Living The Milwaukee High Life: Pabst Theater Group Expands Portfolio With Miller High Life Theatre

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The High Life: Miller High Life Theater seats 4,087 but has multiple configurations. Photo by Dan Garcia

Milwaukee-based Pabst Theater Group has added the 4,087-seat Miller High Life Theatre to its portfolio, with the company assuming exclusive booking rights to ticketed events effective immediately and transitioning to management of full operations by July 31.

While the venue fits nicely with the company’s portfolio, which includes Milwaukee venues the Pabst Theater (1,339 capacity) Riverside Theater (2,400), general admission venues Turner Hall Ballroom (987) and Back Room at Colectivo (300), it’s more than that.

“It is about control to us,” says Pabst Theater Group President and CEO Gary Witt. “Because we invest tremendously in our buildings, we invest in the audience and artist experience, and that creates a separate experience that gives a soul and identity to the building.”

The High Life Theater, part of the city’s theater district and originally constructed in 1909, underwent major renovations in the early 2000s. It now boasts top-of-the line audio equipment, easy load-in and advanced rigging system, and heightened green room and artist amenities. Upcoming shows include Lord Huron, Gloria Trevi, Peppa Pig’s Adventure, Paw Patrol Live, Smokey Robinson and more.

Witt, who entered the Wisconsin market by taking over operations at the Pabst Theater in 2002, says his company has worked hard to help develop the city into a viable music market for club and theater tours. The group also developed its own robust database of ticket-buying customers while offering top-notch amenities to artists and fans.

For the Miller High Life Theatre, which hosts concerts but wasn’t as active as owner/operator Wisconsin Center District would hope, “We realized it was worth taking the risk if we could also control the building. We want to reap the benefits of the work we do,” Witt adds. “We want to be able to manage the shows that take place there, but also very importantly we want to be able to manage the quality of what takes place there. It’s not about booking a few shows there, it’s about managing how the bars work within the construct of the building, it’s about managing how the hospitality staff works, how our chef is able to make that experience feel better for the artists, about the box office experience walking in, knowing how you’re taking care (of guests). I’d like to think we’ve been successful so far carrying that forward to every building we walk into.”

As part of the five-year deal with Pabst Theater Group, Wisconsin Center District will retain naming rights and sponsorship opportunities as well as continue to book meetings and conventions at the venue.

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Up The Ladder: Miller High Life Theatre hosts a sold-out Glass Animals gig in March 2022. Due to high demand, the show was moved from PTG’s Riverside Theater. (Photo by Will Hughes)

Matt Beringer, Pabst Theater Group’s chief operating officer, says the deal made sense to both parties but wasn’t forced, with Marty Brooks, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Center District, approaching them as potential partners.
“When we started talking to Marty, he correctly identified that this is an island, and doesn’t work as an island and needs broader support,” Beringer said. “This isn’t just about going up and saying we need to acquire this or that. This is about continuing what we’re doing here from an artist development and fan development standpoint. When looking at our venues as a developmental ladder, with the Pabst and Riverside, we said we could keep going like this for a long time, but when you have a building like (the Miller High Life Theatre), one, you have incredible production amenities, from the stage size and just the physical space you have to work with.”
It doesn’t hurt that the Miller High Life Theatre does fit a capacity niche.

“Then, you have the additional fact that it’s complementary from a capacity standpoint, and more and more we saw how this could fit into the ecosystem of what we are doing,” Beringer adds. “It is truly a natural evolution of what we’re doing. Marty Brooks was forward-thinking and said we need to find a way to work together.”

Brooks, in the announcement of the deal, adds, “The purpose of this agreement is to align with an entity that delivers best-in-class guest experiences and promoter partnerships; showcases a dedication to the city of Milwaukee; and increases the activity of the Miller High Life Theatre without compromising the Wisconsin Center District’s ability to maximize the space for our core meetings and conventions business.”

Pabst Theater Group’s PTG Live promotion arm produces shows in-house at its venues, works with national promoters and also promotes shows in the city’s impressive Fiserv Forum arena, including an upcoming Brandi Carlile gig in August.

Beringer says it’s important to note the company’s buildings are open venues and PTG is an eager partner.

“What we do here in Milwaukee is inherently different from what a national promoter does,” Beringer says. “They have a hard job and a lot of ground to cover. What we’re doing in Milwaukee is more akin to building brick houses. We’re building brick by brick here, and it’s central to the market, fortified here in the market. We want to build something that is sustainable and going to promote participation and collaboration with a broad range of partners.”

Witt, who was previously based in Chicago, says the company entered the market at a good time, with Milwaukee on the brink of growth and the electronic communications boom beginning to explode and change the way marketing and promotion was done.
“We came in at a point of time that was a positive for us, communication was changing and how businesses spoke to their customers and people spoke to one another,” says Witt, noting that when the company formed, the Pabst Theater was doing 60 shows per year, with 30 of those being an annual Christmas special.

“I remember building our first e-members email list, when we got up to 500 people in our email database, we were so excited about it.”

At the time, the Riverside Theater was closed and the Back Room didn’t exist. Now that email list is up to 400,000.

“From the very beginning we’ve never been a Ticketmaster venue, and never relied on the ticketing company to be the one to provide the database,” Witt adds. “Our goal all along was to be able to grow something and build and develop a community and rely on that community to help us grow the business.”

Part of developing that has been investing in the actual buildings, including spending $800,000 — “fortunately or unfortunately,” Witt adds, jokingly —during the pandemic for upgrades to amenities including bathrooms at the Riverside, increasing women’s stalls from five to 23 and more than doubling men’s urinals.

“It’s not the exciting thing everyone wants to talk about, but you have to have great amenities in your buildings to make people feel good about going there and enjoying the experience,” Witt says.

Beringer says amenities for artists are just as important, and have helped solidify Milwaukee as an important standalone concert tour stop.

“When an artist goes to the Riverside, and the agents and artists and managers know this, or Pabst or Turner Hall, when you get backstage, they’re going to be treated to things like a private barista making espresso drinks from Colectivo Coffee, a giant vintage vinyl collection and record player, fun amenities like arcade games,” Beringer says.

“Simple things like comfortable furniture. It’s important to call out the service in the venues at the Riverside — we have an executive chef, a pastry chef, a sous chef — gourmet dinners cooked onsite for the artists. How do you set apart a market like Milwaukee? It’s not just another Midwestern market or rest-stop market.”