Anyone who has spent time in East Side bars the past couple of decades will most likely recognize Geo Kiesow, the large-smiling, rock 'n' roll poet who has a gift for the mixing of Old Fashioneds.
Kiesow grew up outside of Neenah in the Town of Clayton. His parents owned Raveno Ballroom, originally belonging to his grandfather, the original George (who also went by Geo).
"My grandfather owned a cemetery, construction company and a quarry, so he might as well have bought a bar, too," says Kiesow.
Kiesow came to Milwaukee – "The Big City" – to go to UWM in 1984. He studied museum and library science and then went into creative writing, taking classes with (the late) Jeff Poniewaz and Susan Firer, who told him, "You gotta meet my husband (the late James Hazard). You dress the same, you sound the same."
Kiesow replied to Firer, "I dunno, he likes his vowels longer than I do."
Kiesow was not only inspired by his UWM instructors, but he also fell in love with the local poetry scene. He started reading – and winning – at oral poetry slams. Eventually, he took over as the emcee for the Milwaukee Poetry Slam at the Y-Not II, a position he held for 13 years.
Initially brought up in his parents' bar, the poet has gone on to a long and storied service industry career. Kiesow co-owned Jamo’s, 1800 N. Arlington Pl., for eight years and has worked at a half-dozen prominent Milwaukee bars.
OnMilwaukee: Where did you start your bartending career?
Geo Kiesow: I grew up at my parent’s place, Raveno Ballroom, in Neenah. I've been bartending my entire life. It was the only job I had, other than as a horse wrangler, but come to think of it, that’s similar to bartending. The horses: sometimes they bite and they kick.
When I moved to Milwaukee, the first place I worked was at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Then one day I was sitting at the Y-Not II, looking through the "want ads" for a job, and Tony (DePalma, owner of Y-Not II) said, "You looking for a job? You start on Sunday."
I also worked at the time at The Toad – Wednesday night’s were "Geo’s World," and my friends came in and drank cheap imports and listened to music.
So where have you worked more recently?
I had a great eight-year run at Jamo’s, but then it was time to go. I have since been working at a variety of places. Now I work primarily at Up & Under, but also Victoria’s on Potter (which is undergoing a major renovation) and I help out at Club Garibaldi whenever needed, including being the Taco Boy on Mondays.
What do you like about bartending?
It keeps me young. I like hanging out with all the kids – and with all different types of people.
How much of your bartending experiences end up in your writing?
Until recently, little to none. Most of my writing was influenced by Jim (Hazard), who influenced me to write about growing up in a small town.
Recently, I wrote a collection called "12 Stool Saloon" – it’s also a YouTube video. The book was originally released with a coaster cover, so if you didn't like the book, you still got a coaster.
Someday I am going to release a book of poems called "Clayton," about living in the Town of Clayton.
Tell us more about that.
Wow. Well, my mom and grandma lived and died a mile from where they were born. That’s how it was: You grew up on the farm and then when you got older and married, they built you a house to live on the property.
There was a parade in Clayton – I think it was called Clayton Fest – and they would gussy up the fire trucks and tractors and let the kids ride in the back of the vehicles. The parade was only two blocks, which was good, because there wasn't enough kids to ride in all the truck and tractors anyway, so at the end of the two-block line, they would jump off and run back to the head of the line to jump into one just entering the parade.
Coming from a small town, you are no stranger to everyone knowing your business. Is it annoying or welcoming to live in Milwaukee, where so many people know you or recognize you because of your high-profile jobs?
It depends. Everywhere I go, I see people I know. I like that – but not always. Maybe if I went to West Allis it would be different ...
What’s you favorite drink to drink?
Whiskey old fashioned press with olives. My whiskey preference is Kessler, because remember, I’m from Up Nort' and I keep it simple. And it’s smooth as silk.
What’s your favorite drink to make?
Old Fashioneds. I make ‘em close to the classic – I don't want any maple syrup in my Old Fashioned, and I definitely don't want anything strained into my glass.
You grew up in a bar setting. How was that?
So many memories. I remember going to supper clubs every Sunday with my parents. It was their only day off, so we'd go visit my dad’s friends’ supper clubs like The Viking or The Yellow Jacket and, even though we were kids, we were allowed to sit in the bar room and they would turn on shows for us on the TV when football was over.
My dad would sit there and say, "One more, just one more, and then we’ll eat."
You have two kids. How old are they and have they spent time in bars?
My daughter is 19 and my son is 14 and no, they haven’t. It’s different now. They’re such good kids; all about school.
What would you like to do more of?
I’m a day-by-day person, but I wish I could spend more time at my cabin in St. Germaine. I love winter ice fishing and cross-country skiing – lots of ice and snow – so in my opinion, so far, this Wisconsin winter kinda sucks.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.