Hidden gem: Woody's
This article first appeared in 2019 and we're sharing it again today in honor of Pride Week.
Some bars just have perfect names. One of the best in Milwaukee is Woody's at 1579 S. 2nd St., in the Clock Tower Acres neighborhood at the southern edge of Walker's Point.
Anyone who walks in and sees the vintage bar top that's been in place for surely well over a half a century will agree. It's enough to make a grown tippler blush.
While the clientele has changed over the years at Milwaukee's only gay sports bar, what hasn't is that the corner tavern is a welcoming place for camaraderie and a drink. Especially a vodka drink, judging from the lineup on the back bar.
"We do go through a lot of vodka here," says owner Alan Kettering. "And high-end whiskey, a little surprisingly."
Kettering has also worked to ensure that the taps offer a rainbow of brews.
"I just added the Hofbrau Dunkel, because I want to make sure there's something for everyone," he says. "From light to dark. What we sell most is Lite."
Kettering knows quite well what it's like to sit on one side of the bar. He was long a regular at Woody's, which opened as a gay bar in 1997. But, since Jan. 1, he's getting a taste of life on the opposite side of the brass rail.
Of course he brought a ton of tavern experience with him, right?
"None whatsoever," the trained engineer says with a laugh. "It's kind of crazy. There is a lady that comes here. She's a straight lady; she just likes people. We'd been talking and her dream was to own a bar. She just desperately wanted a bar and she said ... and I was looking for an investment. I thought 'Okay, I will invest in a bar if you find something that makes sense.'
"So we had been looking at all kinds of bars all over Bay View and South Milwaukee and all over the place, but couldn't find anything that made sense, and she talked the owners (Toby Heney and Kurt Baldwin) into selling this place. It was Toby Heney and Kurt Baldwin."
In the end, Kettering's potential partner bowed out, but he dove in.
"I had already started the process of detaching myself from my current job," he says, "so, I decided I'm doing it any way. I'm in."
That adds him to a long list of proprietors of the place.
A little history
The building appears to date to the early 1880s when carpenter Joseph E. Goetz and his wife Wilhelmina are listed as living there.
By 1900, Goetz – who was born in Germany in 1839 and immigrated to America 20 years later – is living nearby, and Martin Peterson, the son of Norwegian immigrants, is operating a grocery store in the space.
Interestingly, Goetz is described as a "retired carpenter" in that year's federal census, which masks the fact that he, himself, had been running a grocery in the building until 1887, when Leopold and Sidon Wieland took over the shop and the attached residence.
By 1894, Peterson had moved in and taken over the grocery, though members of the Goetz family are listed as the owners of the building as late as 1909. Poor Peterson may have been inexperienced at the till, however, because that same year he made the papers when he "was caught by a 'flim-flam' man, who got a $5 bill by deterous manipulation of the change."
Nevertheless Peterson kept going until about 1913, when one of his young clerks, Irwin W. Scheerbarth, took over and stayed until around 1920, when Anton and Stella Bershas moved in.
While Anton worked as an auto mechanic, Stella ran a dry goods and millinery store, which banked on its bargain prices. "My low rent saves you money," noted one of her newspaper ads.
The building didn't serve as a saloon (albeit a theoretically dry one at first, thanks to the 18th Amendment) until Anton Sweykata – who had, in 1919, previously applied for a tavern license at 715 Greenbush – bought it around 1923 and built a garage the following year.
The tunnel he constructed to connect the garage to the building survives in Woody's basement today. It is one of the reasons that we might expect that Sweykata's saloon was "wetter" than expected.
In 1926, Sweykata may have remodeled because he advertised saloon furniture for sale: "cheap, complete."
Sweykata's adherance to Prohibition may have also been cast into doubt by his trial in 1930 on the charge of "maintaining nuisances."
Sweykata and two others were charged with running a brewery at a cottage near Sweykata's, where – wait for it – a tunnel connected the basement to the garage and was used move the illicit beer.
However, the men were found not guilty, in part because Sweykata had apparently stopped running the tavern in the building – which he would continue to own, and expand at least twice, until 1944 – for a year before the June 1929 raid on the cottage.
After building an addition to connect the garage (which is now the back part of Woody's) and adding to the second floor, too, Sweykata listed the bar for sale in 1944, describing it as a, "Good going tavern with lunch room in connection, has dummy elevator to kitchen. Modern flat, 6 rooms, sunroom, garage, near 2 defense plants, ship yards, 1 blk. To 2nd-Mitchell. Same owner 21 years. Bldg. spic, span, A-1 condition; $12,500."
The Balkan Inn era
That same year, Mike and Eva Vinovich bought the tavern, by then two years old and called the Balkan Inn, and stayed on for decades, creating what would be one of the notable ethnic taverns in town.
Five years in, they tinkered the front entrance, most likely creating the unusual approach to the front door that survives today.
Upstairs, the Vinoviches augmented their income by renting four sleeping rooms.
But, more importantly, the Vinoviches had begun booking talent in the dance hall while Eva cooked up Eastern European specialties in the basement kitchen (the elevator is gone, though you can still see where it was located; look for the Packers logo on the floor).
In 1950, there was free square dancing on Thursday nights with Elmer Hamann doing the calling, and the following year the Milwaukee Sentinel's H.E. "Jamie" Jamison stopped in for a little research for his folksy and popular "Jaunts with Jamie" in the morning paper.
"It is a rendezvous of foreign-born Americans who hunger for the atmosphere of their motherlands. Here gather Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and also Hungarians, Bulgarians, Russians, Rumanians, Greeks and Poles. They come to speak their native languages, to eat their native foods and to dance their native dances.
"Mrs. Vinovich is a handsome woman by Old or New World standards. She wears her thick hair braided in a coronet, and no make-up of any kind. Her wide blue eyes are wise and warm. She came to America from Yugoslavia in 1928 at the age of 15. Before she opened the Balkan Inn seven years ago, she ran a Serb boarding house in South Milwaukee. When (her kids) leave the fold, Mrs. Vinovich wants to get a place in the country and raise chickens and pigs and take it easy. She is weary of business responsibilities, television and juke boxes."
Among the treats on offer, Jamison noted, were Punjene Paprika (stuffed green peppers), Sarma (stuffed cabbage), Raznici (roast pork), Goulash, Pasulj (meat and navy bean stew), Gibanca dessert pastry with alternating strips of dough and cheese.
"But you have to take your chances on these Serbian dishes. The cook chooses one or more of them for the speciality of the day at random. There is no cover charge and the above dishes are a dollar or less.
"Yes, sir, if you want to visit the Balkans some evening, just get aboard the magic carpet that is your Milwaukee streetcar pass."
In '52, while running for U.S. Senate, Henry Reuss, who lived on Ogden Avenue, spent nearly a full day – 21 hours – walking about 20 miles around town, pressing the flesh and showing reporters the holes he'd worn in his shoes.
"Reuss expended more than his allowance of energy shortly before midnight at the Balkan Inn, 1579 S. 2nd St.," noted one news report. "After he was introduced in Serbian as the 'Democratski' candidate, he joined the group which was dancing to the music of a five tambouritza band. The tambouritza belongs to the same musical family as the guitar, mandolin and balalaike.
"The dance was the kolo, a sort of Yugoslavian big apple. Reuss made up in vigor what he lacked in familiarity with the steps. His partner was Miss Anne Desnica, 4742 N. Sherman Blvd. The woman on his other side in the circle was Mrs. Nick Nolan, 1644 S. 3rd St., whose husband is a Democratic candidate for both sheriff and coroner."
The festivities and gay atmosphere of the Balkan Inn periodically made the news, as in the early days of January 1957.
"A sample of the infectious gaiety (Julian New Year's celebrations) could be had Sunday night at the Balkan Inn, a headquarters for the light hearted Serbians and others. Mrs. Eva Vinovich who came from Toplic in Yugoslavia several years ago is the proprietress of the inn, and with the help of an enthusiastic four piece band managed to recreate some of the traditional festivity.
"The single most effective prop was a magnificent mustache worn by Pete Markovich, who play one of the tamburitzas. Pete is a man of considerable girth and he not only strummed out the 'first brac' (lead) of the music, but provided vocals and also often joined the dancers. All this activity called for some sustenance, of course, and the bustling Eva brought out huge platters of pechenica, a roast young pig, to be eaten with the light red wine of the Balkans. At midnight, the celebrators dashed their glasses down, signifying the breaking of the old year, and then came the most popular feature of any New Year's party. Someone turned out the lights."
Later that year, Markovich, who had started the Balkan Inn and then partnered for a while with the Vinoviches before selling his stake to focus on music, died of a heart attack at age 47, while performing in the dance hall.
By 1958, Carl and Betty Hunt took over the Balkan Inn and continued the tradition of entertainment at the bar, but from that point on, newspapers focused only on tragedy when it came to the bar.
In June 1959, Carl Hunt and a garbageman who came to his aid in fighting a basement fire were burned on their hands and overcome by smoke and taken to Johnson Municipal Hospital. Another fire, caused by an overheated kettle on the stove, occurred in 1962.
Two years later, the tavern was robbed by a guy who'd been paroled the year before and attempted to rob another South Side bar on the same day. That escape earned him 15 more years in Waupun.
He would not be the last to try his luck at delinquency.
In 1972, according to a news report, "Police said two men, both about 25, one armed with a sawed off shotgun and the other a pistol, entered the Balkan Inn, and one said, 'Give me all your money or I will kill you and everybody drop your wallets.' The men took $129 from the wallets of four patrons, and $150 from the cash register and ordered everybody in the bar into a back room, police said."
The good times were long gone, it seems, leading the Journal in 1975 to wax nostalgic, writing, "Years ago the place (for Serbian dancing) was the Balkan Inn, in the shadow of Allen-Bradley, a wonderful bit of old Belgrade with shish kebab roasting in the basement and Big Pete Markovich's band playing in a hall with lighted, gold framed oil paintings of St. Sava and Karageorge princes battling the Turks."
The next year, Betty Hunt (Carl had died in the early 1960s) sold and Guadalupe and Inez Macias opened Lupe's Place, reflecting the changing demographics in what was still an immigrant neighborhood.
When Betty died in 1978, former Old Town cook Milan Pantich opened Milan's Balkan Inn restaurant at 2023 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., in Bay View, perhaps as a tribute.
Woody's in 1999. (PHOTO: City of Milwaukee)
In the early '80s the bar was operated by another couple, which declared bankruptcy soon after, and then Hector Torres opened the Lapham Inn, where, sadly, a man was shot in 1988. A few years later, Lupe's Place was briefly back, and then Maria del Carmen Solis opened Gallo d'Oro before Henry Schicker bought the place and opened 3B's Bar in 1995.
After a two-year run for 3B's – which Kettering says was a sort of "country line dancing" place – Steven Behl opened Woody's on Nov. 14, 1997, and the now-defunct Quest magazine was there.
"Woody's opened Sat., the 14, with a very nice turnout," the magazine wrote. "The whole inside has been freshly painted and has new lighting. The big dance hall has been rearranged into a game room up front, with the back 2/3 designed for shows and dancing. The atmosphere is very clean, friendly and the staff knows how to make you feel welcome."
The Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project web sitedwsaeqbbwtyvbwsudyswbdycfq (which also graciously lent the grand opening photos at right) adds, "Upon opening this bar, the owner (Steve) saw the need for a gay sports bar, and thus installed a very large screen TV in the back room to make viewing games more enjoyable. Woody's thus became the first gay bar to be wildly popular for Packers games, Badgers games, etc.
"On a typical Packers Sunday, the bar is packed full of customers from game time until the cheerful or gloomy end of the game – helped by a beer bust for the entire game (and one hour beyond), and free shots with every Packers score."
Around 2010, Behl sold Woody's to Heney and Baldwin, who ran the bar until Kettering bought it.
Kettering knows a lot about Woody's having long been part of the bar's community, but now he's experiencing it from a different angle.
"(Heney and Baldwin) had it for 10 years and, as I understand it,10 years owning a bar is like an eternity," he tells me. "I'm gonna find out."
Have the first four months seemed like confirmation of that maxim?
"Not an eternity yet," he says. "There are some fun things. Highs and lows. I had done a lot of research into the legalities – the permits and all the other stuff – but as far as the day to day, not so much. You've got to come in every day and clean, and do the books. The drudgery of it surprised me because I didn't prepare myself for that."
But he's not discouraged, Kettering says.
"I've got a staff, thankfully," he adds with a smile. "I am not a bartender. I got my license, but I don't have the knowledge. So, on busy days or nights, I will stand by the end of the bar and help. I can tap beers. I can pour shots."
Fans of Woody's will be happy to know that not much has changed. There's the expanded selection of beers on tap, a few more TVs for sports, but that's about all.
"It hasn't changed a lot," Kettering says. "It's always been a sports bar. I've been trying to keep it very mellow. No drama. I'm trying to keep it, not pristine, but on the less sleazy side. There are bars that go down some avenues that I'd rather not go."
Above all, TVs and beer aside, Kettering is committed to keeping the Woody's family together.
"We had a Easter lunch here, which was kind of cool. Being an old gay man, the older you get the less family you have. And I wanted to provide a place for people to go who didn't have family. Whether it's because their family's gone, whether they've been rejected by their family or if their family is just traveling that Easter, or is somewhere else, this would be a place for them to come. There was a good turnout.
"It's a community thing ... that's what I love. It's a nice, happy place and people have called it kind of the Cheers of the gay Milwaukee. I like that."
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