Blasts from our Madison past

A month ago, I discovered a few old pieces of Madison media on YouTube, and posted them on this blog.

Then on Tuesday, I was trying to write Wednesday’s blog item when I checked on Facebook.

Several hours later, I decided to start writing this to make up for all the time I lost in the Facebook “If you grew up in Madison you remember” group. I think I once mentioned that most of my high school graduating class appeared to be on Facebook. Apparently everyone else who grew up in Madison the same time, or before then, is on Facebook too.

On Tuesday, the activity on this group slowed down my laptop and threatened to bring the Internet to a screeching halt more effectively than an electromagnetic pulse. It was like feeding bread to ducks, with people fighting to get their memories of Madison online.

In the four hours between when I was let into the group and when I finally turned off the email notifications, there were more than 500 posts. The group jumped over 1,000 members and 3,000 posts less than 24 hours after it was created. (As someone posted, “Hooray! We broke Facebook!”) By the end of its second day it exceeded 3,400 members and 7,500 posts. By the end of its third day it exceeded 4,600 members (and jumped over 5,000 members shortly thereafter) and 11,000 posts. WIBA (1310 AM) in Madison is doing a segment about this group today at 10:30 a.m. This site may need to be spun off of Facebook onto its own domain — maybe

A lot of the memories, not surprisingly for Wisconsin, involved bars and drinking. (I’ll pause while you recover from the shock.) I was part of the last high school class that could legally drink at 18. One of my first mixed drinks was something called Swampwater, which was the color of antifreeze and was usually served in mason jars. I have been unable to determine what was in it. (I drank that in a campus bar where I was in more than any other campus bar; in a previous location, it was a favorite of my father’s back when he was a UW student.) There were also fond memories of Long Island Ice Teas, which, for those who can’t decide between gin, rum, vodka or whiskey, combines all four, plus triple sec, sour mixer and cola. As one poster put it, “This site is proof you can’t kill all your brain cells no matter how hard you tried.”

Many of the other memories (including the aforementioned  memories involving adult beverages) undoubtedly were of the if-our-parents-only-knew variety. (The amusing point to ponder is how many of the members’ parents are also on Facebook.) The future corollary is when parents ask themselves how much of what they did when they were their children’s age would they want their own children to do.

In rough alphabetical order, what also came up included:

The A&W drive-in that sold root beer in the baby-size mugs quite inexpensively. Ask my parents, and they will tell you how on summer nights they would give their boys baths, put them in their pajamas, and take them to this drive-in, where they would order three root beers and one orange. (Guess who got the orange because he didn’t like root beer.) And the boys in the back seat would have one orange smile and one brown smile.

Arlans, a discount retailer that had a store on Milwaukee Street, and Eagle, the grocery store on the other half of the same building. Swiss Colony owned the building last time I saw it. The building is west of the “new” Madison post office, opened in Gerald Ford’s presidency.

Barnaby’s, a pizza place where numerous birthday parties were held. People placed orders and then picked them up when a light at their table informed them dinner was ready. It offered pizza-and-root beer combinations, which was fine unless you didn’t like root beer.

Bridgeman’s, a restaurant and ice cream parlour (that’s how they spelled it) that was my first employer. There was a Dairy Queen in the neighborhood before Bridgeman’s, but when Bridgeman’s arrived it blew DQ out of the water. (On the other hand, there is still a restaurant in the original DQ building, whereas the old Bridgeman’s is now, ironically, a dental office.) The best thing about working at Bridgeman’s was eating the mistakes, particularly the Tin Roof sundae (hot fudge, butterscotch and pecans, I think). Drinks were free, but food was full price unless, oops, someone made a mistake. (Perhaps that’s why it went out of business less than a decade after it opened.)

The C&P shopping center with a sloped parking lot. Most of the store was level with the west side of the lot, but there was a ramp that went from the main level to the ground level where shoppers could bring their cars and pick up their groceries. (Another thing you never see anymore.) Of course, five-year-olds loved to race down the ramp ahead of Mom’s grocery carts.

Cars we drove or owned, which were on the large side in the case of the former and were barely functioning in the case of the latter.

“Choi,” a term of approval at La Follette (I assume it’s short for “choice”), and the more superlative “choi to the max!” At the time I thought this was just an ’80s term. Based on posts, however, it appears to have been limited to only Madison. That makes one wonder who started “choi,” in the same way that La Follette alumni of the early ’80s still wonder who started the epic spring 1982 outdoor food fight.

Concerts in various venues ranging from the Shuffle Inn (Van Halen) to Headliners (Joan Jett) to Merlin’s (U2) to the Dane County Coliseum (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Doobie Brothers, Elvis Presley, Cheap Trick opening for Queen, REO Speedwagon opening for every other act, Foreigner, Chicago more than once) to the Orpheum Theater (Bob Marley and the Wailers) to the Dane County Junior Fair (Rick Springfield) to the Memorial Union Terrace (the Violent Femmes) to Breese Stevens Field (Ready for the World and Sheila E) to … an East High School TWIRP (The Woman Is Required to Pay) dance, where Cheap Trick supposedly played.

Madison’s first convenience stores, Stop & Go and PDQ.

The drive between Madison and Cottage Grove, which was posted at 55 mph except for one 50-mph stretch. So much development has taken place in the intervening years that Dane County BB is now posted at 35 mph.

Department stores in the pre-mall era, including Gimbel’s, Manchester’s and Yost’s. Some offered not just clothing, but restaurants or hair styling. Similar to …

Several old drug stores, including Gerhardt’s (now a Walgreen’s) and Rennebohm’s, owned by a former governor of Wisconsin. I believe Gerhardt’s was where I purchased my first record (Rhythm Heritage’s “Theme from ‘SWAT'”). My parents remember the downtown Madison Rennebohm’s because it had a lunch counter (where I ate once before interviewing the mayor of Madison, who had just replaced the mayor who had replaced Paul Soglin.)

Our various doctors, dentists, etc. It turns out that our pediatrician, Dr. William Ylitalo of Quisling Clinic, was also the pediatrician of numerous other people in this group. (Quisling Clinic was started by two physicians who were cousins of Vidkin Quisling, who was to Norway what Vichy was to France. For running Norway for the Nazis, Vidkun was executed after the right side won.) Dr. Ylitalo’s son is in this group too, so I imagine he’s been enjoying the reading. And most of us also had in common various dental appliances to correct our overbites, underbites, or poorly spaced teeth.

The East Side Business Men’s Association festival on Milwaukee Street. Everyone who attended was of the age where they didn’t notice how rickety the Ferris wheel was. (The ESBMA building on Atwood Avenue/Monona Drive was also the site of the La Follette High School Class of 1983 post-graduation party, our final formal event as a class before the 1988 reunion. It’s now called the East Side Club.)

The early days of East Towne Mall, which in its first decade or two had fountains, smoking areas, a Burger King, County Seat (preferred source of Levi’s), the Aladdin’s Castle video arcade, a bar, a two-screen theater and the Moon Fun Shop, a head shop. East Towne also had York Steak House, where I had my first and last dates (and a few in between) with my first girlfriend.

The back road to East Towne, which before development there meant driving through a weird intersection that included a right-hand curve and a steep hill that ended at a stop sign. My brother was driving our 1975 Chevrolet Caprice to work one day when he was rear-ended at the multi-level intersection by a one-ton van. The van appeared as though a giant fist had smashed the front end. The Caprice suffered … a bent rear bumper.

The Hungry Hungry (or possibly Hungry Hungry Hungry), a drive-in I vaguely remember occasionally visiting across the street from Olbrich Park on the east shore of Lake Monona.

Ironic repositioning of store chains. What you know as Kohl’s, Wisconsin’s finest retail chain, was also a chain of grocery stores, most in buildings with curved roofs. What you know as Copps’ supermarkets also was a group of discount retail stores. The East Side had a Kohl’s grocery store and a Copps discount retail store, neither of which are in existence today. (The Kohl’s building on Monona Drive is still there, though.)

Kelly’s, a former fast-food chain in at least Madison. The difference between Kelly’s and McDonald’s was that Kelly’s had hot dogs, and its mascot was a dancing pickle reportedly named Pete.

Marc’s Big Boy, a restaurant on East Washington Avenue (the chain still exists, but not that restaurant) that featured fish in buckets wrapped with wax paper with London newspaper print, and Big Boy comic books.

Various off-brand gas stations, including Fisca, Kickapoo, Martin and Transport.

Paisan’s, which, in its fourth location, still has the best pizza in Madison.

The Pig’s Ear, a high-end restaurant (which I never went to) with garish pink walls. It is now called Talula and has gotten at least one good review.

Pizza Pit, which still runs this commercial:

Public employee strikes — the 1976 Madison teacher strike (which prompted the mediation/arbitration law), which got us two weeks off right after winter vacation for the price of (1) losing our entire spring vacation, (2) having to go to school on a Saturday, and (3) adding two days at the end of the school year) and the 1977 and 1980 Madison Metro bus strikes, which forced those who didn’t live near our middle and high schools to find alternative transportation to and from school.

Queen of Apostles High School, which was just east of Interstate 90. I didn’t go to “QAS,” but when I joined the Boy Scouts our meetings were there until it closed in the late 1970s. It’s now some kind of high-tech business.

The Catholic church many of us attended, St. Dennis, the only Catholic church in the entire La Follette attendance district. (St. Bernard was on Atwood Avenue, and Immaculate Heart of Mary were in Monona, but it still seems like poor planning to have a farther east or farther south Catholic church for the far East side’s exploding growth.) Until my senior year of high school, St. Dennis Masses were held in either a very small church, or the school gym. (For the first few years of my life, I thought every Catholic church had backboards and a scoreboard.) St. Dennis pre-adult parishioners were in two groups — those who also went to St. Dennis School between first and eighth grades, and those who attended the Madison public schools. St. Dennis didn’t have a church big enough for the enormous congregation until 1983, in a building project funded by monthly Friday fish fries in the 1970s, where I bused in exchange for free fish afterward.

Paul Soglin, when he was mayor of Madison the first time, from 1973 to 1979. And then he was mayor from 1989 to 1997. And then he was elected mayor again in April. (Perhaps when Soglin passes on they’ll just prop up his body El Cid-like in the City–County Building council chambers and have an assistant push keys on a laptop for “Motion to approve,” “those in favor say aye,” and so on.

Teachers, including former La Follette choir teacher Rod  Witte (who was very popular with his singers) and Pete Olson, physical education and driver education teacher and (twice-state-championship-winning) boys basketball coach at La Follette, who now apparently can be found fishing on a lake in Vilas County. Any student or player of Olson’s knows exactly what he would have said about all this: “Not very impressive.”

Theaters,  including the Cinema Theater on Atwood Avenue (where as previously noted my brother and I saw our first movie, “Lady and the Tramp”) and the Badger and Big Sky drive-ins.

The Wisconsin term for an ATM: a TYME machine, standing for “Take Your Money Everywhere.”

The old UW–Madison registration process. In the days before online registration, and even before the days you could register by phone, you were assigned a registration start time by your last name. Students at the state’s only world-class university started at the UW Stock Pavilion (just the place you want to be on a hot August day), then raced to various buildings corresponding with subject areas on campus, where the student would check with the academic department registration committee to see if any spots were available for the desired class. Repeat the process until you get your classes (if you have an early registration time), or, if not, figure out alternatives. One semester this process went so well that I had classes two days from 8:25 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., no classes at all two other days, and a morning full of classes on Friday. This is one of the excuses I have for not giving money to my alma mater.

The Vietnam War protests, well chronicled in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “The War at Home.” I had relatives outside Wisconsin who, not knowing the layout of Madison, assumed from what they saw on the evening news that their nephew and his young family was in danger of being assaulted by marauding college students. (There was no need for concern because (1) college students probably didn’t know Madison existed outside campus, and besides that (2) we were in bed by bartime.) The nadir of the antiwar movement occurred Aug. 24, 1970, when UW’s Sterling Hall was bombed by four people (one of whom disappeared shortly after the event and has never been found), killing one UW grad student. Many people remember the middle-of-the-night bombing for the sound it made and the damage it caused. I was a religious watcher of ABC-TV’s “The FBI” at the time, a show that ended with star Efrem Zimbalist Jr. doing a piece about someone on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, and I remember the night those four were on.

“When we could road trip all night on $5 worth of gas!!!” And indeed you could do that, even with 11-mpg cars, because gas was less than $1 a gallon into the 1980s.

Various features of the Henry Vilas Zoo, including a polar bear that played with a bowling ball and the Mold-a-Rama machine. If that’s the polar bear I remember, I believe it came to a premature end when, after a mentally ill man jumped into the polar bear pit, Madison police shot the bear to protect the man. That led some people to suggest that the police had chosen which to shoot incorrectly. I went on a field trip with my oldest son to the zoo, and it, of course, blew my mind.

Younger readers and non-Madisonians will probably wonder what the hell these 3,000-plus people are babbling about. My prediction, however, is that you too will be reminiscing about the good old days (no matter how old you are) before you even realize it. My wife (who after her first La Follette reunion with me claimed she had more in common with my classmates than hers) recalls fondly driving around the courthouse square in Lancaster the wrong way, with her best friend screaming the whole way. (Or perhaps it was the mouse hiding in the headliner of the car — the stories sometimes get confused.)

I have no idea how many of the 3,000-plus members of the “If you grew up in Madison you remember” group still live in Madison. Based on what they remember, they, and I, grew up in a Madison that had fewer of the problems that Madison has today. (The weather, however, is unchangeable.) A number of posts included mention of going someplace by foot or on bus, by themselves, with no harm occurring, something you wouldn’t be likely to recommend doing today. So while Mad City was a good place to grow up, I don’t think it is a good place to grow up today, assuming you could even afford to live there.

These memories have also been softened, in one direction or another, by time. Distance makes us forget that, when we were in middle school, we wanted to get to high school, and when we were in high school (the giant angst factory), we wanted to get out of high school (whether “out” meant college, a job, or just out of Madison). Either we remember things as being better than they were, or things were better then than we thought they were at the time.

Most of us (certainly me) probably need to thank our parents for their contributions to the Madison in which they raised us. Many, including my parents, came to Madison from various other places, sometimes for better occupational opportunity, or perhaps because they thought Madison would be a better place to raise their kids than where they grew up. They were the people went to work every weekday (or more), paid the high taxes, took up their free time with various civic involvements, endured the institutional strangeness, and made the other sacrifices parents make for their kids. And the memories on this insanely popular Facebook page were one of the results.


16 thoughts on “Blasts from our Madison past

  1. I had no idea there were Bridgeman’s ice cream parlours outside of Minnesota! While I get back to Duluth (home to many Bridgeman’s locations in the ’70s) regularly, I never have the heart to go to one of the last surviving restaurants because I know it just won’t be the same. And fwiw, a tin roof normally has Spanish peanuts, but I’m sure there are many variations on the theme.

  2. Hi Steve!

    My name is Jeff and we were in band together at LaFollette (I was class of ’85) and for a short time the UW Band as well. I just got done reading some of your stuff and enjoyed it, but this post in particular was one of the best trips down memory lane that I can recall. I moved from Madison in the early/mid ’90s so it’s been a while since I’ve lived there, and so many of the things you mentioned I had either forgotten about or hadn’t thought about in years. One memory after another came flooding back as I read through this which left me nostalgic and homesick at the same time.

    Places like Barnaby’s, Bridgeman’s, Big Boy, The Pig’s Ear (drove by it every day, never went inside but always wanted to) York Steak House (never had a steak there, I always got the big hamburger and steak fries) and ESBMA hadn’t entered my mind in many years, but they all brought back memories of dining out as a family when I was a kid. My dad managed the C&P Grocery Store at the corner of Cottage Grove Rd & Monona Dr/Atwood Ave. from the time I was 5 years old until snow caused the roof to collapse, at which time he purchased it and re-built/remodeled it and became the owner/operator,so I remember that ramp very well!

    I was also in Boy Scouts when the meetings were at Queen of Apostles (I was trying to recall that name recently and couldn’t remember it for the life of me) so we must have been in the same troop as well. One thing I haven’t forgotten was the registration process at UW, and I have told my tales of woe to students who have NO idea how much better they have it now! The strategy involved in the event a class was no longer available, along with back-up plans, contingency plans, a plan “B” and an emergency plan factored in, rivaled planning a military operation. Yet it could unravel in a heartbeat. Plus it’s 10* with a wind chill of -15*. Marching Band try-outs is another thing I’ve never forgotten. I was the drum major at LaFollette my senior year, organized a little marching summer camp for incoming freshmen and charted my own routine, so I had some experience under my belt, and as an active 18 year old I was in decent shape (I thought). After the 3rd day of try-outs I was so sore I had to roll out of bed and crawl to the phone to call in sick to work that day! Good times.

    Thanks for the trip!

  3. Anyone know how Pizza Pit made their hot ham/salami with a mayo sauce wrapped in foil sold around 1978-1979? Would like another….Yum! Thanks and Merry Christmas!

  4. Wow remember it all,I was born at General Hospital 1961.Our family Dr Ylitalo at Quisling as well.I ate at the Kelly’s restaurant on the West Beltline many times.When I saw the Bridgeman’s name my first thought was a “Triple Treat Sunday” please and many trips to A&W as well.Aslo attended St Dennis and my wife was a graduate of Queen of Apostles.
    Spent a lot of time at Vilas zoo and the winter ice skating at Vilas.I remember the East Towne stores listed but have to include Back Stage Bar where they served a drink called the “Oscar” with a two drink limit and good reason for it.Pizza Pit was a main food staple in my teen years and agree to this day Paisan’s is still the best pizza.We moved away from the area back in 2001 but still have family there so every time we get back to madison we have to get to Paisan’s ,anyway could go on forever with Great memories,Jim

  5. Did I miss mention civil rights leader Father Grapi marching down the interstate all the way from Milwaukee to the capital square in Madison only to be met by thr Wisconsin national guard standing shoulder to shoulder protecting the capital bldg. Lasted 5-6 days I believe. Almost had another Kent State. Thank God we didn’t.

  6. Still out there?

    Not sure if my first post to you site “took” but your site struck me!

    Yes, I was a 1978 grad of QA High School! Now some condos and apartments… and a poor rendition of The Great Dane.

    Some of your script resonates with me… swamps at Bud’s East… Pizza Pit, Rocky’s by MG where I got beat up by 3 MG Highers … oh what a time…C&P was a store owned by Carl Payne .., whose house may still stand on Cottage Grove Road just east of QA.

    So many hours sitting in class looking out the windows of QA! Overlooking Madison, those tall smokestacks by the capitol…Where Scotty Walker hangs out now … what a world, what a life…

    Tom Russell …. or maybe T – Russ …

  7. Hi, I just happened upon your article about Madison. I was raised on the east side; didn’t leave until 1963. I recall that movie theatre you mentioned on Atwood Avenue was called the Eastwood Theatre (or Theater). Now it’s the Barrymore. Thanks for recalling many memories.

  8. Hi. I went to East High 1976 to 1980. They use to have bands every Friday night in the cafeteria. I saw Cheap Trick many times there when they were just a bar band. They use to play at the Stone Hearth too before they hit it big. I love them to this day. It was fun seeing them on a regular basis for a buck then paying $6.50 to see them at the Coliseum and to follow their career.

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