After more than a year of health restrictions due to the pandemic, Milwaukee native and Emmy award winning entertainer John McGivern performed his live one-man show “UP CLOSE (but not too close) with John McGivern” to a COVID-safe capacity crowd at The Pabst Theater on April 23.

The COVID-19 crisis has had a devastating impact on live entertainment, due to the necessity of social distancing measures. The situation left many venues idle and facing grave financial difficulties. As vaccinations progress across Wisconsin, there finally appears to be a path to recovery for the industry – beginning with first steps.

McGivern’s show was the first event open to the public to be hosted by the Pabst Theater, after the City of Milwaukee eased pandemic restrictions that have been in place since March of 2020. Originally planned in December with holiday memories, the show moved to February with a theme of winter stories. McGivern found himself finally able to take the stage, but in the middle of spring.

“Well, the Pabst called me in September to do a Christmas show. So I just want to say… Merry Christmas,” McGivern joked. “I’m doing spring and summer stories in this version of the performance, but the main theme I focus on is about milestones. What are the milestones we’ve shared as people, and then personal milestones that only I’ve been through. So that’s the thread that runs through the whole show.”

Edward Morgan, who has directed many of McGivern’s shows over the past two decades, returned to Milwaukee to collaborate on this special performance. After being postponed twice, he was initially reluctant to get too excited that the production would finally move forward – but it did on the third round. Morgan said that he had been looking forward to watching McGivern in front of a live audience, since there was no public art or theater after the pandemic hit.

“John is an absolute master at relating to a large audience. But he’s also a master of relating to just two or three people in a rehearsal room,” said Morgan. “After social distancing for so long, I think people will be grateful to return to live events and back to something approximating normalcy. Especially in such a beautiful space like the Pabst Theater, I believe the audience will enjoy that John’s performance is really warm and alive.”

McGivern said that it was important to address the impact of the pandemic. He originally sat down to write a short essay-style opening that would only last a few minutes. In rehearsals, the piece turned out to be a quarter of the 50-minute first act.

“The show starts with what I’m excited about – being back onstage. In my opening I say how I’ve never been more thrilled to be in a pair of hard sole shoes and underwear… because it’s been a while,” said McGivern. “And just so you know, the shoes feel fine. But the underwear is kind of tight – and I can’t be the only person who feels that way.”

McGivern said he was also excited simply to get into a car and drive to a job. But to be standing in front of a live audience was a welcomed treat, especially in a space as majestic as the Pabst Theater.

“I’m excited that we’re doing a live show that’s not a ZOOM, where I’m not thinking – what are you sitting in front of? Why does your house look so messy? And nobody is screaming that your mute is on,” said McGivern.

With his stage performances, corporate appearances, and popular TV show completely sidelined due to COVID-19, McGivern said he spent the past 13 months trying to develop the home life that he never had before.

“I learned to listen more and embrace being quiet. I think what I experienced is so much of what everybody experienced, and I hope that my voice speaks a language that’s universal.”

For the April 23 performance, the masked audience sat in the 1,400-seat venue organized as socially distanced “pods.” They were even dismissed after the show in turn to maintain space, as part of the health safety protocols. “UP CLOSE (but not too close) with John McGivern” runs until May 16 at the Pabst Theater in downtown Milwaukee, with limited seating.

The Milwaukee Independent was invited to attend a technical rehearsal and the opening night performance. These images reflect moments from both those occasions, when after a long year of isolation Milwaukee got its laugh back.

© Photo

Lee Matz

Related John McGivern Coverage
The Milwaukee Independent began reporting on what was then referred to as the mysterious “Wuhan Virus” in January 2020. Other local media did not picked-up on the story until many weeks later. Our early features focused on the economic impact, social issues, and health concerns long before other Milwaukee news organizations even mentioned the coronavirus. Over the following year, we have published hundreds of articles about the pandemic and how it has affected the lives of Milwaukee residents. This extensive body of work can be found on our COVID-19 Special Report page, a chronological index of links by month. Our editorial voice remains dedicated to informing the public about this health crisis for as long as it persists.
For medical resources, please visit the CDC’s COVID-19 page or the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. All editorial content published by Milwaukee Independent can be found at With a mission of transformative journalism, our staff is free from commercial bias and are not influenced by corporate interests, political affiliations, or a public preferences that rewards clicks with revenue. As an influential publication that provides Milwaukee with quality journalism, our award-winning photojournalism and features have helped to achieve a range of positive social impact that enriches our community. Please join our effort by entrusting us with your contribution. Your Support Matters - Donate Now