By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 12, 2024 at 9:01 AM

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So much has happened over the years at the little saloon on the corner of Wentworth and Russell Avenues in Bay View that it’s almost impossible not to feel the history the moment you you step inside.

This, despite the fact that it has changed over the years and is, if all goes according to plan, about the change again. But, owner Kelsey Kaufmann assures, the work won’t change the historic feel of the Cactus Club, 2496 S. Wentworth Ave.

Two views of the music space.

That’s in part because despite some suggestions that Kaufmann pull down the 19th century building and replace it, there are no such plans.

“The stories are what matter,” Kaufmann says, “and the number of people that were like, ‘why don't you just design a new building?’ Or, ‘why don't you just level it and start over? It'd be cheaper to level it’ ...

“People matter. Stories matter. Who am I to choose that all of this gets leveled? It's crazy. So I think substantive expansion that centers accessibility is for sure kind of the phrase that we're going for and that honors the history.”


That history begins sometime in the late 19th century, though I was unable to find any permits or other official documents that could provide a specific construction date.

The earliest references I found to the address were as a home and grocery store for Jacob Yates and his family in 1887.

Born in London, England in 1816, Yates was in Chicago working as a railmaster by 1860, married to New Jersey-born Sarah Jane Horner. A decade later, the couple was in the Town of Lake, where Jacob worked in the Bay View Rolling Mills and Sarah ran a boarding house.

By 1880, the family was in Bay View, though a faded census sheet is no help in determining exactly where. We do know that in 1885-86, the family lived on Superior Street and Yates worked as a watchman.

However, in 1887, he was a grocer on the site of the current Cactus Club, albeit not for long. While the store is still listed in the 1890 city directory and the Yates family still lives on site, neither appears to be the case the following year. The family did, however, continue to own the building.

In 1892, the address was listed as one of a number of places in the city where diphtheria was found, but nothing in this reference offered evidence to the use of the building, except to suggest that a family – which was not identified – lived there.

The following year, another newspaper notice related that a retail hardware store run called Powell Brothers hired a tinsmith at 300 Bishop Ave., which was the building's original address.

An undated photo from a 1930s magazine, potentially taken circa 1917. (PHOTO: True Detective Mysteries)

Walter L. Powell and his younger brother Willard G. were born in 1864 and 1868, respectively, in the Town of Summit to Welsh immigrant farmers James and Anna Powell, who were, according to one newspaper, pioneer settlers of Waukesha County.

Because the Powell brothers themselves lived across the street at 283 Bishop, it seems likely that the Cactus building was strictly business for them.

According to city directories, the Yates family was living elsewhere during the early 1890s, but multiple newspaper reports – including one of on the tragic death by train of their son James in 1893 in South Milwaukee – placed them at the Bishop address.

Like the Yates grocery, the Powells did not remain long in the building. In fact, one newspaper reference noted in November 1893 that they were “called home to Dousman” because of the death of their mother and it’s possible the Powells left Bay View at that time. All future references to the brothers show them at different addresses, mostly in other neighborhoods (and in Willard’s case, often in other cities).

While it’s unclear how the store space was used during the remainder of the 1890s, it does appear the Yates family continued to live onsite at least until Jacob’s death in 1900.

Early in the new century, a number of boarders came and went, most employed in the nearby Illinois Steel Co.'s rolling mills, but by 1907 Leonardo Loffredo – who previously had a tavern on Detroit Street in the Third Ward – owned and ran a tavern in the building.

1907 addition
The section of the building that was moved from across the street in 1907.

In 1907, the footprint of the building grew as a single-story frame tavern/store building was moved across the street from the southwest corner of Russell and Superior to make room for a new brick structure on that site, which is now home to Club Garibaldi.

Loffredo spent $600 to move the building, which he attached perpendicular to the east end of the existing tavern, and then dropped another $400 to make it all nice and neat.

One of the 1907 permits. (PHOTO: City of Milwaukee)

The permit for the alterations included work to “convert building into a store,” which could be a clue as to why there is little evidence of a grocery or tavern at the address for a number of years. With all those young single men looking for rooms, it may have been more profitable to run the entire place as a rooming house, though we don’t know for sure if that’s the case.

After the expansion, Loffredo took Franco Barbieri on as a partner in the bar.

While Barbieri left in 1909 to open Barbieri’s in the current Puddler’s Hall on St. Clair, Loffredo stayed with his family, with unfortunate results.

In August 1910, 11-year-old Joseph Loffredo bolted into the tavern to tell his father that 34-year-old Anton Tonacila, who boarded next door on Wentworth Avenue, had hit him with a fishing pole.

Heading outside, Loffredo and the alleged assailant argued until Tonacila ran upstairs to his room.

Loffredo followed him but was shot in the head when he reached the bottom of the stairs, according to newspaper reports. Three more shots rang out and two bullets hit Loffredo in the back.

(Take this spelling of Tonacila’s name with a grain of salt, as newspapers made little effort at accuracy when it came to Italian immigrant names, and, in fact, later the same day, the same papers said that an Anton Bassi was charged in the shooting. Loffredo’s name, too, was spelled in a dizzying variety of ways by the papers.)

Interestingly, one 1912 permit for alterations to the storefront listed Blatz Brewing Co. as the building’s owner, which may or may not be true. Permits are not always 100 percent accurate with regards to ownership and I’ve seen no other references to the saloon being a Blatz tied house. But, of course, it’s possible.

We do know that Loffredo’s widow Annie stayed on to run the saloon for a few years and was replaced by Angelo Sbragio by 1914.

Beginning in 1915, Steve Zawec (aka Zawez; the inattentiveness to immigrant names was not limited to Italians) ran the saloon, the back room of which had, since October 1914, been used as a meeting place for a group called “I Dilettanti Filodrammatici del Circolo Studi Sociali.” Group members – who were interested in music, theater and radical politics – paid $3 a month to rent the space.

The Circolo (or "circle") – followers of Italian radical Luigi Galleani, and one of many group with anarchistic leanings in the United States at the time – may have been the first to play music in what would, decades later, become one of the city’s best and longest-lived live music venues.

Zawec said that the group was there playing music on mandolins, guitars and accordions almost every night. Once in a while they’d host a visiting speaker.

When Circolo members clashed in September 1917 with a local Italian Protestant preacher outside what is now the home of Goodkind on Wentworth and Potter, it ignited a flurry of events that sparked a raid on the saloon and likely led to the explosion of a bomb in the Central Police station on Broadway and Wells that November.

You can read much more about that story in this article.

Zawec didn’t hang around long after the mess that landed his saloon in the press – which dubbed it "a nest of anarchists" and forced him to testify in court – and in 1918 and early ‘19, Michael Chorich ran the place until he was replaced by Augusto Chiaverotti and his wife Belina, whose association with the saloon would endure for decades.

August was born in 1879 and Belina in 1885, both in the Piemonte region of northwestern Italy. He arrived in the U.S. in 1912 and she a year later. They were married in 1918.

Although there was a period in the early 1920s when Dominic Regis operated a grocery store in the building, the Chiaverottis continued to own it and after August’s death in June 1930 and the arrival of repeal a couple years later, Belina ran the tavern as Belina’s.

Mindy Ceretto Rupp family
Mindy Ceretto Rupp's grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary around 1953 in the back room at Belina's.
Belina's back room
(PHOTOS: Mindy Ceretto Rupp)

“I remember Belina sat out in front of that little house next to the bar and always talked with us kids,” recalls lifelong Bay Viewer Mindy Ceretto Rupp. “My nonno Ceretto would take me by my hand and sit me down to watch him and the other old Italian men play bocce balls on those hot summer afternoons in the gangway between the tavern and Belina’s house. I still see them so clearly speaking Italian and laughing.

Behind the bar, from left: Belina's daughter Anita, Belina, another family member, and Michele Sandretto, October 1946. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Curtis Chiaverotti)

“The Chiaverotti family and her son Dominic lived one or two houses away from the tavern with his wife Lorraine Germanson Chiaverotti and family.”

The back room was a social hub of the neighborhood, regularly hosting parties, anniversary celebrations and other familial events.

Belina continued to own the building and the business after she married Michele Sandretto, leaving the saloon game about a decade before her death in 1965.

Barroom fun
Bar room fun during the Madunich era. (PHOTO: Margie Madunich Kautzman)

The place was rented in 1955 and ‘56 by Bill and Marge Madunic, and their daughter Margie Madunich Kautzman recalls that era.

“This was before they had refrigeration and all the beer was kept cold in ice boxes at the far east end of the bar,” she remembers. “The iceman came twice a week. We lived upstairs. The bocce ball alley was still in use. There was a side door on the north that went out to the bocce. It was hard-packed dirt, with a wood fence rail around it and long wood benches on the sides.

“The old men would come with their black berets, silver handled canes, drink shots of ouzo at the little tables then go play bocce. Being in their presence was truly an experience. Even my parents had a certain reverence/respect for them. I was never ever allowed in the tavern when it was open.”

Her sister Marlene Madunic Morrow adds, “There was a really nice wooden-floored ‘dance hall’ that seemed huge back then ... there would be all kinds of parties and weddings in there. I totally remember sleeping upstairs and hearing the jukebox lull us asleep. There was a big old creepy basement too. I remember some kind of old, crumbling brick and stone tunnel.”

“I wish I had more from that tavern,” says Kautzman. “I did have one of the original brass spittoons. I gave it to Kelsey Kaufmann this past summer. It needed to go home.”

1958 ad
A 1958 ad for the new Cactus Club.

By 1958, the bar was owned by Cliff and Alice Rose, who remodeled it into the country and western-themed Cactus Club, which hosted live music in the back.

Though they didn’t always keep the music going over the years, the Rose family operated the bar for decades, buying the building from Belina’s daughter Anita in 1977.

When Cliff passed away in 1989 at the age of 63, his son Bob, who had been running it for many years, bought it with his wife Barbara.

Bob died suddenly in 1992 and Barbara sold the place to customer Eric Uecke four years later.

Under Uecke’s leadership, the bar began to host bands, local, national and international and local musicians tippled there all the time. It wasn’t unusual to walk in to see Die Kreuzen’s Dan Kubinski behind the bar and local musicians like the late Mike Hoffman bellying up to it.

In the back room I can remember playing a number of gigs but also seeing great shows by Scotland’s Idlewild, a young Sharon Van Etten, alt country singer Kelly Hogan and others.

Some of the bands/artists who played there and went on to bigger things include Queens of the Stone Age, The Mekons, The White Stripes, Hot Chip and Bright Eyes.

Uecke did much work on the place during his tenure and in 2020 he sold it to longtime Kelsey Kaufmann, who you met earlier, and who started working at the bar nine years earlier.

The apartment living room.

When I visited, Kaufmann showed the former apartment upstairs – accessed by a long, steep staircase adorned with a colorful mural – which has been converted into a green room and amenity for performing artists. 

Imitation brick wall coverings have been exposed to show actual brick, pieces of the old carpet that was pulled up are now framed in the kitchen, sturdy bunk beds have been built in the bedrooms and Kaufmann uses one of the rooms up here as an office.

old carpet
Old carpet, new decor.
Bunk beds (above).

The apartment was long occupied by former owner, Alice Rose, whose jacket still hangs on a hook in the office.

We also went to the basement to see what Kaufmann calls the Pre-Prohibition Room, which is the lower level of the original back room and, through a small door, the so-called Prohibition Room – the basement of the building that was moved from across the street – which is piled high with decades’ worth of old chairs, a desk, a bed frame and other stuff.

Prohibition Room
The Prohibition Room (above) and the door leading to it (below).
Cactus ClubX

Kaufmann has plans to restore some of the chairs down there for use up in the bar.

In that space is the bricked-up former opening into the tunnel that Morrow recalled.

Back upstairs, Kaufmann has been leaving a mark on the place, too, hosting everything from book clubs, to film festivals and other events, in addition to live music.


Kaufmann also successfully got the city to allow venues like the Cactus Club to host all-ages shows.

Just before I arrived for my visit, the Cactus received nonprofit status that will allow Kaufmann to seek grants to help fund some of the venue's artistic ventures.

“We're still going to have the for-profit Cactus Club as a conventional music venue that hosts concerts and has a bar,” Kaufmann explains. "But everything that's auxiliary to that type of venture will be under the nonprofit: accessibility initiatives, youth internships, the film festival, all the sliding scale film programming, the book club, the block party that we do will be under that umbrella.

Kelsey jacket
Kelsey Kaufmann holding Alice's Cactus Club jacket.

“We have an upcoming residency that we're going to announce that I'm really excited about. That will be a multimedia artist residency.”

The nonprofit status has been in the works for a while, Kaufmann says.

“We started working on a nonprofit or conceiving of the idea of a nonprofit several years ago and started working on the application October 2022. Just two weeks ago, we heard back with no forewarning that we were approved, which is a huge deal because that's awesome.

“It just opens the doors because unfortunately in the United States, you need a nonprofit as the gateway to get any sort of arts funding.”

Kaufmann is also working on a plan to remove the small house that’s also on the property so that she can reorient the performance space, add better bathrooms and improve accessibility to the entire venue.

Moving the performance space and removing the current bathrooms also will allow for better use of the current space.

All of this will allow accessibility, modern bathrooms, facilities for the arts initiatives and live music, while also keeping the bar a neighborhood place.

bar room booth
A welcoming booth in the bar room.

“I still want my friends to be able to come get a $2 lemonade,” Kaufmann says. “It does feel really important to retain this third space, but a community space where people can come and feel free to be themselves in whatever way that may mean, and just have a trust in this non-monetized environment where I can come and doodle in the corner, and no one's going to ask me why I'm not ordering anything.

“You get to just hang out, and that's really special.”

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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 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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.