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VA's Old Ward Hall

By Jeff Unger, Special to The Milwaukee Journal, July 6, 1976

So you think you know Milwaukee? Bob Hope, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor and Lillian Gish appeared at a theater in Milwaukee that is still in use. Can you name it? (It's not the Pabst. The Pabst is just a kid compared to the "old lady.")

The "old lady" is Ward Memorial Hall on the Veterans Administration grounds. Ninety-four years ago Ward Memorial Hall was dedicated by William Tecumseh Sherman.

Originally planned as a restaurant, church, store, ticket office and rail depot, Ward Hall was first used as a dormitory for veterans.

Most of the $22,000 construction cost was covered by a bequest from Horatio Ward of Virginia, who donated money to veteran's centers around the United States.

Built of Cream City brick, hand hewn timbers and hand wrought nails, the theater easily evokes images of the hundreds of Civil War veterans who were entertained there.

The original 800 seats have racks beneath them where men could safely put stove-pipe hats. The east exterior of the building includes a large stained glass window depicting Gen. Ulysses Grant astride his horse, Cincinnatus.

The window, presented to the theater in 1887 as a gift from St. Louis, is lit from dusk until dawn every day and as one veteran put it, "It's the kind of sight that gives you goosebumps."

Landscape murals cover the interior of the theater. Supposedly copies after Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., where President Lincoln was shot, the theater has two balconies and multitiered boxes overlooking the stage.

[See The Ford's Theater Myth for clarification of this popular legend.]

The theater's similarity to Ford's has been disputed over the years. However, legend has it that the north door to Ward Hall is barred because John Wilkes Booth made his escape from a door in the same location at Ford's.

Milwaukee band leader Steve Swedish got his start in the pit orchestra at Ward Hall.

"A lot of Milwaukee musicians started there," he recalled. "All the downtown theaters had pit orchestras and whenever they needed a musician, they'd call out to Wood."

Swedish said most of the musicians who played Ward Hall lived in a building opposite the hall.

"We got $60 a month in those days," he said. "We played for the raising of the flag as well as for funerals. I can remember playing for as many as six funerals in one day."

The band leader remembered the warm summer Sunday afternoons when hundreds of visitors would visit the grounds to shake hands with Civil War veterans."

"In those days we had to be versatile. Outside in the summers you played brass, but indoors in the winter you played strings," he said.

Jack Dempsey, Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys, Ted Lewis and Olsen and Johnson were other big names who appeared at Wood. Swedish called another entertainer who performed there, John Charles Thomas, "one of the greatest singers of all time."

Jack Dempsey and VA Director Delta C. Firmin
Zablocki VAMC Archives as reprinted in Milwaukee's Soldiers Home

But of the dozens of stars Swedish played for, Sophie Tucker is his most vivid memory,

Miss Tucker, Swedish and the pit pianist were having lunch in the theater when a message was received that a soldier, injured by mustard gas and dying of tuberculosis, had learned that Miss Tucker was at the theater and wanted to hear her sing. Hastily wiping her mouth, the singer told Swedish to get a piano to the soldier's room.

"By the time she got to his room, she was really puffing," Swedish said. "First she sang 'Some of These Days,' and the poor boy tried to clap, but could only raise his fingers. Sophie then started in on 'The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,' but the boy died before she finished."

Today the big stars at Ward Hall appear only on film. But even in the past, not all the great performances were on stage.
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