The Brady Street Pharmacy and Coffee Shop, 1983-2009
A Collection of Snippets From The Era
These were the 'Good 'ol Days" they say... and for a number of people in Milwaukee, the Brady Street Pharmacy and Coffee Shop was the setting that created some of those days along with the memories that came with that era. Here are a few snippets from those coffee shop times when regular customers would come in for their daily lunch or coffee, meeting up with their friends in this affable restaurant setting with friendly waitresses acknowledging their presence. There was an eclectic group that hung out at the coffee shop. Here are a few:
Joe Di Frances hung out in the coffee shop at the pharmacy. As a young man he had lead roles (tenor) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I spotted him having breakfast. Opportunity. I walked over. He was holding up a newspaper that he was reading. “Sing something for me”. Back came the reply “go away”. But you sang lead roles at the Met. With that a very pretty young lady sitting one table over joined in. “I know the Met. You never sang there”. Down snapped the newspaper. He turned to her. “Give me your hands”. With that he softly started to sing her a love song in Italian. By the end his voice was at a level that could fill a mega-sized theater with no amplification. That brought a round of applause. And the girl, well her face was a bit flushed. With that the newspaper went back up. From behind it came a voice “now will you leave me alone”? (Listen to "Dite alla giovine" from La Traviata sang by Joe Di Frances and Raquel Montalvo, 1965)
Sol Zitron, a cantor at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid synagogue and graduate of Juilliard School of Music, had a lead role in Madame Butterfly at the Performing Arts Center. While hanging out at the pharmacy, every now and then he would get into role and burst out into part of a song. Sol got paid 375 dollars a week not to show up for work at his family's packing plant, Milwaukee Dressed Beef. One morning Sol had breakfast at the Hotel Pharmacy's coffee shop, then headed over to the Jewish Center to work out on the racquetball court. A little later there was a call from the center. Sol had collapsed of a massive heart attack at 10 am. Milwaukee was stunned.
Henry Reuss (Chair of the Banking Commission) was a regular hanging out in the coffee shop. One day Henry was eating his breakfast when Harout Sanasarian a County Supervisor stopped by and pestered him for a stock tip. Henry said buy oatmeal. Harout did not get it. "Why oatmeal?” asked Harout. Henry replied "because if it goes up you can sell it and it goes down you can eat it" With that he went back to eating his oatmeal for breakfast.
Dan Forlano was the conductor and director for the Milwaukee Ballet. Living at 1111 N. Astor, he hung out at the coffee shop in the pharmacy. Dan conducted without a score. He could tell where every dancer should be at any given time in a ballet. The Milwaukee Ballet merged with the Philadelphia Ballet. The merger only lasted a short time leaving the Milwaukee Ballet 445 thousand dollars in debt. Every one thought it was finished. Dan raised the money over a one year period as his heart failed. In a rehearsal that was quite difficult, Dan collapsed into the Concert Masters arms—home to God. They held a requiem at the PAC to honor Dan. It was packed.
Cy Bensman hung out in the coffee shop in the Hotel Pharmacy on Juneau. I think that Cy had been divorced about 4 times. I told him that he needed a less expensive hobby. The funeral service for Sol Zitron was held at the Goodman-Bensman Funeral Home on Santa Monica Blvd. I was there a bit early. More and more and then still more people kept coming in. I helped to get lots more chairs out. Finally the mega-sized room was jam packed. I found out later that the funeral home was stunned at the number of people who showed up.
Robert Feinberg was a regular at the coffee shop sitting in with friends that he often joined for coffee and conversation. As a young man he served his country as a paratrooper. In the early 1960s he did bar-tending work while training to be a stockbroker which he went on to become and continued to be for 35 years. Robert passed away April 11, 2016, at the age of 87.
John Sahli was a regular at the Pharmacy Coffee Shop when it was located in the Knickerbocker Hotel, and was one of many who followed Jim and Barb Searles to the Brady St. Pharmacy. After a long day as a graphic designer, John would arrive about 5:30 almost every evening to relax and enjoy dinner with his friends. He would loosen his tie, light his pipe and join in on the solving of the Green Sheet's "Trivia Quiz" which was read aloud by John Angelos. Tuesday was Knachtwurst and Beans night. Jim usually saved one for John as it was his favorite. Another favorite was Pasta with garlic, oil, tomatoes, mushrooms and onions. It was always fun to talk to John about the 60's and early 70's when he played guitar in the rock band known as "The Shags" which had he and three others had formed. He was also a co-founder of Milwaukee's underground newspaper "Kaleidoscope." Lot's of stories there.
Walter Sheffer, as Milwaukee's main society photographer, was able to establish his own "look" and very successful portrait studio by 1953. He also taught advanced portraiture at the Layton School of Art from 1952 to 1970. What made his photos so incredible were his dark room techniques that still cannot be duplicated. The Milwaukee Art Museum has a small number of his prints. Marquette university has 75 shots that he took of theater productions. The rest are in a private collection.
Walter had 31 one-man shows tour the country. In his later years, his life finally blew apart, ending up destitute—living at River Hills East Nursing Home on Prospect Ave. One of his former students, Sue Bartfield, recognized Walter when she happened to be at the home. She got him going again. Walter shot 35 incredible black and white shots of elderly residents at the nursing home. The opening for the show was at lobby of the Henry Reuss Building, 310 W. Wisconsin Ave. in Milwaukee—black tie requested. Walter was not sure if he was remembered. From across the lobby came a booming voice "Walter" as he came in the door. Walter had lots of friends in corporations who remembered him picking up all the expenses including limousines and fancy hotels. The show went on a national tour.
Aside: It was late New Year's Eve, 1972 and time to call it a night. My recollections are a bit hazy but I do remember sitting there warming up my Volkswagen bug, scraping the frost from the inside of the windshield, trying to tune the radio and hunching my shoulders against the cold.
Suddenly the passenger door swung open and a large figure leaned in and asked for a lift. "Sure", I said, "hop in". After some consternation and maneuvering he was finally seated. He was dressed in a tuxedo and a big overcoat making him look like a killer whale in a sardine can. Then It struck me... it was Walter Sheffer. "Thank you very much" he said as he gave one final pull on the handle to get the door closed. He gave me directions and I felt like I was going on a special assignment. I proceeded to drive off... carefully, listening to his accounts of the evening while trying to make his ride in a VW bug seem like something else. —John Sahli
Dennis Gall was a regular in the pharmacy coffee shop, stopping in for a bite to eat and read the paper. Dennis had a colorful past that fit his colorful personality going back to poetry readings at the Avant Garde coffee house where he and his wife Donna would take part. In 1967 Milwaukee’s underground newspaper Kaleidoscope came on the scene and Dennis joined in, becoming a prolific “hawker” of the newspaper. Dennis also wrote a column called “Jesus Christ - Funny Judge” in which he reported the happenings from the courtroom of Judge Christ Seraphim. Eventually Dennis bought the newspaper from then editor John Kois for $1. He continued on as Editor until the newspaper closed its doors in 1971. “He was dedicated to social justice,” said Milwaukee County Court Commissioner Barry Slagle, a longtime friend and colleague. Gall spent a few years as a private detective, then returned to school. In 1986, at age 41, he graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Law. He started out as a prosecutor but spent most of his legal career in the state public defender’s office. Dennis passed away April 24, 2016, at age 71.
Bob Watt was Milwaukee’s weird splash of painter, poet, photographer and self-proclaimed Zen Master. Driving around Milwaukee in a car topped with fake fruit, flowers, dolls and anything else that met his fancy, created a sight of wonder. Were his photos devoid? Likely not in his mind. Though definitely amateurish by anyones standards, his images had a curious attraction. He liked to hand out “business” cards to young girls wanting them to pose nude. Even offered to pay up to $20 for them to model. He liked to wander into the Brady Street Pharmacy’s coffee shop spreading the photos all over a large table. That of course drew people over. Waitress Karen would stomp over to talk to me, “that dirty old man is back at it again.” Out the door he went only to be back weeks later with more photos.
Then there was his poetry: “We need more ordinary Indians, some untalented people functioning. I feel I might be able to talk for the dull, the backward, the non-dandy, in short the bad poet.” A fantastical imaginarium to the absurd.
In a local night club, a girl got drunk and yelled,
“I’m a heavier Zen Master than Watt is!”
I consider this a good turn of events.
Why should I do all the enlightening?
Let others do some of the work. —Heavier Zen Master, 1970
Bob Watt, a master of the absurd. Gone... and with him a bit of color, from a city too often gray.
Robert "Bob" Raasch. From 1960, Bob worked in the communications business around the Milwaukee area for seven years installing and repairing commercial audio paging systems. He also did sound mixing for “Music Under The Stars” at Washington Park. In 1967 he visited Bob Schwarz in Las Vegas and ended up taking his job at United Recording Studios as Mr. Schwarz went on to New York City. Bob spent 10 years at URS and during this time he got involved with radio stations and a large film processing lab doing tech maintenance for them. He also spent time installing audio/visual systems for conventions in many of the hotels. Bob spent over 26 years in Las Vegas. During the summer months Bob would drive to Milwaukee to work as a union stage hand. During this time he again teamed up with Mr. Schwarz to do trade shows around the world for Westinghouse, showing off their elevators and escalators. (He said that London was his favorite city) While in Milwaukee, Sol Zitron introduced Bob to the the Knickerbocker Pharmacy & Coffee Shop where an off-beat crowd regularly gathered. Jim Searles ran the business and when Jim decided to relocate to Brady Street, Bob helped him make the move—and together they moved everything in one night. So the Brady Street Pharmacy & Coffee Shop, (as it came to be known) was Bob’s new hangout when in Milwaukee. Bob is now retired and lives in Hollister, Missouri.
The Knickerbocker Hotel Pharmacy was located on one side of the Knickerbocker Hotel. Sally's was located on the other side. Actually it was better known as Sally's Steak House. Sally Papia dated big Frank in Chicago. I had been tossed out of her kitchen quite a few times. Still I got more than my share of treats there—hot chestnuts wrapped in bacon are highly recommended. Her office was usually off limits. Sally owned a white Eldorado convertible with a red top. The License plate read SALLYS. I was heading for the bathroom when I noticed that they were about to tow Sally's car. I ran into the restaurant. I need Sally! Not around. I ran into her office yelling Sally! Jimmy Jennero (her manager) caught up with me. By then I was waving my arms. "Sally. Sally!" Jimmy asked what? They are towing Sally's car. He dashed off. Then Sally came in. "They are towing your car.” She took off. Later I found out that the guy driving the tow truck was plastered. He also did not have an order to tow the car. Sally was yelling at him in Sicilian and Jimmy in English to put it down. Beyond being plastered the tow truck guy got into all sorts of trouble as the tow truck company had a contract with the city.
Development of The Brady Street Association
…Actually it was Barb Searles and Ellen Callahan who got the Brady Street Area Association going again. The combination working City Hall was great. Ellen was noisy. Barb was quiet but very effective. After Barb died of breast cancer the City of Milwaukee Common Council (post facto) awarded Barb a gold-leafed letter mounted on walnut for her services to Milwaukee. “WHEREAS, Barbara Searles was intimately involved in the Brady Street renaissance, serving as one of the founding members of the New Brady Street Area Association and being appointed by the Mayor to the original Business District (BID) board; and ….” It goes on for some time on the impact of Barb on Milwaukee. The presentation was made in the basement of St. Hedwig Church, Humboldt at Brady Street. The room was packed. —James Searles
Searles, who grew up in Glendale and attended Nicolet High School, graduated from Madison as a pharmacist in 1968. He was named "Man of the Year" by Henry Meier in the early 1980’s for his work with ESHAC and credits himself, his wife Barb and Ellen Callahan as the driving forces behind the development of The Brady Street Association. From www.OnMilwaukee.com, Dec. 9, 2002.
Also see Other Eastside Scenes by James Searles