The Brass Rail Files
You can see J.Jason Groshopf’s original layout for this article here: http://www.j-jason.com/#/boozehound/
Reposting this article is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’m not sure where I first heard of the Brass Rail, but I became a little fascinated with it about ten years ago and spent hours looking through old articles at the Central Library. I tracked down and interviewed people who had knowledge of the place, including Milwaukee jazz greats Berkeley Fudge and Manty Ellis. This article was first published in the Alcoholmanac in 2009, but wasn’t posted online. I edited it here to add some info, and fix choppy language. At the end I’ve added some bonus material like short newspaper articles I found on the notorious club and an interview with someone about the Princess Theater next door.
COLD-BLOODED MOB MURDER! SEX! RED HOT JAZZ!
THE STORY OF THE BRASS RAIL
The infamous Brass Rail jazz and striptease club was opened in 1956 on 3rd and Wells in downtown Milwaukee. It was located next door (and, it’s been said, connected by secret entrance to) the Princess theater, a former 900 seat movie palace that fell from grace to become a XXX adult film theater.
1960 started with a murder mystery of the colorful owner of the club, Isadore “Izzy” Pogrob. After his murder the club was run by “Mr.Slick,” aka Frank Balistrieri, head of organized crime in Milwaukee. For almost thirty years, the bar grabbed headlines before being torn down in 1984.
On Wednesday, January 6, 1960, around 3am Izzy was closing the Brass Rail, along with his employees. These included bartenders Vito Aiello and Henry “Hooks” Hanscher, and master of ceremonies Hugh Patton. He decided to take them all out to breakfast down the street at the Belmont Hotel. Izzy was 320 plus pounds, and eating was his favorite thing to do next to flashing his giant roll of cold hard cash. It was reported that Izzy “loved the feel of money.”
Accounts of what type of person Izzy was vary.
“He was a desperado, but he and his brother always made a good living. He was a character,” says Simie Fein, owner of Fein Brothers restaurant supply store on King Drive. “I knew his brother, Irv, better than I knew Izzy. Irv had a pawn shop, about a block away (from the Brass Rail). We used to hang out there in the back room and play cards.” Fein says the Pogrob brothers also managed a liquor store in the same area.
“I remember him. Oh man. He was a fucking idiot. I hate to say it. He was big, dumb. Tried to be a bully. He was obnoxious,” says Manty Ellis, a jazz guitarist and pianist that frequented and played the Brass Rail. “He was like 6’7, 6’8. And he must have weighed like 550 pounds. 400 hundred or 500 pounds [he’s actually reported to be about 320 pounds]. Couldn’t keep his mouth shut!” Ellis recalled with a laugh.
The Brass Rail had become a sizzling hot venue for local and national jazz acts. Some of jazz music’s biggest names played there. Jazz saxophonist and Wisconsin Conservatory of Music teacher Berkeley Fudge played the club and recalls seeing the legendary Dizzy Gillespie with trumpeter Lee Morgan play there as well.
“I played there three or four times in the 60s, with a guitar and piano. That was when I was with the Jack Rice Trio,” Fudge told me in a 2009 interview. “We were just there backing up those strippers, you know. There wasn’t much attention paid to the band.” He guessed the musicians might have been paid about 15 or 20 dollars a night at the club back then.
Some Brass Rail ads for Miles Davis and a fire eater named Zana. I pulled these from Bobby Tanzilo’s great article “Chasin’ the Trane to Milwaukee: When John Coltrane Did and Didn’t Play Here” for OnMilwaukee.com
So back to Big Iz. It’s just after 3am and he was eating and flashing his roll of cash (about $1500 worth) at the Belmont Hotel’s cafe, while a mysterious man with “long dyed blond hair”, sat near the group, eavesdropping. The man then conferred with two men sitting in a booth nearby, the waitress working that night reported to the Milwaukee Journal.
After eating, Izzy crawled in his huge white Cadillac and headed home. It was the last he was seen alive.
The next day the Cadillac was found splattered with blood. Later in the day Izzy was found, too. He was blindfolded, shot 9 times in the head and neck, and dumped in a drainage ditch, off highway 167 in Mequon. The murder has never been solved.
Izzy’s death wasn’t the first murder with ties to the club. Christina Calligaro was a “22-year-old, thrice married exotic dancer” according to a 1959 Milwaukee Sentinel report. She stripped under the name “Brenda Baye” at the Brass Rail for eight weeks in fall of 1959, and worked other strip clubs as well. On Dec.20, 1959 she was found shot four times on a gravel road outside of Peoria, WI, dressed in her “dance costume.” Pogrob and Calligaro were murdered about a year apart, both shot and ditched, both unsolved.
Izzy’s brother Irvin Pogrob took over the Brass Rail after Izzy’s death, but by all accounts wasn’t as flashy as his brother. He eventually sold the business to someone better suited for it.
Someone better suited like “Mr. Fancy Pants” aka “Mr. Slick” aka the sharply dressed Frank P. Balistrieri, head of the Milwaukee mafia. Among other things, he ran casino skimming and vending machine rackets. One of his reported favorite methods of disposing of someone was by car bomb, which gave him the nickname “The Mad Bomber.”
To many people Frank was the one who actually ran the city, all the way up until his conviction in the mid 80’s.
“I met em. But, you know it was like meeting anybody else. You meet them then go about your business, you know. A lot of them hung out there,” Berkeley Fudge told me about the mafia clientele at the Brass Rail. Manty Ellis’s response was similar.
“Sure, I knew the guys from the mafia. Well, I didn’t know them, but they knew me. See, the mafia owned all the clubs. So if you wanted to play the clubs, you had to know them. They owned every club downtown,” Ellis told me.
Although Balistrieri ran the joint, like most of his businesses, he kept his name off the paper. The tavern licenses for the Brass Rail and nearby La Scala restaurant on Wells Street belonged to Rudolph Porchetta. FBI affidavits, though, made it clear that it was a front business for the real owner, Frank. Porchetta said that he “was like a son to Frank Balistrieri,” despite actually being four years older than him.
The city pounced on Porchetta and sentenced him with two felonies and six months in jail when they discovered he had engaged in “false swearing” on his tavern licenses. He had claimed he had not been convicted of a crime on the tavern applications, but in fact had been convicted of six misdemeanors in 1973.
After a long legal battle, Porchetta tried to transfer the Brass Rail tavern license to Jack Scardina. Scardina listed his residence as the Shorecrest Hotel, which was owned by Frank and his sons Joe and John Balistrieri, and was sort of the family fortress. Scardina also got in trouble for giving false information on his license, and was fined $500 in 1982.
The city bought the Brass Rail and the Princess Theater and tore both down in the summer of 1984.
The site is now a parking lot.
THE BRASS RAIL CASE FILES
I was able to find a few newspaper articles on the murder of Izzy Pogrob. One of the funniest things was the newspapers frequently commented on how remarkable Izzy’s “gigantic” 300 plus pound weight was, novel at the time, but not so much anymore. I was especially struck by a January 8, 1960 Milwaukee Sentinel article, which had a strangely poetic reporting style.
SCENE: MAN, BIG AND DEAD
January 8, 1960
By Robert F. Jones
From a cloudless sky, the sun threw a gloss on the winter hills, on the brown water of Menomonee creek and on the equipment and uniforms of the Mequon police.
It was a fine day if you kept your eyes away from the broad pool of blood which lay, darkening, on the bone -white culvert.
And if you forgot about the man who lay, big and dead, under the quiet water.
More of a Ditch
The Menomonee creek- really a sort of drainage ditch glorified by the name of the river it feeds- slices neatly through the Mequon farmland west of Thiensville. Weeds and willows are reflected on its surface.
The throngs of citizens, newsmen and Mequon Emergency Squad volunteers who crowded around the spot where Highway 167 crosses the creek had ample opportunity to look at the scenery as Mequon Police Chief Robert Milke and his men sized up the situation.
Milke, a graduate of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s police officer course, was in no hurry to move until he knew exactly where he stood.
He handled the pres vaguely and easily, never raising his voice when eager cameramen crossed the ropes he had set up, but merely telling them to move back.
“Okay,” he said to one of his men, (4 or 5 words unclear on microfilm) of blood, and pick up some of it.”
The man knelt over the puddle and ladled blood into a plastic bag.
“Looks like when you slaughter a hog,” said one of the on-lookers, a small wrinkled man in overalls.
“Yep,” said his companion, a large wrinkled man in overalls.
Eight Emergency Squad men loped down to the water and snagged the body up toward the bank. A pale hand floated like a lotus near the surface, then sagged to the enormous stomach as the body came clear.
Someone grunted, “Okay now pull! Pull! Pull’m on up.”
Blood thinned away from the face as the body was beached. Then canvas covered the huge body.
The eight men strained at the handles of the stretcher, and the big man was carried up to a waiting station wagon. The station wagon roared off toward Thiensville, and everyone followed.
From a bare sky, the lowering sun threw a gloss on the winter hills.
This editorial appeared in a January 19, 1982 Milwaukee Journal. My favorite line is they say the “sham ownership” “needs thorough ventilation.” This was pretty much the end of the line for the Brass Rail. Frank Balistreri began a long series of trials for casino skimming in 1983. He spent the last years of his life in prison, getting early release in 1991 for poor health. He died in 1993. The Brass Rail and Princess Theater were demolished in 1984.
TAVERN OWNERSHIP FAKERY
Milwaukee Journal editorial, Jan 19, 1982
Milwaukee tavern licensee Rudolph Porchetta has been sentenced to jail after conviction of false swearing in connection with a tavern-license application. So far, so good.
Judge Ralph Adam Fine sentenced Porchetta to six months in jail on work –release. The sentence was stayed pending appeal, a common practice.
However, Porchetta seems one piece in the puzzle of who really runs some Milwaukee taverns. A Common Council committee is expected to hold a hearing early in February on the possible revocation of Porchetta’s licenses. In view of his conviction, revocation appears in order.
Meanwhile, a larger issue is raised by an FBI affidavit alleging that the taverns in question were actually controlled by Frank Balistrieri, the reputed Mafia boss of Milwaukee. A federal grand jury has indicted Balistrieri and others on charges resulting from an extensive probe of organized crime in southeastern Wisconsin.
The issue of sham ownership, particularly as a front for alleged organized criminal activity, needs thorough ventilation. That is a task for committees of the Common Council and for law enforcement agencies. Consequently, it is encouraging to hear Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Schneider’s pledge that the investigation of this problem will continue.
One of my favorite interviews while working on this article was talking to my former co-worker Maureen Jamieson, aka Mo. We worked at a place called the Brady Street Pharmacy together as cashiers about 5 days a week and she was one of my favorite people to hear stories from. I recorded the following conversation about the Brass Rail’s seedy neighbor, the Princess Theater, in 2009. I miss you, Mo.
Tea: Didn’t you say your grandmother was mad at your granddad for going to the Brass Rail?
Mo: No, that was for going to the Princess Theater, next door. Which was really bad and because– we’re talking the early 50’s– to have these nasty, dirty, filthy movies showing at the Princess Theater was just…shh-wew! And of course, if you ever saw the clientele, which I think was Grandma’s other objection, that my grandfather was going among these el sleazoids… they were really creepy, these were the guys that were beating off in the dark theater, I mean you knew they were just by the way they looked. Just the ultimate in sleaze!
Tea: So she found out he was going, and she got upset about it?
Mo: Oh God. God, she burnt many a candle over that one. And, uh, if you went past there during the day, they had matinees and that was the funny thing– that’s when the business men would go. So, you’d see all these sleazy guys coming out and then two or three guys in suits, so obviously it was their lunch break or something (laughs) and they’re going back to work. In fact, when we were kids we weren’t allowed to walk on the same side of the street that the Princess was on, lest we see something, I don’t know what we were going to see…
Tea: Maybe they were afraid you were going to get snatched up?
Mo: There you go, by some dirty old man. Oh God. That was, yeah, my grandmother. My grandmother never yelled. Never. Never raised her voice. That was old fashioned German, the whole deal. But when she found out that he went to the Princess, she yelled, she prayed, she called the priest. She did, I’m serious. My grandfather, I don’t know if he went to the Princess again, if he did anything naughty, because it probably scared him, the mere thought of getting caught again. She talked to the priest because she just didn’t know what she should do, if she should leave him because of it or…God. I’m sure whatever they saw at the Princess Theater I can see better than that on TV any day of the week now.
There was a movie called…oh shit…there was a movie called The Moon is Blue with, I don’t know if you’ll know these people, William Holden, I think, and David Niven.
David Niven and Maggie something-or-other [Mo is thinking of Maggie McNamara in the 1953 film]. Of course they’re way older than she is and she says- they’re trying to get her in bed and she says in the movie that she’s a virgin and they say something to each other that they hated dealing with virgins, and that made it an X rated movie. So yeah. My grandfather paid for that. (Laughs)
My upcoming book American Madness features a journey through conspiracy culture. It’s out August 25, 2020 from Feral House. To pre-order: CLICK HERE
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Posted on January 9, 2019, in Uncategorized and tagged Berkeley Fudge, Brass Rail, Christina Calligaro, Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Balistrieri, Izzy Pogrob, Lee Morgan, Manty Ellis, Miles Davis, Milwaukee jazz, Milwaukee Mafia, Princess Theater, Zana. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.