Sixty years ago John Sheetz was doing some business in Milwaukee and wandered into the Red Room of the Plankington Hotel, where a pianist calling himself Walter Busterkeys was tickling the ivories. “My father talked to him,” recalls John’s son Jack, now 80. “Walter had a two-week engagement at the Red Room. My father asked if he’d like to come to La Crosse. Walter said, ‘Well, I’ll have to talk to my mother.’ He was kind of a mama’s boy. She had to size up my father, to see if this place was good enough for Walter. She liked my dad. So Liberace started here at $80 a week.”
We’re sitting in the Cavalier, a tiny piano bar on Fifth Avenue in La Crosse, Wisconsin. John Sheetz opened the place in 1934, and Jack started tending bar three years later. “Sure, I knew Liberace,” he says. “I worked with him every day. He was a quiet kid.” Jack says there was “some suspicion” about the pianist’s sexuality, but “he made no advances to people or anything like that.”
Born in West Allis, Wisconsin, Wladziu Valentino Liberace had been a child prodigy, but as a teenager in the mid-1930s he began playing Milwaukee roadhouses and hotel lounges. He performed at the Cavalier for a month, playing a black baby grand on a small stage that overlooked the lounge area. He worked six nights a week, starting with the cocktail hour at four and playing until one in the morning. According to Jack, his repertoire was mostly classical music, with an occasional hit song. But at the Cavalier he began developing the act that would eventually make him a star.
“The audience [at the Cavalier] was a good one, interested and welcoming,” Liberace remembered in 1981. “But the applause after the main performance was only enough to rate one encore. So I decided to give them something to remember. Instead of ‘Minute Waltz’ or something like that, I played a novelty tune, ‘Three Little Fishes,’ that was very popular and followed with ‘Mairzy Doats,’ another novelty, dressing them up in arpeggios and flourishes to give the impression that I was trying to pass them off as classics. It wasn’t much of a joke. But the audience seemed to love it–they relaxed and enjoyed themselves and…they smiled. That was the big thing for me.”
Liberace only played the Cavalier once more, in 1941, but he never forgot John Sheetz. “In the 1960s he played twice at the auditorium here,” says Jack. “And both times he came to the Cavalier and spent some time with us. One time my dad was at a Liberace concert at the Superdome in New Orleans. There were thousands of people there. Dad sent word to the stage that he was in the audience. Before Liberace started his show, he said, ‘I have to make this appearance exceptionally good, because my old boss is in the audience.’ And he asked my father to stand up.”
Like Liberace, John Sheetz was something of a bon vivant, a traveling salesman and a bootlegger. “He once ran a still across from Wrigley Field,” says Jack. “When we were kids my brother and I went down to Saint Augustine, Florida, with him and picked up a load of Canadian Club. We had it hidden in an old DeSoto. We dumped it off in Dubuque. In fact, I shouldn’t say this, but he spent a little time down in Leavenworth.” A few years later Sheetz bought the Cavalier–the “Inn of Distinction,” as he liked to call it–and covered it with dozens of decorations shaped like the heads of swashbuckling cavaliers. Except for his tour of duty during World War II, Jack worked at the Cavalier for 25 straight years. His father sold the place in 1965 and died in 1985, at age 94. Liberace died two years later.
When he meets with me to talk about Liberace, Jack hasn’t set foot in the Cavalier for a decade. Ann Allen, a native of Los Angeles, bought the place last August and turned it into a retro nightclub. Its north wall is 70 feet of artificial stone. Its back bar is 55 feet long and made of cherry wood. Drooping glass flowers with red, blue, and green lightbulbs illuminate a pair of huge vinyl booths. Gold tinsel dangles behind the stage where Liberace played and where local pianists sometimes perform. The CD jukebox has country and western, cocktail music, jazz, Sinatra tunes–but no Liberace. When Allen bought the Cavalier, it was a notorious gay bar. Somewhere Liberace is smiling.
But Allen isn’t–aside from me, Jack, and Jack’s wife, Rita, the place is empty. “The people of La Crosse won’t accept the fact this was a gay bar,” says Allen. “It’s hard to make the transition. I’m always running into the problem. ‘We won’t go there, that used to be a gay bar.’ Actually, I fell in love with the back bar. The realtor didn’t even tell me about Liberace. But now I’m thinking of selling it. I don’t know.”
Jack tugs at his brown plaid shirt and leans on the bar. “The Cavalier was nothing but the best,” he tells me. “We served the biggest shot glass in town, an ounce and a quarter, sometimes even an ounce and a half. Everything was top-shelf. If somebody came in and ordered a whiskey and charged water [club soda], you’d set up the bottle, shot glass, and a split of charged water. And they helped themselves. That’s the way we did business.” He looks around the empty bar and tries to cheer Allen up. “Once you get this place going, you can make it the nicest place in town.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Armando Villa.