35 Hours in Milwaukee

Last week, I took a look at the extended forecast and thought, "Oh hell no." So I plotted my escape from New Jersey. I revisited abandoned plans to see Dick Contino, master of the accordion and prolific shaker of the bellows, for the first time, at Milwaukee's Festa Italiana. I like Milwaukee. It's a short trip. I can get a flight for a little over $200. OK, I'm gone. That's pretty much how my trip planning went.

So I bought a ticket for Thursday morning, with a return flight Friday night. And this is what happened.

I arrive at Mitchell Airport a little before 8 a.m. (after a 6:55 a.m. flight from LaGuardia...first NYC taxi ride in more than a decade). I soon fall further in love with Milwaukee when I find a pretty great used bookstore in the airport. But there is precious little time to browse, because I need to make the 9:30 Breakfast Bingo special at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino.

I make Breakfast Bingo with several minutes to spare, plenty of time to buy a new bingo marker and get a good spot in the non-smoking section. I don't win and don't really even get close, but buying another Elvis bingo marker (yes, I said "another") is a win in itself. Plus, I snag a $5 hat from the gift shop mainly because it has two mini searchlights on the visor. This may be the greatest hat ever.

After bingo, I walk to my hotel (probably should've noted that it was at the top of a hill before deciding to do that), check in, dump some things out of my bag, and take my 5 records and one book to the Festa Italiana with the hopes of getting accordion god Dick Contino to sign them after one of his two performances that day.

But first, I must meet up with my buddy the Bronze Fonz for another photo.


Upon arriving at the Festa (the second the box office opens), I quickly scope out the stage where Mr. Contino is playing. I then get some eggplant sticks and consume them in the broiling sun. Soon, a slightly mentally challenged man expresses shock that I have never seen Dick Contino before, because he plays the Festa every year (for the last32 it turns out). I explain my journey. The line distinguishing "normal" from "slightly mentally challenged" grows a bit blurrier.

The 81-year-old Mr. Contino takes the stage just after 3, noticeably limping. But he doesn't let whatever's ailing him get in the way of his deft keyboard work and incomparable bellow shaking. I smile and tap my foot giddily for an hour, stopping only to move up a few rows (very easy to do, since there were maybe 10 people in the rows and a crowd of about 20 in the shade) to get better pictures.

Much to my delight, Mr. Contino comes out to sign stuff, and I soon become the center of attention for the senior citizens that have gathered around the merch table. I tell Mr. Contino that I have come all the way from New Jersey just to meet him, and he seems appreciative. It is hard to tell, though, because, truth be told, the Dick Contino fanbase does not contain the most patient people in the world. In the ten seconds it takes for me to get the albums out of their protective sleeves, I am ostensibly sent to the back of the line as everybody else angles in for their moment with Mr. Contino. Pictures are taken, memories are relived, and then eventually I get my records and book signed. I then try to pass off my camera to someone to take a picture, but he just starts snapping away and I have no idea when the picture is actually being taken. So those didn't come out so well. But the second time's the charm, as Mr. Contino's handler (who sort of looks--and sounds--like a compacted Tony Clifton) nails it in one take.

With the focus of the trip now fulfilled, I can relax. I have conversations with two different women about Mr. Contino. The first is the wife of the man (Mario) I first gave my camera to, and she tells me her husband worships Mr. Contino and is an accordion player himself (they've come down from Chicago for the day). He also grows vegetables, and Mr. Contino is soon given a sample of the peppers and basil they have brought. And then I'm given a pickle. Quite good. We soon depart, and I tell her I'll likely see them at the 7:30 show.

The second woman is, quite honestly, adorable, and pretty much a midwestern version of my mom. As I was sitting on a bench by Lake Michigan and putting my records back in their sleeves, she came up to me and asked if she could see the records. As she picked up each one, she remarked whether she had it or not, and then started talking about her many years of Contino fandom. She remembered going to see him when she was young and then when she was a bit older, and finally now as she, her husband, and Mr. Contino live the twilight years. When I tell her this is my first time seeing him, her initial reaction was sadness, because the guy I had just seen on the stage is nothing like the black-haired, muscled guy she'd been seeing for half her life. But I told her that I thought he was great, and she conceded that, yeah, he's still good, but it's just not the same, and he seems to be in so much pain. We talk about that for awhile, and how we both came because, well, who knows if he'll be back next year.

A few times in the conversation she mentioned that she never would've thought she'd actually get to be friends with Dick Contino. It's very sweet, as she talks about how she used to come see him at the Festa and then she and the rest of the Fan Club would all head back to the hotel with Mr. Contino after the day's sets were done, eventually all ending up at Denny's early in the morning. It's so sweet that I wish I had recorded it so I could hold on to it forever. But I'll have to make do with what my brain remembers.

As we wrapped up our conversation, she pondered whether she and her husband were going to stick around for the 7:30 show, because it's so hot and her husband's pushing her around in a wheelchair and that show's still three hours away. I told her to just find a good shady spot for a few hours and see if she can make it.

Of course, as I sat down for the 7:30 show, I turn to my right and hear, "Hey, Jersey!" There she was, dead center in the late-day sun (her husband sat in the wheelchair at the end of the row). Was there ever really a doubt?

I pondered leaving myself, but a few of the other acts held my attention enough that I was able to pass the time pretty well. There was also the Lego Leaning Tower of Pisa and Lego Miller Park to ogle.

Mario and his wife were back up front for the 7:30 show, and Mario was, as he did during the first show, taking it upon himself to make sure the house sound was OK for Mr. Contino (later on, he told me he slipped the sound guy $20 to give Mr. Contino a little more power). With a much larger crowd assembled for the evening show, Mr. Contino is even more on top of his game and even drops the zipper on his shirt a little lower to give the ladies something to take home with them.

I figured I oughta try to capture a Contino bellow shake on video, so I did. Behold the Contino shake during "Beer Barrel Polka." (The video's rough, so if you want to go right to the bellow shaking, hit the :20 mark.)

Mr. Contino definitely seemed a little looser and more at ease during the evening show, and it was probably the best of the three sets I saw (all pretty much the same setlist-wise, but, hey, you go with what works). After the closing number, the highly emotional "This Is My Life" (see Shirley Bassey's version here). I look over to Mario's wife, and she is openly crying. Seeing as I'd been up since 3 a.m. Central time, I'm a little surprised I didn't cry myself.

I finally spoke to Mario after the show (he seemed a little wary of me for some reason, perhaps because of my obnoxious Hawaiian shirt), and he told me about a show he was putting together in the fall in Chicago with him, Mr. Contino, and an Elvis impersonator (looks like I'm going to Chicago in the fall). Also, after a pointed declaration that bellow shaking was harder than it looks and that Mr. Contino pulls it off because he's Italian and has heart (at one point, I thought Mario might poke me in the chest), thoughts turned to vegetables again, and I was given more pickles, some basil, and a zucchini.

I had thoughts of taking my produce and going bowling after the festival, but I decided that going back to the hotel was the smarter decision. And, for once, I went with the smarter decision, though I did once again walk up the hill instead of taking a cab or bus.

It rained overnight and into the morning, so on Friday, I partook of the continental breakfast and then waited out the rain while I watched weather reports, "The Price Is Right," and "The View." The rain let up just around checkout time, so I took the free hotel shuttle down to Mader's, where I had some sauerbraten and chatted with Gary the bartender, a self-proclaimed survivalist who admitted (adding "and maybe I should be seeing a doctor about this") that when he's driving he looks at old buildings and envisions zombies coming out of them. He will, naturally, shoot the zombies. I'm not sure if it's because I was overtired or because I love the food at Mader's so much, but I think this was one of the more enjoyable conversations I've had in the last few years.

Before I left, I checked out the Mader's Wall of Fame, featuring some of the celebrities who have dined at the restaurant. President Ford's note of thanks was prominently displayed, but aside from T&R Hall of Famer John Candy's signed 8X10, I was most impressed with wrestler (and master of the Iron Claw) Baron Von Raschke's place on the wall.

Excellent pun, sir.

And I should also make note of Oliver Hardy's love of the pork shank.

After lunch, I walked down to the Milwaukee Public Market, which I had scoped out the day before. I left with a bottle of locally made black cherry cream soda (I'd had locally made root beer the day before, and it was better), chocolate-covered cranberries, some cookies, and a slice of German chocolate cake for the road (the latter two were from C. Adam's Bakery, which I highly recommend).

I then saw a sign for a t-shirt store in the Historic Third Ward, and since I had some time to kill before it was Contino Time again, I figured I'd check it out. The guy in charge, Fred, was awfully nice, and the shirts were cool, too. I opted for one with the old Milwaukee County Stadium beer slide on it, and after I told Fred why I was in Milwaukee, I was asked to pose for a photo. Support your local t-shirt makers, wherever you are.

The third Contino set was solid, too (I took several videos, but they're so shaky that there's either something wrong with my camera or I have Parkinson's), and afterward I braved the merch crowd to buy my second CD of the weekend, which I asked Mr. Contino to sign to me. He recognized me from the day before and thanked me again for bringing the records and coming so far to see him. He really did seem genuinely moved by my effort. So maybe I made the days a little brighter for him.

He definitely made them brighter for me. And kept me away from the crushing NYC heat for a few days (though the pilot said the temperature when we landed at LaGuardia at 10 p.m. was 93 degrees). So, thanks Mr. Contino. And the elderly Contino-heads of the Milwaukee/Chicago area. And Fred. And Gary the zombie-hunting bartender. And all of Milwaukee. I have yet to find a bad thing about the city.

See you soon. Please continue rolling out the barrel in my absence.

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