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Though it's no longer there, one Downtown venue hosted at least three landmark clubs.
For fans of punk and new wave, there is perhaps no more storied Milwaukee locale than drummer Kenny Baldwin’s The Starship, which operated for a brief flash – barely two years – but still looms large to those of us of a "certain" generation.
Even for me, who never stepped foot in the place, which closed a year before I arrived in Milwaukee, The Starship is a landmark. Alas, the building that housed the club, at 634 N. 5th St., was razed a decade or so later to be replaced with ... well ... nothing (other than a surface parking lot). Most recently it was the scene of Newaukee’s summer Night Market.
Baldwin transformed a former disco, owned by his father, into the live music club in early 1980 with business partner Karen Lewis.
"The place was so large and beautiful, I knew it could be something better than a disco," Baldwin told the Journal’s Divina Infusino. "There are two separate floors. We can have two bands here without one interfering with the other. I’d run around the place while I was working, scheming to myself on how I could change it."
"I’m interested in pushing Milwaukee bands," said Baldwin, and sure enough, soon, Milwaukee’s finest – from The Haskels to the Red Ball Jets – were playing at The Starship and young upstarts like Die Kreuzen and Sacred Order hatched their careers here, too. The club also hosted touring bands, like New York’s The Cramps, the MC5's Wayne Kramer, Captain Beefheart, surf legends The Ventures, Sun Ra, and California bands Flipper, The Gun Club, Black Flag, Fear, X and Circle Jerks, among others.
U.K. bands played there, too, including The Teardrop Explodes, The Damned, The Members and The Equators.
(Photo: Ron Faiola/MilwaukeeRockPosters.com)
"The wooden planks of the dancefloor became literal sine waves from the pogo dancing," recalls local musician Eric Blowtorch. "The people next to me would come down, and I would go up."
Among the staff was bartender Miriam Ben Shalom, who had been discharged from the Army in 1976 for being gay. After The Starship days, Miriam went to court and became the first openly gay person allowed to return to the Army after having been discharged.
Baldwin talked of opening a studio and vowed to offer a sound system to local bands at no cost. Trained as a jazz drummer, Baldwin also told Infusino that he was eager to get back behind the kit himself.
"I go loony when I don’t play he said," and sure enough, when The Starship crashed back down to Earth in the summer of 1982, Kenny joined Colour Radio, a synthpop quartet that had inked a deal with A&M and released its debut disc by the time I got to Milwaukee in the summer of ‘83 and immediately began to hear the stories about that boarded up place across the street from the Marc Plaza (now the Hilton City Center).
But it took much much longer to start hearing the stories of another place that was once located at 634 N. 5th St.: Fazio’s on Fifth.
In 1955, the Fazio brothers – Tony, Frank, Lou, Angelo Jr. and Johnny – bought the old Tic Toc Club Downtown (which had hosted the likes of Henny Youngman and Joey Bishop during its run) and rebranded it as Fazio’s on Fifth. The brothers had already been operating the Lower East Side restaurant – Fazio’s at 1601 N. Jackson St. – which their parents had opened in 1934.
Their dad, Angelo Sr., had immigrated from Italy and married an Italian-American girl named Cona in 1912. Together they opened a grocery store on the site in 1928 and within a few years, the business evolved into a restaurant.
The Jackson Street restaurant – which boasted the popular Venetian Room upstairs – was a magnet for visiting celebrities and its Italian food was much revered here.
The boys replicated that success and allure at Fazio’s on Fifth, with its Poodle Room (pictured above), Angelo Room (for private parties) and piano bar.
According to a 1959 Milwaukee Sentinel article, "The delightful dining atmosphere of Fazio’s on Fifth has become a favorite with the Braves in spring and summer, with pro football players in fall and winter and with Mr. and Mrs. Milwaukee all year around."
Yet another brother, James, had joined the family business, too, opening a bar in the old Towne Hotel (on the site of the current blue federal building on 3rd Street) and, in 1950, Jimmy Fazio’s Supper Club at 5743 N. Port Washington Rd., in Glendale. There, he brought in talent like Eydie Gormet, the Crew Cuts and Dick Contino.
When the state bought out the Glendale land for road expansion around 1955, Jimmy Fazio moved his business to Fort Lauderdale, where he opened the Fireside Steak Ranch.
Fazio's on Fifth in the 1960s. (Photo: Ron Faiola/MilwaukeeRockPosters.com)
Meanwhile, back in Milwaukee, Louis Fazio later managed the Iron Horse Restaurant on 11th and Wells, while his brother John (who was also an all-state end on the Lincoln High School football squad) ran Iron Horse Diner East, 5260 N. Port Washington Rd., and Tony ran the location at 418 N. Mayfair Rd.
According to a 1972 newspaper article, Angelo Fazio Sr. died in 1955. "He had suffered a heart attack after his restaurant was dynamited. His wife died in 1954."
Back at Fazio’s on Fifth, the scene was apparently always hopping. There were revues, musical performances and a parade to celebs – local and beyond.
"The Fazio brothers boast one of the few spots in Milwaukee which continually offers dancing and topnotch entertainment to supplement its dining pleasures," cooed the Sentinel in 1959. "Fine bands provide the danceable music and artists often fresh from engagements in Las Vegas and New York offer a variety of delightfully entertaining moments."
And the Chateaubriand was to die for ... and supposedly not a pocketbook killer, either.
"Eating at a fine supper club is not as costly as most people think," Tony Fazio told the paper’s Gene Horn. "Our main desire is to acquaint the average diner with what we have to offer. We believe it’s tops."
According to 1972 Milwaukee Journal article, "by 1967, Angelo was running Fazio’s on Jackson, with one of his sisters, Mrs. Ann Suminski, supervising the kitchen, Anthony and Frank handled Fazio’s on Fifth, with Louis helping out there and at the Jackson Street restaurant. John, the youngest brother, ran the Port Silver Diner, purchased by the Fazio interests the year before."
Louis Fazio – who had himself served time for murder before being paroled and later granted executive clemency by Gov. Warren Knowles – was murdered in 1972 in what was thought, at the time, to be a robbery, but others suggested might've been revenge.
As for the Tic Toc Club, it opened in summer 1940 as the Tic Toc Tap and boasted not only of Pabst Beer "direct from the keg" and a cocktail bar "open day and night," but also "38 highly trained attendants who cater to your every wish."
As for the Tic-Toc Club before it – where it was always cool, as the slogan went – there’s scant information out there, beyond notices of performers appearing there. Among those, Helen DiMaggio – Joltin’ Joe’s niece – took the stage in July 1953, and the previous year, no less than Josephine Baker was scheduled to perform. Whether or not she actually did ... that’s still an open question.
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.