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  • Writer's pictureDeb Kluz Baker

It All Started with the Midway Tavern...

Although I am a fifth-generation resident of Portage County and have been a public employee here throughout my entire teaching career, many of you do not know me, so I would like to introduce myself. I consider myself a “North-sider” fortunate to have two wonderful parents who impressed upon me just how lucky I was to live in a city which valued education and hard work among many other important assets. I was equally fortunate to find a husband and in-laws who felt the same way and we have raised our family in the place we have always called home.


As an educator since the early 80’s, the last 30 years serving the community in the SPASH social studies department at SPASH, each year I required my students to find a location in Stevens Point or the surrounding Portage County area, about which they were curious. They would then conduct research on that location, business, home, or landmark with the goal of finding answers to the questions they and others might have.


Now, at the request of Executive Director John Harry of the Portage County Historical Society, it is time for me to turn the tables on myself. I truly hope you find each of my stories informative and interesting. 

 

                                        Have you ever wondered about . . .

Yard signs located around Stevens Point over the past few years will let you know that there is now a unique place for entertainment, games, and fun waiting to be explored at 701 Second Street North. Putt-’n-Play is the latest incarnation of a business that has entertained and nurtured people from throughout Central Wisconsin for nearly 100 years. Depending on your age, you may recall this building functioning as a home, tavern, dance hall, ballroom, or supper club before reaching its current status as an indoor game venue. Because I grew up across the street from this multi-faceted building, I have been a witness to many of the stages the business has gone through and have been privy to the memories of many of the owners and residents. I will try to convey what I know and what I have learned while interviewing some of the people who have lived and worked there.


Edwin Witta standing in front of Midway Tavern, circa 1935. (Photo courtesy of Elaine Kleiber)

In the early 1930’s, with Prohibition ending and the Great Depression finding many people interested in having a drink or two, Charles and Mary Witta opened a bar on Highway 51. It was about two miles from The Market Square in downtown Stevens Point yet not really out in the country, so they named it the Midway Tavern. From the outside it looked quite humble, but inside there was a lot of fun and merriment to be had, especially if you were thirsty for libations and comradery. It was covered in tar paper with metal beer, alcohol and soda advertising signs used as decorations. This was a customary practice during this time because the Depression and its aftermath never allowed the Wittas, and many other business proprietors, enough expendable finances to complete the building with proper siding. Besides, it offered a really good opportunity to advertise to passersby.


Midway Tavern Advertisement, Stevens Point Journal, August 27, 1937

By the time the decade ended, the keys to the establishment had been handed over to Charles and Mary’s son Eddie and his wife Lucille (my great aunt). On the weekends, Midway was not only a gathering place for one to wet their whistle, but to dance their cares away, as long as you could polka. The bar occupied the building's southern side with the dancehall running the length to the back or north side. In the early 40’s their daughter Elaine remembers that “a house was moved from another location and attached to the east side of the bar” away from the road, providing living quarters for her family. There was also a small barn on the property though it is not clear if it was ever used as such.


Lucille (Keen) Witta behind the Midway Tavern bar. Seated at the bar is her husband, Edwin (Eddie) Witta, with his brother Greg seated behind him. Notice the spittoons next to each barstool and the "John Kubisiak for Sheriff" sign behind the bar. Circa 1940. (Photo courtesy of Elaine Kleiber)

Elaine Kleiber (Witta), now living in Henderson, Nevada, recalls that her father kept a billy club behind the bar which he “used on occasion to help break up the fights” that usually accompanied weekend dances. The big gravel parking lot to the south of the building at closing time was usually the setting for the regular fisticuffs. They occurred for a multitude of reasons, but mostly for no real reason at all. Elaine also remembers how as a little girl; she skinned her knees on that parking lot gravel. “I stumbled and fell carrying the butter which my grandfather churned as I walked from his house on one side of the parking lot to my parents’ house on the other.” And if her memory serves her well, this likely occurred more than once.


In about 1948, the Witta family sold the Midway Tavern, and they and Eddie’s brother Greg moved to Chicago to work. Eddie had taken a job working for his older brother Ben, at his car dealership. The new proprietors of the Midway Tavern were the Brish family, Joe, Suzie and their five children (Muriel, LuAnn, Joynelle, Joseph Jr., “Sonny,” and Audry).


Oradell exterior, west facade, circa 1960s. (Photo courtesy of Deb Kluz Baker)

Initially, they felt the building they purchased looked incomplete. Joe Brish changed that by completely covering the original building with a stone façade. That was only one of many major changes made by the new owners. Perhaps, the change which was most notable was the change of name. Their daughter LuAnn (my godmother) recounted that the family had their heart set on using the name “Starlight.” But as many of you who have lived in the Stevens Point area for some time will recall, another nearby ballroom had just laid claim to that moniker. According to LuAnn, after a family discussion concerning their dilemma, she went to a book of musical terms and found the word “Oradell” and the change was made.


Interior of the Oradell Ballroom, Circa 1960s. (Photo courtesy of Deb Kluz Baker)

The business changed hands, the name had changed, but the building remained the same until Joe used his resourcefulness to convert what had been a bar and dance hall into an actual ballroom facility. The dance hall portion of the original building was restructured becoming the Brish families' new living quarters. The dances did not end, instead they were moved to a new and substantially sized, hip-roofed ballroom which Joe added to the east of the existing building in the mid-1950's. LuAnn recalls watching her father installing the massive metal sheets that make up the roof by himself, that is  with a little help from his son, Sonny. The 20+ foot ceiling provided acoustics that could not be found in most other ballrooms in the Midwest.



The new and improved venue became a major attraction for the big-name polka bands from throughout the Midwest and East Coast. Booking the top bands would often draw visitors from as far away as Chicago. Frankie Yankovic, Cousin Fuzzie, The Jolly Seven and the Six Fat Dutchmen were frequent headliners for the weekend festivities. Many local bands also filled the line-up including the GM Brigadiers (the name is a mystery) with my grandfather, Frank Strojny on the concertina. His son (my uncle) Norbert also recalls the many dances but most of all the fights that ended most evening events. He recounted that, “more than a few drinks and a girl were just enough to start a fight.” They never consisted of more than the use of a few fists and the fellas involved could usually be found “sharing a drink the very next day as though nothing had happened.”

In addition to the many concerts and weddings held at the Oradell Ballroom, it was also the scene of a wrestling match in 1960, as seen in the advertisement here, courtesy of Deb Kluz Baker.

The Oradell ballroom was also the host for many, many wedding receptions. In the early years, the restroom accommodations were nothing more than outhouses, certainly primitive by today's standards. Alcohol served to wedding guests had to be purchased off-site, brought to the hall, and then served to guests by locals which they hired to provide hospitality for the event. Typically, wedding guests were served dinner in a church hall or other community location before they made their way to the ballroom for the reception and dance. All of that changed with the addition of a bar and restroom facilities for wedding guests during the mid-1950s. A large kitchen and dining hall to the back of the ballroom completed the complex in 1959.


The Brish family and the ballroom served as my day care providers and playground as a little girl in the early 60’s. I enjoyed many days running and playing with Audry, their youngest daughter, on the massive hardwood floor and listening to our echos of our voices and the music on the singles which we were allowed to play on the ballroom jukebox. I felt really lucky and special. But by 1970 the family's matriarch, Suzie, was suffering with cancer and it was time to sell the business and ballroom. Reluctantly, after 20 years of ownership the Oradell Ballroom was up for sale.

701 Club Advertisement, Stevens Point Journal, November 9, 1973.

The next three years saw a quick turnover of ownership. Name changes included Mr. D’s (DeMuse) and the 701 Club (Opiola and F&N Enterprises). The bands appearing in the ballroom represented a generational and cultural shift in the targeted clientele. Gone were the polkas of the past, replaced by a nightly diet of rock & roll. The new musical focus packed in large crowds. Much to the chagrin of the neighborhood, parking would regularly pour out of the adjacent lot and on to Second Street North, in a way that that in the past was only seen occasionally when the ballroom hosted the largest of wedding receptions. None of the three owners from 1970 to 1973 stuck with their business very long. Perhaps it had to do with the frequent visits from the Stevens Point Police Department, (usually due to parking concerns), the substantial finances necessary to run this type of venue, or the sheer commitment it takes to run a business of this type. Or maybe it was the fact that the last of the three owners were not local residents and may have found it difficult to run this type of business from another state. Regardless of the reason, the neighbors were never informed of why in 1973 the business was once again up for sale, but it was.


F&N Enterprises (Fergus & Neiman of Kissimmee, FL) put the 701 Club property up for sale. This presented Bernard and Irene Kurzawa with the opportunity to realize their dream of owning a restaurant and they ceased it. Their first challenge was reconfiguring nearly everything. They began by closing off the door in the southwest corner of the building and moving it around to the south side. The walls in the living quarters were removed and the area became the main restaurant dining room. Desperately needed new bathrooms were built between the front business area and the ballroom, along with the addition of two smaller rooms designed to accommodate smaller private parties. One of the rooms was actually a room for two which, according to Irene, was the location of several marriage proposals over the years.


A fire had damaged the ballroom kitchen area several years before Kurzawa’s purchase and needed extensive repairs. It would become the heart of the ballroom portion of Bernard’s Country Inn. That kitchen also became the center of their greatest struggles and their funniest stories. Irene claims finding wait staff and kitchen crew for a ballroom was just as challenging 50 years ago as it is today, and turnover was heavy. Some staff would simply quit during their shift or just not show up to work at all. Then there were others like a server named Suzie, as Irene recalled, who “Bernard fired every day, yet she always kept showing back up to work.” There was also a young man who washed the dishes all by himself and when he couldn’t keep up, he simply just took trays of glasses outside to the parking lot. Irene also lamented about wait staff who just “simply stopped doing their job including the cleaning of their workspace.” She said it became “increasingly difficult for them to find employees with a strong work ethic.”


The ballroom was the setting for extraordinary joy but was also the scene of unforeseen tragedy. Sadly, two people actually died while attending events held in Bernard’s ballroom. One woman died while on the dance floor of an apparent heart attack and a man nearly died due to choking on his food but life saving measures were able to save him. At its peak, the ballroom was the location for two to three weddings or other receptions per week. A guest list of 300 could be seated at one time in the ballroom itself. If a larger party were expected, they would use the back dining hall and eat in groups of about 150 at a time. By the end of their run, newer venues had become more numerous and popular, and Bernard’s was only hosting about one wedding per month.


Bernard’s ballroom was the location of an endless list of Polish weddings over the years (including my own), many lasting multiple days. It also played host to an endless array of other group events small and large; Birthday and retirement parties, conventions, cooking demonstrations and weddings unique to central Wisconsin. Irene also recalled an Indian wedding including authentic Indian cuisine and a Russian wedding which featured; deviled eggs topped with caviar. And then there was “October Fest” which drew large crowds and always gave Bernard’s German fare a chance to shine.

The ballroom at Bernard's set up a for a banquet, undated. (Photo courtesy of Irene Kurzawa)

The house restaurant of “Bernard’s Country Inn” was its owner’s namesake and his pride and joy. When the ballroom was in use, Bernard maintained his full restaurant operation with preferred parking for the restaurant guests. My brother Dave often worked “manning” the chained access to that lot and remembers that occasionally guests would request that he park their car for them. He always refused; because he was only 13 or 14 years old. Upon entering the front bar/lounge area (which might have been the area of the structure to have seen the least change since the 1930’s), you would often be greeted by the sounds coming from the piano bar. Max Stewart, Bob Krembs, and a couple of women, one named Clairese (whose last name Irene could not recall), would do their best to put you in the mood for a most pleasant dining experience.


Bernard’s cuisine had a distinctly European flavor and sound to it. Schnitzel, spätzle and sour bratten were familiar fares. Bernard’s guests were presented with options not regularly available at any other central Wisconsin restaurant. Holidays including Easter and Mother’s Day were an opportunity for guests to sample a heavenly array of foods and pastries which Bernard was specially trained in preparing. When it came to Thanksgiving, one could order a whole turkey to be carved right at the table. But the New Year’s specialties were the showstoppers. Bernard and Irene would plan complete menus centered around a chosen city or country. Paris, Salsberg, Italy and Turkey were among those featured. Once they also offered a dinner in honor of the Titanic. Although substitutions had to be found for a couple of the original ingredients, the dinner included all the settings and all 12 courses served on board the Titanic’s lone voyage.

Exterior of Bernard's Country Inn, undated. (Photo courtesy of Irene Kurzawa)

The uniqueness of Bernard’s dining experience drew many UWSP visitors and world dignitaries. Many of their names are familiar to most of us including Green Bay Packer quarterback Bart Starr, Wisconsin congressman and US Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and UWSP Chancellor and WI Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus. They also hosted world famous anthropologist Margaret Mead and actress of stage and screen Colleen Dewhurst. A group from Saudi Arabia visiting UWSP likewise made an event of their evening at Bernard’s. Alex Trebek also dined at 701 Second Street North. Irene noted, that although he fully enjoyed his dinner, the normally silver-tongued host had “more than a little difficulty pronouncing the German names of the food that he wanted to order.” And then there was internationally famous violinist Yo-Yo Ma who dined there with his son. As his evening ended, he signed a picture with a sentiment which Bernard treasured, “From one artist to another, thank you.”


In 2017 after 44 years of being one of the premier restauranters in central Wisconsin, Bernard had reached 78 years of age and he and Irene decided it was time for them to sell their business. After many years of rigorous use and several years of declining attention the business was put up for sale. At about that time, Will Seitz and his wife Aloha were looking into starting a family entertainment business. They had decided that Stevens Point could use a miniature golf venue, something that it had not had since “Arnold Palmer Driving Range” par three golf, and miniature golf closed in the late 1970’s. (Ironically, it was just a few yards down the street from the Putt ‘n Play.)


Will was looking for property on which to build his business but found that vacant land on which to build was cost prohibitive. He stumbled on the availability of the ballroom property but was informed that it had already been claimed and was off the market. Before Will could find and secure another property, the deal which was made between the Kurzawa’s and the initial buyer had fallen through, and the ballroom was once again available. The purchase was made by Will and Aloha, and once again reinvention of the property began. The size of the ballroom allowed for their idea of providing a miniature golf venue, to expand from a seasonal business to a year-round opportunity and much more.


Although the exterior facade of the building remains nearly the same as it has looked for about the last 45 years, the interior has been completely reimagined. Doors have been filled in and added, walls have been both built, rebuilt, and removed. The front bar (the portion seeing the fewest changes since the 1930’s) is now filled with an array of pinball and other arcade games, showing little evidence of its former use as a bar. The restaurant kitchen has been noticeably reduced in size. The corresponding dining room looks much the same as it did when it was Bernard’s, however it is only available to the public for hosting birthday parties and other gatherings. All of the building's infrastructure needed attention as well. Two new furnaces were installed as part of necessary property upkeep and to improve energy efficiency.


The changes in the ballroom have been equally as extensive. Where countless crowds danced and celebrated in years gone by, a custom-made miniature golf course fills most of the floor. The bar area, which provided celebrators of every occasion a chance to wet their whistle, is now an area to buy a turn at “putt, putt,” or redeem the tickets earned on the various games throughout the building for prizes. There is also a resident rabbit making his home in this area to provide a petting zoo moment for kids of all ages.


The ballroom kitchen and dining room were the last parts of the building needing attention. The kitchen has been updated and produces food befitting a family entertainment establishment, plus, of course, a Friday fish fry. Finally, behind the building one will find a curious array of structures used to enhance a game of laser tag and several other activities. Seitz will attest that the first two years were a struggle for his family. He said, “if I had not been able to do so much of the work on the building myself, the first two years, may well have been the last two years for our business.” The Seitz family has many other plans and dreams for the future of their Putt ‘n Play property. Including the recent acquisition of a small parcel of land to the north and east of the building as part of a land swap with the city, which they plan to use for an outdoor miniature golf course.

 

If all this sounds like a huge investment, it has been. Just like every owner that has gone before them, the biggest investment the current owners have made is in the blood, sweat and tears that it takes to run a successful business. Aside from the three owners between 1970 and 1973, there have been four families in the last 90+ years, who have invested an enormous amount of time and energy trying to make this building provide a living for themselves and their family. If it were not for their pride in doing so, the structure at 701 Second Street North, like so many other structures, would be long gone, lost and forgotten in the void of local history. And if you have ever wondered about the Putt ‘n Play, now you know.

 

My sincere thanks to the following people who took the time to revisit their memories of and plans for the future of the business at 701 Second Street North:

Elaine (Witta) Kleiber

Norbert Strojny

LuAnn (Brish) Wroblewski

Dave Kluz

Irene Kurzawa

Will Seitz

Thanks for reading. . . Deb Kluz Baker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

   

3 Comments


Guest
4 days ago

As a former student of yours, this piece was a compelling surprise to stumble upon! Thank you for all of this information… the story of Putt n’ Play did not disappoint! Cannot help but wonder if there are any residual souls still dancing on the ballroom floor. While it’s a beautiful building with tons of fun to enjoy - there is so much history! I would be interested to know if anyone has ever experienced any friendly spiritual encounters?

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Guest
5 days ago

Bernard’s was somethplace that really set Stevens Point apart. It sounds like the “new” business will be something special as well. Such an interesting story, thank you for putting all the work into it!

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Guest
6 days ago

Deb...A wonderful recap of the life and times at our local Bistro at 701 2nd Avenue. Memories are made by visiting the past and reliving the ones we enjoyed. As we grow older those old memories come back more often and more important than ever. I always enjoyed chatting with Bernard as he was genuinely always worth the price of admission. Thanks again for a brilliantly written flash from our past.

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