs,” he says. “It was a long trek.”
But the job still had its perks. “One of the fringe benefits of the job was you stand there and take tickets, and once in a while a really pretty girl would come through. Most of the time you’re rejected – she usually had a boyfriend,” he laughs.
Director/author/playwright John Ridley was once a little boy who refused to give up his security blanket. His father, Dr. John Ridley Sr., a retired ophthalmologist, recalls how he and his wife began cutting away at the blanket until it was the size of a handkerchief. Ridley carried the remnant of blanket until he was about 7 years old.
While in Milwaukee the family lived in neighborhoods that were “in transition.” “We moved to Milwaukee [in 1963] just as the open housing impetus was taking place and 3745 [N. 18th St.] was a very mixed neighborhood that was changing from all Caucasian to all mixed to all black,” Ridley Sr. explains.
In 1967, the Ridleys moved to a house at 4200 N. 18th St. The couple that sold them the house was “fleeing” the changing neighborhood. Ridley attended Phillips Elementary School in Milwaukee.
In 1971, the family of five moved to Mequon. Ridley has two sisters. He attended Donges Bay Elementary, Lakeshore Middle School and Homestead High School in Mequon.
“He was an indifferent student,” the elder Ridley recounts. “He did as little as he could to get by.” The majority of his energies, it seems, were directed toward extracurricular activities: forensics, captain of the cross country team, school productions and vice president of the varsity club and student council, to name a few. Ridley graduated from Homestead in 1982.
Ridley was always interested in writing and submitted stories to various publications, but none were published while he was in his teens.
John is still remembered by local parents as a defender of bullied kids on the school bus. Even now, the parents of those kids express their appreciation to Ridley Sr.
George Tillman Jr.
Even big-time Hollywood films can bring screenwriter/director George Tillman Jr. back home.
This Milwaukee native of working-class roots chose to base his 1997 feature film Soul Food on memories of his grandma's Sunday dinners back at 42nd and Capitol. Although Tillman's life has changed drastically, he can still remember dreaming of the film business while prancing through John Marshall High School's halls as a teen. To make it in Hollywood, Tillman had to leave, but his hometown values are still reflected in the films he writes. "It seems like conversations out west are so bland, so superficial," he told Milwaukee Magazine in a 1998 interview. "I find myself going back to my past."
Being raised in a strong, driven, middle-class atmosphere, Tillman's parents George and Bernice are proud they held tough with their child. "We did what most families do – kept our children in school and church. He didn't appreciate what we put him through all the time, but now he does,” Bernice says. Tillman was taught to work hard and always be thankful for what he had. “My dad used to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to go to Kenosha and work at Chrysler,” he recalls. Later in life, Tillman realized his roots have shaped what he creates in films today.
Along with his fame comes the benefit of attending premier parties for films like Barbershop and Men of Honor, ones packed with tasty, upscale cuisine. But Tillman still knows a good bite to eat when he sees (or smells) one. Hometown visits aren't complete without that stop at Dairy Queen or Kitts on Capitol Drive.
Daniel J. Travanti
The star of the 1980s TV show “Hill Street Blues,” actor Daniel J. Travanti was the youngest child of immigrants from central Italy and grew up in a small two-bedroom house in Kenosha.
Travanti’s mom died when he was 10, leaving his sisters – 18 and 16 years older than he – as surrogate mothers. His older brothers also served as role models. His father walked a half-block to work at Nash, later American Motors. In the early 1950s, they moved to a four-bedroom stone house at 5104 29th Ave.
As a kid, Travanti loved school so much that he wanted summer to end after the Fourth of July. “I was the weird kid who would not stay home from school when I was sick,” he says. “I snuck out after Ma gave orders to stay put.”
A self-described chronic overachiever, he got straight A’s at Mary D. Bradford High. He was in the choir, played varsity football, worked on the school yearbook, was class vice president and starred in the school play. He won several drama and oratory awards and football honors.
As a kid, he was a “free-flying dynamo” who played in the streets and fields, raided neighbors' gardens, built forts and made up games with other boys, played croquet and cards and monopoly on front porches in the summer. He remembers trekking 28 blocks to Simmons Beach with inner tubes and blankets and taking trips to Paddock, Twin and Silver lakes.
“I was in a very emotional, earthy family,” he says. “We screamed and cried a lot. I am imbued with intense brotherly-sisterly rivalries and strong support. My family members work hard, save their money, make careful purchases, never cheat, laugh quite often, cry and scream a little less – perhaps, except for me – talk probably too much, and enjoy life.”
In her new memoir, We’ll Always Have Paris… And Provence, Patricia Wells confesses that when she and her husband/co-author Walter Wells first moved to France, she didn’t get her hair cut during the first six months of living there because she was too intimidated to go into a salon. “I was a little girl from Milwaukee afraid of the big frightening world of Parisian chic,” she writes.
She’s certainly gotten over that intimidation by now, but the renowned restaurant critic and cookbook writer hasn’t forgotten her hometown – or her mother’s cooking. “We always had great spaghetti and meatballs, homemade breads, pies, cakes, always a vegetable garden, so I grew up assuming that I would always have good, fresh food at hand.”
Her father was a linens buyer for the now-defunct Gimbels department store, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. Born in 1946, she lived as a child at 431 S. 94th St. off Adler in West Allis. When she was 12, the family moved to 547 N. 104th St. off Bluemound in Wauwatosa. “Both were quiet, family neighborhoods,” she remembers. “We made our own fun, lots of jump rope, hula hoop, building tents, playing tennis and baseball on empty lots, riding bikes, going to Milwaukee Braves games to see the stars of the moment [Henry Aaron and others], games of Monopoly, snow forts in winter.” At Pius XI High School, she was an editor on the high school paper. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UW-Milwaukee.
Milwaukeehelped shape her confidence and curiosity. “The fact that the city had so many ethnic neighborhoods made me believe that each city in the world had that great ethnic mix,” she says. “I think that it makes one very open-minded.”
Few activists have had more influence on politics than Paul Weyrich. He helped start the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, the Conservative Digest and countless other groups that help build the conservative political movement.
He spent his childhood in Racine chasing trains with his father. At age 3, he took his first train ride with his parents to visit his aunt, a nun, who ran the laundry at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee. His father, Ignatius, was employed at St. Mary’s Hospital.
His father bought the family’s 2030 Franklin St. home for $7,000 in 1939. Weyrich attended Holy Trinity Grade School and St. Catherine’s. During high school he had a 90-plus average on his report cards.
Weyrich had rheumatic fever as a child and “didn’t play any sports.” “When you don’t play sports in this country it kind of sets you apart,” he explains. He describes himself as “bookish.” Weyrich started a model train club and interacted with kids through the club. Mostly he spent time with his parents and their friends.
Weyrich believes “the kind of cultural conservatism that both Racine and Milwaukee” had with its “industrial, blue-collar folks” created the “world view” that he holds today.
David and Jerry Zucker
Two of Hollywood’s funniest filmmakers, David (61) and Jerry (58) Zucker started off performing on the stage of Shorewood High School.
“Jerry had many speaking roles,” said Barb Gensler, Shorewood High School’s longtime drama director. “David was more into writing than acting.”
Each month they would create their own scripts and show them off to the school in a mini-production for the assembly class Gensler ran. One was so controversial, the principal at the time almost shut it down.
“They both had aggressive personalities and knew what they wanted. It was Jerry who talked with the principal and told him that the show must go on,” Gensler recalls.
At UW-Madison, in 1969, the brothers, along with friend Jim Abrahams, developed their own production company, Kentucky Fried Theatre. In 1977, they did their first feature film, Kentucky Fried Movie, followed by such movies as the cult classic Airplane! (1980) and Top Secret! (1984).
Beginning in the mid-1980s, the brothers often worked solo. Jerry has directed such movies as Ghost (1990) and My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), while David directed BASEketball (1998), My Boss’s Daughter (2003) and others. The Zuckers’ latest film, Superhero Movie, was released this year and has grossed more than $25 million at the box office.
Their parents, Charlotte and Burt Zucker, often got bit parts in their sons’ movies, and the boys have also managed to occasionally throw in local references, to Shorewood, the Brewers, etc. in their films.
GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Golda Meir (1898-1978)
When the future prime minister of Israel arrived in Milwaukee in 1906, the then-8-year-old Russian immigrant marveled at her new hometown. “Milwaukee – even the small part of it that I saw during those first few days – overwhelmed me: new food, the baffling sounds of an entirely unfamiliar language, the confusion of getting used to a parent I had almost forgotten,” she writes in her 1975 autobiography, My Life. “It all gave me a feeling of unreality so strong that I can still remember standing in the street and wondering who and where I was.”
Her father took her and her sister to Schuster’s Department Store downtown to buy them some American clothes. “I was delighted by my pretty new clothes, by the soda pop and ice cream and by the excitement of being in a real skyscraper, the first five-story building I had ever seen. In general, I thought Milwaukee was wonderful. Everything looked so colorful and fresh, as though it had just been created, and I stood for hours staring at the traffic and the people,” Meir writes. “We went for a walk, and I peered, unbelieving, into the interior of the drugstore with its papier-mâché fisherman advertising cod-liver oil, the barbershop with its weird chairs and the cigar store with its wooden Indian.”
The family moved to a two-room apartment on Walnut Street, in what was then the city’s poorer Jewish section. There were clapboard houses with pretty porches but no electricity and no bathroom. Her mother ran a small grocery; her father worked on and off for the Milwaukee railroad, earning 20 to 25 cents per hour.
She describes watching a Labor Day parade during her first year. Her sister was terrified by the mounted police leading the parade. “But for me,” writes Golda, “that parade … symbolized American freedom … It occurs to me now that both Wisconsin in general and Milwaukee in particular were blessed by extremely liberal administrations. Milwaukee was a city of immigrants and had a strong socialist tradition, a socialist mayor for many years and America’s first socialist congressman, Victor Berger. … To see my father marching on that September day was like coming out of the dark into the light.”
She attended Fourth Street School (renamed Golda Meir School in her honor in 1979) and then North Division High School, graduating from the Milwaukee Normal School in 1916, (then called the Teachers’ Training College).
Her parents became active in the community. “Most of the people who slept on our famous couch during those years were socialists (Labor Zionists) from the East, Yiddish writers on lecture tours or out-of-town members of the B’nai B’rith (the Jewish fraternal order to which my father belonged),” she recalls. “Some of them were later to be numbered among the founding fathers of the Jewish state.” She left for Palestine in 1921, closing the American chapter of her life, but never forgot her Milwaukee years.
Pat O’Brien (1899-1983)
The film star of the 1930s and ’40s was born in a tiny two-room apartment over O’Donnell’s Saloon on 13th and Clybourn. (His grandparents were Irish Catholic immigrants who had settled in a log cabin in Waukesha back when it was “still a half-wild region of the Midwest,” he notes in his autobiography, The Wind at my Back.)
Soon, the family moved to a little cottage at 15th and Sycamore (now West Michigan). O’Brien remembers a happy childhood: reluctantly being bathed in a large tin tub by his mom, playing in sandlots, skating on ponds, swimming in creeks and hopping freight cars in the railroad yards. In summers, the family would have Saturday picnics at what’s now Washington Park: “a glorious day of fun, eating, wading, snoozing on the trampled grass, sassing the Keystone helmeted cops.” There were kid gangs who got into scuffles but weren’t involved in any hard stuff, he recalled.
He was an altar boy at Gesu Church and had to walk to school. “I shall always remember my first day in school as my personal Stations of the Cross,” he writes. “My mother left me there alone like Robinson Crusoe on his island – worse; it seemed like I was being exiled to Siberia, till a very beautiful nun, Sister Mary Norbert, took my small hand and consoled me in the voice of angels – and things became all right again.”
Spencer Tracy had a wild life, which he probably drew on during his career as an actor. His father John was a hard-drinker and loose-cannon who finally made it in Milwaukee as a sales manager for Sterling Truck Company. Spencer’s mother, “Carrie” Brown, came from a wealthy East Coast family and converted to Christian Science.
In 2000, Milwaukeean David A.Y.O. Chang wrote a piece about Tracy for the Wisconsin Magazine of History. He recounts the actor’s roots and rise to fame:
Tracywas born in a rented apartment in a duplex at 13th Street and St. Paul Avenue, then a lower-middle-class part of the city. By the time Spencer was 11, he’d lived in at least seven rented homes, including one on Muskego Avenue on Milwaukee’s South Side, where the family moved shortly after his birth.
For most of his youth, they remained in the area close to the steel-rolling mills in Bay View. In 1915, he earned an intermediate diploma from St. Rose Parochial School at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and 13th Street. The family then moved to Woodlawn Court south of Doyne Park in Wauwatosa, an area described as “prestigious.” He attended Wauwatosa High School in the 1915-16 school year, where English and physical geography were the only courses he passed.
In 1917, Tracy joined the Navy with fellow Marquette student Bill “Pat” O’Brien. The two would later co-star in movies. Based in Virginia, Tracy never went into combat.
He returned to Milwaukee after World War I armistice and enrolled at military academy in Lake Geneva (now known as St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield.) He left to attend and graduate from West Division High School (now Milwaukee High School of the Arts) in February 1921. (By the early 1920s, John Tracy had succeeded in the trucking business, and he moved with his wife to a handsome apartment on fashionable Marietta Avenue, close to Lake Park in Milwaukee.)
At Ripon College, Spencer Tracy was bitten by the acting bug, and he dropped out and went with Pat O’Brien to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. The two shared a room in a New York lodging house while waiting for their big breaks as actors. (They were said to live on “pretzels and tap water.”) In 1923, they both got nonspeaking parts as robots in the Broadway show, R.U.R.
The man who brought sequins to the stage in Las Vegas once wore hand-me-downs and called the streets of West Allis home. Walter Valentino Liberace was born to Salvatore, a horn player for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and Frances Liberace. The family of six lived in a modest house at 635 N. 51st St. in West Allis. In 1926, when he was 7, the family moved to 4905 W. National Ave. in West Milwaukee. That same year, Liberace was awarded a scholarship to The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. The piano prodigy also attended Pershing Elementary on South 47th Street and West Milwaukee High School on West Greenfield Avenue.
“Being the only pianist in school, I spent more time playing the piano for various school events than I spent in the classroom,” Liberace writes in his autobiography, Liberace. “I was good at cramming. I have a fantastic memory when I want to make it work for me. So I got through each semester with reasonably good grades and graduated in 1937 second in my class.”
Once dubbed “The King of Bling,” he was also known for his talents in the kitchen. Friends and family were said to have craved his fried chicken and lasagna, and he would create all of his meals wearing an apron adorned with sparkling sequins. Liberace created a charity, the Liberace Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts, in which he awarded scholarships to kids who, just like him, wanted to make a career out of the arts.