We were sitting around the Isthmus office talking about mysterious places around Madison. They're the ones we pass frequently, wonder about, but never go into. It occurred to us that others might ask themselves the same question we do: What goes on in there? With reporter's notebook in hand, we set out in search of answers.
Red Letter News Adult Entertainment Center
2528 East Washington Ave.
I'd driven past the ugly building on East Washington Avenue hundreds of times, with its dirty brick, blank windows and brazen sign: Red Letter News Adult Entertainment Center. I imagined a dingy porn shop to match the dingy exterior, full of black-market wares and furtive customers.
I couldn't help feeling furtive myself as I walked in the dimly lit rear entrance on a Sunday morning. I had an explanation ready ("no, really, I'm a reporter!") in case I happened to get arrested.
But the interior of Red Letter News turned out to be way different from what I'd imagined. This is no dingy porn shop; it's a cheerful sex emporium with clean carpet and recessed lighting. The tidy displays are divided into such helpful categories as magazines, videos, clothes and novelties. There was no one in the long, narrow space except a friendly clerk named Mark (regular customers must have been at church), and he didn't seem to mind as I took detailed notes on the racks marked BONDAGE and STIMULATORS.
A big seller, Mark told me, is an herbal pill for men called Stiff Nights Plus. According to the package, each pill lasts for - gulp - two to three days. Note to self: Stick with regular Stiff Nights rather than new-and-improved Stiff Nights Plus.
I browsed through the specialty condoms, each brand trying to outdo the others with questionable innovations. (Spirals? Really?) I checked out the Delay Spray for Men, the Virtual Boyfriend doll and the Max Size Male Enhancement Cream. I almost put the wondrous-sounding cream in my shopping bag until I read the ingredients, the first of which is water.
Red Letter News has many signifiers of safety: educational pamphlets, cute bachelorette gags, a sign advertising a male-free Ladies Night. But I admit that some of the more complicated mechanical items scared me. The most alarming was a large "Stamina Pump," which includes a cylinder, an air hose and, yes, a PSI gauge. The package was stamped with the guarantee of "Safe and Sure," but what if the needle on the PSI gauge pushes into the red zone? I didn't want to think about it too much.
On my way out of the store, I spotted the most outlandish device of all, pushed against a wall. This thing was waist-high, with a nasty-looking suction tube. It was even plugged in, as if some desperate customer had just used it. What on God's Earth was it designed to do to the male body, and how?
I looked closer and realized it was only a carpet cleaner. I've never been so relieved in my life.
- Dean Robbins
2231 Myrtle St.
Jeannie Haas Simmons is munching on a salad and a sausage sandwich at Simm's Place, the bar located inside the fence at Kraft's Oscar Mayer complex. The pint-size barkeep lives in the little yellow house out front. You know the one, between Commercial and Aberg, along that snippet of highway where Packers is six lanes wide, on the way to the airport and the north side.
There's a nice cross breeze inside Simm's, which Jeannie has owned for 41 years. The sun is shining, and the back door is open. Jeannie, and her late husband Maynard's family, had up to six lots right there at one time. She lived in a 10-room house and used to take in boarders.
"My husband drove a semi for Oscar Mayer for 27 years," Jeannie says. "When we opened the bar, they fired him."
That was in 1972. But the business thrived. "We cashed payroll on Thursday nights. I carried a gun to the bank with me."
Lunches were standing room only. "I used to do chili from scratch, chicken soup, beef stew."
Jeannie heats up the well-seasoned grill and applies a bacon press to some strips of Oscar Mayer's finest, prepping a Simm's Burger.
"No one comes over anymore," she says, waving toward the plant. "They hear they can't, when they go through orientation, I guess."
Or maybe there are just not as many people around as there used to be. The Oscar Mayer plant is down to 500 or so, from the 4,500 in its heyday. Simm's seems inaccessible from the road, too, though there is access off both Commercial and Aberg. There used to be a walking bridge connecting the length of Myrtle Street across Packers.
"They called it 'unstable,'" says Jeannie. "It took four days to tear it down." That eliminated a walk-in route to Simm's from Eken Park.
It's quiet most days at Simm's. The barroom has that wood-grained Formica feel of many a Wisco roadhouse. Drop ceiling. Brewery regalia. Dart board. Pool table. The walls sport drink specials featuring Red Bull and Rumchata, and kind messages from the regulars. Jeannie, who is 76, opens at 11, weekdays only; she's got people to help in the evenings. She will open on weekends for special occasions.
Jeannie wouldn't mind selling, but she doesn't see a market for Simm's. Her kids don't want the business. She says Kraft offered her $235,000 back in the '90s, but it doesn't seem to need the space now, at least not for parking. Her plan is to close at midnight June 30. Her license expires on July 1.
"I'm just tired," Jeannie says. "So many memories, good and bad. I watched when they tore my mother-in-law's house down. I watched when they tore my house down. I really don't want to see anything else get torn down."
- Ellen J. Meany
Henry Vilas Zoo African penguin exhibit
702 S. Randall Ave.
There's a Twilight Zone episode where an astronaut lands on a planet and is greeted with open arms by the humanoids living there. They escort him to a place specially built to look just like your standard Earth home, but it isn't long before our hero discovers something amiss.
The place looks real enough, but the details are a little off. What's worse, he finds he's locked inside. Eventually, some curtains open in his living room and he sees a crowd of aliens gawking at him: He's become the latest acquisition in the planet's zoo.
I think about that episode every time I visit a zoo. Zoos can spark wonder, not just about the lives of other creatures, but also what's it like inside those little cave-like habitats. What would it be like to go about your day with nosy people gawking at you?
The folks at the Henry Vilas Zoo give me a peek inside the home of the zoo's 10 African penguins.
Behind the scenes, there are several large pet crates, where each nesting pair of birds sleeps. "They pair up usually for life, unless something disrupts that bond," explains zoo staff member Shane Elsinger.
It is wet and smells the way you'd imagine a penguin's home would: very fishy. The penguins are fed twice a day, a steady diet of capelin, smelt and herring.
Each bird usually eats eight or nine fish per meal, though "sometimes the feeding goes through the roof," Elsinger explains. "You end up feeding 20 fish to one bird and you're like, 'Where did all those fish go?'"
It is not kept particularly cold. Elsinger explains that African penguins (which are also known as "jackass penguins" for their donkey-like bray) are native to South Africa and do not like Antarctic temperatures.
When I visit, the birds are generally low-key, huddling just outside one of the two entrances to their cave. One goes for a little dip in the water, but otherwise they're quiet and uninterested in me.
I ask Elsinger if any unwelcome guests ever get in here, like perhaps a raccoon. He says penguins can be pretty fierce when they need to be.
The weirdest part for me is staring out at the zoo from this perspective. There aren't a lot of visitors on this Monday morning, so nobody stands beyond the fence gawking at some weird-looking guy. I'm okay with that.
- Joe Tarr
Madison Theatre Guild costume shop
2410 Monroe St.
On the near west side, a stone's throw from the candy-striped umbrellas of Michael's Frozen Custard and the motley characters at Laurel Tavern, there's a hidden gem that's even more colorful. Old-fashioned hats levitate above vintage prom dresses, as if under the spell of an invisible magician. There are feather boas and military jackets, jewels and wigs of all shapes and sizes. Some of these items could have been pilfered from Betty Draper's closet, others from RuPaul's. All are fabulous in one way or another.
This treasure trove is nestled inside the old firehouse at the corner of Monroe and Commonwealth, up a metal staircase and through a nondescript door. Though a tiny sign at ground level tells passersby it's the Madison Theatre Guild's costume shop, you're likely to miss the hint if you're driving by.
The Theatre Guild has been collecting unique wearables at this location since the 1960s, but the building itself dates back to 1939, according Marie Schulte, who's managed the shop since 2009. In addition to renting out clothing to community theater groups, school drama departments and other costume-seekers, Schulte serves as a costumer for the Theatre Guild. She's altered so many garments that she can tell your size the moment you step into the building. It's a little unnerving that she can discern this information without so much as a conversation, yet it's nice to avoid sharing these details with strangers.
But you're bound to let some other embarrassing details slip, like how you have a large collection of polyester shirts with hideous patterns. Perhaps this is how the Theatre Guild gets so many costumes. The garments with the best stories seem like they should go to a group that's devoted to storytelling.
Madisonians must have a lot of tales in their closets, then. Schulte and Jim Chiolino, the Theatre Guild's marketing manager, estimate that the firehouse holds at least 70,000 pieces of clothing, most of which have been donated by local residents. One of the most popular items is a set of red marching-band uniforms tailor-made for The Music Man. Kids gravitate toward the stash of plastic swords, no matter how well Schulte buries it. And then there are items that are impossible to hide, like a hot-pink gown with a skirt made of multicolored feathers. It's waiting for a production of La Cage aux Folles, or a pirate with a very glamorous parrot. I can't believe I've been walking past this jaw-dropper for all this time, unaware it existed.
- Jessica Steinhoff
Nevin State Fish Hatchery
3911 Fish Hatchery Rd., Fitchburg
My son lives a stone's throw from the Nevin State Fish Hatchery, and I drive by it fairly often. On a recent chilly spring day I decided to pop in and check it out. The entrance is located inauspiciously across from a Qdoba restaurant and a payday loan center. But once you turn onto the winding approach road, the setting becomes more bucolic, and traffic seems far away. The hatchery is part of the much larger Nevin Springs Fishery and Wildlife Area along the Nine Springs E-way Corridor, and if you've biked on the Capital City Trail, you know how beautiful the area is.
I wander over to a pond that, upon closer examination, is chock-full of fish the size of small children. As I stand gaping, I'm joined by Jason Himebauch, an affable fisheries staffer with a bottomless pool of stats. The fish I'm looking at are rainbow trout, kept, like pets, for viewing only. The fishery stocks almost half a million brook, brown and rainbow trout, most destined for the southeast part of the state. The water the fish are raised in comes from artesian wells and springs.
As we chat, we're joined by staffer Jacob Colden, whom I'd seen in the distance tossing fish food into "races," or cement waterways, full of yearling rainbow trout. These will be shipped out in tanks on large trucks the next day. Himebauch tells me these early-season shipments are meant to stock Wisconsin waters in preparation for the opening of the inland trout-fishing season in May. In June and later in the fall they stock small streams with fingerling brook and brown trout.
Once winter comes, it's spawning season at the hatchery. Toward the back of the property are cement raceways filled with wild broodstock. Several times between November and January, males and "ripe" females are netted, lightly anesthetized, stripped of eggs and sperm, then returned to the water. Once the eggs are fertilized, they're put in special tanks until they've hatched. Good times.
Aside from fish, the area is a haven for wildlife. Himebauch and Colden have seen coyotes, osprey, herons, otter, mink and kingfishers on a regular basis, and have set up trailcams. I imagine predators find the fish an irresistible lure.
We head for a barnlike edifice whose walls and high ceiling are covered with so much yellow foam insulation that it looks like the whole building is melting. Nobody's gonna freeze in here. Countless fingerlings and yearlings of various sizes and ages roil in large tanks. Their time will come.
- Michana Buchman
City of Madison Housing Operations Unit
3509 Anderson St.
The blue, pyramid-ish, aluminum-sided, seemingly windowless structure at 3509 Anderson St., across from the Madison College-Truax campus, always mystified me. I pass it frequently; it's one of those structures that do not give any clues from their exterior as to what might go on in their interior. In fact, it wasn't shaped like any building I had ever seen before. To me it looked like the top part of a secret underground bunker or maybe a down-on-its-luck Illuminati clubhouse. Surely that broken sign in front of it that said City of Madison Housing Operations Unit was just a decoy. What is a Housing Operations Unit, anyway?
Kelley Simonds of the city's Community Development Authority answers my buzz at the blue pyramid's door and dispels most of my fanciful thinking about the place - okay, all of my fanciful thinking about the place. It was built as a city maintenance garage and was used as such until maintenance was centralized downtown about 10 years ago, Simonds tells me. It was then converted to office and storage space. Simonds, who's the CDA's capital fund manager, is the primary occupant of the 3,200-square-foot space these days. It's part of a larger group of city buildings, including the East Madison Community Center and CDA housing, along Wright Street.
I ask Simonds if many people are curious about the building's odd appearance. "Mostly people comment on its great beauty," he replies without missing a beat.
Inside, there are warehouse-like rooms devoted to parts storage - lumber, doors and windows, and even keys. There's a well-outfitted carpentry shop that formerly was used full time, says Simonds, and now, due to budget cuts, "not used enough." This is the one area of the building that has windows, though it's a row of small, rectangular panes near the ceiling that let in light but offer no view out to a human of normal height.
Simonds, who deals primarily with budgets and contracts, says the building is a pretty quiet place to work. "Thankfully," he says. "I'm happy I don't have more distraction." Before it was air-conditioned and insulated, though, it was "brutal" in summer. However, he thinks Old Blue might be torn down soon.
"I think they got funding for redevelopment. Which is okay."
- Linda Falkenstein
Norwegian American Genealogical Center and Naeseth Library
415 W. Main St.
The two-story brick office building in the midst of student territory on West Main Street gives few clues that it is an international draw. Yet in just the last four weeks, people from Glmos, Liev and Vinstra in Norway, as well as from Albuquerque, N.M., and Salem, S.C., have signed the guest book at the Norwegian American Genealogical Center and Naeseth Library.
Solveig Quinney is the library services specialist at the center, which is dedicated to researching Norwegian heritage. She says Norway is now a wealthy country, and its citizens can afford to travel. It's not like the old days when struggling Norwegians looked to America for a better life. "Now we're the poor Norwegian cousins who go back to visit our rich relatives," says Quinney, with a laugh.
The center touts itself as "the most comprehensive source for information about the history of Norwegian immigration." Gerhard B. Naeseth, a former UW-Madison professor and library administrator, started the collection of Norwegian genealogical material, which he first housed at home before the center opened on West Main.
Quinney was 9 years old in 1949 when she moved with her family from Stavanger, a coastal city, to Story City, Iowa. She was not allowed to speak English at home and, as a result, is still fluent in her native language.
Quinney was in the middle of translating a passage from a book when I arrived unannounced at the office. The book, part of a series on the Luster clerical district in Norway that will top out at 13 volumes, contains the history of the farms and people in the local parishes within that district. The listings even follow the genealogical trail of those who moved to the United States.
Quinney is translating the history of one of the farms at the request of a center board member. The center charges for these services, and Quinney is also available to translate other materials, including letters.
Most of the Norwegians who settled in the Dane County area came from rural areas, so the farm histories at the center are crucial to exploring their ancestry.
The center also houses ship records that allow Norwegians to trace their family's voyage to the United States. Data include the name of the ship captain; the date the ship departed; passengers on board; and departure and arrival locations. Church records of baptisms and marriages are available as well.
Quinney has worked at the Norwegian American Genealogical Center since 2002; she is one of six staff members. Others include a director of genealogical research and a librarian.
In a recent newsletter distributed by the center, local resident Monroe Miller recounted how he found and visited his family's ancestral farm in Norway thanks to the center's researchers. "Frankly, I don't expect I'll ever live a more exciting day than that one," he wrote.
- Judith Davidoff