Milwaukee Talks: Shank Hall owner Peter Jest
Milwaukee music venue Shank Hall, 1434 N. Farwell Ave., will celebrate 25 years in business in November.
Owner Peter Jest – who is also a concert promoter responsible for bringing major talent to the city – was 25 years old when he first opened the East Side club. Now, at 50, Jest's been in the business for more than half of his life and consequently he has a vast and unique perspective on the Milwaukee music scene.
For this latest segment of Milwaukee Talks, OnMilwaukee.com sat down with Jest to hear about the best shows of the past 2 1/2 decades, the fire that almost destroyed the business, the role Spinal Tap played in it all and much more.
OnMilwaukee.com: When did Shank Hall open?
Peter Jest: During the weekend of Nov. 3, 1989. A local cover band, Java, played the Friday night, and then on Saturday, Semi-Twang played. Semi-Twang has become our anniversary band over the years and they'll play the 25th anniversary party on Saturday, Nov. 8.
OMC: What are the details of the 25th anniversary party?
PJ: Mike Benign Compulsion is going to open for Semi-Twang. Mike tested out the club before it opened 25 years ago. We have some other good bands that week – Chuck Prophet, Tommy Castro and a free show by Christopher's Project on Wednesday, Nov. 5.
Otherwise, nothing too grand. I'm not a grandiose guy but I want to remind people we're still out here, going strong. Sometimes people forget about the older venues. I like to remind people we were here before "The Simpsons," before "Law and Order," before some of the people in this club were born.
OMC: You have an extensive history of promoting Milwaukee shows. When did you start promoting?
PJ: I started booking shows 32 years ago at UWM (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) under Alternative Concert Group. We booked Iggy Pop, Jane's Addiction, Warren Zevon – all the big shows – in the ballroom at UWM. But after seven years at UWM with 23 credits and 1 .8 grade point average – I was taking bowling and weather map classes just to stay there to do concerts – I knew I was eventually going to hear, "We appreciate the shows, but…."
I was also booking shows at Century Hall – but then that burned down – and at the Avalon, The Modjeska, Odd Rock, Toad. And then I heard the old Teddy's was available (now Shank Hall).
Teddy's was a historic locale for bands, but when the drinking age changed to 21, they panicked and closed. The place was rented out as a comedy club, which closed on New Year's Eve 1988.
Camper Van Beethoven in 2012.
I had wanted to have a home base for a while and since Teddy's had been one of the historic clubs in Milwaukee, I knew it was the perfect spot. I put together two partners, they fell through, found another partner, borrowed $10,000 from my parents and opened Shank Hall on a shoestring in November of '89.
OMC: How did you come up with the name?
PJ: It's from "This Is Spinal Tap." In the film, Spinal Tap played in Milwaukee at a then-fictitious club named Shank Hall. I booked the Tap at the UWM Ballroom on July 11, 1984, and I promised the band if I ever opened a club in Milwaukee it would be named Shank Hall. I didn't want to call it Pete's Bar anyway.
OMC: This is probably a good time to ask about the Stonehenge statue over the stage.
PJ: Yes. When I was at UWM, when the Spinal Tap movie came out, the band was going to Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and L.A. I called or wrote a letter – sometimes I sent telegrams back then for offers – and said, "Hey, I noticed you got a day out between Chicago and San Francisco. Michael McKean was Lenny in "Laverne & Shirley" so he has a Milwaukee connection. If you play in Milwaukee at the UWM Ballroom, I'll rename it Shank Hall for the night." And they did it. They came. And the student art department built that stonehenge for the show and that's a remaining piece.
It's become our trademark. People sometimes ask why we have that pi sign above the stage.
OMC: 25 years ago, what other venues were you competing with?
PJ: The Odd Rock closed one month after we opened and Toad closed about eight months later. There was also the Boardwalk – which later became The Globe – and the Celebrity Club did shows, too. Buckley's, Vnuk's. Later, there was Thai Joe's. So many. In 25 years, more than 50 places closed that had been doing music. I don't feel joy in that, but I do feel I must be doing something right.
OMC: A few years after opening there was a fire at Shank Hall, right?
PJ: There was a fire on Sept. 10, 1992. The club didn't burn down, but it was damaged by fire – mostly the roof, the carpeting, the furniture. Back in the day, you could smoke in here, and a guest of the band The Drovers must have dropped a lit cigarette in between the cushions of the couch backstage.
The night of the fire, I got out of here at 2 a.m. I was working for Cellar Door at the time and the next day we had U2 at Camp Randall on the Lemon Tour. So after I dropped a waitress off, I went home, went to bed and around 5 a.m. and the gas station guy called me (from the gas station located across Farwell from Shank Hall). He said, "Peter, your club's burning down."
I lived right around the corner at the time and there was already smoke in my apartment from the fire. I came running out and the fire trucks were already here. It was quite a mess. So we got all of the beer out of the cooler and started drinking it on the sidewalk because it was going to go bad anyway. And then I had to leave for Madison to work the U2 show.
Thankfully, no one got hurt, I had really good insurance, really good landlords and everyone said, "Let's rebuild it." And so we did and reopened in December of that year with Trip Shakespeare.
OMC: How did you change the space when you remodeled after the fire?
PJ: There used to be a Plexiglas wall between the bar and the seating / stage area. But it melted in the fire, and we decided not to replace it. This really opened up the room. We also put in another exit door and a handicap-equipped bathroom – there used to be a side bar there instead. We were then able to raise our capacity from 180 to 240 to, eventually, 300.
We put in the (front) windows in the summer of 1999 after we got a facade grant from the city. Page 1 of 3 (view all on one page)
Peter Jest has brought some great music to Milwaukee. Congratulations!
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