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Vivarium growing into itself with first shows approaching

A bar made from light-colored wood with two large coolers behind it stocked with cans of beer and other beverages.
Jen Ellis
The bar area at Vivarium.

When the Pabst Theater Group (PTG) introduced its Vivarium project to the public last November, the timetable for opening the new East Side concert venue was … let’s say ambitious.

Speaking in front of the media, District 3 Alderman Jonathan Brostoff mentioned February as the target, with PTG CEO Gary Witt confirming afterward. It was an eyebrow-raising schedule, to be sure, even with work already underway by that point.

A little more than three months later, what was essentially a blank canvas is starting to resemble the picture painted way back at the unveiling. The concert calendar is plastered across the windows at the entry. A fully stocked fridge stands watch behind the bar. Plants hang overhead as the sun shines through skylights overhead.

It is, for all intents and purposes, ready for showtime. Good thing, too, considering the first one is less than 24 hours away.

“There won't be any appreciable differences between the experiences people get elsewhere,” PTG general manager Paul Smaxwill said. “You'll be able to grab a drink really efficiently. The bathroom space as it exists at this new venue is something we're really proud of and really excited for people to engage with, as weird as that sounds. But most of the finishing touches will be aesthetic.

“You always want to be as far ahead as possible and be buttoned up with weeks to fine-tune, clean, gussy everything up,” he added. “But the interior progress report is very good.”

Pabst Theater Group

Those following the project since November will notice the exterior features are the biggest absence at this point. The blade sign and parklet shown in the initial artist renderings won’t be in place until April at the earliest, and the current weather isn’t exactly conducive to plants thriving as part of the overhang near the entry.

Step inside, however, and things come to life.

Just past the ticket booth near the door, you find yourself steps away from a curved wooden bar backed by two refrigerators featuring the beverage selection concert fans have grown accustomed to at other PTG venues. A living wall frames the bar and was the most noticeable green element at the time we walked through.

Stepping around tools, lifts and ladders as work continued throughout the space, our eyes went to eight large skylights that provide a more open feel than you might get from the typical concert experience. Dangling plants framing those large windows add to the unique environment, with more still to come based on the many boxes marked “Live Plants” stacked near the stage.

Six square highlights with hanging vines along the edges.
Jen Ellis
The skylights at Vivarium.

Speaking of which, the performance area is a marked improvement from the former Back Room. While we didn’t get a sound test, staff shared that the JBL speaker system in place is more unified compared with the somewhat-patchwork approach that ended up being used in the former venue. The lighting rig is up and ready to illuminate Tuesday’s debut show featuring Adorner and Wave Chapelle (check out our interview with Wave below). As Smaxwill put it, “People can expect the same experience inside as they get at our other venues.”

“Over the course of the next coming months, there’ll be paint, additional plant life, things like that getting installed,” he continued. “But it will not affect the concert experience. The lack of those things right now won't be very noticeable, and it'll only enhance the experience going forward and that value when they are installed.”

Near the stage are a couple things you might not notice right away — at least not until you have a drink or two — and a very many things you’ll never see unless you’re with the band.

The bathrooms are a particular point of pride among the PTG staff, and it’s hard to imagine concert-goes disagreeing. The size helps, with plenty of space to do your business and get back to the show. And, like nearly everything else about Vivarium, there’s an emphasis on Wisconsin materials, with Bradley Corp. providing custom tile, plumbing fixtures and bathroom furnishings.

A few steps beyond the public bathrooms are the artist-only amenities, including a large green room with a big-screen TV, buffet area, separate sleeping areas and even a dishwasher. Just down the hall is the laundry room and fully enclosed loading area so bands can drop off their gear without exposing anything to the elements. It’s all about keeping the artists happy so their fans leave happy.

Wave Chapelle talks with HYFIN about opening the Vivarium

As for the people actually working on getting Vivarium up and running, a more accurate description of how they’re feeling might be “cautiously optimistic” — especially considering the curveballs encountered since November. There were the plumbing issues that delayed things for about a week in December. There was the weather that knocked out another three days in January.

Then there was the basement that nobody knew existed (including the previous owners) and needed to be filled in with concrete.

Anyone who has ever undertaken a home-improvement process knows that dealing with the unexpected is all part of the process. But it’s a lot easier when you own the whole place.

“We use the word ‘pivot’ a lot lately,” Smaxwill explained. “We find something isn't working, we have the agency and the autonomy to fix it in short order or try things that may or may not pan out. But we can be versatile. There’s a sense of freedom.

“We enjoyed the partnerships we've had over the years, but we're not necessarily limited by the confines of a partnership with another business or working inside someone else's space. This is a space that's ours and will grow as we go.”