How Milwaukee's Washington Park bandshell became a temple of music
On the west side of Milwaukee in Washington Park, two grey statues overlook an expansive lawn. The pair of statues depict the classical German writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. The statues’ line of sight looks downhill, toward a large, white concrete structure.
Much like the statues, this structure was built to honor the classical arts, and classical music in particular. Many know it simply as the Washington Park bandshell.
But the bandshell has another name: the Emil Blatz Temple of Music. And it’s this name that unlocks the bandshell’s rich history as a site of music and community in Milwaukee.
For this week’s Bubbler Talk, listener Honore Schiro wanted to know what was the first performance that changed how we talk about the bandshell.
“Well, I love Washington Park, we live pretty close to it. That was the first place I performed when I was a little girl. There’s a children’s choir in Carmen. So we worked with some people at Alverno College [who] got us all ready and then we went over and performed. It was Music Under the Stars with the Florentine Opera,” Schiro explains.
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To understand when performances at the bandshell first began, I turned to Marjorie Kozich. She is the creator of a website that works to chronicle all of Wisconsin’s bandshells and bandstands.
Kozich shares this concise history of the Washington Park bandshell: “Well, it’s very iconic in Wisconsin. It was built in 1938. Emil Blatz contributed $100,000 to have it built. He was part of the Blatz Brewing Company. He was a bachelor, and he just loved the music that was on the radio in Chicago. So he thought he should have something like that in Milwaukee."
To bring something like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Milwaukee, Blatz first had to find an appropriate venue. At the time, Washington Park had a small bandstand, but it didn’t fit Blatz’s vision for the site of an esteemed orchestra. Instead, Blatz decided to fund the construction of his own venue.
To get the history behind its construction, I asked Bobby Tanzilo, senior writer and editor at OnMilwaukee, how the bandshell was built.
“The money for this came from Emil Blatz, whose dad had started Blatz Brewing in Milwaukee. He initially donated the money anonymously, but the architect, Fitzhugh Scott, accidentally let slip that Emil Blatz was the donor. But he donated the money, they built this beautiful bandshell because Blatz, who was childless, wanted to leave his money for a good cause and he was passionate about music," he explains.
Tanzilo continues, "And the construction of this bandshell really helped spur the Milwaukee Symphony. There was a Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra but people really started to talk about how Milwaukee needed to have its own world-class orchestra."
In the spirit of a place planning to host a classical orchestra, the bandshell itself is filled with classical references. Framing both sides of the bandshell are columns depicting scenes of Greek muses and musicians. Behind the bandshell, etched into the concrete are the names of dozens of classical composers.
Now that Washington Park had a new performance space, Emil Blatz was one step closer on his mission to bring classical music to Milwaukee. In its 1938 opening season, nine concerts were held as part of the Music Under the Stars classical music series, the first to debut at the bandshell.
And to honor the man who made it all happen — and because his cover as the anonymous donor had already been blown — Emil Blatz accepted an invitation to appear onstage for a special night of music.
Tanzilo recounts the night that the Washington Park bandshell became known as the Emil Blatz Temple of Music: “It opened on August 23, 1938, with the Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra and a singer named Jessica Dragonette. She was a light classical, operetta singer, kind of like the equivalent of [Andrea] Bocelli now. She came here and the place was packed. [The park] could seat about 10,000 people, but there were supposedly 40,000 people here that night. So it must’ve been an incredible scene. ... Where would you put 40,000 people?”
Music Under the Stars continued strong for the next 55 years until its conclusion in 1992. But in that time, and since, the musical culture of Milwaukee has been enriched by the Temple of Music, as it continues to offer musicians and performers across genres a space to come together and celebrate music.
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