The Documentary, "Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club" Debuts at the Wisconsin Film Fest April 9-15, 2015

I was so very excited to learn this morning that my friend Holly DeRuyter's feature documentary, "Old Fashioned, The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club" will debut at this year's Wisconsin Film Festival, April 9-15, 2015 in Madison. You can learn more on Facebook when the premiere is scheduled (WFF page and the film's page). Here's Holly talking about the film on Wisconsin Public Radio.

I first met Holly right after publication of my Summer 2009 12-page tome on supper clubs, "Supper Club State: A Brief Cultural History of the Wisconsin Institution" for Wisconsin People & Ideas Magazine, the quarterly journal of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. She was seeking expert sources, and I was pretty happy someone had actually read my article! She came up to my neck of the woods several summers since 2009 to film and I brought her around to supper clubs here and gone in western Wisconsin. Here's a recent preview of the film from Wisconsin Public Television's Director's Cut program. The segment starts at 41:44. Here's the trailer, too:

A little backstory on how we met. WPI editor Jason Smith had seen my 2007 Chicago Tribune article, "State of the Supper Club Scene," and a couple of pieces I did for before that, and invited me in 2008 to write up what we thought was one of the state's first in-depth, primary and secondary sourced articles. Prior to that there was a great article from the Wisconsin Historical Society on supper club architecture by Jim Draeger, who is also one of the subject-matter experts featured in the film, a few wonderful Journal-Sentinal pieces over the years on the topic by the late restaurant critic Dennis Getto, and a stray review here and there. My 12-page article took months of research, interviews and photos because I wanted to touch on both the cultural and historical aspects, explore their survival and demise, and paint a picture of the future. When Holly called she was already seeking sources for her film, we connected immediately on the subject, and I was thrilled to be asked to be a source. I feel fortunate to enjoy her friendship then, now and in the future.

What I think is very cool about the film is that Holly recognizes that all ages and types of people in Wisconsin understand and treasure the supper clubs that remain in our state. The love of the supper club and mid-century fine-dining restaurants has just taken off in the Upper Midwest, with a couple of books, dozens of articles and a short film out in the last year or two. I'm so excited that all this is working to help clubs that remain open enjoy a mini-renaissance.

That said, places near me like Nye's Polynnaise Room in Minneapolis and the Lakeside Club in White Bear Lake, Minn., are closing in 2015  in part because land values in urban and suburban areas have rebounded and are so lucrative -- as I covered in my article in what happened to clubs in more popular vacation areas of Wisconsin like Lake Geneva.

Rest assured, out in the woodlands of Wisconsin and Minnesota you can still find authentic supper clubs, and there is good news in the nouveau supper club world.  Someone bought the state's beloved Gobbler Supper Club and is turning it into a dinner theater, so that is a fabulous reuse for a bygone supper club. That place was the absolute cat's pajamas of Googie architecture (I stayed in the bygone matching motel in 1988 when I got a scholarship from the Wisconsin Newspaper Assn)! Then there are new-school, old-school restaurateurs like the Red Stag Supper Club and Betty Danger's Country Club in Minneapolis and the Old Fashioned in Madison that are keeping the vibe alive. And people like the Minneapolis restaurateur father-son duo who rescued Jake's Supper Club in Menomonie from the history books. Unfortunately many just don't have the entertainment component anymore with competition from bars with live music and the plethora of theaters, art center and other venues. That said, I'm very excited to visit nouveau old-school establishments like Crooner's Lounge and Supper Club, which opened in suburban Minneapolis in late 2014. I've been told it's true to the supper club recipe, including live music every day of the week! Hands down that's my favorite ingredient of the drinking-dining-dancing trifecta of the supper club.

Viva La Supper Clubs!

Thanks all who attended the Wisconsin Historical Society Event on Supper Clubs at Hudson Brewing Company!

I felt perfectly at home -- in my hometown brewery in front of a wooden beer barrel -- giving a presentation on the wonderful history of St. Croix Valley Supper Clubs for the Wisconsin Historical Society once again. Some event pix are here.

A special  thanks to John Warling and his dad, Wayne, who put icing on the cake of the presentation with some artifacts from the old Country House, which grandfather/father Vern founded in 1955. It burned in 1974 and to hear why, well, you would have had to attend the presentation. John and Wayne also had quite the stash of old menus from Twin Cities and Valley supper clubs including the Blue Horse, on University Ave. in St. Paul, which Vern bought for Wayne's brother, Cliff. Wayne let John do the talking as he was a little shy, but he's got the stories and was something of a foodie in his day at his dad and brothers' restaurants, creating recipes at night while working for the USPS by day.

Thanks to Linsey Laufenberg and all the WHS staff who organized the event as well as Molly and Greg Harris, who are the cat's pajamas and their Hangar taproom the bomb at American Sky Beer/Hudson Brewing Co. Love love love American Velvet Coffee Stout, which is brewed with cold-pressed Dunn Bros. coffee. And thanks to Mary and other Hangar staff for a great event. I mentioned to someone, maybe Mary or Molly, that I needed a podium, and shazaaam, the most perfect podium *ever* appeared. Great bratwurst lunch that fit perfectly the setting, too, from award-winning RJ's Meats in Hudson. And thanks to Nate/Chad from the local River Channel. I'll post the YouTube if/when.

I was pleased to see in attendance Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Wis., 30th) [excuse the journalism holdover, folks] and his lovely wife, Joy, who used to be our cats' veterinarians when they had a vet hospital in Hudson. I was extremely pleased to see Dean nodding vigorously when I shamelessly plugged preservation of all or part of the old Buckhorn sign on the new Stillwater Crossing bike trails that will connect the old Stillwater Lift bridge with the new.

Diane Nixa, executive director of the Wisconsin Historical Foundation, welcomed the group.  She grew up in Mahtomedi, Minn. and we talked a few White Bear Lake, Minn. supper clubs (and hey, I'm going to the Lakeside Friday night with two MN pals). Also welcoming the group was Ellsworth Brown, director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, and in attendance, too, was Christopher Berry, president of the Wisconsin Historical Foundation.

Wisconsin Historical Society Event: Supper Clubs at Hudson Brewing Co.

The third time's a charm, right? I'm once again giving a presentation on the state's supper club history for the Wisconsin Historical Society, Saturday, Nov. 2 from Noon to 2 p.m. at the Hudson Brewing Company, 1510 Swasey St., Hudson, WI. Cost is $10 for WHS members and $15 for public. RSVP ASAP to 1-888-748-7479.

Plan to lunch a little, quaff Hudson's new brew and tour the brewery, and learn a little history of St. Croix Valley Supper Clubs on the Wisconsin/Minnesota border.

My special guests will be John Warling and his father Wayne Warling of St. Paul. Vern Warling, John's grandfather and Wayne's dad, built the Country House supper club near the Hilltop Supper Club strip in Houlton, Wis., in 1955. It was designed by noted Art Deco designer Werner Wittkamp and was the swankiest joint around until it burned down in 1974 (and that's a great story John and Wayne will tell).

In addition I'll talk a little supper club architecture, including Wittkamps's other work in the Twin Cities, like the Lexington, and also talk about architect Al Svenson, who designed a remodel of the Dalles House in St. Croix Falls (still there, and still a great supper club) plus his bygone supper clubs from the London House in Duluth to the Shakopee House in Shakopee.

If that's not enough, I'll also talk about how I got interested in this topic: the frog leg "legacy" that this area was known for back then. This area, the St. Croix Watershed, had once had two turtle/frog "farming" operations for lack of a better term in Houlton and Somerset, Wis., that supplied "fresh Wisconsin frog legs" ("grenouilles" for fancy folk) to supper clubs from Chicago and Milwaukee to St. Paul and Minneapolis.

And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about booze! I'll cover how Prohibition caused the start up the urban night clubs and supper clubs across the country, why supper clubs survived in the Upper Great Lakes and specifically Wisconsin, and how a difference in liquor laws between the two states (Minnesota banned on-sale liquor in restaurants on Sundays) created this vibrant border supper club strip until Minnesota changed its law in 1967, in effect 1968.

Plus many more interesting tidbits and tales. See you there!
My tome on supper club history that appeared in the Summer 2009 edition of Wisconsin People & Ideas Magazine, published by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. Available online at

Photos from Wisconsin Historical Society's Taste of Wisconsin: Supper Clubs!

We had great food, good conversation and samples of Leinenkugel's beer at the Wisconsin Historical Society's Taste of Wisconsin: Supper Clubs event in June at Swearingen's Al-Gen Dinner Club outside of Rhinelander, Wis. 

Here are photos from the event. 

This is the Wisconsin Northwoods, so one must expect to eat (and drink) well.  Rob and Amy Swearingen of the Al-Gen and their expert staff served prime rib, fried haddock, ribs (the Al-Gen's signature entree with the recipe passed down since its founding in 1935), chicken wings, cheese curds, salads, and a buffet-style supper club relish tray (charcuterie, cheese, crackers and fresh veg crudites). 

TMI but I ate entirely too much before speaking, which as anyone who speaks knows is a big no-no. (It's probably a good thing, then, that son Cole, who was event photographer, took no photos of me during my presentation.)

To kick off the event I proclaimed that 2013 is the Year of the Wisconsin Supper Club! It's the 80th anniversary of Repeal (aka the Blaine Act, intro'd by Wisconsin Sen. John Blaine), a couple of books on Sconnie supper clubs have been published this year, one short film has come out, and Holly DeRuyter''s feature length documentary Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club will be out this fall (Holly served on the discussion panel). 

Then I gave a little eulogy and showed slides of The Turk's Inn in Hayward, whose owner Marge Gogian, died in February. Turk's, which has a fantastic story and history, will never be open again as her wishes are that it be sold and used for scholarships for Hayward area students.  (Wouldn't it be great if the Wisconsin Historical Society would buy it and turn into a historic site? After the event, I mentioned that to Rob, who is the representative for his district in the Legislature, and said he should get on the idea! Not sure if he thought I was serious or not.) 

Anyway, from there I took the guests down to western Wisconsin to the Hilltop supper club strip in Houlton, Wis., just across from Stillwater, Minn. I talked about how the difference in Sunday liquor on-site laws really made this region thrive from 1933 until Minnesota changed its law and allowed on-site sales of liquor (1968). (Minnesota still has the blue law prohibiting off-sale on Sunday.)

I didn't have a good ending for my presentation but had a brainstorm and bought a couple of bags of Pearson's Mint Patties (made in St. Paul, Minn.). Backstory: If you grew up in the Twin Cities, you might recall getting these for free or 1-2 cents each at the all Hilltop supper clubs and others around St. Paul. Tony and Cole handed them out at the end, and it was just what the supper club chef ordered. 

The panel of supper club owners included (L to R) Rob Swearingen, owner of the Al-Gen, Chris Copisky, owner of The Silver Birch Supper Club, and Karen and David Widule of the White Stag Supper Club, filmmaker Holly and me, the moderator. We had a great time, and it would be fab to do this yet again for the WHS. Three times a charm, right?

PS: I found it interesting that Rob Swearingen's dad played in the Rhythm Royals, a band was of some note in the Midwest in the 1960s. They charted with the song "I Don't Wanna Go Back To School" on Sahara label. Also Rob's regular pianist was there for the event, which was pretty cool as the entertainment component is SO important to the supper club holy trifecta of dining, dancing and drinking, so I had to give him a nod right at the beginning. 

Also Rob mentioned that his bartender came with the real estate when he bought the place 20+ years ago.  (Both staffer's names elude me.) Anyway, you can't take the St. Paul out of us border folk, my husband being from St. Paul; afterward the bartender made us a great Jameson ginger and bourbon Old Fashioned, although both are very St. Paul-ish and almost sacrilegious in Wisconsin, home of the Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet. 

The Wisconsin Historical Society Presents: Supper Clubs! June 15 in Rhinelander

Enjoy classic supper club fare, quaff some Leinenkugels, hear some history and see photos/artifacts from the Hilltop supper club strip in Houlton Wis., on the Wisconsin/Minnesota border at this Wisconsin Historical Society Taste Traditions of Wisconsin event June 15.

I'll also serve as moderator of a panel discussion with supper club owners and a documentary filmmaker whose film is forthcoming, who will talk about their love for this longstanding Wisconsin institution!

The Wisconsin Historical Museum Presents: 
Supper Clubs! 
1-3:30 p.m. Saturday, June 15, 2013 
Swearingen's Al-Gen Dinner Club
Rhinelander, WI 
Register online by June 7; Cost: $20 (discount for WHS members)

Here are links to registration info on Facebook and on the WHS site.

This is a modified presentation at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison in September 2010 that I gave about my research and writing on Wisconsin supper clubs for Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine published by Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts & Letters in 2009. We had a lot of fun and great food at the event, which sold out! So if you are interested in this one, register by June 7.

The Wisconsin Historical Society Museum wanted to host this event elsewhere in Wisconsin, and Rob Swearingen, who served on the panel of supper club owners at the 2010 event in Madison, suggested hosting one in his neck of the Northwoods at his Al-Gen Dinner Club, which has a long and storied history. Thanks Rob and Amy!

See you there!

Save the Buckhorn Supper Club Sign near the New Stillwater Bridge Crossing!

I took this photo in 1987 for a college Cultural Geography class. 

For decades, it was the Hollywood Sign of Western Wisconsin!

I was invited this week to Twin Cities Public Television's Almanac show to talk about the Buckhorn Supper Club sign in Houlton, Wis., after I was a source in an article by Mary Divine in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

In our euphoria talking about our shared love for supper clubs and history, host Cathy Wurzer and I forgot to broach the subject of preservation! I hope that the rich history we talked about in the segment below of the Hilltop supper club strip of which the Buckhorn was a part speaks for itself. Cathy is the author of a fantastic book on Highway 61 history.

Also I should have mentioned that the old Buckhorn site is PRIVATE PROPERTY and trespassers will be prosecuted.

I did get carried away on the western Wisconsin frog legacy that the Buckhorn was famous for, when those the abundance of leopard frogs in the watershed were caught by local "green-grassers" or "giggers" and processed in the two facilities I mention in the clip located in Somerset and Houlton. My first article of many that I have authored on supper clubs was called "Western Wisconsin's Frog Legacy" for an issue of Wisconsin West magazine in Eau Claire, back in 1995 or so.

The local grenoilles were listed as "Wisconsin frog legs" on supper club menus from Milwaukee to Minneapolis and St. Paul to Chicago. There's many great stories to be shared from customers and proprietors of supper clubs when going out was a very special event. There's also a seamier side to the border clubs when this great cash flow from Sunday's on-site consumption of booze (I mention the state liquor laws differences in the clip) broke up families, brought addiction and infidelity and the riff-raff that high cash-flow businesses attract ... of course you get the good with the bad and vice-versa.

This edition of Almanac's Video Vault also has a very cool 1957 film clip of the Southdale shopping mall, plus local meteorologist Ken Barlow shares his story of bipolar depression. (He's a great guy, and we got to sign the show's guest wall afterward.)

Back to topic. My hope is that local historical organizations such as the Washington County Historical Society and the St. Croix County Historical Society will become interested in preserving this sign. It would be so cool  reinstalled (My guess is about $50 grand for decon/recon and renovation) on the pedestrian/bike trails that will be part of a loop connecting the new bridge with the old bridge. I love the neon museum and boneyard in Vegas. Picture interpretive markers under the relocated letterboards where you could stop on your bike and read about this interesting mid-century history of the Hilltop. The St. Croix Valley may become a National Heritage District and perhaps that might spur preservation efforts.

Stillwater bridge proposals have been going on for decades, and it took an act of Congress bypassing the National Scenic Riverway Act last year to get approval for a new bridge. I love the Valley and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, and thankfully, the old Stillwater Lift Bridge will be saved as it is on the National Register of Historic Places as will three historic properties: The Shoddy Mill, which was moved and will be preserved, Club Tara/Phil's Tara Hideaway supper club, built in the 1930s, and the WPA constructed scenic overlook, all on the Minnesota side.

Somehow the Buckhorn sign got overlooked! Essentially it has been forgotten about it until now. I was on Captain Randy's Lady Chateau charter a couple of years ago (what a great vintage boat) and in his 25 years on the Croix had never seen it (he takes his boat south for the winter). We tried to get up close but it was leafy green season so could not see it so had to show him photos on my iPhone.

The 15-foot high metal Hollywood-sign style letter boards were once lit with neon and beckoned those from the Minnesota side to come over to Wisconsin and have some fun at Buckhorn! I always thought it interesting that the Buckhorn listed its address as Stillwater, Minn., when it was actually in Wisconsin, but then I was told that all of the Houlton/St. Joseph, Wis. mail was sent to the Stillwater post office.

From my 2011 article in Hudson Patch  
The wonderful Pioneer Press article did not get into the fact that the Memorandum of Understanding between WisDOT and the owner was actually signed in 2005 when the site of the bridge crossing was planned to be on the Buckhorn site. The new Stillwater Bridge crossing is several hundred feet south of the Buckhorn property, and several homes on the bluff are between the Buckhorn property and the new crossing. I find it curious that the 2005 MOU states that the sign will be removed in bluff restoration/mitigation when the project was still proposed under the National Wild and Scenic Riverway Act. Athough the act has now been bypassed by Congress, apparently the MOU still stands in light of the new crossing site that is no longer slated for the Buckhorn site. It would be cool to see the bridge funds that are slated for demolition to preserve it and move it to the bike trails.

As I mention in the clip, there was a very vibrant commercial strip history from starting in the 1930s post-prohibition and continuing to the 1970s:  taverns, a bowling alley/bar and a drive-in theater, and supper clubs including Hennes/Highlander, Holcombs, the Buckhorn, Country House. Plus there were a ton of supper clubs all allong the Croix from St. Croix Falls, Wis. to Prescott, Wis. Some like the Dalles House still remain. This region has long been a tourist destination and especially Sunday drivers/diners/drinkers back then.

The Valley House on the site of the Country House is the only one of the "Hilltop" group that remains open as a supper club and is bit south of Houlton. Stop and say hi to owners Sheena, Jerry and Paul, who worked in several of the Hilltop and Somerset supper clubs. They've got a great wall display with historical photos. All that remains on the former Hilltop strip, however, is the crumbling Hilltop Drive-In Theater, the overgrown limestone garden of Holcomb's supper club shown in the clip, and the former Hennes/Highlander supper club that is now a strip club.

It would be a shame if the sign was purchased ala American Pickers and sat in some collector's garage never to be seen again by the public.


Here's some of my writing on Wisconsin supper clubs: 
Supper Club State: A Brief Cultural History of the Wisconsin Institution (Wisconsin People & Ideas Magazine
State of the Supper Club Scene (Chicago Tribune)
St. Croix Confidential Column: Film Crew Stops in Houlton for Wisconsin Supper Club Documentary (more 2011 photos of the Buckhorn sign) (Hudson Patch
Savoring the Past: Supper Clubs (Wisconsin Department of Tourism)