Featured bartender: Bill "Messy" Mesenbrink from Johnson's Green 7
"Everyone calls me 'Messy' or 'Santa,'" says Bill Mesenbrink during a recent visit to Johnson's Green 7, a Glendale bar and restaurant that's been around – and family-owned – for 51 years.
Mesenbrink didn't plan to work as a bartender – or as Santa Claus – but both opportunities were presented to him as post-retirement careers.
"Life goes on," says Mesenbrink.
Although we planned to stop in at the Green 7 for one, we found ourselves chatting with Messy for hours. He's one of those rare individuals who tells a great story – and has many of them to tell – but is an equally good listener.
A quality necessary for both bartender and Santa.
OnMilwaukee.com: How long has this bar been here?
Bill Mesenbrink: It's been on this corner for 51 years. It was across the street prior. When they widened Green Bay Avenue, they knocked down the old structure – it was too weak – that was on that corner (pointing) and they rebuilt this one, almost 30 years ago.
OMC: Who was the original owner?
BM: Don Johnson. He died in 1992. Then his sons, Jim and Tom, took it over.
It was always called the Green 7, but after the old man died, the boys changed it to Johnson's Green 7. That's the family name.
OMC: How long have you worked here?
BM: For 19 years. Part time; about 10 hours a week. Tuesdays and Saturdays. I started out working more.
I retired from the Village of Whitefish Bay. DPW work: garbage, picked up dead animals, snow plowing, forestry. It's all one department. The last few years, I was in charge of 130 flower beds and cutting grass. That was nice, very nice. I enjoyed planting, but now my knees are shot and I can't even do my own yard, so we got 'em in pots now.
I used to hang the Christmas lights on Silver Spring Avenue, too. Didn't know someday I'd be Santa.
OMC: You're a Santa?
BM: I'm the CBS Santa. For 10 days in December, I do volunteer work. And we do our big shindig, usually at Steinhafel's, for Toys for Tots or Goodwill. You come in and give a toy or $5 and get a picture with Santa and cookies and all sorts of sh*t.
I'm also the Winkie's Santa. And I made 42 stops from Nov. 30 until Christmas last year, delivering gifts. I'm already booked every weekend this year.
OMC: Do you own your suit or rent it?
BM: Own it. I'm on my fourth one. Get 'em at Kim's Costume Shop on Greenfield Avenue. I blame the wife for shrinking them sometimes. (Laughs.) Just got a little bigger, I guess.
OMC: So you really like kids?
BM: The wife and I don't have any kids. Now I have many. Wanna see some pictures? (Produces a stack of photos from behind the bar.)
OMC: Holy crap! You are sooo Santa! Did you grow the beard for the Santa gig?
BM: Oh, no, I've always had the beard. Well, since November of 1970. It wasn't white then. I usually get three inches cut off after Christmas. Then grow it back throughout the year.
OMC: How did you start being Santa?
BM: Actually, it was here, on a Friday night. I was sitting where you are sitting and some guy said he'd been playing Santa for his nieces and nephews but they got to the age they knew it was him. I said I had never done it, and we went Downtown to rent a suit but it smelled so bad that I bought one. That was 22 years ago.
OMC: What do most kids ask for?
BM: iPod touches, Wii – and I don't have the faintest idea what they're talking about. I just look at mom and if she nods I say, "we'll work on it."
OMC: Ever get peed on?
BM: Only once. But it was terrible because I only had one suit at the time.
OMC: So the Santa / bartender gigs seem to work together well for you?
BM: I get jobs through here. I don't advertise. I just hand out cards.
OMC: How did you start working here?
BM: I golfed with the owner for many years and we always went to Hilton Head in February and he told me he couldn't get a bartender. So then I was working 40 hours for Whitefish Bay and 32 hours here and then when I retired nine years ago, I cut back my hours here to part time.
OMC: Did you always like mixing drinks or did you learn on the job?
BM: I learned by watching people. If you came in here and you wanted an Old Fashioned the old man would tell me how to do it.
OMC: What's the best item on the food menu?
BM: The best sandwich we have here is the ground sirloin burger. For what you pay for it, you can't beat it. It's big. Over half a pound for like $7.95. Everything's made from scratch here. The Bloody Marys, everything.
OMC: Where did you grow up?
BM: I grew up five blocks from here. Lived in Glendale all of my life except when I was in the service from 1966 to '70. My wife and I live next door to the house I grew up in. I watched the house being built when I was a little guy. I stole lumber from the guy and built my own sh*t.
OMC: Where did you go to high school?
BM: Nicolet High School. My wife went to Messmer. I married a good Catholic girl. (Laughs.)
OMC: How long have you been married?
BM: Thirteen years. Been together for 34 years; living in sin for 21. When I checked into retiring the state of Wisconsin said she didn't get anything because we weren't married so I said 'to hell with that sh*t' and we got married on a golf course in South Carolina in 90-some degree weather. I did not wear the Santa suit.
Messy is a WFB legend. He has mentored a lot of young guys who worked DPW over the summers. His stories will make anyone chuckle. Love the Green 7. My grandpa used to bring me there to sit at the bar. Lots of cigar smoking (back in the day) and a hell of a burger. It was kind of like a golfers bar at a country club that anyone could go to. Thanks for seeking out this one-on-one, Molly.
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