By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Apr 13, 2006 at 5:38 AM

When Steve Johnson bought The Uptowner in 1986, the Riverwest bar was already more than 100 years old.

According to Johnson and the Milwaukee County Historical Society, in 1884 Joseph Schlitz rode around in his horse and carriage looking for high-traffic corners to open taverns to sell his family's beer. That year, 54 "Schlitz taverns" opened, including the establishment that would later be called The Uptowner, 1032 E. Center St.

During prohibition, the space was converted to a drugstore, but rumor says it was just a front to continue selling alcohol. Later, circa 1950, "Chic" Giacalone bought the building and named it "The Uptowner." Johnson speculates that Giacalone named the bar after New York's "Up Town" (aka Harlem), where wealthy New Yorkers went to party in black clubs.

In the '50s and '60s, Milwaukee's neighborhood factories and tanneries flourished, employing thousands of locals. To accommodate the lifestyle of third shifters, The Uptowner opened at 6 a.m, and quickly became a blue-collar leisure spot, sponsoring 19 bowling teams, 10 softball teams and a couple of hardball teams.

"A lot of the old timers told me about those days, but now, most of the old timers are dead," says Johnson, 56, who previously owned Gordon Park Pub (now Nessun Dorma) with his brothers in the early '80s.

"Fifty-year-olds still tell me they had their first drink here."

Today, The Uptowner remains a popular destination for "day drinkers," and even on the sunniest summer afternoon, a handful of people sit inside the dark bar enjoying cold ones. But the scene really stokes up after dark, with Sunday evening live shows often attracting a full house of music fans.

Neighborhood newbies and hipsters mix in with bikers and blue collars, all appreciating the down-to-earth vibe, lively pool scene and moderately priced drinks. Johnson says customers now own most of the houses surrounding his bar, which makes his life a lot easier. In past years, he struggled with elderly neighbors who didn't appreciate tavern culture.

"We had a real 'problem lady' across the street," he says. "She called the cops every time she saw someone come through the door with a guitar case. The cops told me she had a telescope at the front door."

Johnson, a Riverwest resident since 1972 -- the year he rented a two-bedroom flat on Weil Street for $60 -- has five children between the ages of 16 and 30, none of whom have gone into the bar industry.

"My oldest is getting her Ph.D. in neurosurgery at Columbia," he says.

Johnson's sense of humor brings an air of irony to his business. After painting the bar bright white a couple of years ago, Johnson ran an ad referring to The Uptowner as "The White Bar." He meant it as a joke because The Uptowner is actually known for its diverse group of drinkers, but some politically correct Milwaukeeans were troubled by the ad. Johnson says his black and Hispanic customers thought it was funny.

Similarly, The Uptowner's tagline is "Home of the beautiful people" -- a tongue-in-cheek motto that's on the back of their matchbooks -- and the neon window sign reading "Charm School" is another joke.

Johnson says he walked into the bar one night about 20 years ago, found four men passed out and and asked the bartender, "What is this, some kind of charm school?"

The bartender retold the story to many customers, including a glass blower, who later made the sign.

Johnson's met thousands of people from behind his bar, but the one that sticks out in his mind the most is a man they called "Pops."

"Pops was this old black guy who lived in a garage up the block. His real name was Napoleon Armstrong, but everyone called him 'Pops,'" says Johnson. "He only had one finger on his left hand."

Pops, who was one of the men passed out inside the bar the night the "Charm School" joke originated, didn't drop by for a while, and Johnson wondered what had happened to him. Finally, he saw an obituary in the paper that he thought might be Pops, but not knowing his real name at the time, called the funeral parlor to be certain.

Johnson asked the funeral director to check the left hand of the body to see if the fingers were missing in order to identify Pops.

"I told him I wanted to know if he had a friend of mine, and that he had four fingers cut off on his left hand," says Johnson. "The guy checked, came back to the phone and said, 'I got a guy here without fingers, but I don't know if they were cut off or sawed off.'"

Artist and musician Mike Frederickson is also an Uptowner icon, and many of his realistic oil paintings of "regulars" hang on the walls. Johnson has collected Frederickson's work for 25 years, and has more of his paintings in his home.

Johnson received a degree in painting and drawing from UW-Madison, but says his only medium these days is bar ownership. His style and sense of humor -- along with his deep appreciation for art and music -- have made The Uptowner more than just a beer-and-shot stop, rather a respected venue for intimate shows and a favorite watering hole of many Milwaukeeans from all walks of life.

But Johnson doesn't take the credit for The Uptowner's popularity, nor its ability to survive in a world where martini and wine bars seem to dominate.

"I'm not really the owner," says Johnson. "I'm just taking a shift here. This place has a spirit all of its own."

The Uptowner is open during the week from 11 a.m. until bar time; weekends they open at noon. Their phone number is (414) 372-3882.

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.