A Short History of
The Coffee House
Compiled by Dick Nitelinger
"The great value of the Coffee House was and continues to be, a place where local performers can hone their skill. Remember all those rooms that only catered to the bigs were lost for love of money."
- Larry Penn
The year was 1967. Milwaukee was going through a turbulent summer. The Vietnam war was dividing the country, and young people were caught up in political and social uncertainty. What was politely called a "civil disturbance" would later briefly plunge the city into a state of siege, and open housing marches held thereafter would polarize the community.
Shortly before all of that, on the quiet, balmy evening of June 29, a handful of people walked through the doorway at 631 N 19th St to the fireside room of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. There, they found the room transformed with a handful of tables, chairs, artwork borrowed from the Grand Avenue Galleries up the street, and pillows on the floor, into a coffee house.
The idea had been kicking around since 1965, when interested persons from Redeemer, Wesley Methodist Church, St. James Episcopal Church, Our Saviorís Lutheran, and the Marquette University Lutheran Campus Ministry, formed a committee to start a coffee house. The two individuals driving the idea were Ms. Audrey Anderson, a Lutheran Campus Minister for Marquette, and the Rev. Don Cole, Curate at St. James Episcopal Church.
The idea was to provide a place where young people especially students from Marquette, area nursing schools, and the Milwaukee Institute of Technology (now MATC) could get together and discuss the issues of the day. The original plan was to locate the coffee house outside the churches, so that those who might be repelled by the idea of associating with a religious organization would still feel welcome. The problem was, they couldnít find a suitable location at a price they could afford to pay for rent. The group only needed the space a few days a week, but the owners of the available storefronts wanted a full monthís rent.
In April of 1967, the Rev. Alan Davis succeeded Ms. Anderson as Marquette’s Lutheran Campus Minister. He would spend half his time in that function, and the other half as assistant pastor at Redeemer. Shortly after he arrived, the coffee house committee was revived. The problem of where to locate still nagged the group. Former Milwaukee mayor Frank Zeidler and his wife Agnes were long-time members of Redeemer. Agnes was one of the people who searched for a suitable location. As she remembered:
"We walked the streets: First Wisconsin Avenue and then Wells Street although we didnít go too far west but we couldn’t find anyplace. So we said the church was it. We had room; we could open it, and everything was fine."
The Rev. Charles Witt, Redeemer’s pastor, agreed to let the group use the fireside room in the church’s hall, while keeping open the option of relocating outside the church, should another location be found.
A group of students from local nursing schools, Marquette and MIT, who met regularly at Redeemer for supper, discussion and fellowship, did most of the original decorating, made the pillows, and a small, wooden stage.
After finally reaching the goal of opening a coffee house, the founding committee decided that a formal organization was needed. So, on August 31, notice was made of an incorporation meeting to be held on September 14. At that meeting, the coffee house was incorporated as a "religious society for educational purposes" pursuant to Chapter 187 of the Wisconsin Statutes. On September 29, the Rev. Alan Davis, Mr. Edward Huddell of Wesley Methodist, and the Rev. John C. Kelley, pastor of Grand Avenue Congregational, signed their names to the incorporation documents.
Click to Enlarge
Schedule from September of 1967 announcing the incorporation meeting and early programming
(Courtesy of Bill O’Connor)
By-laws were drafted providing for a board consisting of eight members-at-large, as well as representatives from any church or organization that wanted to affiliate with the group. The stated purpose was:
"To serve the community by being a place where persons may meet in unhurried conversation and where the questions, the issues, the interests, the hopes that lie within and around us may unfold in an atmosphere of openness and candor."
The name selected for the new corporation was "The Downtown Coffee House", although it was understood that a more interesting name would eventually be chosen. However, most everyone soon referred to the place simply as "The Coffee House", and that name stuck.
At first, The Coffee House was open Wednesday-Saturday. The programming was rather simple originally, as the idea was to open a place for coffee and conversation. As some of the founding members had met at the church for supper, that was continued. Films played a big part of early programming, as did poetry readings, and open sings. Guest speakers from the community discussed civil disturbance, birth control legislation, experiences with Fr. Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council, and Black History.
Bill O’Connor was there at the beginning and remembered:
"...while music was always a big part of each listing, Al Davis managed to come up with films, speakers, discussion topics, and activities which challenged us to think and formulate ideas. In an era before the internet where many of us looked for information outside the establishment’s networks and news releases, we found intellectual life in discussing ideas weíd heard from songs or read about in underground newspapers. We didnít have to worry about political correctness. The CH was a great place to just sit and talk.
In glancing at the calendars Iím also struck by the number and quality of musicians, singers, songwriters who have appeared there. In this area the CH has remained a place which presents an alternative to the music we hear on most stations. I remember the first "Open Sing" in 1967. Larry & I each sang at that one, but I remember another performer who captured the attention of the audience with his guitar work, voice and songs. He never came back. We never found out who he was. But for 15 minutes that night the CH gave him a chance to display his talents and receive his reward: an appreciative audience. For 40 years singers have looked forward to this simple opportunity: a chance to have their songs be heard and to be appreciated. In a sense, to be stars for a night and to shine as brightly as they are able. No American Idol phoniness here. Just music from the heart. I know for a fact I would not have developed my skills (limited as they are) as a guitarist and song writer had it not been for the CH. I will always hold it and the people who supported it with their time and talent dear to my heart.
Finally, I remember the unique Sunday night Agape Suppers. I have to admit as a college student I not only looked forward to the time for reflection but also to some good food! Al & Ann Davis and their sons made all who attended a part of their extended family. Again, I remain grateful for that to this day."
Larry Theiss and Bill O’Connor in the 1960s
(Courtesy of Bill O’Connor)
A young Larry Penn plays his 12-string guitar and sings a Leadbelly tune.
(Courtesy of Larry Penn)
Some of the topics were controversial, as was the "Eucharistic Celebration and Dance" held on October 6, 1968. Protests forced the celebration to move from the church to the parish hall, but those who objected found themselves worshiping with the hundreds of young people who came to the service. Regular worship services became a part of the program for a time.
Drama also made up a big part of programming, and play readings and performances by local theater, mime, and puppet groups all took place within The Coffee Houseís friendly confines. Theater X made it its home from 1970-1972.
Sally Rogers went on to national status as a performer, and sang at The Coffee House when she lived in Milwaukee:
"I was in high school when I first performed at The Coffee House. My link was through Larry Theiss and then Alan Davis and I believe the Schmid's [Will & Ann] had something to do with it at the time. All my folk connections from that period of my life kind of run together as one big influence. The Coffee House was an incredibly supportive place to play and also to meet friends and musicians. Alan was one of the most welcoming and kind individuals I ever met. At the time I was singing occasionally at The Coffee House, I was also singing at the Id and Eggo on 27th and Vliet, another blast from the past, run by Rod Eglash. It was there that I met Larry Penn with whom I'm still in touch and admire greatly.
I'm sure that if it hadn't been for the supportive atmosphere at The Coffee House and the role models like Theiss and O'Connor and many others, I would not have had the courage to continue on the path I finally chose."
In June of 1974, the first "Folk Gathering" was held. An estimated 800 people attended a two-day program of arts, crafts and music, and for the next two years, it became a regular part of the program.
Larry Theiss, Lin and Bill O’Connor in the 1970s. Rev. Alan Davis is seated at the left partially obscured by a microphone stand.
(Courtesy of Bill O’Connor)
In the early 1980s, a clown troupe was formed, and met at The Coffee House.
Eventually, the original corporation was dropped and Redeemer Church took The Coffee House under its wing. Funding from the Lutheran Campus Ministry was cut, and its formal ties to that organization were severed when the Rev. Alan Davis was let go. Davis passed away in 1986.
At one time, you could be a "card carrying" member of The Coffee House!
(Courtesy of Bill O’Connor)
As the years passed, The Coffee House became more of a performance venue than a meeting place. Many local musicians and poets got their start there.
In 1987, the first "Mid-Winter Folk Festival" was held, featuring national, regional and local musicians. As a part of the festival, a talent contest was held. The festival ended when the auditorium used was no longer available, but the talent contest is still held every February.
2007 Mid-Winter talent contest winners Ben & Liz Brzeski
(Paul Anderson photo)
Today, The Coffee House is run by a volunteer board, who donate their time and energy. The programming has changed over the years and is limited only by the imagination, energy, and labor of the volunteers who make it happen. All who are interested are welcome to join.
Two managers are paid a nominal fee for running the day-to-day operations, while volunteers help set-up, make the coffee, take the door donations, and break down at the end of the night. Funding comes from door donations and those of interested benefactors. A portion of every door donation goes to the church, and performers also receive a percentage unless the show is a benefit. Coffee and cookie donations offset the cost of those items.
"Mustache" Mike Gregory plays a lute during the 2007 Mid-Winter talent contest
(Paul Anderson photo)
The Coffee House does not guarantee performers a fee, and those who appear do so knowing that they might not receive any compensation. Still, the number who perform every season is astounding. Our performers appreciate a smoke and alcohol-free venue where the audience comes to listen, and the crowds respond in-kind.
Open stages were an original part of programming, and two are held monthly: one on a Friday and another on a Sunday. The Coffee House has always been a part of the community, and that manifests itself in two forms currently:
A benefit for the Central City Churches’ Food Pantry is held on the first Friday of the month. Attendees are asked to donate two cans of food in addition to their door admission.
Living Activism nights are held on the second Sunday of each month (or the third if the second falls on a holiday). At those benefits, one community group receives the entire door donation, with The Coffee House funding the church’s share, and the performers donating their time and talents. They are some of the most heavily attended shows.
Performers in the 1991 "Dylan ’till You Drop" benefit concert held in honor of Bob’s 50th birthday. Top row: Joe Ruback, Nancy & John Okolowicz; Center row: Dylan Damkoehler, Jane Freitag, Jym Mooney; Bottom row: Don Zawadiwsky, Carol Lee Hopkins, Linda Beck all dressed in their favorite incarnation of Bob Dylan.
(Lorraine Beck photo)
Since 1967, The Coffee House has served the greater Milwaukee area by providing a place for people to meet, discuss, grow, and be entertained. Here’s to all whoíve helped!
Davis, D. Alan, , “The Coffee House 631 N 19th St.: The First Ten Years.” 1977.
Foran, Chris, “Coffee House a Nice Surprise.” The Milwaukee Sentinel, 15 October 1982.
Harrigan, Patricia, “Reviving Tradition: Coffee House Inspires Mellow Folk.” The Marquette Tribune, 25 March 1986.
Heiser, Jennifer, “Warm Up to Hot Coffee, Music and a Donation to Charity.” The Milwaukee Street Beacon, 13 November 2006.
O’Connor, Bill, email to the author, 4 May 2007.
Penn, Larry, email to the author, 12 November 2007.
Rogers, Sally, email to the author, 12 November 2007.
Sandin, Jo, “Center Serves Friendship.” The Milwaukee Journal, 24 April 1982.
Seyfert, Warren, “Coffee House Has Grown to Meet Changing Needs.” Westside News, October, 1985.
Warnes, Kathy, “Coffee House Encourages Clowning Around.” Westside News, July, 1983.
Zeidler, Agnes, interview by the author, 28 April 2007.