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Milwaukee, Aug 2009



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Vintage Juke Box
Vintage Juke Box

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Miss Katie's Dinner

In a drizzling rain, we arrive in Milwaukee and head right for Miss Katie’s Diner, (1900 W. Clybourn). A vintage Select-O-Matic jukebox in the center of the dining room plays only 45s and only one selection can be made at a time. Miss Katie's is 1950s-retro diner right out of the opening sequence of Happy Days.

Gene orders the barbecued ribs and hash browns at my urging; he wasn’t hard to convince. I have a wonderfully greasy tuna melt with hash browns. The potatoes are shredded thick like spaghetti, and fried crisp on the outside and served with butter. No one makes hash browns like Miss Katie’s Diner, one of several restaurants in Milwaukee owned by the Pitch family.

Two of America’s most famous grease-lovers have given Miss Katie’s Diner their stamp of approval—Bill Clinton and Rachael Ray. In 1996, Clinton and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl ate at Miss Katie’s Diner during the conference dubbed the “Sausage Summit.” Hillary returned to Miss Katie's during her presidential campaign. Rachael Ray featured Miss Katie’s on a segment of her travel show, $40 A Day.

Miss Katie's bar is empty between the lunch and dinner shifts. I note a long, dusted shuffleboard table, a Sopranos pinball machine, and a neon Blatz sign. Gene tries a Blatz, and says it lives up to its mediocre reputation. Erv, the bartender, tells us about the cast of Happy Days dropping in at the diner. The cast—minus Ron Howard—hit town for the dedication of the Bronz Fonz statue last August.

City Image Still Intact With Bronz Fonz Statue

Aay! The Fonz
Aay! I'm the Fonz

Milwaukee tried for years to play down its reputation as the fictional home of the Cunninghams and Laverne and Shirley. Residents resent the beer-town, blue collar image of Milwaukee portrayed by the sitcoms.

So no surprise that the proposed Bronz Fonz kicked up some local controversy. Art galleries threatened to close if the statue were installed. In the end, time and celebrity visitors turn shame into pride.

The unveiling, as described by

“They came to see the Fonz. They lined the Wells Street bridge. They lined the Riverwalk across the river and south of the ceremony on the river's left bank. They watched from windows, terraces and rooftops and they watched from pontoon boats on the river itself. Fans lined up along Wells Street to the east of the river, where they couldn't even get a glimpse as actor Henry Winkler and sculptor Gerald Sawyer unveiled the much-discussed Bronz Fonz Tuesday morning in Downtown Milwaukee. The director of Visit Milwaukee, the group raising the money for the installation defended the decision in a article: "This isn't a statue of 'Laverne and Shirley,' ”

The director of Visit Milwaukee, the group raising the money for the installation, defended the decision in a article: “This isn't a statue of 'Laverne and Shirley,” he said, “this is a statue of a TV icon who remains the epitome of cool.”

Everybody's Irish During Irish Fest Weekend

The Harp Bar, Milwaukee
Milwaukee's Classic Irish Bar
Early Saturday evening in Milwaukee—we meet our friends Lynne and Mark at the Fat Abbey Bier Café (134 E Juneau) at Juneau and the river. Fat Abbey’s is a new Irish bar across from a triumvirate of Irish bars, both across from the Milwaukee landmark, The Harp.

We sit outside under a Delirium Tremens umbrella, but the sun is still hot so we move inside. We all drink beer. Fat Abbey’s has a beer list to be proud of. Trocadero White, a local microbrew, is tasty—wheaty like I like. Gene, Mark and Lynne try several, one called Fat Tire and another, Maredsous.

We cross the street to the trinity of Irish bars, inspecting them all before selecting Foy. We sit in a tall, wooden booth and share corned beef nachos and a veggie-hummus platter. I remember this is Irish Fest weekend in Milwaukee, the largest and best Irish festival in the United States.

wonder why all these new Irish bars are opening in this very German town. A common love of beer?

We end the night at The Pfister’s rooftop bar, Blu, the 23rd floor of the hotel. Stunning 360 degree views of the city, but we can’t find a seat around the perimeter of the room. We sit at the bar and listen to the jazz combo. I wonder about the two overdressed, bored women sitting at the bar.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Hollow Footsteps in Empty Grand Avenue Mall

Grand Avenue Mall
Deserted Grand Avenue Mall
We stop at downtown's Grand Avenue Mall. The mall is like a tomb.

Before it was built, the mall received a lot of local media buzz. Connecting Boston Store and Gimbels under a single roof, the new mall would leave the historical architecture of the Plankinton Arcade intact.

The developers promised the new mall would evoke the days of Grand Avenue before the street was renamed Wisconsin Avenue. Back then the street was a grand avenue indeed; women in bustles with parasols strolled with their beaus or husbands down the avenue in Sunday finery.

The current Grand Avenue failed to achieve its planned grandeur. Despite a downtown nightlife resurgence in the late 1980s that continues today, the mall never drew large numbers of downtown shoppers.

People go downtown for shows at the remodeled Riverside Theater, the historic Pabst Theater or the Performing Arts Center (now the Marcus center). People eat at Mo’s—A Place for Steaks, drink at Elsa’s on the Park and other watering holes along Water Street or Jefferson Street. But shop? Why shop downtown?

Grand Avenue Mall never boasted great stores, not funky boutiques like on Brady Street or upscale shops like in Mequon. Grand Avenue could never compete with spacious, suburban malls like Mayfair and Southridge. A few years ago, large lower-end stores—TJ Maxx, Old Navy, Linens N Things—moved in, encroaching on spaces designed as walkways. Maxx and Linens were like open-air markets, in a bad sense.

So much of the mall is shuttered now. We walk through, horrified and sad. Stores that you never thought would go away like The Confectioner are gone. Many facades are covered with mirrors to disguise the abandonment.

Brushing Off the Barnacles at Bud's

Souvenir Hat
In The Pfister’s lobby café, I slide into a booth with Gene. I put cream in my coffee, but it's my birthday, so I don't give the cream a second thought. I am desperate for a cinnamon roll—right now—even though we are meeting Lynne and Mark at Barnacle Bud’s (1955 S Hilbert) for brunch. But it is my birthday and there are no rules today.

We have no trouble finding Barnacle Bud’s this time, down a small side street off Kinnickinnick, then down a dirt road near the Skipper Bud’s boat launch. The four of us sit at the six-seat bar under a striped canvas awning that partially shades us from the strong sun. I order french toast and Gene orders the oversized Crab Benedict. On top of our coffee and danish at the Pfister Café, it is a stomach bomb.

My hangover is demanding to be fed and I work on Gene’s plate after he cries uncle. The owner, also named Gene, sells Gene a white cloth hat but autographs it for free. The back of the hat says, “Where the hell was I last night?” and “Who’s Gilligan?”

Jimmy, the singer-guitar player who channels Jimmy Buffet, sings “Happy Birthday” to me, which is not as bad as indifferent waitstaff singing happy birthday. After two seltzers, I leave a half-hearted birthday drink half finished on the bar. We go back to the hotel and sleep until 7 pm. We are still not hungry at all.

Milwaukee’s Riverwalk: Searching for the Fonz

Milwaukee City Hall
City Hall: The Riverwalk View
We walk the Riverwalk up Wisconsin Avenue, turning toward the river by the Riverside Theater. We pause at the familiar bronze ducks on the bridge railing as if we ran into old friends. Lynne and Mark can recall the names of the ducks unprompted. One duck is named Rosie; the other two names escape me.

We are looking for the Bronze Fonz statue somewhere along the Riverwalk. We walk by the deserted Rock Bottom Brewery. Their outdoor tables and chairs and the bar itself, bubble with leftover raindrops from an earlier shower. Gene and I must have slept through the rain.

We see a small statue, illuminated by a streetlight, across the bridge. The Fonz’s clothes are painted on, but his face is naked bronze. The paint makes the statue look odd and cheap. Gene says the statue resembles a short Ronald Reagan more than Henry Winkler.

A couple is posing for a picture next to Bronze Fonz. As we get nearer, we see that the photographer is a man looking for a buck. The couple leaves; the man tells us he just got out of prison three days ago after a three-year stretch. He needs money for a Wisconsin ID, he says, mandatory to get a job if you don’t have a driver’s license.

We feel compassion but the street is dark and unpopulated. Trained by living years in New York City, we will not dig in our pockets or my purse for money, making ourselves more vulnerable. A block away, Gene pulls a few singles out of his pocket and wants to find the guy. We see him by the entrance of The Safe House, speaking to a family of tourists. They are shaking their heads; they are not giving him anything. Gene presses the bills into the man’s palm. The man is grateful, overly grateful. We wish him luck and walk toward the taxi stand at The Pfister.

The Pfister: Milwaukee’s Haunted Hotel

The Pfister Hotel
The Pfister at Night
The Pfister hotel is haunted, according to major league baseball players. Baseball players are a superstitious lot by nature so I have my doubts.

We walk around the halls of the Pfister, looking for the ghost. We admire the art collection and the beautiful staircases and even the portrait of my old boss, Ben Marcus, on one of the walls.

I have slept at The Pfister countless times, but I have not felt any ghostly presence or heard unexplained rapping between the walls. Maybe the maid moved my toothbrush once or twice, but it was definitely the maid, right? That cold chill is just because an old hotel can be drafty at times, right?

I would give the rumor of ghosts more credence if the haunting was pinned on a particular ghost. We need a legend.

Milwaukee’s Old and New Nightlife

Von Trier's exterior
Von Trier's
We get out of a cab and cross the street over to Von Trier’s (2235 N. Farwell Ave.). I heard the iconic bar, in financial trouble, closed. I also heard it reopened temporarily.

The bar looks dark and the heavy front door is propped open. A wild-eyed man stands in the doorway. I can’t see whether any customers are inside behind him. I think the man might be the owner. If it is the owner, it is like he’s gone mad since the last time we were here. But he could be just a stranger standing there for a breath of air.

The neon Open sign is lit, but the bar feels spooky, uninviting, and closed.

If any place in Milwaukee is haunted, it is Von Trier’s not The Pfister Hotel. The original owner, Karl Von Trier, was murdered on the sidewalk outside his bar shot with a bow and arrow. His murder remains unsolved despite all the gossip and hearsay surrounding his death.

A Rocky Horror Show, The Oriental Theater

The Oriental Theater Milwaukee
Inside the Ornate Theater
We walk up Murray Avenue, past some Sunday night bar action. The Italian restaurant, Palermo Villa (2315 N. Murray Ave), a Milwaukee mainstay, is shutting down for the night. A busy bar rocks next door, and next door to that, a bar called The Dog’s Bollocks (2321 N. Murray Ave) blasts Van Morrison onto the sidewalk. Another Irish bar, The Dog’s Bollocks sits where Elliot’s Bistro was two years ago.

We continue up Murray, away from the street life of North Avenue to see if The Jazz Estate (2423 N. Murray Ave) still has a pulse. I don’t expect the tiny bar to be open on a Sunday, but we check the posters in the window half expecting to see ads for events from months ago. The Estate still lives, but we are wary of the hip-hop promos mixed with the jazz promos.

On this Sunday night, The Oriental Theater (2230 N. Farwell Ave.) is almost empty. Many years have passed since I’ve been in the Oriental, home of Saturday midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Oriental holds the record for continuous showings of Rocky Horror.

The Oriental Theater’s façade doesn’t give away its rich interior. Enter and step into a bygone era and a faraway land. The huge balcony level is closed tonight. The series of black porcelain lions sitting on the steps of the staircase still guard whatever they have guarded for years. Ornate chandeliers are lit in yellow and blue.

Inside the seating area, three enormous Buddhas line each side wall. The Buddhas are bathed in red light. The red glow may be coming from behind them or from their foreheads—I can't tell. After the movie, we duck out of the theater into the pouring rain and into our waiting cab. We return to The Pfister because we don’t want to get get soaked. The lobby bar is closed already, I look at my watch—midnight. My birthday is over.


End Bus