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There’s something about Front Street that oozes mystery.
Running just a single block, between Mason and Wells Streets, and really not much more than an alley, it looks like a remnant of old Milwaukee and of Prohibition speakeasies. That vibe is surely part of the allure of the Safe House, at the northerly reaches of the block.
It was likely part of the allure of the string of saloons, nightclubs and taverns that once occupied a rambling space that, for decades, snaked through a trio of connected Water Street basements and had its entrance nearer the south end of Front Street.
As has been the case in our lifetimes, in the early part of the 20th century, Water Street was a cavalcade of saloons and restaurants. A quick glance at a city directory of the era shows literally dozens of taverns along the thoroughfare.
When Prohibition arrived in January 1920, while some closed, others became “soft drink parlors” that often sold illicit hootch on the sly. Still others were forced underground to operate as speakeasies.
While I have no proof that our space at 754 N. Front St. was a speakeasy, the fact that its entrance and main bar were in one building, with another space full of tables in the basement of an adjacent building and still a third room was in the building to the north of that, seems like a tantalizing suggestion.
According to Jere Pandl, who owns Waterfront Deli, which operates in one of the three buildings, “Some of the reason that the doors were the way they were was because of Prohibition,” he says. “There were all speakeasies here.”
His reference to the doors was a response to my bemoaning the difficulty in sorting out the exact location of the place, which is why this is a post I’ve been working on episodically for a very long time.
First, the City of Milwaukee changed its street numbering system around 1930 (and the addresses on Water Street appear to have shifted at least once before that, too). But that’s typically easily sorted out by using a converter that was published at the time, allowing the new and old numbers to be correlated. The problem here is that for Front Street, very few street numbers, new or old, are even listed in the converter.
Part of the reason for that – and an ongoing issue today that you’ll notice if you walk down Front Street – is that there are odd-numbered addresses on both sides of the alley, instead of just on the west side of the street.
That’s because many of the frontages on the east side bear the address numbers of the buildings that face Water Street. This, however, has not always been the case, and the space we’re talking about today, which was home to The Tunnel Inn, the Elbow Room, the Whisky-A-Go-Go, The Grog Shoppe and the Waterfront Pub carried the address 754 N. Front St.
Today, however, the doorway is marked 755, because it is the back of 755 N. Water St. How did I ultimately sort this out?
Well, I found Paul Blossfield, who owned the last tavern to operate in the space and he went Downtown to send me photographs of the Front Street entrance and the Water Street exit. (Yes, in that upside down world, the entrance to Blossfield’s Waterfront Pub was on the Front Street side and the BACK exit was on Water!)
The Waterfront Pub, which operated only for about three years in the early 1980s, was the last hurrah of this three-room space that, over the years, was home to the Tunnel Inn, the Elbow Room, the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, The Grog Shoppe and, as we’ve already discussed, maybe a speakeasy at the start.
Today, on the Water Street side, the buildings are 759 (the former Dean Jensen Gallery), 761 (Waterfront Deli) and 765 (a vacant building).
An October 1933 classified ad seeking a “bartender for night work, with downtown following,” is the first reference to the place I’ve been able to find, though it’s unclear if it was already called The Tunnel Inn at this point. It seems likely as there are also some references, albeit without addresses, to such a named place in 1933 newspapers.
By the following January, another classified was seeking a “partner for a completely equipped tavern ... established ... downtown. Real opportunity for the right party,” and another was published in February for a “tavern, downtown, own equipment, must sell at once, sacrifice.”
In September, Harry G. Stollenwerk is named as the owner of the place, with its evocative name.
Considering the rough and ready waterfront nature of Front Street – which did indeed front onto the river before a range of buildings went up on the west side of the block in the late 19th century – the Tunnel Inn flew mostly under the radar in the 1930s, avoiding newspaper coverage other than the occasional advertisement.
That ended in July 1939, when police arrested bartender Herbert Kramer for possession of a “gambling device.” They confiscated the bar dice and sent him to court. In November, bartender Robert Roche was fined $5 plus court costs when he stood before a judge, charged with operating a game of chance in a tavern.
A news report said, “police testified a game of ‘26’ was played in the tavern Tuesday afternoon.”
At some point soon after, Leo Stier took over the Tunnel Inn, moving it in 1944 down the block to 779 Front St. where the Liederkrantz Society had its clubhouse, which was open to the public. Before that, the place had been home to The Chanticleer and later, after the Tunnel closed, it would become the Safe House.
Later, Stier ran the Stier Inn on Oakland Avenue, which would become the Shorewood Inn.
When around July 1, the Tunnel moved north, the former space was reopened at The Elbow Room, which became known for its live music, often hosting local jazzman Scat Johnson, who was also well-known to audiences at the Tunnel.
By September, Arthur and Lenore McCarthy added a kitchen and the Elbow Room began serving lunch and dinner, as well as evening entertainment by Gail Hall.
In 1946, McCarthy converted the space in a de rigueur cocktail lounge and the music continued be a draw. Scat continued to appear there in ‘46 and in ‘47 the lounge hosted the Jimmy Dudley Trio and a Battle of the Pianos with “dynamic showman” Step Wharton and Paul Mallory, who was returning after a two-year stint at Miami’s Chez Paree.
One of the oddest affairs in the history of the place occurred in November 1949, when a sidewalk mysteriously appeared outside the club entrance.
“A side walk appeared last week at the south of N. Front St.,” wrote the Journal. “Nobody seems to know how it happened. It’s about 40 feet long and leads from E. Mason to 754 N. Front St., the address of the Elbow Room. The city had not put it in; the city had not even issued a permit for anyone to put it in.
“At the Elbow Room the bartender said that he didn’t even know anything about the sidewalk. The manager wasn’t in, he said, and there wasn’t anywhere you could call him because he was out of town.”
Of course, the fact that the sidewalk led right to the door seemed like a very relevant clue, and it wasn’t long before the truth came out, along with the pavement.
“The sidewalk ... is doomed to disappear,” wrote the Journal the following May. “The walk remained an orphan for several days before Jack La Belle, the Elbow Room manager, disclosed that he had put it down ... as a safety measure because his patrons had to ‘crawl over trucks’ in the street to get into the tavern.”
Though there was no report that the rogue sidewalk cost the Elbow Room in terms of fines, but in January 1951, the McCarthys weren’t so lucky.
“Lenore McCarthy, 46, was charged with being keeper of house of ill fame,” read one report. McCarthy – whose husband Arthur had in the past operated the East Town Bar at 775 N. Jackson St. and McCarthy’s Bar, 631 E. Mason St. – was busted at a place they owned in Germantown and a 24-year-old woman was also nabbed, charged with being “an inmate” of the brothel.
The report notes that the McCarthy’s had already divested themselves of all their Milwaukee taverns, including the Elbow Room, and had been charged five times for violating liquor laws.
While Arthur Schmidt bought the East Town Bar, the Elbow Room continued to operate under new ownership at Aliota’s Elbow Room, now serving Italian cuisine.
By the end of the decade, 59-year-old Victor Bellehumeur was running the place and continuing to host live music, including that stalwart favorite Scat Johnson. In December 1960, it was raided and the owner, a bartender, three waitresses and seven juvenile patrons landed in district court.
“Police said the Elbow Room at 12:30 a.m. Sunday was jumping with juveniles, attracted by a jazz combo. He said the tavern catered to minors.”
Bellehumeur was find $100 and the employees all received suspended sentences on charges of permitting minors to loiter.
That same year, the place became Luigi’s New Elbow Room and by 1962 was run by Joseph Pangallo, who focused on a piano bar vibe, with lunch, dinner and cocktails. And, happily, in 1963, Scat Johnson was still performing in the snaking trio of rooms.
But 1964 was an earth-shattering year for music as the Beatles made their first appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show.”
One can’t but wonder if that helped lead to the end of the Elbow Room and the launch that same year of the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, which changed its look – altering the front window, panelling the walls, leveling the floor and installing a grill and counters – as well as its musical approach.
“The Whiskey A-Go-Go, at 754 N. Front St., which was one of the first places of its kind in Milwaukee when it opened last summer, continues to pack them in,” wrote the Journal in the summer of 1965. “The popular discotheque used to be a jazz place called The Elbow Room. There’s not even that left now. The crowd – largely college students – is packed into the long narrow room. But customers continue to enjoy downing steins of beer and gasping for air – with rock ‘n’ roll background music.
“Some stodgy adults might not understand ‘what the big deal is’ about such places since customers can’t even hear to talk with each other. ‘Who wants to talk? You come here to dance,’ said one 17-year-old boy. ‘And if you want to talk, the band stops in between songs.’ The big deal these days, he said, is about the English imports – the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Animals. American Chuck Berry also rates, he said. ‘The English made the bands popular. Before, the big names were soloists. Now there are so many bands, it’s terrible,’ he said.
“How does he keep up on the constantly changing dance steps? ‘Well, it’s the girls who change all the dances. The first step in learning,’ he said, ‘is to watch some girl. In February there was one dance that I learned just when it was going out. Then I didn’t dance until this month when I finally learned the new one. Until I learned the new one, I just watched the girls’.”
That same year, more changes were made, removing the bandstand, installing a new bar and rebranding one of the rooms as the Red Dog Room. In ‘66, a seven-foot arched opening was added to enlarge the dance floor into the building to the north, suggesting earlier iterations of the venue had previously occupied only two rooms.
It was at this time that the Water Street “back” entrance was added.
Like the Tunnel Inn before it, the Whiskey would have a connection to the building at 779 N. Front St., as Whiskey co-owner Kenneth Dillard was among the original owners of the Safe House, which opened in 1966 in the former Tunnel Inn up the street.
By 1968, the Whiskey not only had live music and was calling itself "Milwaukee's first discotheque," but it also boasted go-go dancers.
But, again, times were changing and so did the tavern at 754 N. Front St. as sometime in 1969 Terry Schmechl converted it into the Grog Shoppe, which continued, under the leadership of Dick McCormick, to serve food and to host live rock and roll all through the 1970s, closing in 1981.
And that’s when our friend Paul Blossfield arrived on the scene.
“It’s a very interesting place,” Blossfield told me. “I had looked at it before I bought the business from Dick McCormick. Through the front door on Front Street was a long room and in the middle of it to the left was a doorway that led to a second little bar room area, and beyond that was another that we had some tables in.
“I used to go to the Whiskey A-Go-Go when I was younger and that’s why I was interested in it when it became available. I wasn’t that interested in the Grog Shoppe, but the Whiskey A-Go-Go was a going joint when I went in there as a young guy.”
Blossfield said that during his tenure he had heard a bit about the long history of the space.
“A woman was in there and told me a story – a woman who was seeing one of the musicians when it was the Tunnel Inn – and she was telling me stories about it. She was an older lady with blonde hair. It was in a red light district back in the day.”
Blossfield’s Waterfront Pub carried on the live music tradition, booking local talent like Pat McCurdy on the stage in the front room, where a small dance floor, too.
It also became a favorite hangout for Admirals players, Blossfield said.
“In the winter I had the hockey team coming in that would draw people,” he said. “The players would come in and their fans would follow. The players were friends of mine and were loyal guys. It was good times in there.
“We had a pretty good business going then. But in summer there was so much going on outside that it was dead as a doornail.”
Blossfield recalled that prosperous winters were ultimately not enough to make it through dismal summers, especially once new ownership came in.
“Business wasn’t great and the Carley Capital Group had bought the building and they wanted to tear it down and build a parking ramp for the bank across Mason Street,” he recalled. “They gave us an ultimatum that we had to get the electric up to code and it would’ve bankrupted us. Everything had been jerry-rigged. It would've been $20,000-40,000 and that was back in 1986.
“We weren’t making the kind of money that we’d have been able to pay that off.”
And, so, a long run of jumpin’ joints came to an end on the southern end of Front Street.
About a dozen years later, Jere Pandl and his brother – who had cut their teeth working at the dad George Pandl’s restaurant in Bayside (George, in turn, had started in his family’s restaurant in Whitefish Bay, Jack Pandl’s) – arrived on the scene, buying the middle building for their Waterfront Deli, which continues to operate today.
“These buildings were all vacant when I bought it,” Jere told me. “The buildings were cheap; all about the same price and all in terrible shape. All the buildings were connected. We had to close up a couple doorways in the basement.
“One thing I remember for sure,” he said, “there was a stage with a pole, and I don’t remember which building, but probably the one to the north of us. It was a very small stage.”
What he saw was likely a remnant from the go-go dancer days at the Whiskey.
Pandl said there’s likely nothing that remains of the clubs in the basements, though he can’t be 100 percent sure.
“The one just to the north of us. He bought his when we bought ours. He’s slowly rehabbing it. When we bought this building, we did everything: the floors, the roof, the basement. It was a complete and total gut job. There’s nothing original.
“There might be something in Dean’s (Jensen, who recently passed away) basement. I’m not sure.”
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.