Wonder Bar tales will live on

A proposed development may demolish the Wonder Bar but its stories will outlast us all.
An outdoor shot of the Wonder Bar by night, with its iconic red sign glowing above the entrance and reflected onto the pavement below.
Photo by Patrick Stutz.
The Wonder Bar has an infamous 92-year history with legendary stories.

The news earlier this month that a proposed new development might lead to the demolition of the Wonder Bar has me recalling one of my favorite lines of Jim Harrison’s poetry:

“Death steals everything except our stories.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t equate the razing of a popular Madison restaurant and bar with an actual death, although for some of us losing a favorite hangout really stings.

In a long-ago Madison Magazine column, the late George Vukelich recalled how he and two pals — newspaper scribe Frank Custer and bait shop owner Ed “Steady Eddy” Teela — once gathered to salute the closing of The 400 bar in downtown Madison.

It was a solemn occasion, the bar’s last night, and at one point Custer was lamenting how few people were there. Nobody seemed to care that they were shuttering a treasured saloon.

“That’s right,” Steady Eddy said. “But just let them close a school and people show up in droves.”

The Wonder Bar Steakhouse, 222 E. Olin Ave., which opened nearly a century ago, has survived gangsters, ownership transfers, ghosthunters and name changes. I understand there have been spirited online discussions recently about the propriety of knocking it down for an 18-story mixed use development. But whatever happens, the stories will survive.

When I first began matriculating at the Wonder Bar, in the 1980s, it was an outpost for a University of Wisconsin–Madison athletics crowd that included fervent fans, coaches, ex-players and financial donors. Owner Dick Whalen counted Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch and “Baloney Bash” impresario Butch Strickler as good friends. Add Jerry Hill — the Hill Electric founder who special-ordered a Badger Motion “W” logo for the lid of his casket — and you had a group where the laughs came as quickly as the next round.

If the conversation waned, Whalen might bring up his establishment’s colorful past, noting that the Wonder Bar, which opened in 1929, was fronted by Chicago mobsters. Whalen would point to the semi-circular booth that sat to the left of the bar. “Nobody has to sit with his back to the door.”

There were rumors — completely unverified, as far as I know — that notorious gangsters like Al Capone and John Dillinger had stopped at the Wonder Bar on trips north.

The Chicago gangster connection, however, is real. I found the evidence in a 1959 book titled, “The Stolen Years,” written by Chicago bootlegger Roger Touhy and the esteemed crime reporter Ray Brennan.

The title references the years Roger Touhy spent in prison thanks to a kidnapping frame by Capone, his rival in the illegal whiskey trade.

The Wonder Bar figured in Roger Touhy’s 1942 escape from Stateville Correctional Center, near Joliet, IL. Another inmate, Gene O’Connor, who ran a thriving black-market operation inside the state prison, hatched the plan.

“You’re too busy stealing in here to take time to escape,” Roger Touhy said.

But escape they did.

“I needed a substantial bankroll,” Roger Touhy wrote. “My best source was my brother, Eddie. He owned a roadhouse, Eddie’s Wonder Bar… outside of Madison. I had put up the money for the place, and Eddie would come up with any reasonable amount I needed.”

Roger Touhy couldn’t risk going to the Wonder Bar himself, but he sent an associate, and Eddie Touhy came through with $2,500. It didn’t keep his brother from being caught and returned to prison.

In 2007, a group calling itself the Madison Researchers into the Paranormal announced that a “preliminary investigation” indicated there were ghosts in the Wonder Bar. By then, there had been an ownership change and it was named the Bar Next Door.

I spoke with the ghost group’s founder. “Are you serious about this?”

“We are very serious,” he said, adding that his group had recorded voice phenomena and unexplained shadows in photographs leading them to believe that Roger Touhy, who died shortly after his 1959 release from prison, was in residence.

“We have done a lot of research on Touhy and his family.”

Fans of the Wonder Bar were delighted in 2009 when yet another ownership group, which included my friend Jim Luedtke, bought the Bar Next Door and returned the name to the Wonder Bar.

Steaks went back on the menu. Martinis were popular in the bar. And perhaps most interestingly, a painting that had hung at the Wonder Bar for years was returned after a two-decade absence.

In his 2009 Isthmus review of the rejuvenated Wonder Bar, Raphael Kadushin described the painting: “Above the big stone fireplace is the portrait of a busty ‘60s pin-up, Angelina Jolie crossed with Ann-Margaret, whose eyes inevitably follow you.”

I remember the painting and was intrigued enough to investigate its provenance. It was done by Holland portraitist Leo Jansen, who had worked for Playboy. It had been loaned to Whalen by Jim Meier, who with his family started another venerable Madison institution, the Kollege Klub on campus, in 1953.

After Whalen’s death, the painting changed hands again. Luedtke tracked it to a couple in Manitowish Waters, who agreed to sell it to him.

“When I bought the Wonder Bar,” Luedtke told me, “the painting was the first thing I thought of.”

It was one of the first things I thought of last week when I heard that the current Wonder Bar owners appear set to sell for the proposed new development.

I called the Wonder Bar and began to describe the painting.

Whoever answered the phone cut me short: “It’s spoken for.”

At least I can still tell the story.

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