#Milbornandraised is a campaign run by Milborn Advisors to reach out to the people that make Milwaukee great. This week, we interview Alan Williams - a wandering soul who came here with his equally-nomadic wife to help improve the quality of life in the theater community and ended up setting roots here along the way.
Interview and photography by Amy Lancaster.
For the past two years, I’ve taken a month-long “detoxing” period from alcohol in October, which I lovingly dub “SoberTober” (this was actually inspired by my friend, Claud, who I interviewed last week). So, going into a bar, despite not drinking, is a bit odd.
This bar, however, makes me feel right at home. Whenever I walk into 42 Ale House in St. Francis - a restaurant for anyone into pop and geek culture - I’m always immediately greeted by smiles and warm faces of those who I have grown close to. I spent two years of my life working here, becoming familiar with being behind the pine, and formulating friendships with people who I otherwise would have never met due to just having different walks of life.
This is how I came to meet Alan Williams, an afficianado of hockey, the fine arts, and coffee with a little bit of extra love in it. After greeting each other like old friends, we made our way to a quiet corner of the restaurant - The “Dota” room (which stands for “Defense of the Ancients” - a multiplayer online battle arena game - the room gets its name due to the official artwork framed on the walls) - a cozy area which is perfect for those looking for a little more privacy to focus on their board games.
Amy Lancaster: So, Alan - how long have you lived in Milwaukee?
Alan Williams: I’ve been here, let’s see, Ben’s 20…(chuckles) So, we’ve been here about 22, 23 years now.
AL: Okay! So your gauge is based on your child’s age? (laughs)
AW: Yeah, that’s about the easiest way to do it!
AL: My parents do the same thing. They’re from England, and they’re like “How old is Amy? Okay, we’ve been here that long.” (Amy and Alan laugh) Could you give me more information about how you grew up here, or how you ended up in Milwaukee area?
AW: Oh, wow. Well, I followed my wife here. We were both up back east in a small community just north of Boston and finished a two-year teaching assignment. She was looking for her next opportunity. She was in educational theater; she knew that’s where she wanted to be, she really liked working with kids, and it probably bears special mention…my wife is…she knew exactly what she wanted to do since she was 12 years old. She knew she wanted to be in educational theater; she knew she wanted to be in children’s theater, and that’s what she’s always done. It’s really great she’s been able to do that. So, the two places we were looking at were either the Seattle-Tacoma area for Tacoma Opera…and First Stage Children’s Theater. The more we learned about First Stage, the more compelling it was, because they had such a great mission statement, and the way they were really going about stuff and the way they were trying to - I don’t want to say “legitimize” children’s theater - but they were really trying to make it a part of the actual theatrical fabric of Milwaukee. It wasn’t like you also had…you know, you have “real theater”, and then you have First Stage. They were actually very respected and that was 20-some odd years ago, and you can see where they are now. So, she took a job as a costume shop supervisor here, and we packed up all of our worldly belongings in a U-Haul van, and that was it. We had never been…we had never visited Milwaukee, let alone lived here, so that was that, and we haven’t left, My God!
AL: What was your first impression of Milwaukee?
AW: So, Milwaukee was the smallest city I had ever lived in by that point, so it was a little bit of a shock initially. Um, and…in “those days” - (chuckles) Gosh, that sounds horrible –
AL: (chuckles) “Back in the day -”
AW: Yeah. “Back then…” We got down here just before a weekend, like on a Thursday or a Friday - and we went to downtown Milwaukee on a Sunday afternoon. It got to be, like, 5 o’clock, and it was dead. We were wondering if there was, like, a holiday or something. We didn’t know…we started to have this, “Oh my God, what did we get into?” moment. Luckily, we were living on the East Side at the time. We were living just off Brady, and it is a really vibrant community over there - really great arts community over there, and it calmed fears pretty quickly.
AL: So, how do you spend your free time in Milwaukee?
AW: What free time? (laughs)
AL: (laughs) When you get any!
AW: I’ve got kids, I’ve got jobs!
AL: When you get that moment away for a minute or two. (chuckles)
AW: We take a lot of advantage of the arts community, and I hate to keep going back to it, but it’s what we do for work; it’s what we do for fun. It’s not just the theater and the music, it’s the gallery scene here. It’s the art museum. It’s the experimental stuff. You know, when we first started working theater in this town, you had Milwaukee Rep, you had Skylight, and Chamber Theatre was kind of the thing, In Tandem was kind of a thing…but now you’ve got companies all over the place. You’ve got great storefront theaters. Mark Bucher may have moved the Boulevard Theatre but he’s still going strong with his stuff. It’s just…and I think that this is a town that really embraces it unlike other places. Being here as long as we have, we’ve seen a lot of actors, local talent, who have done really well in Milwaukee, and they say, “I’m gonna go to Chicago! I’m gonna go to the big city! I’m gonna go to Las Vegas, I’m gonna go to Branson [Missouri]!” Whatever! They almost always end up coming back. They miss how integrated that scene is here, and it’s not as much of a pull for other places, whereas with Milwaukee, it really is one of the crowning jewels that Milwaukee can put claim to. But, you know…the festivals are always great; the growing beer garden culture. It’s interesting too, because we’ve been a growing family over the past 20 years. We’ve taken the boys to different things and engaging with different sides of this city over the past two decades has been very incredible. When they were young, it was maybe Betty Brinn, or maybe Discovery World, or maybe the zoo, but now it’s a much more family-friendly city than it used to be.
AL: Where are some of your favorite spots to go to? Favorite restaurants, outdoor areas, parks, museums?
AW: Since we live down in the Bay View area, Humboldt Park is practically our summer home. Everything goes on down there. They’ve maintained a great outdoor concert series there over the summer – Chill on the Hill – and then in addition to that, in the fall you’ve got the Pumpkin Pavilion and you’ve got movies out there on the hill, and all sorts of great activities. Petit Ice Center…we frequent the Petit quite a bit. We try to hit just about every major maker show or convention that comes through. The State Fair grounds, um…but as far as favorite places? That’s kind of hard; we try to spread our love around as much as we can. (chuckles)
AL: That’s good! (laughs)
AW: Years ago, I would have told you we spend all our time at places like County Clare because it’s close to the house and that’s what we did, but now you don’t have to go far to find a great watering hole or place to hang out in this city. It’s hard to pick a favorite, really.
AL: This seems pretty consistent with the other interviews I’ve had where it always seems like there’s somewhere new to go as far as restaurants or bars.
AW: Yeah! Growing up in New England as I did, we come from a very big brunch culture, right? Brunch for us [in Milwaukee] used to be going to Ma Fischers out on Sundays because – well, it was open. Well, now, it’s a thing, right? 52 Sundays in a year, you can go to 52 different places if you really want to. And that’s something we’ve enjoyed doing - exploring new places in this town where we’ve lived for over two decades.
AL: So would you say Milwaukee is one of your favorite cities?
AW: Well, it kind of defaults to it! (chuckles) I don’t think Jodi [Alan’s wife] or I imagined we would be here as long as we have been. We were both very nomadic growing up, bouncing all over the place, in my case from New Orleans all the way up to Halifax, so it’s kind of interesting that we’ve put down roots in some place like this little community. Definitely when we stray someplace, when we visit other places, we find ourselves really happy that we picked our home.
AL: Yeah, I was gonna ask- now that you’ve lived here so long and you go to see other cities – how does it compare?
AW: It’s interesting. I’d be lying if I said if some magic opportunity came in Boston or Cambridge would I not be enthusiastic about it. Of course I would. But it’s really fascinating how much this city has matured over the past couple of decades and how it feels like it’s become more of a city. I think part of that has to do with living in Bay View, which is an honest community. It’s more affordable than most places we’ve looked at – and it’s kind of incredible when I’ve got friends and relatives in other places that are stressing over finding an apartment for under $4,000 a month, or trying to find a reasonably priced home under $300,000 or something like that. I’m a guy who’s about to have two mortgages and three cars and two kids in college and – we’re doing okay. It’s not like we’re upper class – I know it sounds kind of funny to think about it – but we manage. We manage on a teacher’s salary and a recruiter’s salary. So, it’s doable in the Midwest in a place like Milwaukee.
AL: Plus you still get the benefits of the culture in a bigger city.
AW: I think so, I think so. Let’s face it – it’s close to other places, it’s not a bad skip to Minneapolis, and it’s by no means hard to get to Chicago and enjoy the wonders of Chicago for a day. It’s five hours away from Indianapolis. There are a lot of options when you live in a place like this.
AL: So, would you say you feel at home here, and why?
AW: Both of my boys were born here, and it’s something that Jodi and I talked about quite a bit before they came along – something she and I never had was that stability. Not that we didn’t have love or a home – but we never knew when the next time we were gonna move was gonna come. For Jodi, it could have been as little as a couple months. Same for me. You feel like you bounce around your entire childhood. So, when the boys came along, we wanted to make that conscious effort. We wanted to give them something more stable. We wanted to give them a home base, so no matter where they go to, they can say “Milwaukee is home.” I kind of feel like there are several cities that I can call home, but now it really does feel like Milwaukee is home.
AL: Were you considering other [places to live] when your children were born?
AW: Oh, I think so. For the first several years after the kids were born, we looked very strongly at going back east because that’s where our family is. There’s something to be said to having that connection, to be able to be close to them, and giving them the same type of experience that we did growing up. That would have been great! But there’s no way we could have afforded the home that we have [in Milwaukee] back east, or anywhere - not even Jersey, for crying out loud. I don’t think that we would have been able to give them the same type of opportunities that they’ve had here. And, I really don’t think that it would have been…the overall scope of their experience would have been better had we gone someplace else. And they have the benefit of saying, “I’m from Milwaukee.” We used to joke, you know – “Made in Milwaukee”, which is a very American term. That’s my boys. “Made in Milwaukee.”
AL: What advice would you give to those who are either looking to move to the area, or, if they already live here, get more out of Milwaukee?
AW: I think what really flipped the switch for me was keeping an open mind towards things. With everything this city has to offer, and as eclectic and as accepting as this city can be – unfortunately, there are parts of this city that don’t have those qualities. I think you’d find that in any big city. Unfortunately those divisions of Milwaukee can be kind of…stark? And it can be kind of, quite damaging. You have to keep an open mind though. Not only with the people you meet, but the places you go. We first got to this city – a friend of Jodi’s from high school grew up in this area, and we asked him, “Do you have any advice for us?” And he said, “Beware of any streets named after a tree or a president.” That was 23 years ago and I still hear that today. Some of the best restaurants I go to are on such streets. Some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered are in such places. And really, the only divisions that are going to mean anything to you are the ones that you’re going to put up there yourself. It’s a very open city if you allow it to be.
AW: I think in terms of, when you look at a city like Milwaukee, one of the things I think is really funny, especially from living in other places, is people here tend to have maybe not the greatest opinion of their own city. They feel like they’re not a world-class city. I’ve met people else where who say “I’m from Chicago.” Whereabouts in Chicago? “Oh, north of Chicago.” Oh, where north of Chicago? “Well, Milwaukee,. I’m from Milwaukee.” That kind of points it out. You wouldn’t hear that from someone who’s from the Bronx or Brooklyn. They would own it. The people who live here – they need to own the fact that they’re here. When they start doing that – when you start taking that pride of ownership and you start taking that pride in your community – that’s what makes this community better. If you’re constantly thinking, “How can I get out of this community”-
AL: - You’re not benefitting this place or yourself.
AW: - Or yourself! That enrichment can come from anywhere, but it means something much, much deeper when it can come from the place you call home.
After finishing our chat, we went back to the bar for a tad longer before parting ways. I really enjoyed my time talking with Alan - and I learned aspects of his life that I never expected him to experience.
The biggest takeaway, however, was our last segment of conversation - where ever you live, own it. Love it. You’re there at this moment in time for a reason. Make the most out of your town, suburb, or city, and it will give back to you as much as you give to it.
Alan, despite spending a lot of his time in Boston area, is happy to be in Milwaukee, and is proud to call himself Milborn-and-Raised.
Would you or someone you know like to be interviewed next, brag about your favorite city, and gush about how you’re Milborn-and-raised? Fill out our contact form with the subject #milbornandraised to be considered!