Owner Art Altenburg serves up a few High Lifes...what else would you drink in Milwaukee?
This historic gin mill located at 1920 South 37th Street in Milwaukee is "Art Altenburg's Concertina Bar." Dating back to 1900, Art's is currently being considered for the "National Register of Historic Places". My visit to Art's was a trip back through time when corner bars dotted tightly packed ethnic neighborhoods. In 2003, polka bands still played every Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Dancing, fine polka music, and Milwaukee made beer made for a FINE evening at "Art Altenburg's Concertina Bar."
Concertina Bar on final notes
Art leaving Milwaukee landmark for family farm; new owner plans changes
Milwaukee Sentenal: Oct. 2, 2007
If you favor the kind of watering hole where the proprietor plops a concertina on the bar right in front of you and squeezes out a sweet tune, you'd better hurry.
Because Art Altenburg's Concertina Bar is closing. First Goldmann's and now Art's. We're reminded that Milwaukee's quirky landmarks don't last forever. Art has sold the building and the business and plans to be out by the middle of this month.
The good news, if you like live polka music, is that the new owner, Andy Kochanski, intends to keep the tradition of Art's alive, but minus Art. Kochanski's Concertina Beer Hall will operate in the same century-old brick building at 1920 S. 37th St. Same cramped stage right inside the front door. Same worn linoleum dance floor.
But - someone cover Art's ears for a second - Andy plans to allow accordions. Art is such an aficionado of concertinas that he would never allow their keyboarded cousins in the bar. "It's open to people and musicians who just love polka music," said Andy, 37, who works as an arborist for the City of Milwaukee and also as a firefighter in St. Francis. He used to have a heavy-metal video show on TV called "Threshold of Pain," but he admits he doesn't play any musical instruments.
"I'm going to do as much as I can for the polka community," he said, and that includes putting a portable defibrillator in the bar for anyone who overdoes it on the dance floor.
Art Altenburg's cult of personality developed rather quickly, considering that he opened the bar as recently as 1980 after a career as a car salesman. It's been a destination not only for the older oompah crowd but for young scenesters who brought their friends in for a round of culture shock and maybe a polka lesson. Bartender Marilyn Mold, who plans to stay on at Kochanski's, said, "If I had a dollar for every dance lesson I gave on the weekends, I'd be rich."
Three young tourists came in recently and showed Marilyn a mention of the concertina bar among Milwaukee highlights in a travel book they were using. The place was cool. Always there was Art and his dozens of concertinas behind the bar. Art in countless photos with regulars. Art keeping tempo by tapping booze bottles on the bar with drumsticks. Art entertaining customers with brain-teasers and puzzles he kept handy.
Not an easy thing, walking away from the business he loves. "You got that right," Art said. "I met a lot of nice people here." He learned to play the concertina as a kid, sometimes hitchhiking to his lessons. He pestered concertina players for tips on the instrument.
Now closer to 80 than 70, Art has struggled to keep the bar going after he fell from a ladder while trimming a tree in July. He broke his pelvis and messed up his back, and it took him seven weeks to get home from the hospital and rehab center to his apartment above the bar. Art plans a move to Mosinee, where he will live on the family farm and help care for his 96-year-old mother. He's been talking about doing that for quite a while, and the bar has been for sale for at least five years.
Andy first came into the bar sometime in the mid-1990s, and has been back dozens of times since then. He long had thought about operating a tavern and finally decided to make Art an offer. The deal was finalized last week. One thing not included in the purchase price is the slogan, "The only concertina bar in the U.S.A." Art had it copyrighted and wasn't about to throw it in the mix.
But he is providing Andy with five concertinas from his collection of 68. Art will keep maybe a half dozen and sell the rest, he said. Andy plans to continue featuring polka bands on weekends, but he's moving the popular polka jam session from Thursday to Wednesday. That frees up Thursday nights to try surf bands, rockabilly and 1960s hot rod music. His place will be open seven days a week and feature Packers games on a large-screen TV.
After his injury, Art reduced his hours to Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. He plans to be behind the bar the next two weekends after 7 p.m., and a farewell party is planned for the evening of Oct. 13, his last night in business. It's been a great run, he said, and a chance to meet visitors from around the world, including the Russians who showed up one night and sang "Beer Barrel Polka" in their native language as Art played along.
"But I've got other things I want to accomplish in my life," he said. Such as? "I'll probably go chasing women, do a little playing, and do a little traveling."
Sounds like lyrics you could set to concertina music.