For 27 years, Angelo Mortellano has owned and operated Angelo's Lounge and Piano Bar, 1686 N. Van Buren St. As a life-long musician, Mortellano has made his bar a haven for singers and musicians in Milwaukee. Professional musicians of all kinds have regularly frequented Angelo's, from Florentine Opera singers and players at the Skylight Theater to singer Jerry Grillo and keyboardist Neal Charles.
"From a musician's standpoint, it's great working for him. Angelo knows music, if you play well, he's happy. He's a great club owner," says Charles.
The lounge is relatively small, with a capacity of 25. The bar is long, comfortable and welcoming, and patrons sitting around the piano are not even three feet away from the piano player. The basement rec room feel also lends to the intimacy of the place.
"All the singers come here. It's because of him that we have a place to sing when we're not working," says Grillo, who usually stops by Angelo's on Thursdays for a weekly jazz jam.
Mortellano has been playing music since he was eight years old. Mortellano will occasionally sing and will frequently play his trumpet. He especially likes taking the trumpet solo on "Tenderly," which has become his signature song.
"I love the old time, beautiful music," he says.
Mortellano has a number of aliases, most of them sound like "Mortellano" but the spelling varies. He created the first one after moving to California, where he says people came looking for him after they went broke.
"I changed out an 'a' for an 'o,' moved some other letters around. It kind of stuck. But I think it's going to beat me, cuz when it comes time to collect social security or something, the records aren't going to match," Mortellano says, laughing.
Most people think Mortellano is in his mid-70s, but some have him pegged for much younger. His birthday is February 29, so it only comes around with each leap year. While all his friends were getting cars on their sixteenth birthdays, Mortellano's father bought him a tricycle, claiming he was technically only four.
Mortellano moved to California in the '60s, where he was the food and beverage manager of a major hotel for 13 years (he won't say which one). A long-time friend was the stage manager of the Sands casino and hotel in Las Vegas during this time. Every chance he got, Mortellano drove to Vegas to pal around with his friend, and soon became friends with members of the "Rat Pack," including Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra, who were playing regularly at the Sands.
One of Mortellano's favorite stories is about the time he was on a date with a woman named Frances and, wanting to impress her, walked over to Sinatra's table while Frances was in the rest room, asking him to stop by when she came out. Reportedly, when Sinatra obliged his friend, Mortellano dismissed him, saying, "Hey Frank, it's nice to see you, but can't you see I'm busy right now?"
No one remembers how effective this was in impressing Frances, but that doesn't seem to be the point. It's all about the stories. Mortellano is well known for his stories, many of them include friends like Tom Jones, who Mortellano says he "double crossed" while Jones was visiting Angelo's and didn't want his presence made public (Mortellano announced it over the microphone to the packed room).
When Mortellano moved back to Milwaukee he became the maître d'hôtel at Snug's in the Shorecrest Hotel. He later opened his first bar, the Focal Point, which was also a music bar located at a high point along the interstate at 5th Street and Rogers.
"It rose up over the highway and the only thing you could see were the neon lights coming from either direction," says Mortellano.
Rick Sargent, who currently owns Sarge's Corner, 1979 S. 54 St., tended bar for Mortellano at his first bar. Sargent left his employ to buy his own bar in the exact location of present-day Angelo's.
In fact, Mortellano later worked for Sargent in the Angelo's space. With the help of former partner and friend Frank Travato, Mortellano took over the bar and remodeled it, adding the piano bar. Angelo's became quite successful very fast.
"I had a team that worked like a machine," Mortellano says. This team consisted of Mortellano, Matt Garcia, Jeff Pintar and OnMilwaukee.com's "College" Dave Mikolajek.
"The bar was so small, and we were so busy, he would actually throw bottles at me as soon as he heard a drink being ordered," Mikolajek says.
The customers have changed over the years, but Mortellano says he had the hottest spot in town, not "money-wise, but pound-for-pound," 25 years ago.
"We'd really pack them in. We were doing something special," says Mikolajek.
Mortellano was an athlete at Lincoln High School and a member of the All-City Orchestra. He graduated sixth in his class and wanted to attend the Juilliard School in New York.
"The top-of-the-line guy, the head of the public school situation at the time, told me I was an exceptional player," Mortellano says, somewhat wistfully.
Mortellano instead went to Marquette, but dropped out to help his father, who was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis. Mortellano went to work in a "fire brick," taking 100 pound bags off skids and loading them onto scales or into a large elevator.
"I was a half-assed gymnast in school, small but strong. A lot of people wouldn't f**k with me. I defended my dad's honor, and my own," he says.
Mortellano has been married "a couple of times" and has three children: Jeff, Angelo, Jr., and Marcella. Even though the boys live in other states now, the kids will occasionally help their dad, sometimes even picking up a bill that Mortellano left out and paying it.
"I helped them all their lives, but I'm a father. They don't owe me nothing. I hate it, because they feel as if they do," Mortellano says.
Mortellano points out that it was just a few months ago when the only other remaining piano bar, of the type he considers to be authentic, closed. "I never thought I'd be the oldest of anything. I never thought I'd get old, as a matter of fact," says Mortellano.
But Angelo's is currently undergoing a revival. Mortellano recently hired bartender Donis Briesath, who used to own the Guitar Bar on Water Street, to join Ginni Smith, the weekend piano player, who lives in Fond du Lac and drives down for her gigs. Smith is accompanied by different singers each weekend.
"The passion in this room is what drew me to this place. Amazing things happen here," Briesath says.
Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.