Cultural Custodian

Samir Wahhab has been caretaker of the Pabst Theater for 40 years. He isn’t slowing down.

For one-third of the Pabst Theater’s 120-year existence, 71-year-old Samir Wahhab has been the man behind the curtain. “The Pabst is my home,” says the chief building engineer, and he’s not exaggerating. In fact, Mayor Tom Barrett will proclaim Aug. 10 Samir Wahhab Day because of his four decades as the building’s preservationist, unofficial historian and caretaker. (Note: The date of this proclamation has been changed due to a personal matter.)

In 1976, the city-owned theater reopened. Wahhab, who was born in Palestine and grew up in Jordan, was then a new city employee. He was tasked with the Pabst’s behind-the-scenes remodeling, getting the guts of the theater back to working order. And he’s been there ever since: for the reopening ceremony when a mouse ran across the stage during then-Mayor Henry Maier’s speech, and later for the 2,500-pound chandelier’s installation. He was there when a bomb threat was called in during the Cold War, and in 1988, when redevelopment cracked the building’s wooden foundation, causing it to sink. After Michael Cudahy purchased the theater from the city in 2002, Wahhab worked 12-hour days for years to usher the Pabst into the new era.

His office in the building’s basement serves as an unofficial museum, with artifacts dating back to the 1895 opening. Those relics include an original cash register, a crank-operated powdered soap dispenser, and the last remaining original seat with red cushions and bronze “Pabst” lettering on the back.

Although he’s proud of his work and has no plans to retire, he knows the Pabst Theater will outlast him.

“I want to show you [something],” he says, taking a burned-out lightbulb from a shelf in his office.

“I put this one in August 1976. It goes out on Oct. 4, 2010.”

Of all the carbon fiber light bulbs that he installed four decades ago, this is the only one to have burned out.

“Those live forever,” he says.

Maybe, he hopes, the Pabst will, too.

‘Cultural Custodian’ appears in the August 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Dan Shafer was the digital editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Dan joined the magazine as assistant editor in 2014 and wrote the November 2014 cover story, "Downtown Horizons." He's worked as a reporter at BizTimes Milwaukee and an editor at ThirdCoast Digest. Contact him at He's on Twitter @danshaferMKE.