Monday, November 18, 2019

Matchbook: Hartwig's The Gobbler Supper Club & Gobbler Motel

One cold night last winter, I tumbled down the online rabbit hole of supper clubs in Wisconsin. You read that correctly. Supper clubs in Wisconsin, baby! Winter nights don't get funner than that. The kickstarter, to the best of my recollection, was an Atlas Obscura article titled, unsurprisingly, "Inside the ‘Trend-Free’ World of Wisconsin’s Supper Clubs."1 That piece, by Anne Ewbank, paints an intriguing picture of supper clubs, which operate in their own realm, somewhere between speakeasies and social hubs:
"They’re distinguished by taxidermy, dark wood, and their location: romantically remote, on the borders of lakes or forests. ... While food is always made from scratch and varies slightly from club to club, [Documentary filmmaker and supper club-chronicler Ron] Faiola says the only way to describe the meat-and-seafood heavy meals is 'American cuisine,' and a lot of it. The brandy Old-Fashioned, served sweet, is a mainstay."
But supper clubs aren't actually a super-niche topic. A little searching uncovers a good bit of journalism. Readers (and journalists) like food. For example:

My contribution to supper clubbin' is the old matchbook cover featured at the top of this post.2 It touting a pair of establishments in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin, at the intersection of Wisconsin Highway 26 and Interstate 94. Those establishments are The Gobbler Supper Club and Coffee Shop and the Gobbler Motel. The businesses are additionally branded with the word "Hartwig's" in front of their names. The matchbook doesn't tell us much about the supper club, but there's plenty of information about the Gobbler Motel amenities:

  • Heated Indoor Pool and Kiddies Pool
  • Color Television
  • Saunas - Sunken Baths3
  • Water Beds
  • Tennis - Shuffleboard
  • 50 Acres of Land for Snowmobiling
  • Hills for Sledding or Skiing (Bring your own equipment)

That seems like an odd combination of features, no? It's like they were trying to cater to families, seniors and swingers all at once. I bet that made for some interesting conversations at the coffee shop.

Indeed, we are just getting started. Buckle up.

First up: The Hartwig establishments were called "Gobbler" because they were, alas, literally underwritten by a turkey slaughterhouse.

Wikipedia tells us that the supper club and motel were funded by Clarence Hartwig, who had a huge poultry plant nearby; it operated until 1971, when Hartwig decided it would be too costly to bring the plant up to new USDA standards.

The supper club and motel were designed by Helmut Ajango and opened in 1967. From the air, the supper club sort-of looks like a turkey. The restaurant had a rotating circular bar that made one revolution every 80 minutes. The menu featured a lot of turkey dishes. Meanwhile, again per Wikipedia, "the Gobbler Motel had an adventurous, futuristic Googie architecture design that featured 49 rooms with symbol-shaped waterbeds (such as a heart-shape), 8-track players, round sunken bathtubs,and differently colored shag carpet that extended up the walls in each themed room."

Maybe the salmon-colored matchbook is starting to make sense now. The Kiddie Pool, not so much.

Both the supper club and motel closed in 1992, though the restaurant reopened as The Gobbler Theater in 2015. The rotating bar is still intact and, as of this writing, performers set to appear in 2020 include Sara Evans, Ronnie Milsap and Roseanne Barr.4 But folks can no longer go across the street to a shag-carpeted room after events. "It's nice and cozy," Connie Brunk told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a 2017 article, while waiting with her husband to see country singer Kellie Pickler, a former "American Idol" finalist and "Dancing with the Stars" champion, take the stage. "I am very happy that they did this. It's nice that it's still here and still being used. It's alive again."

And so the supper club has been reborn as a theater, even as traditional supper clubs continue to thrive elsewhere in Wisconsin. But the Gobbler Motel was demolished after it closed. Perhaps that's for the better. But some are trying to keep the memories alive. Journalist/humorist James Lileks has a special place in his heart for the Gobbler Motel, dubbing it the grooviest motel in Wisconsin. His website, which I hope persists, documents these special guest rooms, among others: the Passion Pit, Countryside rooms, the Bridal Suite, and Cupid's Hide-A-Way, complete with waterbed. There's much more on Lileks' website about both Gobbler establishments you should check out. Two words: Turkey carpeting.

And with that, it might be best to just bring this post to a close. We've strayed far from the original foodie topic of supper clubs. That's what happens, I reckon, when you head down a rabbit hole.

Happy early Thanksgiving.

1. I first mentioned that Atlas Obscura piece in this #FridayReads roundup.
2. Also, the matchbook cover is salmon, but I don't think the combination of my scanner and my Pixlr color-correction skills did a very good job of conveying that. "The scanner can't handle salmon," might end up being a chapter title in my autobiography.
3. Not to be confused with sunkenariums.
4. If you had "Roseanne Barr makes first Papergreat appearance in Post #3,012" on your bingo card, you're a winner.

1 comment:

  1. The Scanner Can't Handle Salmon should be the the TITLE of the book :)