Madison should highlight contributions to culture, history

As we crack open the Edgewater, it’s worth some time to think about the story we tell new visitors when they hit town. Stories that go beyond the usual pop culture poll that comes out weekly and regularly verifies that we are a smart, livable, hard-partying place that is great for dogs, bikes and people of all sexual preferences.

Of course, the old Edgewater’s black and white stills of the famous, and not so famous, who have slept in its rooms are worth their place on the Edge’s kitschy version of The Pump Room wall, but most of the subjects of these glossies flitted in and out of Madison. We need to throw down and clearly illustrate how Madison is the center of, well … the known universe.

To put things even more concisely, we need to have a way for bartenders to casually mention Madison as the Center of All Life On Earth As We Know It—a smart, sly narrative about Madison’s DNA and how it has played a role in the grand themes of our nation, world and times. A tale with provocative images that could live on a back bar mural, or a drink coaster, thus prompting folks hovering over a Wollersheim brandy to ask, “Why is there a picture of Steve Jobs on your wall?”

And as he eyes a glass for stains, the bartender responds, “Good question, sir. The seeds for Steve Jobs’s life were sown in Madison. His Syrian father fell in love with a Wisconsin girl when both were at UW. There seems to be some debate over whether or not Mr. Jobs was actually conceived in Madison, or even right here in the Edgewater, but surely the table was set for Mr. Jobs’s life by Madison and its culture. After all, name another Midwest town in that era where a Syrian guy could fall in love with a Wisconsin girl.”

The surprised visitor nods and the bartender tips it in with a final note. “UW–Madison has always been one of the top U.S. universities for international students. We’ve even helped train Chinese Olympians. It also explains why we have more Ethiopian restaurants than Sheboygan.”

And then, in another space, there would be a picture of Orson Welles. And when asked, the bartender could casually tell the tale of Orson’s summer in Madison as a ten-year-old when he staged what could be called his first theatrical production in the middle of a summer camp’s council fire. The bartender would wryly remark, “Although Madison is not credited in Citizen Kane, we should be. Oh, and even then Orson Welles had a huuuge head.”

Then someone spies the album cover of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. And the traveler at the bar would say, “OK, I know for a fact that Van Morrison is from Ireland.” And the barman could say, “Yup, he is. But Richard Davis isn’t. He lives in Madison and produced that album. He also played that unbelievable melodic bass on a work that is considered one of the best rock albums ever made.” The bartender freshens a drink. “Richard comes in every once and a while. Oh, and jazz legend Ben Sidran lives in Madison and he worked with Morrison, too. They don’t say it, but I think Morrison’s a little crazy.”

The bartender continues, “And that guy there? That’s Clyde Stubblefield. He gave James Brown his groove. He was the drummer on ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.’ And his licks are among of the most sampled in the music world, including by artists LL Cool J and Prince. I mean, how great is that? You might even hear it in your elevator when you head back to your room.”

Another person at the bar pipes up, “OK. So why is there a movie poster for Blue Velvet?”

As the bartender mixes another Old Fashioned with a Leinie chaser, he smoothly says, “Oh, didn’t you know? David Lynch used to live in Madison during the summers. His girlfriend and then wife Mary Sweeney grew up here. She produced and edited a whole bunch of his movies. David and Mary used to cruise around the lake right out there in a great big mahogany boat. Sometimes he’d fish for bluegills.”

An incredulous L.A. hipster at the bar lifts his head. “Wait a minute. David Lynch, the guy who, like, almost completely changed television and movies, fished for bluegills right out there?”

The bartender nods.

And the hipster says, “Wow … What’s a bluegill?”

Finally, the bartender sets a screwdriver in front of another guest. “Oh, and Harry Steenbock of the UW defined the properties of the Vitamin D, including the fact that the orange juice in your drink helps prevent rickets.”

The bartender smiles and says, “So there’s that.”

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at

Find more of Roach’s columns here.