Dubbed the “performing arts center of the street” by one of many featured patrons, Angelo’s Piano Lounge has been home to jazz musicians on Milwaukee’s North Van Buren Street for over 30 years. An Evening at Angelo’s comes by way of Kara Mulrooney, a director, producer, production designer and instructor at UW-Milwaukee. As a Milwaukee-based filmmaker, Mulrooney has rubbed elbows with many of the city’s notable creatives including Tate Bunker and Susan Kerns, the latter with whom she founded Gal Friday Films, dedicated to providing experiences and expanding visibility for aspiring, film-curious young women.
As the first filmmaker to be granted permission to commit the establishment and its owner, Angelo Mortellaro, to film, Mulrooney uses her unique access to document one of Milwaukee’s most eccentrically intimate locales, crafting a story about the virtues of hospitality and freezing time a little bit in the process.
To help kick off our “5 Questions” interview series with this year’s “Wisconsin’s Own” directors, Kara Mulrooney talked with me over email about letting guards down as an outsider and punctuating the beauty of live performances.
1) Wisconsin might as well be bar country. What about Angelo’s Piano Lounge made you choose it for your subject?
That’s a fair point! And it may be that excess of bars that made my first Angelo’s experience so radical. I’d already seen so many remarkable establishments, but Angelo’s still felt like another dimension. My very first read of the place was that it was a Vegas-inspired Midwestern piano lounge, in the late 70’s, as imagined by David Lynch. But as I spent more time there, I saw seasoned and committed performers, decades-long friendships, and a community around Angelo – I came to see it as a church of sorts.
2) You capture an undeniable “Where everybody knows your name” quality to the establishment. At OnMilwaukee, Molly Snyder reported that you were the first to be granted this level of access to Angelo’s. What was the reaction to someone bringing a camera in there?
Distrust and protectiveness at first, particularly from Angelo’s inner circle. The first night I inquired about filming, I spoke with award-winning jazz vocalist Jerry Grillo. Jerry spoke with Angelo, and Jerry reported back that I could film that night, but that I had to show them the footage before anyone else could view it. I obliged, and they were generally pleased, but wanted to see the next cut and the next cut. After the third or so cut, I felt their guard lowering.
I should add that not everyone was so skeptical in the beginning and that several patrons and performers said “We are so happy that you’re filming this place; you’re capturing history!” (No pressure.) By the time I wrapped filming – I’d been coming for about five months – I felt that everyone was in full support. Plus I shot on a 5D, which most people thought was a still camera, and that helped me maintain a fly-on-the-wall status.
It was recently announced that Angelo will be retiring and the building is currently up for lease, so in hindsight I think I was simply in the right place at the right time to have been granted permission. Prior to my asking in Fall of 2013, Angelo had repeatedly declined to be filmed. Perhaps he knew he’d be ending his reign before too long and that’s why he relented? All I know is I feel right lucky to be the gal who was let in!
3) One of my favorite moments is when you cut to this woman singing along to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” It’s a lovely little moment that captures what this place means to so many personalities. Did you have any favorite regulars?
That’s one of my favorite moments too, and one of my favorite couples! There’s another couple that sits in that same spot that is beyond sweet, the Germansons. Honestly there are so many, and that’s what made editing so damned difficult. Cutting certain shots out was like cutting friends and neighbors, but that’s where critiques became essential. I definitely relied on my graduate committee at UW-Milwaukee to help clarify the story.
But I’d love to name some names of Angelo’s favorites who aren’t featured: “Chief” who sings falsetto, Tom & Toni who never miss a Friday (or when they do, everyone gets concerned), former Angelo’s bartender “College” Dave Mikolajek, Marge Eiseman the singing bartender and her cheeky counterpart with the heavy pour Craig Gerard, the elegant Wayne & Judy, and the fabulous Penny Pond (vodka cranberry) who did make the cut, but could easily hold her own film.
4) Tate Bunker, who’s an accomplished filmmaker in his own right as well as a Wisconsin Film Fest alum [Little Red, 2013] gets a credit for camera work. How did he get involved?
Tate served as second shooter on a couple of occasions and watched every edit (There were many). He’s an awesomely generous filmmaker, and I’m so grateful for his contributions!
5) There’s a focus on the music and the patrons, however you also lapse in and out of the present by cutting around the bar, too. When Angelo has his big moment, you actually cut to older footage and the film almost freezes in time. Where did that footage come from and what made you want to use it?
That footage came from a 90s VHS tape, which is one of only two tapes that anyone is aware of that were shot during the first 20 years of Angelo’s Piano Lounge.
Angelo once shared something with me that a patron said to him: “Hey, didn’t you used to be Angelo?” An unthinking drunkard I’m sure, but Angelo himself has made reference to the days when he was “really running things.” I know he’s frustrated by his health issues but as an outside observer, I see a man who is revered and doted on by an apparently unending stream of guests. People literally queue up to talk and reminisce with him. Including that 90s clip felt like a bow to that time, the first 20 years of Angelo’s, but it’s also meant to punctuate the beauty of his live performances today.
- An Evening at Angelo’s plays before Capturing Grace on Sat, Apr 11 at 5:00p and Sun, Apr 12 at 1:30p. At the time of publication, tickets for both shows were still available.