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Monday, April 2, 2012

Pfister Narrator Ed Makowski

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Ed Makowski hosts a series on public radio, tends bar in Riverwest and writes uniquely themed poetry. His latest gig as the Pfister Hotel's in-house story maven sounds like a good tale in the making.

Are there working poets in America?


I've been writing poems forever. Eventually I decided to do it right—read up, submit, get them published. Historical poems are my favorite, my forte.

Are there working historical poets in America?


I may well be the first. My latest: In the late 1800s, every large city faced a manure crisis. Every city was horse-dependent; they carried all the goods, food and were the transportation. Horses produce 15 to 35 pounds of manure per day. In 1894 there was a huge summit in New York. They quit after three days—no good answer. They all returned to Italy, France and wherever. The whole world—and its greatest minds—couldn't figure out what to do with manure.

How did poems lead you to the Pfister?


Poems led me to NPR, which led here. For years now, the Pfister has employed a narrator—an in-house story gatherer. It's the only one of its kind in the country. I started in November and serve through April.

D
o people think you're a proselytizer?


I'm a little more relaxed than that. And people are pretty open to telling their stories—you'd be surprised. I do have cards, which provides legitimacy. And the Pfister staff vouches for me, which helps. Basically, three to five days a week, I just hang out and see who shows up. Mostly I just kick it at the bar, which is where people normally come when they're done with business.

At the bar all day? Gathering stories? Every Milwaukeean's dream job?

Don't get the wrong idea. I don't drink all day. I guess I could. But I do bartend as well, so I mostly try to keep my drinking work-related.

But you really get paid?


I do have a hard time believing it. Every check that comes, I'm like, “Wow, it happened again!” It's what I've been doing for years anyway, and now somebody is paying me—dream come true.

What's your favorite story?


There are so many. The Pfister itself has great stories. The lady who tried to break in; the out-of-body Vietnam vet; a bar owner with a dream and acres of decrepit industrial land; the guy celebrating a special AIDS anniversary…

After you're done, you'll go back to running a lunch counter?


Not “a,” but “the.” “The Lunch Counter” is a storytelling series I curate on “Lake Effect,” 89.7 WUWM. It's meant to be like what it sounds, like you met a random stranger at a lunch counter with a really good story. And again, I tend bar. So if you have any good stories, you can find me at the Foundation Tiki Bar.

Part II

Ed Makowski is perhaps Milwaukee's most high-profile story gatherer. “I don't really have a background in anything,” he admits. “I've been writing poetry for the longest, but I'm really getting into stories these days.”

Makowski has two unique vantage points for collecting Milwaukee's best tales: a six-month stint as the Pfister narrator, and a regular gig on “The Lunch Counter,” part of the “Lake Effect” show on 89.7 WUWM. Pfister tales go on the hotel blog, ultimately to be published in bound volumes. Everything else goes out over the airwaves. Sometimes stories do both.

The historic Downtown hotel is a good story in itself. “They called it, right from the start, the 'Grand Hotel of the West.' Wisconsin was still pretty new at that point,” Makowski says. “It was built by Milwaukeeans, with funds from a Milwaukee company [Pfister and Vogel Tannery]. It was the first—anywhere in the world, in human history—to have individual temperature controls in the rooms.

“John Plankinton caught wind of what Warren S. Johnson was innovating (namely, thermostats), and was so impressed he fronted the money to start Johnson Electric Co.,” Makowski adds. “Then he told the Pfisters, who were at that time running the tanning company and building this hotel. They had him install the room-by-room system here: 1891-1893. That was one of the first stories I heard, from the archivist.

“There was the woman who tried to break into this place in 1964,” he continues. “She was in high school, and went to see the Beatles with her best friend at the Milwaukee Arena. During the show she couldn't hear anything. It was literally that loud from the frantic, fanatic screaming. Anyway, she heard they were staying here, so she and her friend ran straight back. She got on her friend's shoulder, pulled down the bottom rung of the fire escape, climbed up and tried to get in through a window. The police shined a light on them, ending that adventure. Turns out the Beatles weren't even staying here.

“It was also in the 1960s that the Marcus family bought the hotel,” Makowski continues. “It was scheduled to be demolished, and people thought Mr. Marcus was crazy. This was before he invested in all the movie theaters. He loved this building, though, despite the costs of renovations—even when his partners backed out. Then… they found the artwork in the vault. It's one of those walk-in vaults—a huge one. Turns out the art here is the largest collection privately held by a hotel in the country.

“One good Milwaukee story I heard is [about] Best Place, the bar in the boardroom of the old Pabst Brewery complex,” he adds. “I spoke with the owner during the Restaurant Association Awards. He owned another bar during the 1980s. After Pabst shuttered the plant in the 1990s and fled to San Antonio, he and his wife really set their hearts on the boardroom and gift shop, only to find out it was a package deal. But they didn't want to buy the whole thing. I mean, it's basically an entire neighborhood. It required many millions in renovations.

“He's not a rich guy, but he scrounged together $50,000 for a chance at financing,” Makowski continues. “On the day he's going to sign papers—basically sign his life away for many, many years—there's no one in the office. He was wandering around, like 'Hello… hello?' Eventually, he finds everyone upstairs, all watching television. It was Sept. 11, 2001.

“He gradually sold off the rest of the property parcels and got the bar he always wanted. It just took a decade, patience and anxiety, plus some good partners.

“Another local story [regards] a guy who sort of drifted into the Pfister quietly,” he adds. “He started telling me all this and that and such, not really going anywhere with the story, and my mind started wandering. But then he says, 'I'm here to celebrate; tomorrow is my 52nd birthday. I was diagnosed with HIV at 26, so I've been alive with it as long as not. This is a special day.'”

“He told me about how he got it, why he finally got tested,” Makowski adds. “He told me about the 1980s and how people you knew a year ago were now walking zombies, looking awful and dropping like flies. He was from Milwaukee, just here to have a drink and celebrate. This was an important place to him.”

Makowski's favorite story may well be the strangest one. “A guy told me about an out-of-body experience he had in Vietnam. He was here for the veterans' parade. He came back home after the war and worked for the county for years and then retired with a pension. Anyway, he was in a battle—not that intense, compared to other battles he'd been in, but all of a sudden he was floating over the battle. 'Whoa! Where am I? Well, there's my body. So I wonder when I can get back in it…' Suddenly he was,” Makowski says. “His story ended back at base later. He was set to go off for R&R—kick it in Bangkok or something—when the medic accidentally shot him in the hand while passing him a pistol. Then the medic passed out. So this guy was grabbing bandages and wrapping up his own hand. Long week.

“Yeah,” Makowski concludes. “I'm pretty sure I can tell stories all day.”

For more on Ed Makowski, visit     .

For more on the Pfister narrator, visit blog.thepfisterhotel.com/author/pfister-narrator-ed.

For more on “Lake Effect,” tune in to 89.7 FM weekdays at 10 a.m. or go to wuwm.com/programs/lake_effect.