The cancellations came slowly at first. Then all of a sudden. By March 17, Gov. Tony Evers had prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people across the state of Wisconsin. And the employees of the Pabst Theater Group knew that they could count their spring concert season, and their livelihoods, among the casualties of COVID-19.
The PTG runs The Riverside Theater, Turner Hall, The Back Room @ Colectivo and The Pabst Theater. A few of its more than 200 employees can safely work from home throughout the duration of Wisconsin’s social distancing efforts. But many more can’t. They’re hourly employees who clock in and out on performance days to take tickets, man merch tables or serve drinks to concertgoers. If the show doesn’t go on, they don’t go to work.
The PTG leadership team understood how much these employees would be struggling. So they decided to set up a GoFundMe campaign for them, the idea being that all of what they raised would be evenly distributed among their ushers, stagehands, photographers and other hourly workers.
“The outpouring was pretty amazing,”
PTG PR director Sara Peronto says. “We were humbled to see it.”
Within a week of the campaign’s creation, nearly 500 people had contributed, raising more than $60,000. The organization offered incentives to donate – from free drink vouchers for $10 to exclusive access to one of The Riverside’s seven-seat boxes for $1,000. But it’s clear from the outpouring of comments that donors have left on the GoFundMe page that they care far less about concert swag than they do about the well-being of the workers.
It’s also clear that the organization’s four venues hold a special place in the hearts of many. People of all backgrounds have fond memories of attending the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s annual production of A Christmas Carol at The Pabst Theater, of catching up-and-coming indie bands at The Back Room or Turner Hall, of hearing comedic legends like Jerry Seinfeld play The Riverside.
“People really care about the arts and the service industry in this city,” says Peronto, who donated to the cause herself. “It’s been amazing to see the humanity in this. We’re so thankful to everyone who’s donated.”
SCROLL THROUGH THE FUNDRAISING PAGE, and you’ll see countless comments – inside jokes and words of encouragement. Here are a few of our favorites:
“Keep helping each other. Music is what brings us all together.”
“Here’s to many, many, many, more wide-eyed music lovers getting their start with the Pabst Theater Group. … My heart and thoughts are firmly with the folks that keep these cherished places running and full of life. May you be back working inside those walls soon.”
“Thanks for all you have done in the past and will do in the future.”
The Pabst Theater Group is not the only local organization to create a GoFundMe campaign for its employees. If you type “Milwaukee” into the website’s search bar, you’ll find other worthy causes.