Thursday, August 13, 2015

Wisconsin, Part 3: Milwaukee and the House on the Rock

Wisconsin is charming as all get out, and it offers a ton of diverse and exciting travel destinations. In addition to the kitsch and class of Wisconsin Dells and Door County relived in Part 1, and the life-altering leap Mrs. Tires and I took in Sturtevant recounted in Part 2, Wisconsin delivers a welcoming, down-to-earth experience in Milwaukee, and a bizarre and beautiful getaway via House on the Rock.


My comedy group Dirty Water was a regular at the Milwaukee Comedy Festival, which meant several visits to underrated Milwaukee. Our first performance there came during the festival's inaugural showing in 2006. That year, my friend and troupe-mate Jon and I headed up to Milwaukee a day early to catch the first night of the fest. We hadn't arranged for a place to stay that night, but in between shows, we met Matt Kemple, the energetic founder of the festival, and we ended up crashing at his place. His kindness and hospitality embodied the attitude I've found throughout my experiences in Wisconsin.

Jon and I had the better part of a day to kill before meeting up with the rest of the group for our performance the next night. We started by heading downtown, where we enjoyed a leisurely walk down the path that runs along Lake Michigan. This vibrant and well-manicured trail brought us by the city's funky art museum and reminded us a lot of the Lakefront Trail in Chicago, which was not surprising since it was on the same lake.

Our stroll worked up quite a thirst, so we sought out a couple of Milwaukee's dive bars, which were prevalent throughout the city. We met kind, down-to-earth people in each watering hole, and we thoroughly enjoyed chatting up the locals and telling them about the festival and our show. Everything was going great until a Steely Dan song came on the jukebox. Jon and I are not Steely Dan fans in the slightest, and we voiced this opinion to the other patrons. In an instant, the entire establishment turned against us. The bartender, the other customers, the whole place. Their collective friendliness dissolved, and they vehemently defended the quality of the band. Apparently we had insulted everything they considered true and holy. We finished our drinks in a hurry and got out of there, fearing their dedication to the Dan might cause the situation to turn violent. Fortunately, we survived. 

The festival took place at the Times Cinema, a movie theater decked out in Hollywood memorabilia, including a life-sized statue of Alfred Hitchcock. At first it seemed odd that we'd be performing at a cinema, but the venue worked out great, and the festival pulled in a big crowd. 

What's more, with Milwaukee only ninety minutes from Chicago, a few of our "fans" made the drive up to see our show. By fans, I mean our girlfriends. They brought some good luck with them, and our show was spectacular. The audience went crazy for us, cementing our long-term relationship with the festival.

We were invited back several times, which allowed us to see the festival grow in popularity and expand its reach. It moved to a downtown venue the next year, and by the third year we participated, it was a week-long event. The festival is still going today, and is about to celebrate its tenth year. 

Dirty Water's popularity in Milwaukee grew with the festival, and the next time we performed, we were headlining the Friday night show. This afforded us a free Saturday, which we spent at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers. There were many great things about this ballpark, one of which was that tailgating was allowed and encouraged. That's a rarity in major league parks, and we jumped at the chance to take advantage it.

Our show's setting was a fictional bar, so we took a portable bar with us on the road. The bar turned out to be the perfect tailgating accessory, as we set it up in the parking lot, put the grill on top, put on some brats and sausages we purchased at a local specialty meat store, and bellied up. We spent the rest of the day grilling, drinking, playing bags, chatting up Brewers fans, soaking up the gorgeous weather, and laughing like crazy, all in the shadows of Miller Park.

The game was a blast. The ballpark was quite attractive once we looked past the hundreds of ads, and the Brewers put on a great show. The famous sausage race was one of the highlights. It involved mascots resembling a bratwurst, a sausage, a kielbasa, a hot dog and a chorizo racing around the perimeter of the field. Races like this now appear in stadiums throughout the country, and it all started at Miller Park. We had a blast witnessing this baseball tradition and rooting for our favorite encased meats.

Home runs in Miller Park are celebrated by watching Milwaukee's mascot Bernie Brewer slide down his slide in left field, another quirky detail that made the ballpark light-hearted and unique. Additionally, all fans were invited to hang around after the game to watch the stadium's retractable roof close. While that may not sound exciting, I assure you, it was. The roof was an architectural marvel, and watching it close was mesmerizing. 

I've visited Miller Park a few times now, and I thoroughly enjoyed every visit. However, nothing will match the joy that came out of that day at the park.

There's a must-see roadside attraction on the way up to Milwaukee - the Mars Cheese Castle. This huge medieval structure offers shelf upon shelf and cooler upon cooler of cheese, most of which is made right in Wisconsin. Not sure which cheese to take with you on your journey? Fear not. The cheese castle offers many samples, and the staff is more than happy to talk cheese with you. Recent renovations have added a bakery and a bar. If you're heading up I-94, you've got to stop at the Mars Cheese Castle.

House on the Rock

My most recent getaway to Wisconsin was also the weirdest. In the summer of 2014, Mrs. Tires and I set out to see a collection of oddities known as House on the Rock. This quirky attraction is just over three hours from Chicago, so we embarked on a weekend trip to check it out.

We hit the road early on Saturday and cruised through Illinois, and got to Wisconsin in time for lunch. Once we drove over the border, we found nice little park so we could enjoy a Rayman road trip tradition: a right proper picnic. The park worked out wonderfully, as it was wide open and beautifully green, and we had it all to ourselves. 

A right proper picnic, with mustard

After refueling, we hit the road again and hightailed it to our next stop, the New Glarus Brewery. This brew house offered delicious beer, including one called Spotted Cow. Their ode to speckled bovine is a big deal among Chicago beer lovers because it's quite tasty, and also because its not sold anywhere outside of Wisconsin.  

New Glarus' Swiss-themed tasting area was the most unique I've seen. The architecture centered around a huge brick building that looked like a cuckoo clock. 

In the shadows of the clock tower sat a wonderful seating area, with many picnic tables sitting in between brick installations that looked like ruins from old European buildings. The ruins added some nice detail, and they made the area look like a high-class paintball field. If you could play paintball there while sampling the beers, it really would have been the perfect place. 

A small fee got us each a souvenir glass, and with the glass came samples of three beers of our choosing. I don't remember exactly which beers we tried, but I thought they were all quite tasty. Mrs. Tires concurred, with one exception. One of the beers she sampled almost made her gag. Thankfully she was able to sweet-talk the bartender into discarding it and pouring her a replacement.

As we sipped the last of our samples, we noticed two older gentlemen carrying out long black cases. We watched intently as they pulled out and assembled long wooden horns called alphorns. You may remember alphorns from the old Ricola ads. They treated us to three songs, each featuring long bellowing tones. It was a unique and unexpected show, and we loved every minute of it.

Once they finished playing, they invited patrons to try out the instruments. We thoroughly enjoyed witnessing people attempt to make music with them. Some that attempted were naturals while others fell flat. Regardless of the result, everyone had a good time playing and watching. 

With that, we made a quick stop at the gift shop, then got back on the road.

We had a reservation that night at the House on the Rock Resort, which was associated with the House on the Rock. It proudly displayed a few select artifacts from the House, including a piano that played itself. A night's stay included tickets to the attraction.

The resort itself was nothing too special. We both agreed that the term "resort" was a bit misleading. However, it did sport one feature we couldn't get enough of, a back porch attached to our room that overlooked a long, pristine stretch of green rolling hills. After a quick swim in their outdoor pool, we hunkered down on the porch, poured some of our New Glarus beer, and gazed out at the view. We porch-sat for hours, chatted and drank while we enjoying our surroundings. For a while we looked out onto the wedding that was taking place on the grounds below. The porch truly was the highlight of our time at the resort.

After a few hours on the balcony, we changed our clothes and headed to dinner at the resort's fancy restaurant. On our walk over there, we realized the alcohol had caught up. My mother will probably read this, so I'm tempted the tamp the truth and say we were a little tipsy, but that would be way understating it. We were flat out DRUNK.  

After stumbling from our room to the restaurant, we sat down and tried to appear as though we weren't wasted. It didn't work. We were giggling like crazy and were loud enough to earn some sideways glances from the other patrons. Oh well. The restaurant wasn't actually that fancy...or that good.

After dinner we tried to go to the bar at the resort, but it was closed for a wedding reception, so we wandered the grounds and then hung out in the lobby for a while. Eventually the bar reopened, but it was pretty quiet, so we had a quick drink and left. We did however score some leftover wedding favors, bubbles in the shape of a champagne bottle. 

We went back to our room afterwards and had another drink on the porch. Mrs. Tires was pretty tired at that point and went to bed. I wasn't ready to call it a night just yet, so I stayed out on the balcony. I put the radio feed of the Red Sox game on and listened to the play-by-play as it went into extra innings. As the game went on, a thunderstorm rolled in. The porch was covered, so I was able to keep dry as the skies opened up and it began to pour. Lightning lit up the sky. The storm was powerful and the game was exciting, so it ended up being a wonderful night on the porch. I turned in just before 2:00 am. 

The next morning it was time to move on to the House on the Rock. This attraction featured a huge and eclectic collection of all kinds of stuff gathered over many years by an eccentric named Alex Jordan. The legend behind the house was that Jordan was once friends with the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Jordan came up with a design for a building, and he brought the idea to Wright with the hope of getting his approval. Wright wasn't impressed. He dumping on Jordan's idea and insulted his skills as a designer. Jordan wasn't too pleased with this, so he decided to go forward with the design and further resolved to build it on a giant rock, all to prove Wright wrong. He ripped off some of Wright's style and included it in the architecture of the building as an added F-You. 

Research has proven that much of this story was a bunch of hogwash. The truth was that Jordan and Wright were actually only casual acquaintances, and furthermore, Wright was out of the country at the time the alleged confrontation took place. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. 

The signature feature of the building's architecture is the long, pointy glass enclosure that extends out over a cliff. We pulled off at a scenic overlook en route, and we could see the structure's iconic point from quite far away. 

A feeling of wonder took over as we approached the House on the Rock. We drove down a long driveway surrounded by thick forest, and when we parked, we were greeted by a huge, bizarre planter and other large artifacts. 

We were pretty excited as we handed in our tickets and purchased some tokens that were to be used to operate some of the machinery in the house. In we went.

The first portion of the house was rather anticlimactic. It was all about the life of Alex Jordan and the history of his collection. A few random pieces were interspersed throughout the exhibit, but not much. Mrs. Tires got into Jordan's story and went from wall to wall, reading every word of every write up. I was already familiar with Jordan's story and knew that most of it was bullshit, so I waited patiently while Mrs. Tires caught up.

Once the history lesson was over, we were directed outdoors, where we encountered a beautiful, expansive Japanese garden with a huge dragon fountain as the centerpiece. It was a wonderful bridge into the collection, and it would end up being my favorite feature of the house.

After soaking up the atmosphere of the garden, it was finally time to get into the collection.

A note on what you're about to see: while House on the Rock was quite memorable and interesting, it was also scattered to the point of being disorienting. I've done my best to present the experience in the order it occurred, but it was quite difficult, so forgive me if it's a bit out of order. Additionally, the lighting in the house was quite dim, which made it difficult to photograph. My apologies in advance for the less-than-stellar photography.

The house was broken up into three sections. As we entered section one, the random collection was immediately captivating. It's hard to describe it, other than that it was a strange and eclectic assortment of stuff.

Section one culminated in an exploration of the Infinity Room, the long  pointy glass structure that juts out over a cliff, as I described earlier. It stretched out quite a long way, and walking down it was nerve-wracking. Part of the floor was cut out and replaced by thick glass, which allowed brave visitors to peer out into the valley below.

Things got even weirder as we moved into section two. Apparently Alex Jordan had a thing for dolls. His doll collection was a creepy assortment that made us feel like we were in a horror movie. 

After surviving the dolls, we came upon a nautical-themed area that featured many model ships, items from some famous watercraft, and other ocean-themed knickknacks. A huge scene of a whale fighting a squid served as the section's centerpiece. Its massive scale and general coolness brought the collection to a new level. The lousy lighting lead to some mediocre photos, but here's one anyway. 

From there, we moved on to a transportation-themed area full of planes and hot air balloons suspended from the ceiling. It also featured a snack shop.

The second section concluded with a giant, freaky carousel that claimed to be the largest carousel in the world. Watching it was a loud and amusing experience. Here's a taste. 

From there, we entered section three by walking through a giant demon's mouth. Why not? 

Section three was louder, weirder, and darker. We were greeted with a series of musical ensembles that played themselves. Dropping a token turned on an ensemble, and each played a rendition of a popular song via automated instruments. 

The concept was quite novel, but the execution was more clangy and clackity than melodic. Nonetheless, we spent quite a while dropping tokens and checking out the resulting performances. 

At the conclusion of this section, we noticed we were getting a bit overwhelmed. Taking in so much stimulus while wandering from dimly-lit room to dimly-lit room was taking its toll. We got a much needed breath of fresh air via an outdoor cafe. The cafe itself was closed, but we were thankful to see the sunlight for a few minutes and re-orient ourselves with the outside world. We shared that the collection was getting to be a bit much, and we wouldn't be upset if it ended right there. However, there was more to the House on the Rock, so we trudged on. 

The remainder of section three was truly random, presenting huge collections of things like jewelry boxes and circus figurines, in addition to several assorted, unaffiliated items. A sampling: 

Acing my test
The rooms kept going and going, and the collections went from delightful to self-indulgent. Instead of sparking our imaginations, the rooms were wearing us down. Our bodies were getting weak. Our minds were going fuzzy. We were reaching weird overload.

Eventually the house did indeed end, and we were spit out into the Japanese garden. Never before have I been so glad to leave an attraction and get back into real life.

We got in the car and headed back home from there, but it was a good hour or so before Mrs. Tires and I said a word. The weirdness contained within the House had completely taken over. Once we came to, we started discussing what we had just seen. We both agree that it was a wild, wacky and wonderful place, and a true marvel. At the same time, it was too much. The massive collection provided too much stimulus for too long, and the dim lights made things that much more difficult to enjoy. Still, we were glad we went, and the oddities we saw made the whole trip worth it. 

For more on this journey, check out #wisconsinweird on Twitter. 

I consider myself fortunate to live so close to Wisconsin. It's a fantastic state for a getaway, with its multitude of destinations and the relaxed beauty that surrounds them. If you haven't had the pleasure of visiting this state yet, it's time. Wisconsin is waiting for you!

Must See in Wisconsin:
  • Skydive Midwest
  • Miller Park
  • The main drag in Door County
  • The main drag in Wisconsin Dells

Check it Out: 
  • House on the Rock
  • The Milwaukee Improv Festival
  • The New Glarus Brewery

The "Next Time" List: 

No comments:

Post a Comment