Brady Street Pharmacy Owner Works to Create an Affordable Arts and Entertainment Alternative

Story and photos by Tim Lambecht

If you’ve been to the Brady Street Pharmacy lately, you can’t help but notice some recent changes. One third of the floor space, formerly retail space, has been cleared out and dug up. The carpeting has been ripped out and the bare floor has been exposed, and the front of the space has been dug down to a lower level. Owner Jim Searles plans to convert this area into a performance space and community meeting place for the neighborhood. “We could have, in the morning, children’s puppets, in the late-morning, children’s dance lessons. In the afternoon, perhaps a local history class, then later we could show a film, so we could do three or four different things in a day without much effort,” he says. The pharmacy is already unique in many ways. The entire pharmacy, including the dining area, has a classic Hollywood theme. The building was actually the home of the Astor Theatre from 1910 to 1953, and as you look around, you will see historical photos, posters, programs, cameras, projectors, and lights from the “Golden Era” of Hollywood and some artifacts from Milwaukee’s great lost theatres. Searles’ interest in the arts developed quite naturally. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, his father, an electrical engineer by trade, was a concert-level pianist. He would often have friends over to their home to play for them, so some of his musical appreciation was passed on. As for his interest in films, he remembers: “When we were kids we used to save our money to go to the old Miller (currently the Miramar) Theatre on Oakland Avenue to see performances.” After graduating from UW-Madison, Searles moved back to Milwaukee and worked at the pharmacy in the Knickerbocker Hotel until 1983 when he moved it to the vacant building on Astor and Brady. He renovated the building and opened it as a pharmacy and diner in 1984. Searles worries that today there are not enough venues and alternatives for people to get together and have a good time without going out to the bars or spending a lot of money. “Where do you go for a performance if you don’t have a lot of money? At the conservatory, if you go for a recital, it’s ten to fifteen bucks minimum per ticket, so where can you go for two bucks? It doesn’t exist.” And there are few options for performers as well, he says. “Where does a person, who doesn’t have a lot of money, who’s got some skill, go for performance space? If you rent a theatre, it’s five to six hundred dollars plus expenses. That’s a lot of money, and then you’ve got to pack the house and gamble that you make enough money to cover it all.” Some groups that have shown an interest in using the performance space include the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music, the Irish American Choir, Theatre X, the African-American Children’s Theatre, and the Central City Ballet. Searles would also like to have poetry nights, amateur nights, and events as diverse as chess tournaments or showings of Packer games on the big screen. The films Searles would like to show would be educational, student films, or classic films that could be introduced by a film historian. Eventually he would like to use the second floor of the pharmacy for film editing for a student or film group. He insists that it has to be neighborhood and family-oriented, and he would like to keep admission prices low so everyone could afford it. “You see the kids today, and so many of them just seem lost,” he says. “It’s important that we give them a place to go, and it’s also important that we take some time to show the next generation what’s good and what’s bad and why.” Despite delays in construction and red tape regarding his plans for the performance space, the energetic Searles remains optimistic. “If I don’t do something with the space, the next owner won’t, so I’m probably the only chance this neighborhood has to do anything in this direction. If I don’t succeed, it’s not going to happen.” Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 9 – October 2002 article about the Brady St. Pharmacy