Bill Stace doesn’t look like a fighting man.
Easing into a front-row seat at the Miramar Theatre, the East Side venue he’s run since 1998, the 53-year-old crosses his legs neatly and muses about the challenges of booking shows.
A compact man with wavy, silver hair, wire-rim glasses and a kind face, Stace takes a light-hearted approach to what many consider a cutthroat industry. He laughs ruefully over low turnout for a band he was especially excited to bring in: the Count Basie Orchestra. “It was the most fun losing a thousand dollars you could ever have,” he says.
And yet, despite his easy-going attitude, there’s one guy in town who can make Stace lose his cool: Shank Hall owner Peter Jest. So much so, in fact, Stace threw down a gauntlet that catapulted their longtime feud to the status of local legend, not to mention grand comic heights. “I challenged him to a boxing match,” Stace says, laughing. “I thought that was the classy way to do it, instead of pounding him in front of his place.” Jest, 42, blew it off, but has been trash-talking since, Stace claims.
“I find out when he’s with other people, he talks real big about it,” Stace says. “Well, come on, dude, I’m ready to rock. You’re younger than me, you’re bigger than me, I don’t care. I’ll smack you down.”
The scenario is larger than life, glittering with WWE wrestling flair, but it’s par for the course in a business filled with big personalities and even bigger egos. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Milwaukee was viewed as a “black hole” when it came to touring bands, largely because of club-owner infighting, says one insider. That had consequences for audiences, who were less likely to see some bands come to Milwaukee.
Although the situation’s improved, there is still tension among some clubs. Competition for talent, grudges and personal dislike divide some, while whispers of dirty tactics swirl like cigarette smoke in a crowded bar. When we contacted sources for this story, many would only speak off the record; others wouldn’t talk at all. Still, we managed a peek behind the curtain at the squabbles, the rumors, the riddles, the egos and, yes, even some of the nice guys in the city’s live music scene.
From Bling to Bright Eyes
He’s relaxed his look of late, trading a mean-looking diamond stud for rounded glasses and fisherman’s knit. But while he may have lost the bling, he’s still got the bite. Insiders peg Gary Witt, executive director of the Pabst and Riverside theaters, as a controlling, arrogant bully. “He’s a brat with his hands in Michael Cudahy’s pockets,” says one source.
The 48-year-old Chicagoan was hired in 2002 to run the Pabst after philanthropist Cudahy bought it from the city for $1. After a fumbling start, booking bombs like Blue Oyster Cult, Witt found his stride with indie rock and singer/songwriter acts and now books shows for the Riverside as well. Ten-buck shows and three-buck Pabst tallboys – not to mention an aggressive, almost omnipresent advertising campaign – haven’t hurt.
And yet it seems he’s rubbed many locals the wrong way. It may be an issue of an unwanted outsider shaking up the scene. “Here’s this new guy stirring up a lot of shit,” one source puts it. To be sure, Witt and assistant talent buyer Matt Beringer aren’t shy about proclaiming their successes – and taking jabs at competitors in the process. “We’re breaking new ground in a market that’s traditionally a classic rock city,” boasts Witt. “The Bright Eyes [show] last year was the beginning for us of being able to say we could rise above what most other old venue operators thought Milwaukee was capable of.” The latter is a dig at Jest, who early on questioned the ability of the theater to make money. Witt never referred to him by name in our interviews, only as “that guy who runs Shank Hall” or by the needling nickname he coined for his competitor: “Jack Ruby.”
During phone interviews, Witt and Beringer frequently lapsed into a two-man variety show, batting jokes back and forth and generally cutting up. We wondered if they were playing footsie under the table. Although we requested interviews with Witt, the duo insisted on being interviewed and photographed together. Completing the illusion, Witt repeatedly referenced the “completely
different, utopian world” he and Beringer inhabit.
For some, the self-congratulatory tone is too much. “He’s not revolutionizing shit,” says one insider. “You can’t herald him a hero – he’s just doing his job. These are popular bands he’s bringing in and they sell records.”
“I don’t want to be crude or rude,” Witt fires back, “but I don’t have to answer to anybody else in town. All you have to do is look at our Web site, look at the shows we do … to understand the impact [we have] on the city.”
Even if the shows aren’t as groundbreaking as Witt suggests, many are glad to see such quality acts – and to see the lights on in two historic theaters that were mostly dark for years. “I think [the Pabst and Riverside] are a great thing for Milwaukee,” says Marc Solheim, talent buyer for Mad Planet. “A lot of these bands wouldn’t have played here before.” Witt argues his theaters are repairing past damage to Milwaukee’s reputation as a touring market.
Some say the fuss surrounding Witt comes down to jealousy because of the nonprofit status of his venues. “[People] feel he has an unfair advantage,” says an insider. “If you’re gambling with your house or your own personal net worth, that’s a completely different mindset than if you’ve got somebody backing you.”
“He’s just a hired guy,” another sneers. “Anyone could do that job. Do a show with your own money sometime.”
Witt says he wants to help build a citywide music community and see all local venues succeed. And yet, when asked about the perception that he’s not dealing with the same pressures as other clubs, the fangs come out. “It’s totally incorrect,” he insists. Although they had a financial safety net during their first two years in business, he states, after that, “we’ve been on our own.”
The Mysterious Rave
Even from the street, the Rave/Eagles Club looks a little scary: The behemoth old building seems more like an institution than a club. Inside, it’s like Chicago’s acclaimed Aragon gone to seed, dark lighting and dingy paint masking any marvels of the original architecture, room after shadowy room unfolding like a horror-flick maze. And despite all of its prominence – both for its size and the sheer number of bands it brings to the city – the venue remains steeped in mystery. “A riddle, wrapped in an enigma,” quips one source.
The Rave’s management is largely faceless to the public, the club’s box office and menacing bouncers a concert-goer’s – or a journalist’s – only shot at human contact. True to form, the Rave’s owners did not respond to our requests for an interview; the promotions director briefly agreed via e-mail to talk, and then, despite our
repeated attempts to follow up, never contacted us again.
Run by Joe Balistreri and Leslie West, the venue gets slammed for its condition (“miserable and unmaintained”); its sound system (“disgraceful”); its overpriced bar (“the six-dollar beers don’t help”); and its practices. The griping went national in 2004, when cult band The Melvins canceled their show at the Rave Bar after finding out about the venue’s “pay to play” policy for local bands (bands have to purchase hundreds of dollars in tickets to the show in order to play, and try to make the money back by selling them to their friends). The touring group’s record label, Ipecac, posted an apology to fans on its Web site: “The Melvins found out that the opening bands were not being treated fairly and voiced their displeasure. The club decided not to change their policy. Somebody has to speak up for local openers. This … is not the first time one of our bands has had a problem in Milwaukee.”
Despite the bad rap, some maintain that, more than any other venue, it’s the Rave that puts Milwaukee on the map. Some observers say the venue is the most likely to get the hottest acts and that national booking agents see it as the only place in town to make money on a big show. Others value the Rave’s versatility; from the Rave Bar to the Eagles Ballroom, the facility can accommodate a wide range of acts with various-sized draws. “As much as people rip into that venue, they still are the backbone of the touring music scene for big acts,” says another source.
Lady LaLoggia & The Nice Guys
She’s the epitome of cool, sporting a sharp haircut, stylish glasses and a taste for bourbon. A major player in Milwaukee’s fledgling ’90s night scene, Julia LaLoggia transformed Dish nightclub into an “it” venue where famed DJs spun regularly. Since then, she’s found success with organic restaurant Barossa, Bay View hipster bar Lee’s Luxury Lounge and East Side mainstay Redroom.
But since purchasing Riverwest’s Onopa Brewery in 2004 and reintroducing it as Stonefly in mid-2006, she’s raised a few eyebrows. LaLoggia earned praise for installing a new sound system and soundproofing as part of the bar’s makeover, but some complain Stonefly has fallen off the radar as a music venue compared to the Onopa days. LaLoggia still brings in quality acts, but “it seems like the booking isn’t very organized,” notes one insider. Others say the venue can be lax about publicizing its events. “I don’t know exactly what they’re going for,” confesses one source. “I don’t think that they have an identity.”
But others insist the kinks are being worked out. “They’ve been … more on the ball lately, updating their MySpace page,” says one source. LaLoggia, who shares booking duties with Decibully band member Nick Sanborn, chalks up communication difficulties to the changing of the guard. She promises a new Web site is in the works. And in terms of falling off the radar, she says, “our business is actually better than it used to be as far as people coming to shows. Maybe it’s a different crowd we’re going for.”
In a business where it seems like just about everybody is talking behind each others’ backs, at least a few are known as nice guys. Marc Solheim is one of them. The 33-year-old talent buyer for Mad Planet and manager of up-and-coming local band The Scarring Party earned endless accolades from insiders: They give him props for his professionalism, his treatment of bands and his
willingness to take risks with new music. “It’s because of people like Solheim that Fall Out Boy is playing the Bradley Center,” says Brent Gohde, promotions director for WMSE. Solheim – who has booked and promoted shows for various venues over the years – gave the now-popular band a shot a few years back as an opening act at Todd Wehr Auditorium at MSOE.
Eric Uecke of the Cactus Club also got repeat nominations for nice guy status, as did Bill Stace. But in the midst of all the back-patting came a shocker. “I will surprise you, and I will put Peter [Jest] in the nice guy category,” says a source.
Peter Jest stories are deeply woven into the fabric of Milwaukee’s music scene. Founded in 1989, Shank Hall lays claim to being the longest-running live music club in the city. The venue is a source of pride for its owner, who started promoting shows when he was 18 years old. “It’s what I love doing,” he says. “I think it’s one of those things I was always meant to do.”
But working in the business longer than others also means a longer track record – and Jest’s stretches on for miles. The consensus within music circles is that, when competing clubs get visits from the cops or the fire inspector for being over capacity or other infractions, Jest is behind it. Insiders describe him as cheap, mean and obsessively concerned with making sure no one has an advantage over him. “He wants to be the only guy in town,” says a source.
Jest calls the allegations unfair. “People blame me for everything that happens. People screw up their licenses and it must be my fault,” he says. Asked why he thinks he always gets the blame, Jest says, “because I do ask questions, and if I try to ask a question of how come I can’t do this or that and the other person’s doing it, sometimes it comes out that someone is doing something wrong. And sometimes they get in trouble because somebody asked a question. I shouldn’t be responsible for people doing things incorrectly in their business.”
It would probably come as a great shock to both of them because they don’t get along, but Jest and Gary Witt are a lot alike, says one source. “They’ve got the same mindset. They don’t treat people very well, they’re both conceited and have big egos.”
But some suggest Jest’s reputation is not entirely warranted. “Peter Jest has been a work in progress,” says an insider. “He has undergone a renaissance, he really has. He’s willing to reach out to people.” Defenders tout Shank Hall as a comfortable venue with great sound and consistently good shows. “He’s fair – stingy, but fair,” says one local band member. Others cite his refreshing lack of bravado: He’s not chasing after “indie rock kids,” making a big deal about his impact on the community or trying to convince people he’s a nice guy. He just books the bands and lets audience members make the call for themselves.
And despite Jest’s reputation, audiences for shows at his club have remained loyal. “Shank Hall has certainly survived through it all,” notes Randy McElrath, a longtime figure on the Milwaukee music scene, now with Live Nation.
So will Jest ever box Bill Stace? “I don’t want to do it. I’d kill him,” Jest says. “I’m not a violent person. That’s all I need – I’d knock the poor guy out, and then it would be, ‘Peter Jest Wallops Club Owner.’”
Both Jest and Stace say that, despite past grievances, they are cordial. “I’ve gone to the Miramar for a show. One of the best things I ever saw was the Jack Klugman show there. It was really neat,” Jest says. “But obviously, if someone is going to try to compete with me, I’m a very aggressive competitor.”
As for Stace, despite his nice guy rep, he may match Jest’s competitive fire. “Bill rolls with the punches,” says Solheim, no pun intended. Stace’s relaxed attitude nearly landed him in trouble a few years back, when mounting debt threatened to sink his business. And yet he bounced back, selling the Oakland Avenue building to pay off creditors and keep the Miramar alive.
“Everybody wrote me off. Everybody thought I was dead,” Stace says. “But it’s not in my nature to give up.”
Stace proposes setting up a ring at the Miramar for his fight with Jest; he’s held wrestling matches there in the past. “We’d make a fortune,” he says. The idea for the fight visibly animates him: It seems not much would be funnier or more satisfying. And yet, in a somber moment, it’s clear he takes a long view of the petty elements of the business. “People are so uptight and ruthless about the music scene because the stakes are so low,” he says, simply.
Still, when it comes to Jest, he can’t help himself.
“You know, Pete, I’m getting older, I can’t hold out much longer,” Stace says. “And don’t worry. I won’t hurt you too bad.”
Caroline Goyette is an assistant editor for Milwaukee Magazine.
• • •