Like many men his age, Andy Kochanski always thought about owning a bar.
When out with his friends for a night on the town, the born-and-bred South Sider would take it all in, thinking about what he would do with a place if it were his own. He studied the ins and outs of his favorite haunts, paying attention to little things like decoration and themes silently taking notes.
A little more than year ago, Kochanski got his wish. He reached an agreement with Art Altenburg to buy his legendary concertina bar; the only bar Kochanski considered buying.
"I didn't want just any bar," Kochanski says. "I wanted this bar; it was either that or nothing."
Today, Kochanski's Concertina Beer Hall, 1920 S. 37th St., isn't just a place for a man to fulfill his dream of owning a bar, it's the last of a dying breed of old-school, neighborhood Milwaukee bars and it's the only place in town where the polka is still a regular staple.
"It's one of a kind," Kochanski says. "It's the last one. I took it upon myself ... somebody had to step up and save this place from becoming nothing more than a memory."
Kochanski grew up going with his grandparents to hear polka music at area dances and church festivals. The music grew on him, though he never once played an accordion or concertina.
Under Kochanski, the bar has a slightly different vibe than it did during Altenberg's 27-year ownership. For one thing, it's a whole lot cleaner. He and his family and friends spent weeks scrubbing, soaking and de-mucking a place that looked like it hadn't seen a sponge since the waning days of the Carter Administration.
It was a massive operation that included required an inordinate amount of elbow grease, as well as a complete renovation of the men's restroom. He also replaced the beer lines -- a practice that continues every two weeks -- and expanded the beer selections; the bar now offers the city's largest assortment of Polish beers, as well as the usual local favorites.
And most importantly, he expanded the music offerings. Under Altenberg, it was concertina's or bust. No accordions allowed. Now, everybody is welcome to take the stage. In addition to all types of polka music, surf, country and rockabilly performers drop in to ply their crafts ... but the squeezebox will always have a home there.
"I didn't buy it to change it, I bought it to save it," he says. "For me to continue as a business -- because this isn't my rec room -- I would like it to eventually become self sufficient, I have to tweak it a little bit with different music that brings in a younger crowd that likes to drink a lot."
Older Milwaukeeans still regularly frequent the place, but Kochanski is banking on attracting a new generation to help him pay the bills saying "a couple of beers and a lot of sodas make it hard to pay the utilities, let alone a mortgage."
To draw a "younger crowd," Kochanski plans to keep expanding the musical offerings, but remaining true to its polka roots. In addition to regular "open-polka" nights, where anybody with a squeezebox is welcome to take the stage and play a few tunes, he'll keep scheduling polka bands but hopes to open the doors to more genres.
He also hopes to expose more young people to the polka with regular dance lessons on Thursday nights.
Starting in February, Kochanski will have alternating weekends; one polka, one non-polka. All of it, he says, is aimed at exposing more and more people to his bar ... and different types of music.
"I like the full spectrum of music," he says. "People are going to start seeing that with the different bands I'm brining in other than polka."
The last year hasn't been easy. The financial difficulties posed by much-needed repairs and other general upkeep have been financially trying, especially in the difficult economy, but he's optimistic.
Kochanski plans to keep improving the bar one step at a time. He's still working on the continual process of cleaning and hopes to add some other major improvements and additions in time for summer, including an outdoor beer garden.
"It's a daunting task," Kochanski says about the day-to-day demands of owning a bar. "The building is over 100 years old. Trying to keep the place going, paying for upgrades and such is another chore.
"It's been challenging but hopefully those challenges down the road aren't so challenging."