For the first wave of Baby Boomers, those born when Harry S. Truman was still president of the 48 United States of America, coming of age in Madison, Wisconsin meant coping with conflicting messages about adulthood: You could drink beer legally when you turned 18, but you couldn’t drink liquor or vote until you were 21.
While there must have been teenagers who couldn’t care less about turning 18, most of those who were lucky enough to celebrate their 18th birthday on a weekday, grabbed their birth certificates and a strip of photos taken in one of those do-it-yourself photo booths at Woolworth’s and hurried over to the new City-County Building on Monona Avenue to obtain the all-important identification card.
Beer bars catering to those between 18-20 are a thing of the past, victims of 1985 Wisconsin Act 337 (effective September 1, 1986), which raised the uniform drinking age to 21. But the memories linger on, even if most of the establishments didn’t.
By the time most of the early Baby Boomers began to turn 21, changes were already afoot in the Madison beer bar scene. Increasing resistance to the Vietnam War on the UW-Madison campus altered the look and feel of State Street, as merchants boarded up their windows and a sort of siege mentality arose. The University’s continued expansion altered the landscape of lower State Street. The Kollege Klub, for instance, was forced to move from its State Street location when the Memorial Library addition was built in the early 1970s — and people who frequented the “old” KK will tell you the new one just wasn’t the same: Something more than the location had changed.
State Street then (in the early to mid-1960s) as now, was a center of action. The Kollege Klub, The Pub, and Chesty’s were three of the biggest attractions. Each had its own reputation, its own crowd of regulars. The Pub, for instance, was known for having long waiting lines, as well as a strictly enforced policy of not admitting unescorted women.
But if someone in your crowd could drive and had a car, it was the “suburban” bars that really drew crowds: Rusty’s and the Bunny Hop in Middleton, and The Black Lemon in Sun Prairie. These bars had large dance floors, great jukeboxes, and huge parking lots that always seemed to be full.
The Bunny Hop closed long ago. Rusty’s is still around, but according to Marlene, who was a Rusty’s regular back in the good old days, things have changed. “There isn’t much of anything on their jukebox,” she reports, and “The dance floor has been long gone.”
The Black Lemon closed at the end of the 1960s, but the building is still there, and the current owner, a 1966 University of Wisconsin – Madison alumnus, remembers a lot about it. Three months ago, accompanied by a notebook and my camera, I paid him a visit. Any day now, I’ll finish writing my post about “The Black Lemon then and now”.
Until that day arrives, I’ll offer a challenge and a source for more first-hand observations about the beer bar scene in the 1960s. The challenge is to figure out the significance of what’s been hidden under the carpet in the second photo accompanying this post.
The first-hand observations from some Madison Central High School alumni can be found HERE and HERE. I’d love to read more observations, commentary, and memories about the 1960s beer bar scene, but I hope you’ll leave them here, not there.
Note: This post is the first of what I hope will be many more exploring the history and cultural landscape of Madison, Wisconsin. How frequently they’ll occur remains to be seen, because life and work provide many distractions and there’s always “something else to do…”