News Column

Popcorn Tavern: Where marriages, and careers, are made

July 6, 2014

By Mike Tighe, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

July 06--Dave Parisey has been married to the Popcorn Tavern since 1972, after a courtship that had started more than a decade before, when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

But that's not the only marriage the La Crosse institution has sparked over the decades, as it has morphed from a college hangout to a popular weekend music venue for a variety of age groups.

"I met my wife here," Parisey said of Karen, whom he married in 1976, four years after buying the bar at 308 S. Fourth St.

"She is 13 years younger than me," the 73-year-old Parisey said. "She was a patron who came in on Friday nights, and we got talking."

Karen does double duty -- as Parisey's bride and the tavern's accountant -- and their son, Dan, is night manager. Dan also met his wife, Katie, at the Popcorn, when they were both tending bar.

"I enjoy it when people who met here and got married come in," Parisey said.

Folks like Randy and Shelly Puls of Onalaska, who credit the Popcorn -- at least, in part -- with their union, having met there during Oktoberfest 1982.

"It was a good starting place," said Shelly, noting that the Onalaska couple recently celebrated their 30th anniversary.

Randy, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse grad, was there with a group of Phi Sigma Epsilon members. Shelly, who recently had moved from Milwaukee to La Crosse for a job, was there with a friend.

Asked whether it was love at first sight, Shelly hesitated before saying, "Well, they had been there since noon, and we got there at 8 ...," and then trailing off.

Randy and Shelly struck up a friendship, eventually started dating and tied the knot 1 1/2 years later, she said.

Now, it's a family tradition to drop by the Popcorn -- also known simply as the Corn -- with the Pulses' three adult sons and their friends during Oktoberfest.

"Our sons like it," Shelly said. "They know we met there, and it hasn't changed.

"There still is writing on the wall in the bathroom," she said, referring to the hundreds upon hundreds of signatures and messages on those walls, as well as the panels throughout the back room.

Parisey acknowledges that letting graffiti artists have their way is by design, if not by default.

"The bathrooms are covered with expressions of people's 'emotions,' if you will," he said with a chuckle. "We can't beat 'em, so we let 'em go."

Shelly said, "Pear (Parisey's nickname among friends) is a great guy, and he has kept it what it was. You go in there and you know you will run into somebody of our age group who went to UW-L or belonged to Phi Sig."

Parisey, a native of Milwaukee, is a member of Phi Sig himself and used to hang out at the Popcorn in the early 1960s when he was majoring in business administration, with a minor in sociology, at UW-L.

"It was our favorite when we were 21," said Parisey, adding that he dropped in for nostalgia's sake several years later and discovered it was on the market.

"The former owner (Merle Fitzpatrick) was crying the blues because he was tired of handling the 18-year-olds" after the drinking age was lowered to 18, he said. "They were rowdy, and there was a big difference in activity."

Parisey, who was managing a Prange department store in Madison at the time, and two friends bought the bar, and he moved to La Crosse to run it. He bought his partners out and has been sole owner since 1987.

The night spot, which employs six part-time workers, has endured its ups and downs, partly as the drinking age bounced around among 18, 19 and 21, Parisey said.

"Oktoberfests in the 1970s were insane -- those early years with 18-year-olds drinking," he said. "It's petered down some, but we still have good Saturday nights during Oktoberfest.

"People's habits are changing, too," he said. "Working blue-collar guys drink in neighborhood bars. Laws are stricter, as they should be, because people shouldn't drink and drive."

Parisey adjusted, building a stage in 1989 and booking live entertainment and open mic nights.

"I went to live music because business dried up. It was tough, but when it's tough, you don't want to give up," he said. "I'm optimistic."

The optimism appears to be well-founded, said La Crosse Center Director Art Fahey, who said he and his wife, Shelley, frequented the spot in the late 1970s when she played on the bar's softball team.

"We went once a week," he said. "I think it was just a fun corner bar, if you will, to go to. Dave and Karen were always good to us and made us feel welcome. The personality of the owners is the personality of the tavern.

"People are drawn there for a variety of reasons," Fahey said. "Now, it's the music, of course. It certainly has held the test of time."

The bar, which Parisey acknowledges "is not pretty, but it's got an ambiance that's homey," bills itself on its Facebook page as "Arts & Entertainment -- Dive Bar."

It offers free popcorn, as its name might imply, giving rise to one of Parisey's frequent quips: "I'm glad they didn't name it the lobster."

Hominess starts from the ground up, with several layers of linoleum worn down to the bare floor in some spots.

Parisey recalled that a customer once observed, "I think there's a spot in that floor where you can see where time began."

The back room, home to two pool tables and a foosball table, features not only graffiti but also bumper stickers and posters of bands that have performed there.

Decorations are eclectic, from a bumper sticker on the popcorn machine proclaiming, "Friends don't let friends vote Republican" to one behind the bar declaring, "I still voted for Zappa."

The patrons are friendly and rarely raise a ruckus.

"We don't even hire bouncers because I've found that bouncers create more problems than they solve," Parisey explained. "They are usually aggressive. I consider it a neighborhood bar downtown."

So does a neighborhood rival, who is more of a friend than a competitor.

"He's my mentor," said Mark Schneider, who has run nearby Glory Days for 17 years. "He helps me out every chance he gets, and I help him out. Sometimes, drivers deliver my booze to his place if I'm closed so they don't have to come back.

"When he's busy, I'm busy. When I'm slow, he's slow," Schneider said.

"He's the last survivor," Schneider said of Parisey's tenure at the Popcorn during four decades when other bars and owners have come and gone.

Asked how Parisey does it, Schneider said, "I think he just was stubborn. You have to be stubborn because it takes real tenacity to stay in this business, with all the hoops we have to jump through."

Dan Parisey, who is in charge of booking bands for the 120-capacity bar, said the main draw is "definitely the music. We've got a good base of regulars who keep the place interesting and fun.

"We do good with jam bands and bluegrass," he said.

The Corn, which levies a $5 cover charge on band nights, also has helped musicians perfect their craft, said former UW-L student and "American Idol" contestant Reed Grimm.

Grimm, whose career has blossomed into gigs throughout the nation, said he performed at the Popcorn every Sunday for two years when he was at UW-L. He still returns periodically to play there, most recently on June 27.

"The Popcorn Tavern is where I really cut my teeth as a musician. I developed a lot of my artistry and writing my own music there," Grimm said.

"The Popcorn has a certain charm, and Dave Parisey has done a lot of amazing things there," said Grimm, who now works out of Minneapolis. "He has brought new music and new energy, and different cultures, to La Crosse.

"La Crosse takes a little bit from the world with acts from around the region and around the country and even internationally," he said. "It's vital to the city to have that happen."

It's especially necessary in the technological age, "where people get into their own little corner of the world. It's important to witness different cultures and live music, because music is one of the best ways to share experiences," Grimm said.

The tavern's atmosphere contrasts sharply with that of "American Idol," which Grimm said involves so much marketing and branding.

"At the Popcorn, it's about the music itself," he said. "It's so intimate that musicians have very connected moments with the audience. I'm not saying you can't do that on 'American Idol,' but when you're able to see everybody and really connect, there is some deep magic in that experience."

Parisey said he had thought he might retire at 70 but now intends to hang around for a few more years.

Dan, who started working at 14, sweeping up at Yesterday's when the Pariseys also owned that bar, said he is "up in the air" about whether he would like to take over the tavern.

"The only thing I don't like are the hours," he said, noting that he normally cleans the bar from noon until 2 p.m., then works a shift from 8 until the 2 a.m. close. "I end up getting out about 3:30.

"I'm getting a little old to deal with 21-year-olds," said 32-year-old Dan. "I'd like a normal job with normal hours."

Asked what job he aspires to, Dan said, "Maybe a mailman. That's a strange dream job, but you get to be outdoors all the time."

Meanwhile, the Corn continues with its magic moments, and occasional matchmaking.

As Shelly Puls puts it: "When we go to Oktoberfest now, I tell my sons and their friends, 'You never know when you might meet the love of your life at the Popcorn on Oktoberfest. And they laugh and me and say, 'Sure, Mom.'"


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Source: La Crosse Tribune (WI)

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