A noteworthy musical past
Milwaukee County Historical Museum celebrates area’s music

By Dan Muckelbauer - TimeOut Editor

Feb. 2, 2017


   Big Band leader Woody Herman was one of Milwaukee’s musicians who made the big time.
Milwaukee 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.

Singers 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.

“Woody Herman, Liberace and Hildegarde, and others, made it out of Milwaukee and made it big,” exhibit curator Ben Barbera said.

He 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.

But 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.

“I picture her popular with the businessmen in the clubs,” Barbera said. “She’d come out into the audience and flirt with the men.”

   Hans 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.
Photo 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 sultry siren.

The 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.

While Liberace and Hildegarde had long careers, so did Herman, the famed Big Band leader born in Milwaukee.

“One of 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 the baton

While 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.

There 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 said.

“The 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.

“The big thing we tried to do with the exhibit was tying the past by connecting it to the present,” Barbera said.

Two 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, he noted.

“One of 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.

“The 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.

“I went 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.”

This weekend

Celebrating Milwaukee Heritage Day with music

In 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 Third St.