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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
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Ricardo Gonzalez reopens his beloved Cardinal Bar
Under original management
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Credit:Timothy Hughes

After the fire's gone, sometimes the flames reignite. Here's proof. On Jan. 19, 2004, Ricardo Gonzalez, the city's patron saint of Cuban music, cutting-edge dance-floor theme nights and progressive community causes, sold the Cardinal Bar he'd bought 29 years before and built into Madison's favorite dance club. "It was time to let go," Gonzalez told me in an Isthmus interview then. "Not only did I want to pursue other dreams" - including his work with the Madison-Camagüey Sister City Association and the Miami-based Cuban Committee for Democracy - "but the thrill of running a nightclub was gone."

This weekend the Cardinal Bar, with Gonzalez back at the helm, is reborn. Ochun, orisha of love, rejoices, dancing voluptuously. You can, too. The Cardinal's gala opening lasts all weekend long, from Oct. 8 through 11.

Let me fill you in. Three Cardinal employees - David Soland, Matt Mueller and Corey Rogers - were the buyers, in ''04. "David was the one who really understood what the Cardinal was all about," Gonzalez says. "But he left two years later, and the place started to slide."

That's what brought Gonzalez, who'd been nostalgic for the bar anyway, back. "I could have looked for another buyer, but I realized my love affair with the Cardinal wasn't done. I was born for the cabaret. In my soul I'm a nightclub person. I've slowed down a little in my 60s, but I'm still in love with the business. I love music, I love to dance. I've got Cuban music in my bones. And I love bringing people together. The Cardinal allowed me to express all that, and I'm a sucker for the place. We're making it beautiful again."

Gonzalez is picking up right where he left off. Before the sale he'd been planning the snazzy new wooden dance floor you'll find this weekend. It's larger than you'll remember. The old DJ booth was built when it took crates of LPs to do a night. Now all that's needed is a laptop, so the booth's been shrunk. The room's ready for the 21st century with Dantech Systems' state-of-the-art sound system and improved acoustics. The bar's arts and crafts details have been lovingly restored.

But it's not just physical attributes that make the Cardinal sexy. Generations of Madisonians have been lured by the bar's glammy history, not to mention its punchy drinks. I spent much of my own third decade there, dancing my little butt off. The Cardinal, in its way, made me who I am today. It was there, in the '70s, that my Motown mania morphed into Cuban obsession. From Gonzalez I learned to love salsa dura, son y rumba, guaracha, cha-cha-cha.

On the heels of his first mayoral term Paul Soglin DJed the bar's Wednesday night Motown benefits for WORT. "The Cardinal," Soglin says, "brought our generation together and put the social and the political in one place. Whether it was formal fundraisers for politicians or movements, or just sitting around talking, it was a true café."

Hizzoner da Mare looks forward to the return of late-afternoon fundraisers, but says you're not likely to find him at the bar under any circumstances much past 9 p.m. One of his last Cardinal outings occurred in spring '05, when he stopped in one night with Madison's late poet laureate John Tuschen. "We took the last table on the right, the same one we'd sat at hundreds of nights over a lotta years. It was about 7 p.m. There were maybe two people in the place. At 9:30 people started trickling in and we both commented that years earlier the place would have been jammed at that hour on a Friday night."

"It's all about Ricardo," says Mad City conga king Tony Castañeda, who started playing at the Cardinal in the late '70s and has carried on pretty consistently ever since. "The bar was him. He's what's been missing. There was so much going on there that fell apart when he left. In the '80s and '90s my softball and basketball teams played for the Cardinal. We won lots of trophies. We had great parties at the bar after the games."

For their long-lived Sunday night gig Castañeda and his band used to set up an altar alongside the stage - "it's pan-ethnic, pan-religious, and for real," he used to say. People brought offerings for the deities, and it worked.

"Look at the folks that came and jammed with us," he says. "Maraca, John Santos, Orquesta Aragón, Los Lobos, legendary Nuyorican trumpet player Jerry Gonzalez. We felt so honored that he shared the stage with us. With Ricardo gone the great musicians stopped sitting in, and our regulars didn't feel obligated to come out and dance on Sunday nights. We quit doing the altar. The sense of community died. We're very happy to have the old Cardinal back."

Victoria Gutierrez, Camagüeyana like Gonzalez, was a UW Russian major in the '80s when she became a regular. "It was a spiritual thing," she says. "I never went to church on Sundays, but I always went to the Cardinal for Tony Castañeda."

Later, globetrotting Gutierrez spent a language-study year in Moscow, where she ended up one afternoon standing in Red Square talking about the Cardinal with a chance acquaintance who turned out to be from Madison. And on trips to Camagüey, people always ask her about the Cardinal. "They've never been there, but they all know about it!"

Gutierrez, busy raising her young son, hasn't been a regular since Gonzalez stepped down. "I didn't go much and didn't feel like I was missing anything," she says. "But when I heard it was closing [in July] I felt desperate. It's a landmark. I'd be sad to pass that corner and see it turned into a Hooters."

People everywhere are reconnecting over the Cardinal's rebirth, she adds. "Everyone breathed a sigh of relief on Facebook when they heard Ricardo was bringing it back. My friends in Spain and L.A. are following his return like a soap opera."

Spinning discs at the Cardinal kicked off an international career for DJ Nick Nice, who got his first gig by chance in '91. Fresh from his junior year in France when techno was red hot, he showed up for an audition armed with tunes nobody else in the States knew about. "Ricardo was looking for somebody to take over Progressive Night. He was impressed. He told me, 'This is the future!' So I got the job."

The Cardinal was his learning curve, Nice says. He went back to France, but Gonzalez sometimes flew him home to DJ special events. "That's how Fetish Night began. I was playing at a Paris club called the Queen. They were doing these leather nights that were comic-bookish and sexy. So once when I was in Madison we tried it out. It was supposed to be a one-night stand, but the idea lived on. The Cardinal was as good as any club in the world. My friends from France would come visit. They'd think 'I'm in the middle of nowhere.' The Cardinal always blew them away."

Nice says it's a perfect time to reinvent the Cardinal Bar. We've been down so long - Sept. 11, the economy, swine flu - it's time to say enough. "People say, okay, I want to celebrate life. And Ricardo's the right person to remind 'em, hey, we're alive. We should have some fun."

The Cardinal's gotta seduce the next generation, but that's no sweat, says Nice. He's a link, since he still DJs around town. "For the younger crowd, listening to me tell stories about the place is like hearing your dad talk about the good old days. It's gonna be cool when we reopen and they get to try it out."

Gonzalez agrees. "The old-timers'll stop in for an early evening benefit, or catch Tony's early set on Sunday night. But it's the younger ones who'll be the new regulars. They'll come in and dance their asses off several nights a week. That's what the Cardinal's been about from day one. We had our day. We danced till we dropped, and new generations have done that successively ever since."

My head knows he's right, though my heart says no. I bet I'm not the only old boomer who longs to be a Cardinal regular again. Listen to the weekly lineup:

Wednesday's new night is BOOMERang, with DJ Trini. You know him as co-host of WORT's Pan Africa program, but he's a soul man of many stripes. He'll be spinning Motown, R&B, disco - the great dance music from the '60s through the '80s. Thursday's still College Night con Sabor Latino and DJ SalSabor. Friday evening starts with Latin Jazz Happy Hour from 5 to 7, with free appetizers and live music; at 9 p.m. Nick Nice takes over to do his thing. "He's got a gift from the gods for it," Gonzalez says.

"We're calling my night 'Rebirth' in honor of the new Cardinal," Nice says. "I'm really excited - I haven't had my own weekly club night since Ricardo sold the bar. I'll play cutting-edge dance music with a sense of history, from disco to house to today's electronic tracks. The idea is to connect the dots. It'll be an open-minded dance night. You'll hear music you may not know, but anyone of any age can come down and dance."

The new Saturday night sounds sensational. Its name? Sabado Sabroso. "We're focusing on classic son, salsa, guaracha, mambo, guaguancó, a little merenge, boleros, even a smidge of reggaeton," Gonzalez says. "It'll be a dream night for Latin dancers - the real thing, con sabor cubano." Edgar Molina and Dando Mambo break up the action at 11 p.m. with a half-hour costumed cabaret to add Tropicana ambience.

Sundays, Castañeda returns, with a 9 p.m. set for old folks like me who're ready to head home at 11, and DJ Ken Horn playing Latin jazz and salsa dura after both sets.

You'll get a taste of everything this weekend. On Thursday, Oct. 8, there's a soft opening by invitation to show off the bar for the Cardinal's hard-core. The door opens at 8 p.m.; the music'll mix things up.

The Grand Opening, on Friday, Oct. 9, lifts off at 5 p.m. with the live Latin jazz happy hour, music by Mambo Blue. Nick Nice takes it away with Rebirth at 9 p.m.

On Sabado Sabroso, Oct. 10, my personal Latin DJ favorite, El Macizo, swings in from Milwaukee to do the honors. Cabaret Dando Mambo do their 11 p.m. show.

Sunday night wraps the weekend with Tony Castañeda and his Latin Jazz Band, plus DJ Ken Horn. "We're bringing the altar back," Castañeda says.

Please bring an offering to keep the Cardinal's spirits dancing.

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