In the bright, gleaming Milwaukee of the 21st century, the only thing more tired than huffing about how the city is so much more than beer and cheese is, well, claiming the city is nothing more than beer and cheese. Milwaukeeans know better, of course, and are always happy to rattle off any number of world-class amenities (Milwaukee Art Museum, Miller Park, the Grand Ave. food court) to doubting out-of-towners. There are plenty of lesser-known Milwaukee gems, too, as well as some that have made a sizable impact on national (and international) pop-culture. Here, then, is a small sample of nationally beloved pop-culture institutions (note: famous bands or famous people who were born here don’t count) with Milwaukee (or Milwaukee-area) ties.
1. American League baseball
The Journal Communications complex in Downtown Milwaukee is currently being eyed up as a potential site for the Milwaukee Bucks’ new “build-it-or-die” arena. It’s a bold choice (which means it probably won’t happen), and one with a bit of sports history already attached to it. No, we’re not talking about that 200,000-word Journal Sentinel reach-around about Brett Favre: baseball’s American League was created there in 1900. A historical marker on the site tells the story:
“The Republican House, a hotel that stood on this site from 1886 to 1961, was the birthplace of baseball’s American League. On the night of March 5, 1900, Milwaukee attorney Henry Killilea, his brother Matt, Connie Mack, Byron (Ban) Johnson, and Charles Comiskey gathered in Room 185. In defiance of the existing National League, Comiskey’s Chicago White Stockings (later Sox) were incorporated, and the league’s eight team alignment was completed. After the 1900 season, the league reorganized, placed teams in Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and achieved major league status.”
Comedy is currently on the comeback trail in Milwaukee, but it’s important to remember that it never really left. For proof, look to the long-running ComedySportz, which has been a local institution since 1984, and an internationally licensed concern since 2004. Co-founded by Shorewood native and one-time Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker collaborator Dick Chudnow, the unstoppable improv competition has official teams in over 20 U.S. cities, as well as in Germany and England. Chudnow also teaches improv classes at UW-Milwaukee, ensuring ComedySportz’s family-friendly, meat-and-potatoes chuckles will continue to ripple throughout the land.
3. Dungeons & Dragons
If we’re breaking our own byzantine rules with this one—flips through rule book, rolls dice, proceeds—it’s only because someone has to take credit for Dungeons & Dragons, dammit, and it may as well be the Milwaukee area. Created in 1974 by Lake Geneva resident Gary Gygax and friend Dave Arneson, D&D infused pen-and-paper medieval warfare games with Tolkien-esque fantasy, thus creating the entire modern role-playing genre as we know it. D&D would soon find its way into the wood-paneled basements of countless indoor kids across the world; these days, however, it’s about as mainstream as Taylor Swift, and embraced by everyone from Stephen Colbert to Patton Oswalt. Solidifying the Milwaukee tie, Gygax’s Gen Con gaming convention called the Brew City home from 1985 until 2002. (It was moved to Indianapolis the following year, and Milwaukee’s hearty Dungeon Masters haven’t been the same since.)
It’s impossible to quantify just how deeply Harley-Davidson has permeated nearly every aspect of American pop-culture. Fashion, music, literature, and any movie featuring a middle-aged dad and/or a sports-playing animal riding a motorcycle all owe a debt to Harley. Founded in Milwaukee in 1903 by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson, the company been an American icon for over 110 years, surviving two World Wars, occasional knocks to its reputation, and that whole Elton John thing.
5. “Hello, Milwaukee”
Even after nearly four decades, nothing sums up the highly specific and delightfully idiosyncratic things that make Milwaukee unique better than the 1977 WISN-TV jingle “Hello, Milwaukee.” (“There’s a feeling in the air that you can’t get anywhere except Milwaukee.”) Or maybe not: the inspirational tune (“Makes no difference where I go, you’re the best hometown I know”) was originally penned for Milwaukee by singer-songwriter Frank Gari, but its lyrics were soon adapted to accommodate more than 160 other cities. “Hello, Milwaukee” even found its way to Calgary, Alberta (as “Hello, Calgary,” of course), inspiring a recent episode of This American Life. It’s cool, though: Milwaukee (and Channel 12) still loves you, “Hello, Milwaukee.”
6. Heat Vision And Jack
Consider this a general “Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab” entry. The Milwaukee and Mayville natives, respectively, are responsible for an ever-growing number of pop-culture touchstones—Community, The Sarah Silverman Program, Rick And Morty, Harmontown—though it’s one of their failed creations that brings a warm sense of hometown pride to our hearts. Heat Vision And Jack is a 1999 Harmon/Schrab-written, Ben Stiller-directed pilot for Fox that tells the story of a former astronaut cursed with sunlight-activated boosts in intelligence (Jack Black), his talking motorcycle (voiced by Owen Wilson), and the merciless NASA goon sent to capture them (Ron Silver, as “himself”). If that description didn’t tip you off, it’s a glorious, ridiculous mash-up of everything from Knight Rider and The Six Million Dollar Man, and one that has found a fervent following online. On a list of “How the fuck wasn’t this TV show picked up?” Heat Vision And Jack would surely sit on top.
7. Little Face Mitt
Internet memes are disposable by design, so it’s hard to label one as an “institution.” Still, you could do a lot worse than “Little Face Mitt,” a Tumblr launched during the final months of the 2012 presidential campaign. The site featured pictures of soon-to-be defeated candidate Mitt Romney sporting tiny facial features on an otherwise normal-sized head—or, as the site succinctly put it, “unsettling pictures of Mitt Romney with a very tiny face.” Created by Milwaukee funnyman Reuben Glaser, Little Face Mitt quickly took off, landing on Buzzfeed, Gawker, Funny Or Die, and numerous other sites where delightfully random and subversive Photoshops are more grist for the online mill. Romney may be about as topical as Bugle Boy jeans these days, but his terrifying little face lives on in the hearts and minds of those of us who will never forget. Or can’t.
8. Red Letter Media
With the release of 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, George Lucas triumphantly tainted fans’ once-rosy memories of the sci-fi franchise with endless discussions of trade route embargos, votes of “no confidence” in the Imperial Senate, and the occasional Rastafarian CGI rabbit stepping in shit. 10 years later, with the release of a scathing 70-minute YouTube takedown of TPM, Milwaukee-based filmmaker Mike Stoklasa and his Red Letter Media production company found unprecedented Internet fame and success; to date, Stoklasa’s Star Wars prequel reviews (all done in-character as the slovenly/homicidal “Mr. Plinkett) have racked up millions upon millions of views. But enough about Star Wars: Stoklasa, along with collaborators Jay Bauman and Rich Evans, has expanded RLM into something of a geek-entertainment empire as of late, producing multiple beloved online shows like Half In The Bag (reviews of new movies), Best Of The Worst (reviews of bizarre VHS-era movies), and Previously Recorded (reviews of new and old video games). Plus, sometimes stuff like this happens: