In this season of reunions — high school, college, family — I’m here to tell you that nothing compares to the reunion I crashed a few weeks ago.
I didn’t grow up in these parts, but if you did, there’s a strong likelihood your memories of a place called Schiek’s are G-rated and strictly highbrow.
Long before it was a Minneapolis strip club, Schiek’s reigned as the tops, the coliseum, of downtown dining experiences, first in a richly appointed building on S. 3rd Street, then in the former Farmers and Mechanics Bank building a block away. (The strip club was sold and renamed in 2011.)
From the mid-1940s until 1971, Schiek’s was the place for couples to dine on sauerbraten mit potato pancakes after saving money for months; where judges, senators, doctors, lawyers, opera singers and families named Dayton and Pillsbury gathered.
Most memorable, though, was the musical feast called the Schiek’s Singing Sextet, made up of young Twin Cities vocal stars — three women and three men — belting out show tunes in elaborate costumes, accompanied by a small orchestra. Many used Schiek’s as a springboard to lifelong musical careers.
For years, a dwindling number of singers have gathered to reminisce about grueling rehearsal schedules, cramped dressing rooms and the delirious excitement of being part of something so grand. They invited me along recently to hear their rich stories.
And, yes, they sang, too.
“It was the only restaurant in the country that had anything like it for years and years,” said Mary Warme Malberg. (She performed at Schiek’s in the late 1950s, but only after asking her mother and pastor for their blessing because the place served alcohol.) “We not only sang, but we danced. Good grief, it was sooo fun. I was only 18.”
“We were the darlings of the Twin Cities,” added Thelma Neve Johnson, of Hopkins. “There were crowds every night.”
The show goes on
German immigrant Frederick Schiek would have been pleased to hear that.
A whiskey importer and grocer, Schiek arrived in New York in 1852, then relocated to Iowa, before moving from that dry state to Minneapolis in the 1880s. He opened a retail liquor store on Washington Avenue, according to whiskey historian and journalist Jack Sullivan.
He opened the original Schiek’s Cafe at 43-45 S. 3rd St. in 1887, with opulent furnishings, dark wood paneling and a long bar with, apparently, a nude woman painted on the ceiling. The food was so tasty that advertisements promised “A visit to Minneapolis without dining at Schiek’s is like visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower.”
The singers arrived in 1944, when Polish émigré Ben Berger bought the restaurant and asked Glyde Snyder, a former vaudeville dance man, to produce and choreograph two shows a night. Snyder had his doubts. “It will never work,” he told Berger.
But, of course, it did. The shows ran about 45 minutes, and everyone had a solo.
“He wanted only fine music, a small orchestra, singers in costumes — the works,” Malberg said, recalling a repertoire that included Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Stephen Foster and much more.
The “kids,” as many called the entertainers, were watched over by Snyder and Berger like hawks. No smoking. No drinking. And certainly no canoodling.
“Everything I learned about show business, I learned from him,” Rita Andrescik, of Eden Prairie, said of Snyder. “I should have gotten a degree from there.”
Anne Thorgrimsen Marg of Park Rapids, Minn., was on her way to a performing career in New York when she got wind of auditions at Schiek’s. She got in and never left, often taking the “serious, lovesick-type roles” in shows including “My Fair Lady” and “Around the World in 80 Days.”
“We were together from 2 in the afternoon until 11 at night,” she said. “We really got to know each other.”
Jodell Stirmlinger Rahr of Bloomington was in stewardess training for Capital Airlines when she learned about Schiek’s. She never returned to training. “I was taken by show business,” said Rahr, who met her husband, a regular Schiek’s diner, while performing there.
Florene Smith Majerus of Cannon Falls, Minn., joined the group in 1955 and worked on and off for about 10 years. She did additional club dates with some of the singers, traveling as far as Chicago and Flint, Mich. But what she remembers most is the venue itself.
“A girl checked your coat,” she said. “The maître d’ was elegant looking with a mustache, and he’d also flame certain desserts. A lady in the bathroom would give you a towel when you finished. I was a farm girl who once used an outhouse. It was so different!”
From high style to ‘nasty’
Many performers went on to successful careers in music and theater. Johnson soloed with the Minnesota Orchestra under five conductors. Barbara Lang of Minneapolis worked all over the country in musical comedy, including New York and Los Angeles. Diane Paron Vnak of St. Anthony has served as music director at St. Charles Borromeo Church for 20 years and sings at funerals and weddings.
Andrescik taught music in the Minneapolis Public Schools for 23 years.
The singers held their first reunion at the Calhoun Beach Club in 1977. “Everyone came,” Malberg said, “including Graham Smith, the doctor who took care of our throats.” They regrouped again in 2006, with singers, spouses, even a former maître d’.
Now “just the girls” gather, as they did in May to test out their voices (at my request) at the Waters of Edina, delighting a few lucky residents who wandered in.
Daphine Ofsthun, who lives at the Waters, remembers well the Schiek’s singers. “We didn’t have much money,” she said. “It was a big night to go to Schiek’s Cafe. It was always fun to hear singing and live entertainment.”
Rhona Watherille remembers them, too. “The food at Schiek’s was delicious, but we came for the music. It’s fun to see these ladies.”
By 1971, the magic was over. The building became a spaghetti restaurant, then “that nasty men’s club,” Malberg said.
Still, Malberg got a kick out of a gathering a while back when reunion planners visited the old bank building to have a photo taken.
“We were standing outside trying to get the Schiek’s sign into camera view,” Malberg recalled. “Just as we were doing that, a fire truck, off-duty and driving slowly, pulled up on the street and the firemen yelled, ‘Do you girls work there?’
“My first inclination was to say, ‘Of course we work here!’ ” Malberg said with a laugh.
“When one gets to a certain age, one can say most anything.”