Catching the spirit of Kenosha, downtown

I would have never expected to find Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson and Sylvester Stallone shoulder to shoulder in downtown Kenosha. A block away, I met the gaze of Oprah Winfrey, next to Walter Cronkite, before sunset the same day.

This is a city that is proud of its celebrity natives: Don and Alan Ameche, Daniel J. Travanti, Al Molinaro, Concetta Tomei. Mark Ruffalo. One native son – Orson Welles – wanted to be forgotten here; he once referred to his birthplace as a “nasty Midwestern city.”

Nasty? Hmmmm. Maybe in a former life.

The longtime industrial wasteland that swallowed Kenosha’s downtown Lake Michigan shore has been replaced by a pretty museum campus and generous marina. Restored electric streetcars follow a two-mile loop that is both scenic and practical. New condos, in this heart of the city, are a good base for generating retail and entertainment growth.

So Kenosha has begun an extreme makeover that eventually will include dinosaur, Civil War and lighthouse museums, plus a second downtown theater restoration. What a pleasant accompaniment to the rich character that already exists.

Within two blocks of Kenosha are three businesses – a diner, a gallery and a clothing store – that each have spirit. OK, maybe “attitude” is more appropo for at least one. You won’t find anything quite like them anywhere else in Wisconsin.

My first choice for lunch, ever since I worked as a copy editor at the Kenosha News in the 1980s, is Franks Diner. Big deal, you say? Yes, because of the history and the atmosphere.

This railroad lunch car was pulled into town in 1926. Today the place looks like a homely box on the outside, and the original diner sits inside of it. A narrow alley of booths – an add-on – runs parallel to the original grill and stool-counter seating.

While restoring the interior this fall, workers uncovered “Franks Diner” lettering under decades of paint. A new arched and rich wood ceiling is another sign that the place is getting spiffed up.

What next, ghosts of Liberace and Duke Ellington? They’re reputedly former customers.

Great bread, desserts and soups – particularly the velvety smooth Hungarian Mushroom – make for a decent dining experience. Lippy remarks from the waiter and menu (“Whining is unattractive. Tapping is even worse.”) make the meal worth talking about later.

Best bet for breakfast is the Garbage Plate: hash browns, eggs, veggies and ham. Half an order will fill most of us.

It was merely 10 minutes before closing time when we popped into Pollard Gallery & Gifts, in the Rhode Center for the Arts, which is one impressive magic show.

What do we mean by that? Local artist George Pollard – “Portrait Artist to the Famous” – knows how to take 10 years and 20 pounds off of any subject, and they have ranged from Mother Teresa to Bart Starr, Oprah to Kareem, Tommy Thompson to Dwight Eisenhower.

Also notable is wife Nan Pollard’s fun illustrations for children’s books and Walt Disney projects.

People like the inherent humanity that always seeps into George Pollard’s work. About 175 examples of his portraits, and Nan’s colorful illustrations, are on exhibit. Visitors also can read accolades from several of the portrait subjects.

It is a grand showcase that also includes the work of other artists. Free admission, but donations are appreciated.

A Madison friend started to grin when he heard that I’d be visiting Kenosha. “You gotta see the tuxedo museum,” he said.

That threw me, but it didn’t take long to find out that he was referring to Mike Bjorn’s Fine Clothing & Museum, a serious men’s clothing store with a lot of good humor and a rebellious nature.

This is where tuxedo-clad mannequins look like celebrities because of their rubber masks. It’s Hillary and Mr. T, comedians and kung fu artists, perched near the ceiling and leering down on the shoppers.

Cut-outs of Clint Eastwood and Pee-Wee Herman get mixed into the merchandise. Mingled in front of and above the racks of clothing are a team of gold carousel-like horses, an old accordion described as Lawrence Welk’s first, a wooden plane propeller described as Amelia Earhart’s last.

“Truly,” I ask, incredulously. “Not truly,” Mike replies.

At the check-out counter, a ragged eagle with spread wings seems ready to swoop. It is the real thing, and the cause of much cackling among new customers, a couple of whom have alerted the authorities – police to DNR.

You can tell that the proprietor – a guitar player and former art teacher – loves the commotion. He says the bird is more than 100 years old and of unknown lineage, a friend’s cast-off.

The zany retail theater has a mix of traditional and contemporary men’s wear, plus the outrageous. Think zoot suits to full-length fake furs in wild colors. There are ties and cummerbunds for less than a buck, outfits that can be rented as well as owned.

“We’re not Blahmart,” Mike says, the understatement of the day. Here and there, laminated news clips dangle. Many are about the death of old-time celebrities.

They are treasures of character that can’t be replaced, and it is this way with the business, too.

Mike and Judy Bjorn had $10,000 to open their Sixth Avenue store in 1981. “We were so undercapitalized,” he says, “but we’ve had fun doing this” and reinventing the business as competition changed.

Strip malls and discount chains have taken customers from many downtowns, not just Kenosha’s. “I don’t think business is good for anybody, anywhere,” Mike says. “I’m just glad the house, inventory and this building are paid for.”

He points to an odd mobile of clothing hangers, each from a men’s clothing store that has closed. Mike has been keeping tally. There are 84, from Chicago to Milwaukee to Monroe, of which he is aware.

“It keeps me humble, dear,” he offers.

For more about Kenosha attractions: www.kenoshacvb.com and (800) 654-7309.

For more about Mike Bjorn’s Fine Clothing & Museum: www.tux-a-rama.com and (262) 652-0648.

For more about Pollard Gallery & Gifts: www.rhodeopera.com and (262) 657-7529.

For more about Franks Diner: www.franksdinerkenosha.com, (262) 657-1017.