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The Uptowner, 1032 E. Center St., is 133 years old, and because he's owned this "home of the beautiful people" for three decades, Steve Johnson has scads of stories.
Luckily for those of us who belly up to the bar, he’s a great storyteller.
Recently, we spent an afternoon listening to Johnson’s stories – as well as his wife Shawnette Smart’s myriad tales – about owning the bar for 30 years. Some of the yarns were funny, some sad, some unfit to publish and all of them were told with the heart and wit that explain why The Uptowner has been a second home to so many people – from the uber glamorous to the down-and-out.
The Uptowner, which opened in 1884, is the oldest continuously-open bar in the city. Puddlers Hall and Landmark 1850 were built before Uptowner, but were closed for periods of time. During Prohibition, the space was converted to a drugstore, but rumor says it was just a front to continue selling alcohol.
Around 1950, "Chic" Giacalone bought the building and named it The Uptowner.
Johnson and Smart acquired the bar in 1985 and began operating it in late 1986. Before that, they ran Gordon Park Pub, now Nessun Dorma, 2778 N. Weil St.
Earlier in 1986, they were also managing Irene J’s, which is now the home of the Outlaw Motorcycle Club on South 2nd and Maple Streets. During their management stint at Irene’s, they hired the BoDeans – called Da BoDeans at the time – to play one of their first gigs.
"There were 11 people in the place," says Johnson. "Including the three BoDeans."
Johnson grew up on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side in the Berryland Housing Community which, at the time, was for veterans. His father sold pharmaceuticals.
"I always say I grew up in the projects and my dad was a drug dealer," says Johnson, chuckling. "For the first 10 years of my life, all the women were pregnant and all the men were away at work. There were 22 kids in our four-unit building."
Johnson says his mother was always a fan of music and routinely returned from the library with a canvas bag filled with records from all of the classical greats which, in part, developed his taste for Pavarotti, whom he’s seen perform many times.
"It’s one of the greatest voices ever. We are privileged to hear that," he says.
Johnson, who drew and painted voraciously as a child, went on to receive a bachelor’s in fine arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s in fine arts from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Although he appreciates art greatly – the bar is filled with portraits brushed by Uptowner bartender, musician and artist, Mike Fredrickson – he hasn’t dabbled into art in a long time.
"I painted the porch," says Johnson.
These days, Johnson is semi-retired, but for years, he worked at The Uptowner from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., six nights a week.
"Back then, the party started at 2 a.m. I knew all the houses within a six-block radius of here," he says.
Smart grew up on the opposite side of town. "Mitchell Street was my stomping grounds. My mother used to take me to Goldmann’s," she says.
After receiving two associates degrees from Milwaukee Area Technical College, Smart worked as an engineer and later earned a bachelor’s degree from Milwaukee School of Engineering.
"I wanted to graduate by the time I was 50, but I didn't make it because I got cancer," says Smart, who is currently in remission from endometrial cancer.
Smart and Johnson have been together for 30 years and married eight years ago. They have three children together, whom they raised in the apartment above the bar, and Johnson has two daughters from a previous relationship. They are a close family who communicates with each other often.
The Uptowner has gone through numerous transitions during Johnson's and Smart's ownership. Smart admits it got "pretty seedy" for awhile, but that it's come back around in recent years. In any case, The Uptowner represents the gritty, creative and thrifty spirit of the neighborhood and continues to serve as a comfortable and entertaining drinking spot for people from all walks of life.
And now, grab a double or a tall boy, because it's story time.
Bill the Jesuit discovers Stas
In 1993, Johnson’s brother, Bill, was driving Downtown and on the corner of Plankinton and Michigan, noticed a man struggling to read a map. Bill pulled over and asked the man if he needed help.
Turns out the man was a bayan (Russian folk instrument similar to an accordion) player named Stas Venglevski who was in Milwaukee to work with a fine arts quartet at UWM. Bill, a Jesuit priest, brought him to the university, and in gratitude, Venglevski gave him a tape of his music.
"My brother walked in the bar, holding the cassette and said, ‘you gotta hear this,’" says Johnson.
Johnson was blown away by his ability to play the accordion-like instrument and he brought Venglevski to Bobby Friedman at Sound-Sound Studio.
"Friedman says, 'Where the f*ck did you find this guy?'" says Johnson.
Johnson and Smart financed Venglevski’s first studio-recorded cassette on their label, then called Uptowner Records. They later changed the name of the label to Charm School, which still exists today, and has released music by Voot Warnings, Queens of Harmony, Peter Roller and many more.
Venglevski is now considered a virtuoso and has released at least 15 CDs.
"He performs all over the world, in amazing venues, but whenever Steve calls Stas, he comes. He played at both of Steve’s parents' funerals," says Smart.
"He’s giving up Center Street for that?"
Center Street Daze, a smaller version of the neighborhood’s popular Locust Street Festival, started about 15 years ago. Originally, it was The Uptowner block party.
Ten years ago, Johnson booked Chicago blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin. A week before the gig, his wife or girlfriend at the time called Johnson and said Sumlin wouldn’t be able to play.
"She said, ‘Hubert regrets he won’t be able to play at your festival, but he got a call from Keith Richards and was offered $5,000 and plane tickets to France to play for Mick Jagger’s 60th birthday party," Johnson says. "So I said, 'he’s giving up Center Street for that?’"
The passing of Mary Ellen
One of the most poignant and heartbreaking chapters in The Uptowner’s recent history was the death of longtime customer and friend of many, Mary Ellen Freundl.
Freundl, who lived a block from the bar, died in a house fire in May 2011. Johnson and Smart hosted a memorial party in her honor at the bar.
"Mary Ellen was famous for having dinner parties, and for the celebration of her life, people brought so much food there was nowhere to put it after awhile. It was piled up everywhere," says Smart.
Freundl’s brother, Danny, worked at The Uptowner for a time.
"One day I was grumbling that we needed a good-looking woman to work here," says Johnson, "And Danny said, ‘I'm good looking why don't you give me a shot?’ and I said, ‘OK, that’s cheeky. Why not?’"
Steve Allen in the house
About 15 years ago, Johnson’s brother, Bill started a Jesuit middle school. Somehow, he got Steve Allen – an actor, comedian and writer who was the first host of "The Tonight Show" – to host a fundraiser for the school.
"One day, Bill asks me, ‘wanna come to the airport with me to pick up Steve Allen?’" says Johnson. "The next thing I know, I’m at the airport, and there’s Steve Allen in a green plaid coat and a toupee, carrying his own luggage and walking toward my car."
Johnson then asked Allen if it was OK to call him "Steve."
"Well, that’s my name," Allen said.
During his stay in Milwaukee, Allen spent time drinking beer at The Uptowner.
"People were walking in, freaking out," says Johnson.
Drinking in the diversity
The Uptowner is one of the city’s most diverse bars and Johnson and Smart have worked to keep it that way. They are adamant about welcoming everyone and have refused to hire a door person, even though it has been repeatedly suggested.
"We balked so many times at having a doorman because that’s racial profiling," says Smart. "If you don’t look right, you don't get in and we just can’t do that."
Their offbeat sense of humor and refusal to be "color blind" has not always worked in their favor. Jokingly, Johnson once ran an ad calling The Uptowner "the white bar" after it was painted a very light color called "Grape Beginnings." Anyone who knew Johnson or the demographic of the bar’s clientele knew it was a joke, but not everyone found it funny.
Years ago, after an African-American man died while in police custody for allegedly stealing a steak from Sentry, Johnson dressed up as the man – blackface, shower cap on his head, steak in his pocket – and sat in a corner of the Uptowner the entire night in solidarity with the dead man and to witness the reactions from bar patrons who had no idea it was Johnson beneath the costume.
"That was not politically correct," says Johnson. "I know that. I pissed a lot of people off."
The Uptowner has never been robbed – knock on all the wood – but one night, police chased some kids on foot through the bar, and later, Johnson was talking to cops about the incident at the station.
During the conversation, Johnson mentioned he and Smart had hosted a hip-hop night for a decade and a half and never had any trouble.
"You’ve had a hip-hop night for 14 years and we never heard about it?" the cop asked. "Well kudos to you."
The couple has always responded to crime in the neighborhood by offering more space rather than less to groups who needed it.
"You would not believe how much ownership the people who come here feel about these nights," says Smart. "Everyone wants to be a part of something. Everyone."
Bradley, the alleged "rabbi" who sells limp flowers in East Side bars, is shuffled along in other establishments, but he is welcome at The Uptowner. In fact, during our interview, Smart stopped talking to buy two plants from him.
"We’re defensive of these people," says Smart. "We love 'em."
Here comes a regular
When asked about the beautiful people from over the years, Johnson is quick to remember Napoleon Armstrong, a longtime customer, friend and occasional bartender, who was "technically the godfather" to their son, Charlie.
Armstrong, who did not have any fingers on his left hand, was often called "Pops" by his friends.
One winter night, Johnson returned to The Uptowner to find Armstrong standing behind the bar, but asleep with his head resting on the bar. He was wearing a thin, white Naugahyde coat with the register cash stuffed in the pockets.
Johnson thought for a moment. Finally, he woke Armstrong and said, "Hey, Pops, listen. Thanks for holding the money for me. I know it’s mine because you wouldn’t carry this small sh*t around with you – singles and fives?"
Unfortunately, Johnson never saw Armstrong again. One day he read an obituary in the newspaper for a man with the same name and so he called the funeral home.
"I called Banks (funeral home) on Villard and I said, ‘can you check if a friend of mine is there? His name is Napoleon Armstrong and he has the fingers of his left hand chopped off.’"
The funeral director agreed to check and a few minutes later, returned to the phone.
"I don’t rightly know if they’ve been chopped off, looks to me like they've been sawed off," he said.
Another cherished customer of the past was "a billionaire from Ethiopia."
"He came here to find his true self as a sax player," says Smart. "His father would come to town and all he had to do was pretend he didn’t eat and drink and his father would put a million dollars in his bank account. He loved us and he loved our family so much. When one of our kids was born he actually broke into the hospital nursery before visiting hours and took a picture of himself with the baby."
"It looked like he was going to eat the kid," says Johnson, laughing.
In the Butt
Andrew Swant and Bobby Ciraldo – friends, filmmakers and business partners who own Creative Entertainment – have been regulars at The Uptowner for 15 years.
"We never missed Dean's classic music Friday nights. We also went for Bob's punk rock Thursday. And (bartender) John Kelly nights are always a blast," says Swant.
On Valentine’s Day in 2007, Swant and Ciraldo released a video on YouTube called "What What (In The Butt)" starring a musician named Samwell.
"We uploaded the video around 10 p.m, then walked to the Uptowner to celebrate," says Swant. "At bar close we checked the views and it was already at 65,000 views. We couldn't believe it."
As of today, the video has nearly 65,000,000 views and every time it gets another million, Swant and Ciraldo go to The Uptowner, raise a couple Blatz and say, "Here's to another million."
They also had a party at The Uptowner for the 10-millionth, 25-millionth, and 50-millionth view. One included this cake.
"We love the people and the bartenders – a bunch of smart, funny, interesting weirdos. You don't go there to get laid, or go on dates, or network, you go to The Uptowner to drink cheap beer and have crazy conversations with crazy characters and listen to good music," says Swant.
The future of The Uptowner is uncertain.
Although Johnson and Smart have no plan to close the bar at this point, they are both very dedicated to yoga and would like to open a studio in the future. To some, it may seem out of character for Johnson to be so committed to a spiritual discipline, but like everything, Johnson has his own style.
Recently, he went to a men’s yoga camp in Vancouver, Canada, where 80 percent of the other men attending were Sikhs.
"They all loved Steve’s dirty jokes," says Smart. "He was the most popular kid at yoga camp."
Johnson tells one of the jokes – something about why Canadians only do it "doggy-style."
"So they can both watch the hockey game," he says. "The guys loved that one so much. They laughed so hard that their turbans were bouncing up and down."
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.