Memories outlast glory of 'the Court'

February 18, 2001

Jim Stingl


Just saying the two words out loud -- Capitol Court -- stirs the child deep inside me.

A radio jingle called it "fabulous Capitol Court." My mom often shortened it to "the Court." An old promotional brochure says "Convenient Capitol Court -- 85 of Milwaukee's greatest shops, stores & services" located at the "golden triangle" of Capitol Drive, 60th St. and Fond du Lac Ave.

From the warm August day in 1956 when it opened until the 1970s, it was the premier shopping destination in metro Milwaukee and well beyond. After that, it fought on bravely against grander suburban malls, against fears about race and crime and certain neighborhoods, against anchor stores pulling out, and even against the elements with a roof that went on in 1978.

Ground was broken for Capitol Court in September 1953, the same month I was conceived. My family moved to 66th St. in 1960. I made the six-block walk or bike ride down Marion St. to the shopping center -- we never called it a mall -- a thousand times as a kid.

Capitol Court got most of my discretionary childhood income, mostly for 45-rpm records at Woolworth's, soda and fries at Walgreens and soft-serve ice cream at Tasty Town, the snack bar in the basement of Gimbels-Schusters.

Just like kids today hang out in malls, often the whole point was just to wander around. We followed pretty girls. We tried to avoid being rousted by Officer Sherman. We riled the clerks at The Playroom, the toy store where we went to play rather than buy, or Hobby Horse or the corner of Woolworth's where they had live turtles for sale.

I learned to ride a bike there in the vast empty parking lot on a Sunday, the same lot where the Bookmobile would make its neighborhood stop.

This past week I went one last time to walk the uncrowded halls of Capitol Court and look for ghosts before they tear the place down starting next month. The plan is to put up another Wal-Mart in its place.

Maybe you've never been to Capitol Court and don't care. Maybe your heart went with Southgate or County Stadium or the old County General Hospital or your favorite train station or the barn on your grandparents' farm. Then you know the feeling.

It's odd to love your memories of something more than the thing itself. That's the way a lot of us feel about Capitol Court. That's why it's dying.

It felt strange to stroll around Capitol Court on a weekday morning last week. Nothing is where it was. Stone's Jewelers has been there the longest, and it didn't arrive until 1982.

I passed the spot where Johnnie Walkers used to sell boss clothes and the old Corned Beef Corner where my sister once worked, and then went down the steps to the lower arcade.

Wayne Thiede, a friend of my parents, used to have a barber shop down here, and I remember there was a shoe repair place, Angelo's, where they had one of those old Coke machines where you opened the top cover like a basement freezer and slid the bottle you wanted down to a coin-operated mechanism that allowed you to pull it up and out.

Maybe I'm too close to the subject to write this column. Sharing these memories is making me feel like my own grandfather. But I press on.

I walked into the mall office and expected to find a public relations person who would view me suspiciously as just the next person from the news media here to look for bad news about Capitol Court.

To my delight, I instead found Greg Hanus, who grew up in a family of 14 kids across the alley from me and has been working as operations manager at Capitol Court for 20 years. He was not surprised to see me. He had a feeling, he said, that I wouldn't let Capitol Court go without saying a few words over the corpse.

So we walked around like it was 1965. "This used to be Lerner's," he said, pointing to a large store now called Urban Gear.

He threw around the names of the old stores like he had shopped there yesterday -- Chapman's, Brills Colony Shop, Kellers, Coach Light/Maru Imports, Baker Shoes, National Trunk, J.C. Penneys, Kohl's foods. All gone, along with the stores that came later like Target, Boston Store and Sears.

Greg carefully positioned himself in front of JW, a jewelry store and one of fewer than 20 businesses still open, and said this was right about where the 80-foot Christmas tree used to stand every holiday season in front of Gimbels, surrounded by giant candy canes. He remembers going upstairs to his grandmother's kitchen and watching the official tree lighting all the way from 67th St.

Then we went down into the tunnel that once bustled with trucks delivering goods to storerooms under each store. In one storage area we found doors, gingerbread trim and other pieces of the Kooky Cooky House, where lights once flashed and conveyor belts moved and robots appeared to make the gingerbread cookies that Santa Claus handed out to children near the shopping center's south end.

Capitol Court was way ahead of the Mall of America. For a while it had a little farm in the center court. It sponsored annual art fairs. Greg reminded me it used to have live monkeys and dolphins on display.

There was Kiddietown, a small amusement park at the far north end of the parking lot. They would send a little red fire engine to your house for your birthday party and cart everyone back to go on the train, boats, Ferris wheel and other rides.

I think it changed its name to Funtown later on, and then evolved into Putt-Putt Golf and later some kind of trampoline park.

In 1964, the Capitol Court Theater opened along Fond du Lac Ave. My brother saw "Saturday Night Fever" there something like 12 times. It's gone now.

Greg Hanus said he's made peace with Capitol Court closing, even though he's not sure where he's going to work. He's been reassuring the last departing businesses and loyal customers that change happens.

"I tell them if there was no change, Capitol Court would never have gotten built," he said.

According to a December 1952 article from our newspaper files, the name Capitol Court came from a Mrs. Richard Schultz, a secretary at Schusters' 3rd St. store whose entry in a contest was picked from among 700 suggestions. The name will be bulldozed with the buildings.

If you want to take one last swing through fabulous Capitol Court, you better hurry. Before you find yourself standing in the middle of Wal-Mart trying to remember the way it used to be.

"Reprinted with permission from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel."