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John Bacich, aka Johnny Rex, ran the Sourdough Bar near Washington Avenue and Nicollet Mall in the 1950s, when he was known as the "Mayor of Skid Row.''

Cheryl Diaz Meyer, Star Tribune

John Bacich, 'King of Skid Row,' preserved history

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER
  • Star Tribune
  • December 1, 2012 - 4:41 PM

Back in the days when Minneapolis had a Skid Row, John Bacich was its king. Bacich owned the Victor Hotel, Rex Liquors and the freewheeling Sourdough Bar, home of the 10 cent beer. Those institutions, like the rest of the Gateway District downtown, were swept away by urban renewal in the early 1960s.

Yet thanks to Bacich, the characters and streetscapes of the Gateway remain vivid in the city's memory. His home movies, shot in the mid-1950s through the early 1960s, captured the Skid Row characters and became the basis of a 1998 TPT documentary.

Bacich was also a World War II combat veteran, real estate investor, community benefactor and an inveterate storyteller who always brought people together, whether at the Starbucks at 54th and Lyndale or the docks at his winter home on Anna Maria Island, Fla.

He died Nov. 25 after a series of falls from which he never fully recovered. He was 93.

Harold Bergstrom, a friend for 75 years, remembers Bacich for his generosity. His wife of 47 years, Barbara, recalls a man in constant motion, looking to make money and give it away. John Lightfoot, the documentary filmmaker who brought Bacich's story to public television, called him "the embodiment of what I imagined old Minneapolis to be."

Born in Duluth to Croatian and Polish immigrants, he moved with his family to St. Paul and grew up in what was then mostly undeveloped Highland Park. Bacich's father was a bootlegger, bar owner and real estate speculator, and Bacich would follow in many of the same footsteps.

First, he served five years in the Army, joining in 1941 before Pearl Harbor. With the 36th Cavalry Recon Squadron and the 90th Infantry Division, Bacich commanded a tank that rolled through Germany and helped liberate a concentration camp.

After the war, legendary City Hall fixer Frank Wolinski set Bacich up with his first liquor license. By the late 1950s, he had a small business empire in the Gateway, a neighborhood thick with bars, liquor stores, pawn shops and flophouses that catered to more than 3,000 single men.

Since some of them had trouble pronouncing Bacich's last name, his lawyer, Scoop Lohman, gave him a new identity, Johnny Rex, because he was the "King of Skid Row."

"It was a lot of fun, because there was always something going on," Bacich said in an interview last year. "You felt like a big shot. 'Johnny Rex, Johnny Rex, give me a dollar, Johnny Rex.' That's what they'd say."

The Sourdough Bar on Washington Avenue catered to a crowd that featured muggers, jackrollers and other rough characters. But it also served gay customers spared the harassment that was routine in many Minneapolis bars.

Bacich wasn't completely nostalgic about his reign on Skid Row. He sold booze to chronic alcoholics, some of whom drank themselves to death. Liquor was a "lousy stinking business," he eventually decided.

To city leaders, Skid Row was a civic embarrassment, and Bacich knew this world would soon be gone. With a movie camera, he filmed two of his favorite tenants, Emil Teske and Nick Fiestal, doing what they liked best: pulling each other's noses, in summer and winter, on sidewalks and in alleys. He showed one guy drain a quart of wine in one long swallow, and another anesthetize himself with liquor after a savage beating.

Photography students and professors at the University of Minnesota took additional footage and stitched it into a film. Bacich provided the narration, and he brought "Skid Row" to show to clubs and even Stillwater prison inmates. Lightfoot created a half-hour companion documentary, "Down on Skid Row," featuring an extended interview with Bacich.

"Skid Row" ends with images of wrecking balls knocking the old buildings into rubble. Said Bacich: "It's an era I hope none of us will ever forget."

Funeral services are planned for 11 a.m. Tuesday at Annunciation Catholic Church, 509 W. 54th St., Minneapolis.

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