Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Pub Was the Place

The songwriter’s line, “On State Street, that great street,” could have applied to the site of some of Madison’s zaniest antics in the 1950s just as well as it fit Chicago’s busy thoroughfare. Many University of Wisconsin students spent a lot of free time on the street that ran from the State Capitol to the lower edge of Bascom Hill on campus.

The State Street ambience was light hearted; the students and business owners who catered to them made it so. A Rennebohm drug store, a favorite place to gather for coffee and chit-chat, was called, of course, The Pharm. Creative students often chose the sidewalks outside The Pharm as places they could entertain a big audience with their hijinks. As part of one of our Sigma Nu initiation stunts, a pledge was required to stand at the busy intersection for an hour eating popcorn out of a Kotex box.

Nearby, two bookstores faced each other across the street. In the student newspaper, The University Co-op’s ads said it was “across the mall from Paul.” Paul’s Book Store gave its location as “across the loop from the Coop.” University enclaves seem to inspire inventive names as well as prose. When our son was a University of Minnesota student, he took us for a beer at “The Improper Fraction,” where U of M students hung out. The bar was nothing special, but its name struck me as memorable.

State Street bars didn’t have cutesy names, but I thought they had distinct personalities. I was not a regular in the taverns as some students were. Most regulars flunked out of UW in a semester or two. But I visited all the State Street taverns at one time or another.

The Kollege Klub, where locals and visitors mixed with students, attracted noisy, and sometimes unruly, crowds. Two of my fraternity brothers who were on the boxing team worked there part-time as bartenders. Now and then they also functioned as bouncers.

The Brathaus, a favorite hangout of law school students, had much quieter patrons who actually were interested in the food as well as the drink. The grilled “brats” would have been classified as Polish sausages anywhere else in Wisconsin, something that still mystifies me. Brathaus “brats” definitely were not on menus in Sheboygan.

The Varsity Bar was a dimly lit smaller place, where young men took serious dates for a bit of hanky-panky in the booths. Things could get very serious at the “Var Bar.” Fraternity brother Don Tubman and his steady girlfriend Sue Mickeljohn took to spending considerable time there. Don and Sue became Mr. and Mrs. Tubman after their junior years.

The Pub was something special. There, I enjoyed my first State Street beer as a 17-year-old freshman after gaining admittance with a poorly altered draft card saying the bearer was 19. All the beer bars had their special stories. Tales of events at The Pub probably could fill the pages of a lengthy book. I heard a lot of them because Jack Peters, my best Sigma Nu buddy, tended bar there for a year or more. Jeff Weir, another Sigma Nu good guy, poured suds at The Pub before signing on for an Army tour and again in 1961-62 when he returned to UW to finish up work on a degree. Weir has a good memory, and lately has been sharing a few of the better Pub stories through e-mails. He became an attorney, and has practiced law for more than 25 years in Door County.

The Pub was the scene of “phantom dates.” Whether by house rule or just an accepted rule of conduct, coeds never entered the bar alone or in groups of females only. So those who wanted admittance badly hung around outside until they found a non-threatening male walking by who would agree to escort them in. The understanding was that the man would not have to stay, and many didn’t.

The Pub was home to one of the craziest characters in Madison history. Cy Butt lived for several years in an upstairs apartment. His roommate, Bobby Hinds, was a heavyweight boxer on the UW team who also was known for strange behavior. Butt gained fame by staying enrolled as a UW student for nearly 30 years. That happened because a family will provided him with a comfortable living as long as he was a student in good standing at Madison. Accounts vary, but one holds he stayed in the Law School for the last 12 of the 30 years, before the rules were changed and he was forced to graduate.

Butt, known as the “Sage of State Street,” was good at thinking and drinking, according to a writer who knew him well. He bombarded Madison’s two newspapers with letters to the editor advancing outlandish ideas. He once fired a pistol inside his apartment, and when a Madison police officer showed up to investigate, Butt said the explosion helped him with his writing. A favorite Butt antic was to walk up State Street tipping his hat to any female he passed. A few were said to faint when they got a close look at the live mink Butt was carrying on top of his head.

I encountered Butt only once--in The Pub. He came in wearing an old gray sweater with a bulge under it. He ordered one 15-cent beer and shared it with what I thought was a cat snuggled in the sweater. Maybe it was the mink!

I no longer remember the exact number who received law degrees with him, but when Butt finally graduated in the summer of 1955 I was in summer school and clearly recall reading the news. The Daily Cardinal headline proclaimed something like: Cy Butt and 87 Others Graduate From Law School.

The Pub was a bar and grill. The menu was interesting. Weir recalled serving Yummies (hamburgers) and Chummies (cheeseburgers). He said a Chummie with Swiss cheese was known as a Swummy. Fritos were an order of “Vegetables,” because you had to have them for a balanced meal.

Weir said the regulars at the Pub loved to sit near the front windows, park their beers on a ledge, and tap on the window panes when an especially attractive coed walked by. One regular noticed holes in the metal sidewalk elevator cover that was opened when kegs of beer were delivered. He welded a half dollar to a bolt and attached it to the metal panel. Gales of laughter swept through the bar whenever an embarrassed girl realized she couldn’t pick up the coin after bending over to grab it, and the regulars were watching.

Rumor had it that some student bartenders contributed to sort of a Pub welfare program for thirsty, but poorly financed, buddies. An early version had guests plunking a couple of nickels and dimes loudly on the bar when the regular bartender wasn’t watching. Their pal behind the bar would serve an 85-cent pitcher for the “wholesale price” payment of 30 or 40 cents, and help cover up the ruse with a loud, “Thank you,” as he rang up the sale.

Later, The Pub’s owner installed a cash register tape mechanism to thwart any conniving by student bartenders. Some were said to occasionally beat that system with an ingenious scheme to ring up receipts in a way that balanced the till and the tape totals, yet helped a few special friends satisfy their thirsts at reduced rates. Most transactions at The Pub, however, were known to be strictly on the up and up.

The Pub was the place to be on St. Patrick’s Day. Green beer flowed after the bartenders injected vegetable dye into the kegs. A lot flowed—Weir said as many as 35 half barrels were emptied over the three-day weekend.

When I visited The Pub about 40 years ago as an old grad the floor spaces where the regulars once positioned themselves to observe pretty girls walking down State Street were occupied by pinball machines. I quietly turned around and left. It just wasn’t the place to be anymore. I could envision the ghost of Cy Butt frowning.

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