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They rose to become stars in their field. So what was it like growing up in Wisconsin?

Additional research and reporting by
Miranda Agee, Samantha Hernandez, Nicole Miller and Judith Moriarty

Oprah Winfrey

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.

Speech

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.

John Morgridge

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 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.

Derrick Jackson

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.”

Mark Ruffalo

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.

Kristen Johnston

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

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.”

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Chris Gardner

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.”

Frank Caliendo

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 the now-defunct “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 Carey 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.

Illustration by Brock Kaplan

Tony Romo

Basketball was Tony Romo’s favorite sport as a kid.

In fact, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback 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.

Christina Schwarz

“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 in 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 was talking derisively about “the flyover places.” But to Schwarz, her intimate knowledge of that world has made her the writer she is today.” 

Terry Porter

Now the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Portland, 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 n ear 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.”

Dan Jansen

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 was a skating coach for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks.

Mark Rylance

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 ‘0.’ 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 won a Tony in 2008 for his lead role in the Broadway play Boeing-Boeing. In 2016, he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing the befuddled Russian spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, and just this year he can be seen in Dunkirk.

Peter Straub

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.

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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.

Jane Kaczmarek

Sister Jane Kaczmarek?

Best known for her role on “Malcolm in the Middle,” actress Jane Kaczmarek originally wanted to be a nun. She recalls taking piano lessons at Sacred Heart Convent at 27th and Layton: “It was like something out of The Sound of Music. Seeing the nuns on their hands and knees was very poetic.”

But one day at Greendale High School, she stood to recite a monologue from Romeo and Juliet and discovered her passion for acting. “I felt like the top of my head blew off.”

Kaczmarek grew up at 3120 W. Ruskin St. in Milwaukee until seventh grade, when her family moved to Greendale. Among her favorite memories: being a baton twirler with the Candets, being in parades, going to Sentry for a 25-cent hard roll and ham sandwich. She worked at Casual Corner at Southridge and was on the Teen Board at Gimbels. Always the organizer, she arranged neighborhood “beauty pageants” in which girls dressed to represent different nations.

Kaczmarek still has a soft spot for her mom’s cooking, especially Klement’s Polish sausage. “We always had Polish sausage. It meant you were home and it was a holiday.” On their first date in New York City, she and Madison-born actor Bradley Whitford (now her husband) bonded over cheese curds – no one else seemed to know they were supposed to squeak when fresh.

Then there’s Kopp’s and Leon’s frozen custard. “You have to compare flavors,” she says. “I think that’s why I gain 10 pounds whenever I go back.” 

Eric Szmanda

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. 


Stars in Short

Tony Crivello: Now in Las Vegas playing the Phantom of the Opera, the Tony Award-winning actor and singer has vivid memories of his childhood on Holton and North Avenue. He barely escaped a firebomb and a bullet in the 1967 riots.

Tony Kubek: The retired baseball player and announcer grew up in a tiny house at 2528 S. Fifth PI. in the 1930s through ’50s. He played “corkball” in the streets with a broom handle and brewery corks.

Walter Mirisch: During the summers of 1940 and 1941, the legendary film producer worked at The Oriental as a doorman and ticket-taker – and was always on the lookout for pretty girls.

John Ridley: The director/author/playwright was once a little boy who refused to give up his security blanket. He grew up in Milwaukee in the ’60s and then moved to Mequon in 1971.

George Tillman Jr.: The screenwriter/director based his film Soul Food on memories of life at 42nd and Capitol.

Daniel J. Travanti: The star of the 1980s TV show “Hill Street Blues” was born in a two-bedroom house in Kenosha. He was an overachiever at school and comes from an “emotional, earthy” family of Italian immigrants, he says.

Patricia Wells: She now splits her time between Paris and Provence, but the renowned dining critic and cookbook writer hasn’t forgotten her hometown – or her mother’s cooking. She grew up in West Allis and Wauwatosa. 

David And Jerry Zucker: The Shorewood-born brothers wrote and directed films like Airplane and the Naked Gun series, and often cast their parents Charlotte and Burt Zucker in bit parts.


Gone, But Not Forgotten

Al Jarreau (1940-2017)

“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 up north to Ripon College instead. That’s really when he got into the music.”

After seven Grammys, a few world tours and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame later, Al Jarreau held onto his 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.” 

Richard Schickel (1933-2017)

The film critic and documentary filmmaker made more than three dozen TV shows (including director portraits of Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg), wrote 37 books, and reviewed movies for Time magazine starting in 1972. But it was at the Times and the Tosa cinemas, both within walking distance of his house in Wauwatosa, where his inner movie critic was born.

“At some point, I started noticing director names on movies,” he said in a 2008 interview. “I remember going to the library and getting books out about how movies are made.”

Schickel 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 recalled. “Wauwatosa was very rock-ribbed Republican, but my family were Democrats.”

“It was a pleasant and slightly privileged existence,” he added. “I got the sense that things would all turn out OK. And they did.” 

Gene Wilder (1933-2016)

Born Jerome Silberman in 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. 

Rick Majerus (1948-2012): The men’s basketball coach for St. Louis University (and formerly Utah, Ball State and Marquette) played for the Stars of Yesterday baseball league at Wick Field back in the ’50s. He grew up in Washington Heights.

Paul Weyrich (1942-2008): The political commentator and conservative movement leader spent his childhood in Racine chasing trains with his father.

Liberace (1919-1987): The man who brought sequins to the stage in Las Vegas once wore hand-me-downs and called the streets of West Allis home.

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, and later became a friend of fellow Milwaukeean Spencer Tracy.

Golda Meir (1898-1978): The future prime minister of Israel arrived in Milwaukee in 1906 as a wide-eyed 8-year-old Russian immigrant. She lived on Walnut Street and was exposed to people who would become major influences on her life and the Zionist movement.

Spencer Tracy (1900-1967): The actor was born in a rented apartment at 30th Street and St. Paul Avenue, but moved around a lot. He grew up in Bay View and then south of Doyne Park in Wauwatosa.


‘Where I’m From’ appears in the September 2008 issue of Milwaukee Magazine but has been updated to reflect the current day.

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