Note: This article was originally published on March 27, 2008 in now-defunct publication MKE.
Old-time polka buffs love Andy Kochanski.
They say things like, “Andy’s a good guy” and “He’s doing darn good” and “He’s got a level head, especially for his age.”
Kochanski, 38, is just a kid in the gray-haired polka world. But as the new owner of Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall — formerly Art’s Concertina Bar — he’s the best hope to keep the aging tradition alive. His bar is the last of its kind in Milwaukee.
“Ethnic music is shrinking,” said 70-year-old Ray Konkel, whose band plays at Kochanski’s. “I’d hate to see it not be a polka place anymore.”
Kochanski is an unlikely knight to come to this polka institution’s rescue. He’s never tended bar or even played an accordion. He’s an on-call firefighter for St. Francis and a full-time arborist. But he’s determined to keep a place devoted to polka.
He’s not deterred by the decaying building. He’s not deterred by polka’s waning popularity. He’s not even deterred by an unexplainable feud with the bar’s famous former owner, Art Altenburg.
“The guy is a jerk,” said Altenburg when reached at his home in Mosinee. “If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have sold it to him. I made a mistake.”
Kochanski doesn’t mince words, either.
“He’s just ornery and jealous that people love me and love what I’m doing,” he said.
It’s a fight that’s left Kochanski wanting to write a book about the headaches and hardships of taking over one of Milwaukee’s most venerated bars.
“It’s like a polka soap opera,” he said, laughing.
“I told the polka community I’d do whatever I could to keep it going.”
To the rescue
Kochanski grew up on 11th and Oklahoma, the son of a German mother and Polish father. The bar displays a folded American flag given to his grandfather, who served in the military.
He remembers going to church fests with his grandparents and hearing bands play polka. He has fond memories of visiting Art’s with his family, and he wanted to honor the music and heritage.
“As generations die off, there’s not that influx to keep it going,” he said. “I told the polka community I’d do whatever I could to keep it going.”
Kochanski believes he can attract a younger crowd by updating the building and putting his own stamp on the bar while keeping traditions intact.
“There’s enough younger people,” he said, “who get sick of the cookie-cutter bars on North Avenue.”
The Concertina is anything but cookie cutter. It’s one of those places locals bring out-of-towers so they can get a feel for “authentic old-fashioned Milwaukee.” The inconspicuous building has been tucked away on 37th and Burnham since 1900. Kochanski said the upstairs was once a brothel.
Altenburg, a former car salesman, ran the bar for 27 years. Before that, he said it was a typical “shot-and-a-beer joint.” He decorated the place with dozens of signature concertinas, an instrument similar to a miniature accordion.
The bar, with Art’s name out front, became a landmark. Politicians rubbed shoulders with tourists and regulars on any given night.
“I went there often when it was Art’s,” said State Sen. Tim Carpenter, a south side Milwaukee native. “It’s really an inspiration for folks like my dad, who’s 83.”
In his state Capitol office, Carpenter has a fading blaze-orange placard proclaiming “I did the polka at Art’s Concertina.” In February, he held his birthday party at Kochanski’s, and VIPs like Mayor Tom Barrett attended.
“I thought it was great a young entrepreneur would keep the tradition going and the spirit alive,” Carpenter said. “I give him a lot of credit at his age for taking on this adventure.”
Before Kochanski came along, the bar’s future was uncertain while it languished on the market for five-and-a-half years. The institution nearly became another relic of the past like the Pabst Blue Ribbon factory, the National Liquor Bar and Goldmann’s.
James Overland, Altenburg’s real estate agent, said there were offers, but no one wanted to keep it a concertina bar like Kochanski. No one else wanted to pay Altenburg’s asking price, but Kochanski agreed to every penny. That still wasn’t good enough for Altenburg.
“I don’t think Art really wanted to sell,” Overland said. “I felt like I was pulling teeth.”
Overland said of the 300 or so transactions he’s closed in his career, this was one of the most “emotionally difficult.” In the end, Altenburg and Kochanski couldn’t even be in the same room together.
But it didn’t end at the closing table. Altenburg accused Kochanski of changing the locks on him, and threatened to camp out in his bar. Kochanski said that occurred after he purchased the bar, after Altenburg continued to operate the business and kept Kochanski out with his security system.
After selling his business, Altenburg cleared out his signature concertinas and refused to let Kochanski use the trademark slogan “The only concertina bar in the U.S.A.”
Their disagreements became so heated that Altenburg called the police and, according to Kochanski, declared, “Now you’re going to see who you’re messing with, boy.”
“I told him it didn’t have to be this way and that I made every effort to be his friend and respect him,” Kochanski said.
Recently, he sent Kochanski a certified letter saying he couldn’t use “concertina” in the business name. Kochanski posted the letter in his bar in mockery.
It’s not certain what started the bad blood. Kochanski thinks it began about seven years ago when he wore a Mexican wrestling mask in the bar and Altenburg kicked him out.
Altenburg was tight-lipped on the matter. When asked to explain why he called Kochanski a jerk, he replied, “Because that’s what he is.” Asked what he’d like to see happen to his former bar, he said, “I’ll keep those comments to myself.”
Regardless of what started it, the feud doesn’t appear to be over. But Kochanski has other worries.
“It was just awful”
Kochanski’s mother, Mary, remembers the first time walking into the bare, dilapidated building after Altenburg moved out.
“It was just awful,” she said. “I gotta say, once we turned on the lights, I thought it would have taken forever. It was a major job.”
Heavy soot covered every surface from decades of cigarette smoke. The walls had holes, the roof leaked, and the floor was crumbling.
“I washed the windows four times before you could see out of them,” she said.
But Kochanski’s mother knew if anyone had the energy to turn the place around, it was her son. He immediately got to work on the building with family and friends. Mary Kochanski helped paint before making beef stew for the support crew.
The polka community has been supportive, donating equipment and vintage decorations. He redecorated with Polish and German flags, a toy accordion, old PBR beer coasters. One of Kochanski’s favorite props is the “shot ski,” an old ski with six holes to hold shot glasses. He made that himself.
On Nov. 16, Kochanski opened half the bar to the public, and he held a grand opening in January. He has more to renovate, including installing a hardwood floor. He called the place a work in progress.
“With all the sacrifices I made to acquire the building,” he said, “I have zero advertising budget other than making chintzy fliers and relying on word of mouth.”
“I washed the windows four times before you could see out of them.”
Pulling in the kids
Then there’s the question of whether young people even care about the music of their grandparents.
To broaden the bar’s appeal, the Concertina is no longer just polka. Wednesday nights are open jam, which has brought country, surf and rockabilly music. Thursdays are free dance lessons, including the waltz and fox trot.
But there’s still polka on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. That’s been attracting a younger crowd.
Liz Mamerow, a Milwaukee paralegal, held her 25th birthday party at the bar in December. “I’m not a die-hard polka fan,” she said. “But I do love dancing and experiencing the quintessential Milwaukee bar.”
Those in the older generation are just glad to see the tradition continue.
“It’s nice to see those young people come down,” said Vern Tretow, 76. “They really get into it, they polka and dance around. There seems to be more every week. That’s good.
“I think having a young person at the bar helps. He’s not chasing anyone away.”
Update: Andy Kochanski is still operating the Concertina. He made headlines again in 2013 when he shot and killed a would-be robber. “I have no regrets and would do it again if need be,” he wrote on Facebook.