History Don’t Do Cameras

Ever since the loss of our babysitter to the warmer climes of Arizona, Bo and I have lost all chances of a “night out.” (For the record, we did try three other babysitters, but those, um, didn’t exactly work out.) We have managed a few outings in the daylight hours, however, thanks to relatives willing to watch Blondie and the twins. That’s how we got to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story* and tour the Pabst Mansion.

Why the Pabst Mansion? Bo and I aren’t beer connoisseurs. I can’t fathom whatever’s brewed under the current Pabst label is anything like the Pabst beer brewed in the 1800s.

250-history-bookWell, back when I was working on that old WIP (the one with Dorjan), I struggled with details for the primary setting of the story. I found my inspiration in a photography collection of the Pabst Mansion: rich, yet not obscenely so. Large, but not unwieldy. Down to earth and still elegant.

Now that Bo has become a stronger ally in my writing life, I asked if he wanted to go with me to the Pabst sometime. I wanted to see the history with my own eyes, breathe its air and touch its remnants. Bo thought for a moment, then got on the phone with Grandma Varinski to watch the kids. He had originally proposed an afternoon at the art museum (Yes, Milwaukee has one), so this seemed an acceptable alternative.

Acceptable indeed. I didn’t know Captain Pabst had been such an avid art collector. Work spanning back to the 1600s hung inside the mansion walls…

But I get ahead of myself.

We arrived on yet another cloudy day. Winter left behind its zombie ice-crusts along the roadside: too damn tough to melt. Despite standing on a major thoroughfare, Bo needed me to guide him to the mansion. Marquette University dominates this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, making it easy to look at an old building and think it the school’s.

We step into what looks like a chapel to await the tour.

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I look upon the walls and windows…and get depressed.

What has happened to this place? Why’s it being held together by packing tape and pint glasses?

Worst of all, I have to pee. I hate having to pee while stuck in sweater tights.

So of course I had to ask the only male staff person about a bathroom. “Yes, if you’ll follow me.” He walked towards a door…into the mansion.

Weeeeee, I was getting in early!

Were one to be shrunk and escorted inside the Fairy Queen’s pixie dust tree, then one would know what it felt like to leave the decaying chapel and enter the mansion. It’s not that everything was all glittery or jewel-encrusted or such. It was the color: the warmth in the woodwork, the landscapes painted above the doors, the touch of gold and iron in all the right places. I cupped my phone in my hand, eager to snap some early photos before the tour–

–only my escort stuck with me all the way to the mansion’s bathroom and back.

Damn.

The tour began with an older women who sounded like she’d smoked through her formative years but had quit a while ago. She explained that we were actually in the beer pavilion Captain Pabst had commissioned for the World’s Fair in 1893. It was rebuilt as a sort of sun-room for the mansion. Then, when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee took up residence in the Mansion in the early 1900s, it was converted into a chapel. Once the Catholic Church sold the Pabst property in the 1970s, much of the mansion had, like this chapel, fallen into disrepair. All restorations are funded through donations–and tours–and they try to work room by room. So far, they had the first two floors done. We would see them, and the work being done on the third floor.

I was practically hopping at Bo’s side. I couldn’t stop grinning. I had nearly emptied my phone of all precious moments of children doing childreny things to get as many shots as possible–

“No pictures, please.”

DAMMIT!

So, um…I don’t have pictures from inside the mansion proper.

But I do have some photos scrounged up from the Internet!

Oddly enough, the Pabst’s website used to have a sampling of the photos taken for their book. Why they took them down I don’t know; they provided some closeups of the amazing woodwork as well as a few rooms.

Entering the third floor was like stepping into a whole new building. The Catholics had plastered this sad, generic whitewash over the walls and altered much of the plumbing in order to “modernize” the house. Granted, many of these changes are merely cosmetic, but it was clear by seeing rooms in the midst or restoration just how long it would take before the mansion was completely restored. I found a great article on OnMilwaukee.com which shared some photos of restoration in process. You can see in that bottom right photo where they’re repainting the original patterns; the bottom left shows stencilwork that had been covered up by the “modern” paint.

The tour covered only the residential portions of the mansion, but I hope to return for one of their special nights of touring the basement and attic, too. Just look at that shot: there’s a story hidden in those depths, I’m sure of it.

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One of main reasons I started this website was to share the imagery of my state and how it inspires me as a writer. I know some of you do this, too–Shehanne Moore has some stunning captures of her beloved Scotland, for example. Why? Because where we come from as writers is also where our characters will come from. Does that mean all my characters will be from Wisconsin? Probably not. But they’re all going to come from some place inside me: from my fears and loathings, loves and joys. They may never smell the air around the Circus World Museum, but they will all be a part of me, just as Wisconsin is a part of me.

The Pabst Mansion, this often-overlooked piece of homeland, inspired the setting for the first story I took seriously as a writer. And to share it with my husband, who still doesn’t like reading my fiction but loves my passion for writing because he loves me, made it all the more beautiful.

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*Last month I conversed with a few of you about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I noted a review that I felt nailed the film’s failures (character development/plot) as well as achievements (that final space battle!). Now mind you, it’s a video made by nerds for nerds, so their sense of humor may not be your thing. But if you don’t mind some goofy sketches and crude language, watch away!

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Know. Your. Setting.

My husband Bo is not one to read fiction. He prefers reading nonfiction about the fiction-makers: biographies on actors, the making of films, the rise and fall of movie studios, and the like. Sometimes, Bo shares something with me that I MUST pass on.

We all scratch our heads over certain stories’ successes. How one novel reaches best-seller status despite its writing or cliche character/plot/etc. How one screenplay reaches the screen and another does not. Peter Bart’s Fade Out chronicles how this happened in MGM and, as a result, knocked the studio off the pedestal to the ground.

This excerpt is just one of the many bizarre instances Bart shares in his book. After reading it, I hope you’ll ask yourself: Do I really know my story’s setting? Do I really know my characters? Because if you can’t answer that with confidence, someone is going to call you out on it. Hard.

First, here is the premise of Road Show (spoiler alert: this movie never made it to production) as told by Peter Blart:

The central character was a rock-solid American cattle rancher named Spangler (Jack Nicholson) who finds himself besieged by voracious creditors. When thieving truckers try to charge an outrageous price to transport his 250 head of cattle to Kansas City, Spangler opts for the ultimate act of defiance. He will drive his herd to market the old-fashioned way–a classic cattle drive past the turnpikes and the billboards and the Holiday Inns and the Big Macs. Assisting him will be his wife, Opal, and his friend Leo (Tim Hutton), a schoolteacher who is desperate to learn what the “real world” is like. Along the way, there is danger and adversity, but Spangler prevails–he gets his cattle to Kansas City. (Bart, 1990, 72-72)

Now that you know the story involved with the incident, let’s learn about the incident, shall we? The other players involved are Richard Brooks, slated to direct, and Denne Petitclerc, writer and “battle-hardened veteran of the movie wars” (Bart, 1990, 80).

Having read the Getchell draft of Road Show, Petitclerc said he was troubled by the curious absence of conflict. Once Spangler decides to defy the venal truckers and launch his cattle drive, the story seems to dissipate rather than build, Petitclerc reported. A tentative romantic triangle between Spangler, Leo, and Opal never develops into anything.

Indeed, nothing seems to develop!

When Petitclerc posed his analysis of the script to Brooks, he listened carefully and said he agreed. After tossing ideas back and forth for several hours, a working plan was agreed to. Petitclerc would start his rewrite, consistent with their discussions. Brooks, meanwhile, would go to Kansas to scout the actual locations and hopefully come up with some fresh solutions to the story problems.

“I’m not good at dealing with things in the abstract,” Brooks said. “I have to get a sense of real people and places.” And, having said that, he got an even better idea: He would also invite his two leads, [Jack] Nicholson and [Tim] Hutton, to join him on his jaunt through Kansas. Having waited so long for the picture to start, they might be energized by the trip and get into their characters.

The actors readily agreed, and they all took off. Once during this trek, Brooks phoned to say it was going well. The only setback thus far, he said, was that Jack Nicholson almost got arrested for mooning other motorists on the turnpike.

Upon returning from the trip, however, Brooks quickly fell into a dark mood. “He’s worried,” Donna Dubrow reported. “He won’t tell me what’s wrong, but he looks miserable, and he’s popping glycerine or some kind of a pill for angina pains. He’s worried, and therefore I’m worried.”

A week later, Petitclerc turned in a stack of revised pages, but Brooks would not return his phone calls to disclose his reaction to them. An aide reported seeing clumps of pages atop Brook’s desk with epithets like “garbage” and “trash” scrawled in the margins.

Brooks himself burst into my office one day to explain, in his usual disconnected way, what was bothering him. “It’s the goddamn story,” he said, pacing the room, “the whole premise. It starts from there.”

“What starts from there?”

“If a rancher like Spangler felt he was being fleeced by truckers, he’d go out and rent his own goddam trucks, that’s what he’d do. I realized that driving around Kansas, talking to people. And he sure as hell wouldn’t start a goddam cattle drive, because he couldn’t get the goddam cattle across the goddam turnpikes, and even if he could, the goddam bridges wouldn’t hold up under a thundering herd.”

Brooks stopped in his tracks. “You know what I think?”

“What?”

“No one involved in this movie ever went to Kansas, that’s what I think. There are a hundred things in this script that wouldn’t be there if anyone had visited Kansas. Well, let me tell you something. I’ve visited Kansas!”

Having said that, Brooks exited my office. (Bart, 1990, 80-81)

Believe it or not, it took MORE hi-jinks to ensue before they finally shut this project down.

Anyway, I hope this bit of history gives you pause. It’s so easy to set our stories anywhere, real or imagined, but unless we can fully explain how our world works, or how our characters work, we are setting our stories up to fail. Know your place. Know your people. Or you will find yourself knocked off the pedestal and face-down in the dirt.

Click here for more on Peter Bart’s FADE OUT.