There was no fork in the road in 1967 when Wisconsin turkey farmer Clarence H. Hartwig, Sr. opened the Gobbler, a supper club and motel in Johnson Creek, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Chicago about halfway between Milwaukee and Madison. Interstate 94 was relatively new, and Hartwig wanted to attract attention to his space-age getaway.
Hartwig commissioned Wisconsin architect Helmut Ajango, who dressed up midcentury-modern design with Prairie-style elements. A Gobbler promotional postcard from the late 60s reads: where central wisconsin meets the concorde age. From the ground, the Gobbler resembles a compact Houston Astrodome. From the air, it looks, appropriately, like a turkey. The Gobbler served the Thanksgiving bird 365 days a year, along with supper-club staples like prime rib and surf and turf. Hartwig's wife assisted with interior design at the restaurant and motel. The groovy hilltop lodge, replete with heart-shaped waterbeds, red shag carpeting, and eight-track stereo systems, has since been torn down.
In late April, Wisconsin trucking magnate and drag racer Dan Manesis reopened the former supper club as the 435-seat Gobbler Theater with a commanding performance by the rock band Starship. "This is a beautiful venue," lead singer Mickey Thomas remarked midway through the group's set, "and very, very unique."
From the stage, Thomas faced the original circular bar, formerly the Royal Roost Cocktail Lounge. The 31-seat bar was bathed in purple light and still revolves, like the famed Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. But the Gobbler bar moves slower than the Carousel's, approximately one revolution every 80 minutes. Starship didn't even play that long.
In its new life as a theater, the Gobbler doesn't serve food, a fact that may disappoint people with fond memories of dining there. But Manesis has saved a compelling piece of architecture. "It is one of the most important midcentury buildings in the state of Wisconsin," says Jim Draeger, the state historic preservation officer at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. "I'd been very concerned about that building. The 1950s and early '60s were an experimental period of American architecture. Buildings like the Gobbler that push the edges of popular architecture taste are important. They are iconic buildings you use to understand all the other buildings."
At the time the Gobbler was built, modernism had taken the reins of design. "Architects were experimenting with radical new forms of how to construct space," Draeger says. "The Gobbler was innovative in design because of its unusual uses of circles and curves that in some ways paralleled the kind of work Frank Lloyd Wright was doing at the Guggenheim [Museum] and the Marin County Civic Center."
Hartwig toured the grounds with Ajango, according to Draeger's research. (After the architect died in 2013 at the age of 81, the Wisconsin Historical Society received all of his records.) "They were driving across the field in the turkey farmer's Cadillac when they had the conversation of what the building should look like," Draeger says. "He was smoking a cigar and Helmut was sitting in the passenger seat. Clarence was waving his arms and saying, 'I want it to look like a turkey.' Commercial architecture is location, location, location—so it was placed on that site to take advantage of the newly built interstate so people would see it. Think of the McDonald's golden arches with the dramatic, sweeping lines that are eye-grabbing. The turkey farmer really had some vision."
Ajango was no stranger to supper clubs, having designed the Fireside Dinner Theatre, built in 1964 in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, where the architect had lived since 1958. "He designed a lot of churches in the southeastern part of Wisconsin, including Mount Pleasant Church in Racine, which has received national recognition," Draeger says. "He was influenced to some degree by Frank Lloyd Wright, but he was not a follower of Wright. He pretty much danced to his own drummer."
Manesis was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 1960s when he first visited the Gobbler. The 61-year-old now owns a Milwaukee trucking and warehouse company and has been driving dragsters since 1980 at the Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wisconsin. "I would bring girls to the Gobbler," he recalls. "A steak was $16 and I made $1.30 an hour, so I had to work a long time to go on a date. It was a miniature Playboy Club. The waitresses had neat little outfits—they had turkey feathers coming out of their suits instead of the little bunny tail."
Indeed, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner might have used the Gobbler as a template for his chain of clubs, opening the Playboy Club resort in nearby Lake Geneva shortly after the Gobbler had started up.
At one point during its hiatus, a Gobbler-A-Go-Go gentleman's club was suggested, but the Johnson Creek Village Board denied that proposal, as well as a plan for a small casino in the space. After Hartwig's death in the mid-70s, the Gobbler became a rib shack and later a Mexican restaurant—somewhat appropriate considering the building's exterior consists of Mexican lava rock. The place reopened in 1996 for a brief period as the New Gobbler. Before this year, it had been shuttered since 2002.
Remodeling the old bird was an 18-month process that cost more than $2 million.
"The place was structurally sound, but all the mechanicals in the building did not work," Manesis says. "We had to bring everything up to code. We wanted to do it right."
The original supper club had a beauty shop, barber shop, and gift store in the basement. A 35-ton dance floor with a disco ball hung over the bar from the ceiling. Manesis had it excised. "We had to be very careful," he says. "We could have [destroyed] the ceiling and the venue would have been junked. The dance floor was made of plywood, steel, and tons of drywall and plaster. A two-story kitchen was where the stage is. That kitchen served the main floor and it was a way to bring food to people upstairs. All of that had to be removed."
"The most notable [architectural] thing about the building was the use of petrified wood that was added as padding. But its real claim to fame is the revolving bar," says Draeger, the historian. "The architect told me the difficulty in designing it was that he didn't know how fast to make revolve." Ajango took an educated guess on the Gobbler bar's speed limit. A few weeks later, Draeger recalls, the architect got a call from Hartwig. "The owner said, 'Helmut, you have to do something! The bar is spinning so fast that after people have a few drinks, they're falling off their bar stools.' He had to re-gear it and slow it down."
Manesis fondly remembers the Gobbler as an elegant establishment where men wore tuxedos and women donned evening gowns. Diners sat in lavender and pink chairs. "But time has passed," he says. "I just looked at it as an auditorium because it is round. It was not designed as a supper club but as a theater. Our research showed Clarence changed his mind to make it a supper club at the last minute."
The idea to start a theater came to Manesis a few years ago, when his son opened for a band at the Rave in Milwaukee. "It was sort of seedy, and I asked a friend who was a ticket broker how come there wasn't a nice place in the Milwaukee or Madison area that could seat 400, 500 people. He told me if I had something like that I could get up-and-coming bands or established bands that were starting to slow down, and they would fill a venue of that size. So the hunt began." He originally sniffed around a vacant movie theater, but it didn't have enough personality.
At the Gobbler Theater, no seat is more than 55 feet from the stage. It hosted a couple of private events in February, and Manesis donated the space to the Johnson Creek School District for a play. The Starship show in April was the first public event. Upcoming concerts include singer-songwriters Sarah Ross and Austin Webb on June 4 and Colorado country singer Clare Dunn on July 15.
"The first year we're trying to establish the Gobbler as a going business," Manesis says. "Making money is far behind giving folks a good time at an affordable price." v