By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 09, 2024 at 9:01 AM

Urban Spelunking is brought to you by Nicolet Law

The tiniest performance space you can imagine is the site of landmark moment in Milwaukee music history.

Standing on the “stage” area of the short-lived Beneath It All Cafe, where the Violent Femmes first performed together in 1981, I quipped to founding drummer Victor DeLorenzo that it felt a bit like being in the Cream City’s own Cavern Club.

Cafe HollanderX

The venue, which barely lasted two years in the basement of the Wash Tub Laundromat at 2610 N. Downer Ave., was always said to be small. But now, standing inside what is these days the office of and a walk-in cooler for Cafe Hollander – the bar and restaurant that occupies the two upper floors – it’s even tinier than I expected.

When the 40th anniversary boxed set of the debut, self-titled Violent Femmes album recently arrived and included a handful of tracks recorded down here, I asked my friends at Hollander if I could come see their basement. When they said yes, I invited DeLorenzo, and OnMilwaukee’s resident Violent Femmes devotee Andy Tarnoff along.

Walking down the steps and into the old coffee house, we immediately noticed the inlaid tile floor, which appears to delineate the dimensions of the place.


Mimicking the layout of the ice cream parlor that preceded it, Beneath It All Cafe, recalled DeLorenzo, had a service counter on the wall opposite the door and some tables along the Hackett Avenue side.

Off to the left of the counter was a small patch of floor space that served as the “stage” – which wasn’t a stage at all – for performers, which tended toward folk.

“It was a pretty tight space,” DeLorenzo says, looking around. “We obviously didn’t have any kind of amplification. It was all acoustic and Gordon (Gano) was just singing without a microphone. It was totally acoustic.

The floor tile.

“It certainly was fun that evening that we played here, though as you can tell from the recording there wasn’t even many people here.”

It’s possible that the tiled floor that survives dates to the cafe, but it is more likely older. Perhaps from The Ice Cream Seller, which pre-dated Beneath It All or, maybe even to the earliest days of the building.

In 1912, real estate developer Julius Straus pulled a permit and spent $13,500 to build two stores and two flats – designed by Martin Tullgren & Sons – on the then-growing upper East Side, just up from the tip of the triangle where Downer, Belleview and Hackett converge.

The earliest tenant, Lincoln Dry Cleaners, appeared to be open by 1914, and almost immediately, the small triangular space below was occupied by barbers. In 1916, that barber was an A. L. Cullen. In 1923, a Mr. Bergstedt was cutting hair there.

In 1927, where Hollander now has its outdoor seating and winter domes – a spot that during the Wash Tub era had a fountain that was often bubbling with foam from detergent tossed in by East Side teens – a three-pump gas station was installed. (Across the street, a young bookseller named Harry W. Schwartz had opened his Casanova Books in the back of Downer Beauty Parlor that year, too.)

Victor on stage
Victor DeLorenzo on the "stage."

The barber shop appears to have closed by the end of the 1920s and in 1931, Morris Schwartz opened a short-lived tailor shop in the basement location.

By the following year, Edward Marx had the idea to open a “soft drink parlor” – often code, during Prohibition, for a tavern – in the cramped quarters, but was denied.

“Store is 8’ 6” below grade level, wherein sale of food stuffs is not permitted,” noted building inspector Leon Gurda.

Instead, the cleaners upstairs, run by an R. P. Hogan, took over the subterranean space and used it for pressing freshly laundered clothing.

Upstairs a few businesses came and went, one of the longest-running being a bike sales and repair shop.

Mr. T's
A rendering of the Mr. T's sign. (PHOTO: City of Milwaukee)

But by 1969, Mike Toffler, who had come to Milwaukee from Syracuse, New York, after a stint in the Air Force, opened Mr. T’S Health & Beauty Aids on the first floor. The following year, Toffler, who also operated the Chocolate Factory in Cedarburg with partner Peter Blommer – scion of a Chicago chocolatier – decided to open an ice cream parlor, too.

“I had this empty space downstairs so another guy and I decided to try and ice cream parlor for a while,” Toffler told the Sentinel.

At first, his attempt – like that of Edward Marx 40 years earlier – was stymied by code restrictions about ceiling height. But Toffler wouldn’t take no for an answer, filed and appeal and won a variance, and voila!

The Ice Cream Seller opened by late 1970, with a layout much like the one described above for Beneath It All, albeit without a space for performers.

Floor plan
A floor plan of The Ice Cream Seller. (PHOTO: City of Milwaukee)

In November 1971, the Journal described the place as an, “old fashioned ice cream parlor. The Ice Cream Seller features authentic decor (wrought iron chairs and tiny tables, marble topped wooden counter, Tiffany lamps and windows) and a menu to match: things like phosphates and banana splits and ‘2 cents plain’ (seltzer water – and it really costs 2 cents). Cones are huge and can be filled with any of 20 flavors.”

A single ran 17 cents, a double was 30, and a whopping triple cost 40 cents.

After Mr. T’s was closed and its contents sold at public auction as part of a voluntary assignment, Jack Cohen took over the first floor space and operated the Wash Tub, which endured until the mid-1990s, when Gil Rasmussen opened Gil’s Bongo Lounge there.

But The Ice Cream Seller stayed open until, it would appear, about 1974 or ‘75.


In ‘76, David Stevens opened a store down there selling handicrafts, antiques and stained glass downstairs, but that didn’t last long. Neither was Y. Warshaniak’s subterranean TV and stereo sales and repair store long for the world.

By 1980, Beneath It All had opened and thanks to Dave Luhrssen, writing in a Journal review of the El Condor restaurant that replaced the cafe, we have this rare description:

“The cellar beneath the Wash Tub had a checkered past. As Beneath It All Cafe, it was a stark, barren washroom. Entered by descending a flight of outdoor stairs, Beneath It All resembled a cross between a basement rec room and a beatnik coffeehouse.

“Because tea, coffee and guacamole dip dominated the sparse menu, the main attraction was musical, not gastronomical. The tiny stage was open to anyone for half an hour. Parents and friends of amateur folk singers and comedians mingled uneasily with chess-playing intellectuals who waited for such avant-garde acoustic artists as Drake Scott and the Trance and Dance Band. Impoliteness, hard to conceal in a space that seats only 40 in a tight squeeze, sometimes resulted, with shows accompanied by paper airplane and spitball fights between the camps of different performers.”

A 1980 ad that appeared in the UWM Post. (PHOTO: UW-Milwaukee)

“The Beneath iIt All cafe wasn't a club or a bar,” added Kirt Knudson, a classmate of Gano’s at Rufus King High School, in a post on a Femmes fan page. “They didn't have a liquor licence. All they served was fruit and vegetable drinks. Real exotic stuff. I remember Voot Warnings singing ‘Dance Motherf*cker Dance.’ That dude was wild.”

(NOTE: Gano did not respond to a request for an interview.)

It appears the the cafe was initially operated by Tom Aguirre, but an April 1981 permit suggests that changed as a new permit was sought by an L. Dusty Peterson. In his review, Luhrssen said that someone with yet another name took over in summer 1981.

“The people managing Beneath It All were a gay couple,” recalls Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie. “But I don't know whether they owned it or were just leasing it to do a coffeehouse.”

With very, very scant information to be found anywhere about the cafe business, this information is nothing if not sketchy.

“Last summer Lee Blennis, a Vermont native and real estate owner, took charge,” Luhrssen wrote in his review. “He spruced up the appearance, added submarine sandwiches, hot dogs and salads to the menu and turned the cafe into a venue for folk-jazz singer Kelly Johnson and the acoustic rock ‘n’ roll combo, the Violent Femmes.”

The Femmes in the early days, again NOT at the Beneath-It-All. (PHOTO: Craft Recordings)

Among those performers was a young singer/songwriter and Rufus King High School student named Gordon Gano, who had moved to Milwaukee from out east as a child.

Aspiring bassist Brian Ritchie met Gano at a performance at Beneath It All.

“I went to see Gordon play solo there,” Ritchie recalls. “That's when I first met him. I introduced myself to him and he knew of me and had been recommended by some people to meet me.

“Victor was on tour at that time in Europe with Theatre X or he would have been there too, because we were joined at the hip. Victor and I were already called Violent Femmes.”

Ritchie performed the next day with Gano – who wore a bathrobe – at Rufus King High School at a National Honors Society induction ceremony at which Gano was among those feted, David Fricke recounted in his liner notes to the 40th anniversary boxed set.

Though their choice of the explicit “Gimme the Car” got them run out the doors, and Gano kicked out of the NHS, the two kept in touch.

DeLorenzo remembers that Ritchie promised Gano he’d return with his friend, a drummer, which he did on a weekend when Gano was playing two nights in a row at Beneath It All.

“Brian had come back to me and said, ‘Hey, I saw this really interesting Lou Reed imitator. We should go out and see this guy and maybe we can play some music with him.’ So the next opportunity we had to see Gordon was here at the Beneath It All Cafe.

“We came in, and Brian and I had our instruments along with us. I think I had the tranceaphone (a metal bushel basket atop a floor tom), and Brian had his guitar, an acoustic guitar, that I think he had put bass strings on.”

Ritchie remembers the details a little differently.

“When Victor returned (from Europe) and Gordon had a gig at Beneath It All, we went there. The first night I had my tenor banjo and Victor had a snare. There was also Curtis Weathers on bass.

“Curtis was a friend of mine from the northwest side of Milwaukee, but that was only a coincidence. He went to school with Gordon, or Gordon knew him from somewhere. So It was called Gordon Gano and the Violent Femmes plus Curtis. Because Curtis did not want anything to do with the term Violent Femmes.

“In fact, he did not come the second night and that's when I played my homemade acoustic bass.”

Four songs were recorded by DeLorenzo at a Sept. 12, 1981 Beneath It All Cafe performance and were recently issued on the boxed set, which is what sparked my curiosity about the short-lived and diminutive venue.

“Interestingly, Gunnar Hedman, Peder's brother, recorded these (first) nights and they exist,” says Ritchie, referring to the late Peder Hedman, who played with a number of bands here, perhaps most notably Liquid Pink.

“Which also means that it was a different weekend than the recordings ... Victor recorded. A later weekend. I think those are the best recordings we ever made, but unfortunately there are only four songs that survived.”

Although Ritchie says that he and DeLorenzo were the first rhythm section to perform with Gano, they were not the frontman’s first sidemen.

“Dale Kaminski (who later would perform with Peder Hedman in Liquid Pink, and serve as a Femmes tour crew member) played at Beneath It All with Gordon before I did,” he recalls. “Dale chose not to play with Gordon any more and was surprised I was willing to. Gordon (also) played there with his brother Glenn.

“Were were skilled and Gordon always had good ears. Sometimes it was harder for him than for us because we would take the music out in a way that Gordon had never heard, much less done.”

According to one Milwaukee music veteran, Beneath It All was seen as a folkie place, not a part of the burgeoning rock and roll music scene, and it didn’t take long for even the Violent Femmes to move on to other venues, like The Jazz Gallery in Riverwest and the Stone Toad on Broadway in Downtown Milwaukee.

Jazz GalleryX

“(Beneath-It-All Cafe) may have been fascinating to those who loved the bizarre, but it was a headache for a businessman,” wrote Luhrssen in that restaurant review. “Profit never took the stage. Debt was present at each performance. Blennis’ goal, converting Beneath It All into an Italian restaurant, was never realized due to other commitments.

“At the end of November (1981), Blennis hired a new manager, Nicholas Currich, giving him permission to do what he wished with the cafe. Currich wasted no time. With the Inca motif came a new, more fitting name.”

Although El Condor continued to host live folk (adding ethnic Peruvian music), there were no amateur nights.

In August 1981, the Femmes were famously “discovered” while busking outside the Oriental Theater by The Pretenders and a year after that they made their New York debut at the Bottom Line, opening for Richard Hell & the Voidoids.

“The Violent Femmes don’t just steal the show,” wrote David Fricke in Musician magazine in August 1982, “they blow a fresh wind of post-punk originality rooted in rockabilly simplicity, the dry, folk twang of quintessential hobo Dylan and the stark bash and graphic lyricism of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.”

“If the major record labels were financially strapped and more adventurous, this young and extraordinarily talented band would be some artist-development department’s dream-come-true,” added Robert Palmer in The New York Times. “And they might be anyway, given their catchy material and riveting stage presence.”

Soon after, the Femmes signed to Warner Brothers’ Slash Records and released their first album in April 1983. The rest, as they say, is history.

El Condor closed quietly sometime around 1990 and – other than a brief run by Ancient Voyage, a shop in which Gil Rasmussen's brother Christopher sold items from Nepal – the space hasn’t been open to the public since.

But in that tiny room under Cafe Hollander on Downer, amid a couple desks and computers and the buzz and thrum of a giant beer cooler, there lies this hidden bit of rock and roll history.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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 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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.