Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Lineage of Oblio's – Part 2

For Part 1 of the Lineage of Oblio’s, go here.
Oshkosh street names and numberings have undergone sweeping changes over the years. The street names and numberings in this post reflect the current addresses of the properties and buildings mentioned.
By the end of Prohibition in 1933, the life had been knocked out of the Dichmann Block. For decades, the building at 432-434 N. Main Street had been known to the residents of Oshkosh as a pleasure center, but those days were over. The Beer Hall had been run dry and the companion dining rooms, which occupied the north half of the space, had gone out of business. The new occupancy was far less convivial. Where there once was a Beer Hall there was now a failing clothes store. The dining rooms had given way to an appliance repair shop. Upstairs was a dentist pulling teeth. None of it would hold. The Great Depression was especially harsh on Oshkosh. For the first time in the city’s history the population had begun to shrink and the number of people working fell by more than 40%. After a disastrous 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression for Oshkosh, the building at 432-434 N. Main was listed as vacant.

The malaise would linger for several more years, but at the close of 1936 Oshkosh was slowly beginning to emerge from the depths of its slump. That year a Greek immigrant operating a pool hall on Main Street saw opportunity in the vacancy one door to his south. John Konstantine Kuchubas was born in Greece in 1884, the year the Dichmann Block was constructed, and had served in the Grecian Army before coming to America at the age of 18. Eventually settling in Oshkosh, Kuchubas married a local woman named Elsie Zwickey in 1916. Just prior to his marriage, Kuchubas had opened the Pastime Billiard Parlor at 440 N. Main Street, but when the bowling alley next door went under, Kuchubas moved his business to 436 N. Main Street, changed the hall’s name and took his brother-in-law, John Zwickey as a business partner. The Grand Billiard Parlor would become a fixture on Main Street, operating for more than 25 years and though Kuchubas would maintain his stake in the business he wanted something more. The pool hall didn’t hold a liquor license and now that Prohibition had been repealed there was money to be made from the revived saloon culture of Oshkosh. When the appliance shop at 434 N. Main moved out, Kuchubas saw his opening.

John K. Kuchubas
The next time you enter Oblio’s from Main Street look to the wall at your right. There you will find a picture of John Kuchubas sitting behind the bar he had installed for the grand opening of his new saloon on November 27, 1936. To your left will be that same bar, which was built by the Robert Brand & Sons Company at their shop on the corner of Ceape and Court and hauled to Kuchubas’ saloon on a horse drawn wagon. But it wasn’t being called Kuchubas’ saloon, just yet. During the Great Depression America suffered an upsurge of xenophobia and perhaps for this reason the Greek-born Kuchubas decided to leave his name off the marquee. Instead, he tagged his saloon with the most typical of American names, calling it John Brown’s Bar. In fact, Kuchubas and his wife Elsie even went so far as to begin identifying themselves as Mr. and Mrs. John Brown. The innocuous name, though, was no reflection of his new business. From the very beginning, Kuchubas worked to establish a tavern that would stand out among the others along Main Street. He had the interior of the barroom completely re-done and made a point in his early announcements of describing the tavern as a “gentleman's headquarters” where “quality is stressed.” The wording could have been lifted directly from advertisements for the Schlitz Beer Hall 50 years earlier and the similarities didn’t end there. The building was still owned by Schlitz Brewing and Schlitz was, once again, the first beer to go on tap in the new saloon. But it wasn’t just a Schlitz bar, anymore. Kuchubas’ was the first Oshkosh bar in the post-Prohibition era to try and hinge its reputation on the quality and variety of the beer being served. While other taverns of the period were luring customers with sheephead tournaments, cheap liquor and frog legs, Kuchubas distinguished his saloon by pouring the premium beers of the era such as Drury’s Ale and Blatz Old Heidelberg Lager (“Beer of the Year!”).

Kuchubas was obviously proud of his new place and within a year of its opening he was running ads in the Daily Northwestern identifying it as “Oshkosh’s Finest Bar and Taproom”. If anybody in Oshkosh objected to the boast they were uniformly quiet in their disagreement. Though Kuchubas was known as a friendly man, running a respectable saloon, he had a volatile side, demonstrated by an incident that occurred in late 1939. On a Tuesday morning at 1 a.m., after a night working at the bar, Kuchubas returned to his home at 131 Church Ave. where he was jumped by a young man and told to “stick ‘em up.” The 55-year-old Kuchubas did no such thing. Instead, he produced an automatic revolver. As his would-be assailant fled, Kuchubas chased after him, firing two wild shots before abandoning pursuit and calling police. Kuchubas had come by his the hard way. He wasn’t going to let it go easily.

Over the course of the next 16 years, Kuchubas would establish a profitable niche within the center of Oshkosh’s thriving downtown business district. His approach remained consistent over the years; always stressing the quality of the beer and liquor he served and the clean, friendly environment of his room looking out on Main Street. And towards the end of his career his success seemed to have confirmed his sense of belonging to his adopted home. In the last years of the 1940s the tavern was being referred to less often as John Brown’s Bar. Kuchubas had begun using his own name to identify the saloon. Though he would never entirely abandon the original moniker, by the time of his retirement in 1955 the comfortable saloon at 434 N. Main had come to be known by all its patrons as John Kuchubas’ Bar.

After Kuchubas’ departure, little changed at the tavern. The bar was now helmed by an affable Canadian immigrant named John Morrison, who, at 64-years-old, had a lifetime of experience in the tavern business and saw little need to upset the formula established by his predecessor. He changed the tavern’s name to the Morrison Bar, but retained Kuchubas theme of running a “friendly” bar geared towards an increasingly older crowd. Morrison, though, wasn’t around long. Two years after purchasing the business, he passed away and the bar fell to his son, Neal. The younger Morrison would continue on in much the same vein until selling the bar four years later. From 1961 until 1973 the tavern was named The Overflow and was managed by a series of owners, each of whom ran the bar with an almost dogged constancy. The tumult of the era seemed to have little impact on what had become a rather staid tavern.

Over the course of the 1960s Oshkosh had gained a reputation for being a conservative town that showed a different face after dark. Popular night spots such as the Hoo-Hoo Club, the Red Carpet and the Jockey Club were making a direct appeal to a more libertine clientele with strippers, Go-Go dancers and rock bands. There remained, however, a large contingent of less notorious places catering to the traditional Oshkosh bar crowd and The Overflow fell squarely into this division. Throughout the latter part of the 1960s the contrast between Oshkosh bars became glaringly evident in the advertisements that were appearing in the Daily Northwestern. While The Hoo-Hoo Club was filling their space with Rock-House Annie and Katina the Greek Belly Dancer, advertisements for the Overflow featured a caricature of a distinctly middle-aged bartender who, in one quintessential spot from 1968, poses the somber question “So who needs entertainment? When you have a fun-loving group, warm hospitality, pleasant surroundings and good drinks, you don't even miss it!” The cultural divide had arrived in Oshkosh.

The Overflow may have seemed like a hold-out from a bygone era, but its obstinacy was no match for the changes that were afoot. In 1972 Schlitz Brewing, owner of the building at 432-434 N. Main for the past 85 years, sold the property to Charles Lukas, who had been running his Lukas Auto Supply in the south half of the space since 1957. Lukas became just the third owner of the property and within a year the Overflow was gone, to be replaced briefly by a bar named Alfi’s Lounge. In a span of just 14 years, the tavern had run through seven different owners and the upheaval wasn’t over yet.

In 1974 the bar was taken over by Mike Hottinger and Jon Voss who christened their tavern with the name that would stick longer than any that had come before it. Oblio was a round-headed boy living in Pointed Village and was first introduced by Harry Nilsson in his 1971 album The Point! Nilsson said the fable was inspired by an acid trip and the counter-culture reference would not be lost on the new breed of patrons who were increasingly finding their way to Oblio’s. Hottinger and Voss remained just long enough to remodel the game room at the rear of the bar before turning the tavern over to Mark D. Madison, a hard-partying Oshkosher who liked the idea of mixing business with pleasure.

Mooka “J” Today
In the summer of 1975 Mark Madison was 24 years old, recently out of college and living near the corner of Evans and Parkway just down the road from the bar where he liked to hang out. It wasn’t just his hangout anymore, though. It may have been hard to tell at times, but Madison was running the place. “I wanted to make my living having fun,” he would later say. For a time, he did. Madison, or “Mooka J” as he was known to his buddies, liked to party and for the next four years Oblio’s would be a funhouse for he and his friends. And Madison had plenty of friends. The bar still had a mix of patrons, but the crowd Madison attracted was younger, many of them college students who came downtown looking for something a little different from the beer bars around campus. Madison gave it to them. The days of Schlitz were over, now there were two Heineken faucets pouring beer into mugs that often didn’t find their way back to the bar. “I had to buy cases and cases of those mugs,” Madison said, “they’d walk right out the door with them.” Oblio’s was now the only spot in town offering beer of a different variety from the indistinguishable light American lagers that had conquered the post-prohibition era. Madison said, “At the time I brought Heineken in there was no good beer at Oblio’s.” Or anywhere else in Oshkosh, for that matter. Madison’s other hot-selling import was Elephant Malt Liquor, a potent Nordic pilsner. “I’ve never seen anybody finish more than a six-pack of it,” Madison said. The wisdom of featuring a beer that quickly renders your customers inert remains to be seen, but it was all in keeping with the spirit of the times and the bar. A bar where Madison sometimes ended the night on the floor. He’d had a good time, but by 1979 Madison knew he needed to move on. “I had to get out of the business,” Madison would say later. “It would have killed me if I hadn’t.”

Mark Schultz and Todd Cummings
Oblio’s Lounge was now as well known as any tavern in Oshkosh, but its best days were ahead of it. When two college students took over the bar in 1979 they weren’t exactly sure what they had gotten themselves into, but it wouldn’t take long for them to figure it out and turn Oblio’s Lounge into Oshkosh’s premier saloon.

Mark Schultz and Todd Cummings were no strangers to Oblio’s. “We used to hang out here,” Cummings says. “This was a college haunt for us.” Looking back on it Schultz says, “We turned a drinking hobby into a profession.” When they began, though, they were both rank amateurs. Schultz was 23, Cummings 22 and neither of them had worked in a bar before. But the college roommates living at 1308 Reed Avenue made up for their lack of experience by hiring bartenders from the B & B and the Calhoun Beach Club and it quickly became evident that they were onto something good. “We saw the potential of what this could be,” Cummings said. “We were college students and we had a lot of connections to the University and that gave us a good base to start with.” The first change they made was to install a sound system followed soon after by a change in the beer line-up. “There were four tap lines when we came in,” Schultz says, “Two were Stroh’s and two were Heineken.” Not for long. Cummings was dating a woman who worked for a Manitowoc beer distributor and after she introduced him to Hacker-Pschorr’s Oktoberfest it became a mission for Cummings and Schultz to bring the beer to Oblio’s. “It became my new favorite beer,” Schultz says. “You had to order it in Spring to get it in fall. The first year we ordered 25 barrels and the next we ordered 50 and the year after that 75. Our distributor would have to go through other distributors to get the beer.”

With that, they were off and running. “We could see a certain niche,” Cummings says. “There was a crowd here that liked these beers and that was the beginning of us expanding our beer line-up.” In the 1980s, no other bar in Oshkosh was doing anything like it and Schultz and Cummings had the benefit of an adventurous group of regulars who were interested trying something new. “We had the luxury of trying different beers to see what would sell,” Cummings says. By the late 1980s Cummings and Schultz were looking into installing a micro-brewery in the bar, but shelved the idea due to a lack of availability of good equipment at the time. “We don’t like doing things half-assed,” Schultz said, so they settled on bringing in a rotating selection of American craft beers. “At the time there were a lot of microbrewers making one or two good beers,” Cummings said, “so we thought, what if we bring in the best of these micros instead.” They had hit upon their model for the future. The original four-handle tap box was converted to accomdate 13 beer lines and would later expand to 24 and then again to the current 27 taps. Cummings and Schultz complemented their growing selection with a remodel of the bar wherein they ripped out the drop ceiling to reveal the engraved tin that had been a striking feature of the original Dichmann Block. The legendary tavern at 434 N. Main had returned to and surpassed its former glory.

Schultz and Cummings were now the owners of the building and in 2005 they’d bring the Dichmann Block full circle. When Rudy's Shoe Rebuilders closed in the summer of 2005, Cummings and Schultz opened the wall between the two rooms that had housed the great taverns of Maulick and Kuchubas. It effectively doubled the size of Oblio’s Lounge and in the process created one of the most historically significant public spaces in Oshkosh. Their timing couldn’t have been better. In 2008, Schlitz, the wayward beer that had started it all, made its highly symbolic return from exile to take its place in the Oblio’s tap line. The beer that inaugurated the Dichmann Block 123 years earlier had returned to its Oshkosh home.
Schultz!

That’s a lot of history, but it weighs lightly on Cummings and Schultz who day in, day out usher their bar into the future. As Todd says “It’s happening, it’s just going to get better and better.“

8 comments:

  1. Great Job Lee. And Kudo's to Todd and Mark for continuing to make Oblio's a place of distinction.

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  2. good write!!!! makes me wanna have a..... a beer & where am I gonna go?

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  3. wish you would have taken a 'pitcher' of my better Schultz

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  4. that's "better side"

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  5. My aunt owned the Hoo-Hoo club and my grandfather and dad owned the Jockey club in the 50's. I have fond memories of my first Hamms at Hoo-Hoo. Jeff Riedi jriedi@hotmail.com

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  6. From 1970 through 1972, the Overflow was run by 22 year old Rick Billington.
    The tavern became known as a wild anything goes place at times, and a hangout for local, county, and even a few state police officers.
    While Billington's business boomed, he grew tired of the tavern business, and sold it.
    The new owners renamed the tavern Alfie's.

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  7. William (Bill) Stoddart once owned the Overflow at the time it was know as; Bills Overflow, it is his picture in that ad. He and Carole ran the place, owned it. When they met he threw her out of his bar. :) I believe it was 1968 or 1969 when bill got into a pool accident and broke his neck, jumping from a balcony into a pool. After which time he was in the hospital in traction. Soon after the medical bills mounted, he had to file for bankruptcy and he and Carole lost the bar. I don't remember a 22 year old running the bar after that but it could be. Bill and Carole hung out at Reds and at Augies bar also the Roxy. All those folks were friends from way back, and yes they kept the old crowd going. I was a child at the time but the majority of my days and nights were spent in bars. Augies had some neat carnival mirrors and an old juke box. He lived upstairs and Carole would play "tiny bubbles" to wake him, he hated that. Augie was a nice old man who gave me soda pop with a paper straw and popcorn. It is what it is.

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  8. Excellent job Lee. My life would have been so empty without the "Mark and Todd" Oblio's and the 'Steve and Terry' Granary!

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