By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Mark VanBerkon lives in one of those apartments, and spends most of his nights downstairs in the bar. "This is my living room," he says. "There's not another place like this in town. This is a real rock & roll club with a tavern attitude. There's no dirt, not with Louie, not with this bar. Louie's the most hard-working son of a bitch I've ever met, and they don't come any better. I was on the street when I first came in here and Louie put me up."
Despite its reputation as "the bar without a neighborhood," Lee's survived precisely because it was a neighborhood bar, and Louie inspired loyalty in a core group of regulars who recognized and appreciated his place for its effortless and comfortable authenticity, for its character and throwback charm. These regulars continued to make the trek to Lee's, coming down Glenwood from the Bryn Mawr, Harrison, and Camden neighborhoods. Many of them were second-generation Lee's drinkers who had grown up and gone to school together. Guys like Eddie Schmidt and Tom Heikke have been hanging out at the bar in Lee's for almost two decades, and their connection to the bar is personal. Asked to explain the appeal of Lee's, Schmidt says simply, "Louie's a helpful gentleman."
"He's the greatest guy in the fucking world," Heikke adds. "I was born and raised on Glenwood, and my dad and his friends hung out in here. Louie's special to the North Side, he's local all the way. He's all heart. He'll give you anything you need. If you added up all the money I owe him, and everything my friends owe him, you could retire. He hasn't taken a vacation in all the years I've known him."
Schmidt remembers riding the bus between Bryn Mawr and downtown as a kid, and passing the tremendous neon sign of Lee's. "This was my first bar," he says. "Louie's always supported the neighborhood families, sponsoring sports teams and throwing big spreads for weddings and funerals. It's a safe and comfortable place, you know? The waitresses and barkeeps know your name. A lot of us regulars grew up together, and on almost any given night I'll still run into somebody I haven't seen in a long time."
There's a sign on Louie's desk that says, "A cluttered desk is a sign of genius." The tiny office is full of all sorts of zealously American artifacts and knickknacks: busts of Lincoln and Kennedy, a John Wayne clock, a collection of whiskey decanters and figurines (Elvis, more John Wayne, the Statue of Liberty, Hank Williams Sr. and Jr., Tom T. Hall). There is a photo of Louie and his family with Tiny Tim, who played his last show at Lee's. There is also, curiously, a collection of corncob pipes. "I had an uncle who was called Corncob Nick," Louie shrugs. "He was a saloon owner over in St. Paul in the 1930s." Louie fishes through a file cabinet and comes up with a photo album from his days as a tank driver in Germany in the late 1950s, where he served at the same time as Elvis. "I went to see him when I was over there," Louie says, and he now keeps an elaborate shrine to the King of Rock & Roll in his bar. He has never been to Graceland--"I've never had the time," he says--but he does have an album full of carefully hand-labeled photographs that a friend took for him on a visit. As payback for all his good deeds, Louie's friends have apparently been kind enough to take his vacations for him.
On a tour of his immaculately clean and organized basement, Louie points out the hundreds of trophies he has accumulated over the years--"From the earlier years and the athletics and such," Louie says with a wave of his hand. "In the old days Lee's was a powerhouse in athletics. Sometimes the big ones break and you throw 'em away." He also points out his first-class bottle-and-can sorting operation. Back upstairs he stoops to examine a patch of floor tile that is clearly not up to snuff. "You see?" he asks, shaking his head. "I have to get down on my hands and knees to clean these floors, because this is all I've got."
At 7:30 folks start milling on the dance floor for Katy Olson's weekly "Miss Kitty's Dance Class." Every Wednesday before the Trailer Trash gig, Olson and Alan Raven Hockersmith teach the basics of swing dancing to anyone who comes through the door, and lately they have been coming in droves. Olson has been coming down to Lee's for several years, and her infectious style of dancing has caught on with the Wednesday night regulars. "It's a great opportunity to share the beauty of swing dancing with the public," she says, "and it's free. This is a great place to dance, because unlike so many other places you don't have to fight through all the standers. And our class also makes a great date, because we're the only dance class in town that has more men than women. I like to tell people that Lee's is like the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. You'll run into all these people that you'd never in a million years expect to see here."