Pabst Theater

144 E Wells St Milwaukee

Written By VAMONDE

Digital Storytelling and Visitor Analytics for City and Cultural Institutions

The Pabst Theater

Built in 1895, it is the fourth-oldest continuously operating theater in the United States. It has hosted notable artists including pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, actor Laurence Olivier and ballerina Anna Pavlova. Today, you can still see big-name musical acts on this historic stage.

The Pabst is known for its opulence as well as its role in German-American culture in Milwaukee. Sometimes referred the as the "Grande Olde Lady" (as it is the oldest theater in Milwaukee's theater district) it has local, state and national historic landmark status.

More than 100 events per year are hosted at the Pabst. These include an array of performances such as music, comedy, dance, opera and theater. This traditional proscenium stage is accompanied by a hydraulic orchestra pit allowing the theater to suit any type of performance. The interior is decorated in primarily red and maroon with gold and silver accents. Aside from the acts on stage, the 2-ton Austrian crystal chandelier will catch the attention of any audience member.

The theater features a historic organ, which once provided accompaniment for silent films. The instrument is a 4 manuals; 20 ranks opus of M.P. Moller.


Brewer Frederick Pabst purchased the Nunnemacher Grand Opera House in 1890 from Jacob Nunnemacher and his son, Hermann, and renamed it Das Neue Deutsche Stadt-Theater (The New German City Theater). The structure was damaged by arson in 1893, and subsequently completely destroyed by fire in January 1895. Pabst ordered it rebuilt at once, and it reopened as The Pabst Theater later in 1895.

The Pabst was designed by architect Otto Strack in the tradition of European opera houses and the German Renaissance Revival style. For added safety, it was designed as one of the most fire-proof theaters of that time. Not to mention, the acoustics are outstanding, thanks to the design.

The Pabst played an important role in the German American culture of early 20th century Milwaukee, when the city was known as Deutsch Athen (German Athens). The venue was home to the German-language productions for many years, due to declining revenues began scheduling performances in English by 1918.

The Pabst has undergone several renovations. In 1976, after a long decline, it was restored to its original style. The latest renovations took place in 2000 after the Pabst Theater Foundation purchased the facility. Work included adding two elevators, public restrooms, replacing some seats and upgrading the ventilation system. The theater also added Cudahy's Irish Pub in an expanded lobby space.

Technological innovations

Otto Strack employed many technological innovations when designing the theater, including one of the country's first fire curtains, all-electrical illumination, and a very early air conditioning system which employed fans and large amounts of ice. It is believed that the Pabst was the first to use a counterweight system to hoist the scenery. This was installed after World War I and is still in use today.


The Pabst Theater has the names of 15 notable artists inscribed about the cornice of the drum-shaped auditorium: Ibsen, Wagner, Molière, Aristotle, Michelangelo, Dante, Aeschylus, Thespis, Homer, Raphael, Shakespeare, Garrick, Beethoven, Goethe, and renovator Bernard O. Gruenke of Conrad Schmitt Studios.

Cover image by the Pabst Theater

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