Long Before Charlie Sheen or Johnny Depp, Beau Bridges and company brought the magic of the movies to Milwaukee.
Milwaukee has had its share of moments on the silver screen – Major League, Public Enemies, and The Blues Brothers are the usual titles to spring to mind – but city got its “big break” in the movies way back in 1968. Standing in for 1910s Chicago, 1960s Milwaukee played her role admirably, but the film in which it starred, 1969’s Gaily, Gaily, was a maligned flop and is mostly forgotten today.
Loosely based on the reminiscences of writer Ben Hecht’s early days as a reporter in Chicago, Gaily told the story of a young man who leaves the rural family homestead for the fast-paced life of Chicago. Production on the film began in 1968, helmed by director Norman Jewison, whose In the Heat of the Night had just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Oscar nominee Hume Cronyn and Oscar winner George Kennedy rounded out a cast led by celebrated Greek actress Melina Mercouri and the then-unknown Beau Bridges.
Jewison wanted to shoot on location, but found that modern Chicago was too grown-up for the picture’s 1910s setting. “[Chicago] has some nice, old streets, but behind every one of them there’s a 70 story skyscraper,” Jewison said. “In Milwaukee, we’ve found the old buildings without the modern monsters… Your streets are more like Chicago in 1910 than anything left there.”
The cast and crew arrived in the city on June 22, 1968, and the company quickly set to work transforming a building at State Fair Park into a staging area for the production. The Haymarket area near North 5th Street and West Vliet was transformed into a bustling urban marketplace and Commission Row in the Third Ward was dressed as a major Chicago thoroughfare. One bit of the crew’s work still exists today: the Sen-Sen Candy sign painted on the north wall of the Broadway Theatre Center (158 N. Broadway). Often mistaken for one of the area’s authentic “ghost signs,” this mural is nothing more than a long-forgotten movie prop.
Meanwhile, Milwaukeeans responded to calls from the filmmakers for extras. About 250 would be needed, mostly middle-aged men. A special call was put out to anyone who was able to drive period automobiles or horse-drawn coaches.
On June 23, production in Milwaukee got underway along the Milwaukee River near the old Gallum Tannery. Bridges, in character as Ben Harvey, was belted in the mouth and stumbled backwards over a railing. In the background, the Holton Street Bridge, closed to regular traffic, buzzed with antique cars and horse carts. The Milwaukee Journal, which would report almost daily on the film’s progress, noted that the one-punch fight scene took most of the day to complete.
And so it went, with Milwaukee getting an idea of how slow (and oftentimes dull) the making of a movie could be and the film’s stars getting a taste of a town that seemed a million miles away from Hollywood. Beau Bridges took a few hours off to see his father Lloyd in The Daring Game at the downtown Palace Theater. George Kennedy took a brewery tour. Melina Mercouri, who had recently been stripped of her Greek citizenship because her vocal stance against the reigning military junta in her homeland, was under FBI protection because of threats again her life. She mostly stayed in her hotel suite.
Some locals even got a taste of life in the movies. Retired security guard William Johnson worked as an extra and had a brief scene as a newspaper editor. Margaret Spillius, a 20-year-old housewife, was hired as Mercouri’s stand-in, per the star’s orders that they find “a nice Greek girl” for the job. Spillius found life on the set dull, but pleasant. “Most people have the idea that everybody in pictures is neurotic,” she told the Journal. “But as far as I can see, that’s not true.”
After 50 days of shooting in the city, the company moved on to Hollywood to film the bulk of the picture’s interior scenes. Post-production took over a year and when the film was finally released, it was met with tepid reviews. Although it was rewarded with three Oscar nominations (Art Direction, Costume Design and Sound), it was a bust at the box office, earning back only about $1 million of its $9 million budget.