One of Milwaukee’s most famed destinations, the Pabst Theater is a landmark of the Brew City known for hosting a variety of live events. An icon of German heritage, art, and German Renaissance Revival style architecture, this venue is known for many things—including its otherworldly residents. Join Brew City Ghosts on a journey through this building’s mysterious past, and learn why some of its long-dead ghosts refuse to take their final bows.
In the mid-19th century, thousands of German immigrants came to the state of Wisconsin in droves for various religious and political reasons in search of inexpensive farmland and places to establish a new life. With Milwaukee’s prime location on Lake Michigan, Germans began flooding the city and wasted no time establishing breweries and other such businesses, causing a significant “boom” in Milwaukee’s economy.
By 1900, German-born residents made up approximately ten percent of the total population and around 47 percent of the foreign-born population in Wisconsin. The impact Germans had on the city of Milwaukee is undeniable, particularly when it comes to the rise of the city’s brewing industry. In 1950, persons of German heritage dominated 41 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties—the primary ancestry in both Green Bay and Milwaukee. Today, an estimated 40 percent of Milwaukee residents claim German ancestry.
With one of the nation’s largest German-American populations, it’s no surprise that the city of Milwaukee features an abundance of German culture. Whether it’s the annual Oktoberfest celebrations, German-inspired artwork found at the Grohmann Museum and the Milwaukee Public Museum, or one of Milwaukee’s many beer history tours, reminders of the city’s German roots can be found nearly everywhere.
In 1890, legendary brewer Frederick Pabst purchased the Nunnemacher Grand Opera House with the hopes of bringing German-language productions to downtown Milwaukee. He immediately renamed it Das Neue Deutsche Stadt-Theater (The New German City Theater), but unfortunately, the existing building wouldn’t stand for much longer. The structure was damaged by arson in 1893 and, shortly after, was completely destroyed by fire in January 1895. However, Pabst was persistent in keeping his vision for a grand theater alive and ordered it rebuilt at once. It reopened as The Pabst Theater in 1895, as it continues to be known today.
Iconic performers have taken to the stage throughout the years, but perhaps none are as well remembered as Liberace, who made his classical debut as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert held here in 1939. Since then, it has gone on to host an array of performers, including Black Sabbath, the Beach Boys, David Byrne, and several others. Because of its cultural significance, the Pabst Theater was designated a National Historic Landmark of the US in 1991.
For decades, stories of strange ghosts and ghoulish hauntings have surrounded the Pabst Theater. It’s long been said that the spirit of Frederick Pabst himself roams these darkened halls after the lights dim, fiercely protective of the venue he dedicated so much of his life to creating. While the energy within the theater is said to be far from sinister, the sight of wispy manifestations and the disembodied sounds of whispers or other strange noises are enough to give unsuspecting visitors a fright.
In 2015, Milwaukee-born filmmaker Michael Brown set out to explore some of Wisconsin’s most haunted destinations and came across an unusual amount of paranormal activity, specifically at the Pabst Theater. While undergoing his investigation, Brown and his team attempted to contact the spirits that reside within the building and came across some shocking discoveries.
Onstage, Brown and his colleague heard a strange “hiss” while using flashlights and Zoom recorders to reach any otherworldly presences. A ghost named “Frank” could be heard on the recorder, perhaps the spirit of a long-dead worker or spectator. After the documentary was released, titled “Haunted State: Theater of Shadows,” Brown said of his experience at the Pabst: “It was amazing what happened there.”
Today, the Pabst remains relatively unchanged from its original 19th-century appearance, despite having undergone a few renovations, with the latest having taken place in 2000. The venue continues to host a variety of events, from rock concerts to movie screenings, to various dance performances. For skeptics and believers alike, the Pabst and its equally-haunted sister theater, the Riverside, frequently hold ghost tours each fall for guests to experience the spooky, spine-tingling energy of these historic venues firsthand.