A legend in Milwaukee taverns and traditional music died.
Art Altenburg, who for many years owned the tavern that long bore his name, passed away March 22 in Mosinee at the age of 91.
Some of you may have already heard this sad news, but it didn’t come my way until today and I felt the need to share for anyone else who may have shared good times at his concertina bar, 1920 S. 37th St., and missed the somber news.
Born in 1929 in Knowlton, Wisconsin – near Mosinee – Altenburg always loved music and embraced, both literally and figuratively, the concertina, often confused with the accordion.
After serving in the U.S. Navy from 1948 to 1952, Altenburg settled in Milwaukee and sold Chevys.
After rising to the position of sales manager, Altenburg switched careers, buying the southwest side Parakeet Tap in 1980 from Edward Woloszynek, who had operated it for 30 years.
For 27 years, Altenburg carried on the Parakeet’s tradition of live polka music and dancing. But the music bubbled as the beer foamed, even when a band wasn’t playing, as Art could often be found sitting behind the bar with his squeeze box.
If he wasn’t playing when you got there, you might be able to convince him to do so.
Although he could be gruff, Altenburg tirelessly preserved the polka tradition in Milwaukee, where it arrived with European immigrants a century earlier and where it was rapidly fading.
The U.S. Patent Office even confirmed Art’s place as the “Only Concertina Bar in the U.S.A.”
In 2007, he sold the bar to Andy Kochanski, but not before he was featured on “Good Morning America” and in The New York Times. Altenburg was also inducted into the Wisconsin Concertina Hall of Fame.
Upon retirement, Altenburg went back to Mosinee, where he held polka sessions in his home, his passion for the instrument and the music undiluted.
It says something that 14 years after his departure from Milwaukee, his name remains synonymous with with polka here today.
Art died from injuries sustained in a car accident.
He’s survived by his wife Betty, son James, brother Richard and sister Twanette Smith. A funeral was held on April 13. I hope they sent Altenburg off with some great polka music.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.