Park Avenue: Hazy memories of the crazy 1980s
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Crafting a story about Park Avenue, a popular Milwaukee nightclub in the 1980s, presents a unique set of obstacles. The first is pretty obvious:
Park Avenue, located at 500 N. Water St. -- a building that later housed Bermudas, Brett Favre's Steakhouse and current tenant Joey Buona's -- closed nearly 20 years ago.
Memories naturally fade over time. In this era of e-mail and multi-tasking, it's hard to remember things that happened last month, much less in 1984. Mix in throbbing music, pulsating lights, gigantic video screens, fog machines, a dance floor packed with gyrating dancers, cheap prices on gigantic beers, a barber chair for consuming upside-down shots ... well, suffice to say it doesn't get easier.
But, this is OnMilwaukee.com, a Web site produced for and perused by thousands of intelligent people with a passion for Milwaukee -- past and present. Before sitting down to write, we asked readers to contribute their memories of Park Avenue and dozens did just that.
Jim Lombardo, who was in charge of marketing Park Avenue before finding further fame as the executive vice president of Bell Ambulance and as "America's Guest" on the "Dave and Carole" morning show on WKLH (96.5 FM), remembers more about Park Avenue than most.
"It was an amazing place," Lombardo said. "The big thing was always Ladies' Night. We started out doing it on Tuesday, but then we moved it to Friday and that was crazy. From Tuesday through Thursday, we had "Mad Hatter Night" and those were big.
"On Saturday, we'd switch off every two weeks. We'd have either "Sudden Saturday" and we'd open at 6 o'clock and do 50-cent cocktails for two hours or we'd have "Champagne Saturday," and we'd serve rotgut champagne. There were nights when we would literally have hundreds of people standing in line, waiting to get in."
One of the people in line was author Paul McComas, a Milwaukee native whose semi-autobiographical new novel "Planet of the Dates," published by The Permanent Press, includes a chapter about the club. An excerpt from Chapter 4:
"The Park Avenue was everything I'd hoped for: swanky and sumptuous, a grand, glimmering, bi-level disco palace. The translucent dance floor was laid out in a multi-colored grid and illumined from below by thousands of bulbs that flashed, rapid-fire, to the rhythm. Suspended above, a rotating mirror ball the size of a satellite sent a spectral web of light cascading across everything in sight. On the upper level couples stood, drinks in hand, elbows on the rail, gazing down at the dancers-who merited the attention: dodging and swirling, twisting and twirling, hard-eyed young men and haughty young women, black and brown and white together, united by the beat, by the heat, by their predilection for garish inorganic fabrics and, at this moment, by the powerhouse falsetto of Sylvester:
"You make me feel . . . mi-ighty real."
"Ooo! You make me feel . . . mi-ighty real.
Of course, the Park Avenue may have been many things, but "real" wasn't one of them. Then again, people didn't go there seeking reality; they went to escape it. As for me, standing open-mouthed and agog in the midst of it all, my own desire was to find, within and through this utmost unreality, one absolutely authentic woman . . . someone who, if I played my cards right, just might make me feel real. Mighty real. . ."
McComas recalled that Park Avenue was tolerant by the standard of the times. Gay Night, a Sunday staple, was hugely popular. McComas pointed out that the club also was "safe" for bi-racial couples.
"When my African-American friend Glenda and I went dancing there, we were not objects of attention, let alone scorn, as we were at DiscoTeen in West Allis," McComas said. "There were, in fact, many other biracial couples at the Park Avenue, too -- this in the early '80s. We don't typically think of the disco as a place of progressive enlightenment, but in terms of race, this one was."
McComas' friend, Glenda, said that Park Avenue was special for young adults.
"It was a truly awesome looking establishment that welcomed everyone, and gave you a really grown-up and accepted feeling," she said in an e-mail.
"When one was just leaving the stage in life when you feel so judged by peers and parents, it was very freeing to feel accepted and to be able to just have fun without feeling judged, especially being able to have what seemed like grown-up fun in a grown-up place."
Through much of the 1980s, Park Avenue was the place to see and be seen in Milwaukee. Like New York City's infamous Studio 54, it developed an almost mythical aura and became a place to celebrate birthdays (many Milwaukeeans went there to celebrate their first legal drink), bachelor / bachelorette parties, shore leave (the place was remarkably popular with sailors from Great Lakes in Illinois), anniversaries, divorces and just about any other occasion.
"New Year's Eve was a big deal," Lombardo said. "We would sell it out in advance and I think we charged $75 for an all-inclusive deal. We were always jammed on that night."
Park Avenue also hosted concerts, Jell-O wrestling and numerous themed nights. It was popular with Brewers, Bucks, Packers, visiting pro athletes and thousands of other guests who enjoyed the drinks, music and two-levels of atmosphere.
Here are some readers' memories of Park Avenue. Feel free to use the Talkback feature to add your own.
"Park Avenue was THE place to be Thursday nights in Milwaukee in the '80s. You knew you were 'hip' when you got a turn to dance on the box and be seen from all around and those above in the balcony."
Jim, West Allis
"Back in the summer of 1982 my friends and I would go down to Park Avenue every Monday night. I believe it was college night, hosted by (WQFM personalities) Rodio and Mueller.
The night officially began when Babe Ruth's "Wells Fargo" started blaring through the sound system. They had pillars of lights that would drop down from the ceiling towards the dance floor that were close enough to the second floor railing that you could touch them. I remember one time I saw a guy reach out over the railing , unscrew one of the light bulbs, and proceed to toss it down on a packed dance floor. It didn't hit anybody(thankfully), but did require some clean up.
"We always had one great rule for the designated driver...he was required to stop drinking by midnight!!"
Jackie Valent, Milwaukee
"I was a regular on Thursday nights (alternative night) even though that meant I had to drive in from college (four-hour drive) to get there.
"I remember the large boxes on the dance floor that you could climb up and dance on so everyone could see you. I also remember the barber chair that they had in the corner for doing upside-down shots. I have a great story about that...
"I was at Park Avenue one night doing several upside-down margaritas and decided to go back up for one more. Instead of climbing up the stairs on the side of the chair to enter, I somehow thought it was a good idea to climb up the front of the chair. I quickly realized that was not a good idea when the chair came tumbling down on me. Funny, but the chair was bolted to the floor the next week.
"I fondly remember the $2.50 wine coolers in large plastic cups, a very interesting New Year's Eve there, as well as meeting Frank Pachucki for the first time on the dance floor (if you aren't familiar with him, he and Betty Hornby are the two older folks that dance around at all of the outdoor music events -- Jazz in the Park, Summerfest, etc.).
"They played music videos all the time on large screens and were very liberal with their use of dry ice for the smoke effects on the dance floor.
"I had a blast there and was heartbroken when it closed. It then became Bermuda's and I remember seeing the band Book of Love in concert there. (The bands That Petrol Emotion and Voice of the Beehive also played during the short-lived concert era at Bermuda's. -ed.)
Paco Munsin, Milwaukee
"One time I was there after taking in a Bucks game, I ran into Jack Sikma, Ricky Pierce, Larry Krystkowiak and Terry Cummings at the bar. It was pretty late and they were pretty ripped (as was I), but they were very gracious and signed autographs for me and my friends.
"Another time, I got into a shot contest with woman from Chicago. I have never seen a girl drink that much before. After eight shots (and many other drinks on top of that) I went to the men's room to throw up. After being in there for 10 minutes, I heard a knock on the stall door. It's the girl from the shot contest. She came in to check on me and make sure I was OK. I don't want to get too explicit ... They don't make bars like that anymore.
Ann Hodyl, St. Charles, Ill.
"Park Avenue was a regular stomping ground for us in the mid-'80s. The dimly lit bar provided an always interesting atmosphere. The blocks on the dance floor was the place to be. Of course, mounting those blocks while sporting a mini-skirt and high heels was always a challenge. You had to hop up on it in a seated position, sling your legs over onto it, and have somebody already up there give you a pull to raise you to a standing position. Dismounts were slightly easier.
"We weren't much into drinking then, but did enjoy sipping on the raspberry daiquiris. We had to carry purses with our brushes (or picks for our permed hair) and, of course, hair spray, lipstick, etc., but we didn't want to be bothered with holding the purses. We found a nice little spot to stash them -- in the dark nook under the stairs leading to the second floor. Miraculously, none of us gals ever had a purse stolen.
"There was a photographer who floated around and was happy to snap a Polaroid for you for a modest fee. There were a few recognizable regulars, but in particular I recall a guy we affectionately named 'Mr. Bouncy.' He had bleach blonde long hair with good volume. He often sported a red jacket and his style of dancing was mesmerizing. He actually seemed to bounce from one foot to the other, gaining some air under his feet. At first you were tempted to make fun of his style, but when you tried to mimic him in the privacy of your own home, you quickly realized how FUN it was to dance that way. And somehow Mr. Bouncy ended up being one of the 'cool' guys in the place. I seem to recall he had a sister with the same hair that occasionally made an appearance there as well.
"One of our favorite dance songs/videos to watch was 'You Spin Me Round' by Dead or Alive. To this day I still tell my husband every time the song 'Walking on Sunshine' comes on the radio that, 'Boy, this one used to clear the dance floor at Park Avenue,' to which he responds, 'You tell me that EVERY time we hear this song.' And nothing filled the dance floor like 'Get Into the Groove' by Madonna.
"Yes, nothing but fond memories of the old Park Avenue. It's definitely a permanent fixture in my memory and the memory of my friends that used to accompany me there. Be sure to let us know if it ever reopens."
Brew City Tony, Milwaukee
"A virtual torrent of memories flood my headspace when I think about the old Park Avenue; most of which are steeped within a drunken haze from the 32-oz. beers they served on Mad Hatter nights. Dancing on the box was the ultimate prize for anyone cool enough to be placed high above the throng filling the dance floor.
"I remember Bobby Brabant DJing at Park Avenue, the great video system they had there, as well as Paul Hildenbrand's incredibly hair-sprayed head, looking very much like Peter Burns from Dead of Alive. Of course, Paul was usually on 'the box,' and the way the whole crowd would pause during New Order's 'Bizarre Love Triangle' video to utter 'I don't believe in reincarnation because I refuse to come back as a bug or a rabbit!' To which you would respond, 'You know you are real UP person.' Oh, the glory of it all!"
"I remember using my fake ID to get in on Thursday nights and then using my real ID to get in on Sundays for 'kiddie' night, then getting busted for both once I turned 21! Speaking of Thursdays, you knew you got your money's worth by the end of the night when your 32-oz. cup would be mush and each sip would have wax flakes in it.
"I can remember drinking so much in 1985 (as a senior in high school) and having to go to work at the nursing home in morning. We drank so much with the sailors ( we always stole a cap from one), I went to work at the nursing home at 7 a.m. and had to sleep in one of the elderly ladies' beds as I was so hung over and sick I could not work! One of the nuns busted me in her wheelchair and I was fired. Go figure."
"Being on 'The Box' while the fog machine is going full blast with some intense strobe lights while the video 'Attack Ships on Fire' by the Revolting Cocks is playing. (Having some Goth hotties dancing on the box was an added bonus)."
Ahhhh The Park - I actually worked there around 1985 as a bartender - as did a HS chum named Karl - my cousin Tom danced there alot ... Great memories! I meet my future wife there in fact ... Ah the stories to be told - hey it was the 80's - I loved the video mix, where else coud you see Dead or Alive / Love and Rockets / ABC / Alan Parsons videos all in one place. It was a GREAT crowd - sure there was some stupidty - I remember a door guy getting a shirt ripped off his body by some girl being taken out the door by force - things like that - but - all in all a very mature respectful crowd. Loved reading the posts - Shooter Chair - JA!
Milwaukee has not had any place since that rivals the old Park Avenue. Where else could you go on a Sunday evening and see videos by Grace Jones,Divine and Nina Hagen? Or dancing to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" with the bubble machine going full blast.
Musician; I knew some tight butt would call me on that! I'm a milwaukee musician too, and I was right there at Teddy's, Zak's, Century Hall (and whatever place you will noticed I left out) right along side you, I suppose. I was just talking about that period of time in the early 80's when seeing the new wave scene on a video at a major club was unique and special. I am sure you remember that pre-Duran Duran craze time when Soft Cell broke and for a split second Color Radio was on a commercial station and everyone thought the XCleavers would get that record contract. That summer in 1983 when everyone showed up at Summerfest to see the Femmes play, everyone knew the words, and they looked as surprised as anyone. That time when the 200 or so people in the scene wished for a day "our music" would be on more stations than WMSE. And then we got our wish... "our music" got popular and it all blew up and got boring... and by 1987 the whole thing was dead. Now if you watch MTV or Vh1 they make it look like they always loved msuic that they barely played and if they did it was once during 120 minutes. But I remember when I went to Park Avenue and it felt like a cultural revolution was going to come because they played a Eurythmics video. That's because at that time, unless you were some suburban bore with cable, in 1982, there was no place to see a music video, much less one that wasnt main stream. Even trying to imagine a time in which the Eurythmics wasnt mainstream, but actually cutting edge, is hard to imagine today.
Myke | Feb. 26, 2008 at 6:38 p.m. (report)
Another very popular hot spot from back in the day is still open! El Robos in the Grand Hotel across from MKE used to pack em in,even with the outrageous(at the time) $5 cover.The cover is gone & so is the overcrowding.It's now called Scooter's in the Wyndam.It is otherwise essentially unchanged, with a healthy mix of the old classics along with some of today's top 40.Why the DJ has even been there about 2 decades !
Musician | Feb. 26, 2008 at 8:29 a.m. (report)
Krunken, it wasn't the only place to dance to new wave. You could have danced to new wave made by any of many great Milwaukee bands at clubs all over town. Oh right, a lot of Milwaukeeans don't support local music ("it's not as good cuz it's from here") and if they do, they most likely don't dance to it. The Milwaukee Moat must be respected! :-)
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