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Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010

‘Hotel Milwaukee’ on the Air

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Before our days were On Demand, families used to sit in their living rooms each night to listen to radio shows, soaking up dialogue, music and sound effects to bring a story to life. When TV became popular in the 1950s, most of these shows went off the air. Then they resurrected on Web sites devoted to long-lost radio shows and on weekly nostalgia radio broadcasts worldwide. Here in Milwaukee, they found a champion in Mayor John Norquist, who in 1995 wanted to have a local broadcast program to showcase Milwaukee’s creative talent. The format would be a radio play, filled with a cast of zany characters who worked in a fictitious hotel called “Hotel Milwaukee.”

According to executive producer Pam Percy, visiting entertainers “played” the Boom-Boom Room, and guests were “interviewed” at the bar or in the coffee shop, or appeared in skits written by prominent playwrights such as Jonathan West, Dave O'Meara and Jay Rath, among others. Over the years, the production evolved to consist of five acts interspersed with musical performances and guest appearances. A major component of the variety show included He-Man historian John Gurda, who would entertain listeners with tales of Milwaukee’s past.

"Hotel Milwaukee" debuted in January 1996. It was taped in front of a live audience, first at Cafe Melange, the longtime lounge, cabaret and restaurant located on the ground floor of the old Hotel Wisconsin on Old World Third Street. The show was a gypsy, recording at the Astor and Pfister hotels, Hotel Metro and Northern Lights Theater at the Potawatomi Casino. For several seasons, “Hotel Milwaukee” was aired from a studio in the Eisner Museum of Advertising & Design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD). The radio program took to the road too, with the cast traveling to Madison, the Potawatomi Reservation in northern Wisconsin and other outstate locales.

“During each season, 40 shows were taped in front of a live audience and then aired on the Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio, locally known as 90.7 WHAD,” Percy explains. “It built a wide fan base because it was regularly aired on public radio stations around the country and in Canada, as well as on SIRIUS Satellite on the A&E Channel.”

“Hotel Milwaukee” won the National Federation of Community Broadcasters’ prestigious Golden Reel Award for comedy in 2002. Over the course of its eight-year run, Percy estimates that 2,500 musicians, authors and other notable artists were featured on the radio program. Often, internationally known performers would visit “Hotel Milwaukee” if their tours stopped in the city. Mayor Norquist, who could be considered one of Milwaukee’s infamous “singing mayors,” also occasionally sang on the program.

A “Hotel Milwaukee” reunion show will be taped in front of a live audience Saturday, Jan. 16, at Turner Hall Ballroom, with proceeds benefiting City Year Milwaukee, a nonprofit AmeriCorps organization that aims to build democracy through citizen service, civic engagement, leadership development and social entrepreneurship by offering 17- to 24-year-olds the opportunity to engage in a year of full-time community service.

Written by noted director and producer Jonathan West, and aided by Shepherd Express columnist Art Kumbalek and writer/actor Mike Neville, the reunion show is a five-act original comedy. Between acts, the audience can expect interviews and musical performances featuring the Jeanna Salzer Trio, Jim Liban, the Terry Coffman Trio, and jazz singer Adekola Adedapo with pianist Dean Lea. Historian John Gurda also returns with a segment on Turner Hall’s storied past.

The “Hotel Milwaukee” reunion will be taped in front of a live audience at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 16, at Turner Hall Ballroom.

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