Band leader Woody Herman was one of Milwaukee’s
musicians who made the big time.
County Historical Society
MILWAUKEE — If Milwaukee had a golden era of music in
producing nationally known singers and musicians, it
might have been the Big Band and post-Big Band eras.
and musicians from then are some of the highlights of
“Melodies and Memories: 200 Years of Milwaukee Music.” The
Milwaukee County Historical Society exhibit runs through
April 29, spanning back to Native American music.
Herman, Liberace and Hildegarde, and others, made it out of
Milwaukee and made it big,” exhibit curator Ben Barbera
attributed a thriving Milwaukee music scene that goes back
to the 19th century and well into the 20th century in large
part to the public music education available in the area.
those three names had a lot of longevity, Barbera said. Not
to mention some pizzazz.
Hildegarde Loretta Sell, born in Adell, studied music at
Marquette University and was a highly successful cabaret
singer in New York, hitting her peak in the 1930s and 1940s,
but performed into her 80s. She appeared on the cover of
Life in 1939 and Revlon had a line of lipstick and nail
polish bearing her name.
picture her popular with the businessmen in the clubs,”
Barbera said. “She’d come out into the audience and flirt
with the men.”
Balatka started the Milwaukee Musical Society,
one of the most important in a city that had
dozens of such societies, a link to today’s
orchestras and other groups.
courtesy of Milwaukee County Historical Society
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt named her “the First Lady
of the supper clubs.” Known for her long gloves, the
exhibit features a white pair from the hazel-eyed blonde
classically trained Liberace, “Mr. Showmanship,” was born in
West Allis and grew up in West Milwaukee. The exhibit
includes photos of him from the 1940s when he “looked like
pretty much everybody else,” Barbera said. There are photos
of Liberace in flamboyant costumes from when he was one of
the highest-paid entertainers, making $300,000 weekly in Las
Vegas in the 1970s.
Liberace and Hildegarde had long careers, so did Herman, the
famed Big Band leader born in Milwaukee.
the things that stands out about Woody Herman was he was
able to keep his Big Bands going for 50 years and finance
them, and the only other person who could do that was Duke
Ellington,” Barbera said.
The tip of
those were some of the biggest names with Milwaukee ties
they are just the tip of the baton, musically speaking. Les
Paul of Waukesha, the father of the solid-body electric
guitar, is represented. Because Discovery World and the
Waukesha County Historical Society and Museum do up Paul in
a big way, the Milwaukee County Historical Society doesn’t
take an in-depth look, Barbera said.
are other early rock items, with the exhibit making note of
The Messengers, The Legends and The Bonnevilles, one of the
first Milwaukee bands to cut a full-length album, Barbera
Violent Femmes and the BoDeans for rock ’n’ roll were some
pretty big names,” said Barbera of the area bands that arose
from the area in the 1980s.
thing we tried to do with the exhibit was tying the past by
connecting it to the present,” Barbera said.
examples, he said, are the Florentine Opera, the
sixth-oldest opera company in the nation, and the Wisconsin
Conservatory of Music, dating back 100 years. They can be
linked to Milwaukee’s rich music society scene in the 1800s,
the coolest things we have is a large full-size painting of
Hans Balatka. He was one of the principal figures who
started the Milwaukee Musical Society, which was the
pre-eminent musical society in Milwaukee. There were
literally dozens of musical societies. He started this in
the 1850s,” Barbera said. Pro bono preservation work was
done on the painting last year, he added.
biggest thing for me was to realize how vibrant and broad
and diverse the music scene in Milwaukee has been. I tend to
look at it like you've got a couple of major names that came
out of here and then you've got polka. But when you dive
into it, you have important musicians in all genres and
style,” Barbera said.
into this thinking it would be hard to find enough material
to include and I wound up having to make a lot of really
tough choices on what got cut.”
Milwaukee Heritage Day with music
celebration of the Milwaukee County Historical Society’s
exhibit “Melodies and Memories: 200 Years of Milwaukee
Music,” a free family day will take place from Saturday to
celebrate Milwaukee Heritage Day, marking the society’s role
in preserving Milwaukee’s history. The curator, Ben Barbera,
will be available to the public during the event from 11
a.m. to 3 p.m. at the historical society, 910 N. Old World