A Boy from Milwaukee

This entry is part 13 of 24 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Rambling Reflections on Life by a 74-year-old TV director
By Fred Barzyk

Part 1: The Early Years

You see, I was this kid growing up on the South Side of Milwaukee. The Polish South Side.

It was the 1940s and things were going just great. I mean, we had just won a War.

My Mom and Dad took me to downtown Milwaukee to celebrate. It was either VE or VJ Day.

Anyway, the people were goin’ crazy, dancing, singing, jumpin’ around. One woman kissed me. That was way too much.

America in the 1940s

  • Population: 132,122,000
  • Unemployed in 1940: 8,120,000
  • National Debt: $43 Billion
  • Average Salary: $1,299. Teacher’s salary: $1,441
  • Minimum Wage: $.43 per hour
  • 55% of U.S. homes have indoor plumbing
  • Antarctica is discovered to be a continent
  • Life expectancy: 68.2 female, 60.8 male
  • Auto deaths: 34,500
  • Supreme Court decides blacks do have a right to vote
  • World War II changed the order of world power; the United States and the USSR become super powers
  • Cold War begins

Now that the War was over, my Uncle Ed would come home from Germany. My Aunt Frances was going to be so, so happy.

She had this colicky little baby, Edward, and she needed some help. He would cry and cry. You could hear it all over the neighborhood. He was my cousin and I felt sorry for the little kid. For my Aunt, too.

Our neighborhood

They lived across the street from us. Good old South 7th Street, that was where we lived. We were renters.

On one side of our rented house lived the Getarec’s. Their son, Lawrence, had just formed a Polka band; his friends would come over on weekends to rehearse. They were terrible. Three weeks later, they disbanded. Larry never got to do one of those weddings gigs he wanted to do so badly. Poor Larry.

On the other side of us lived the Nowicki’s. One of their clan was a hunter. Bow and arrow. He and a friend actually took down a 500 lb. Black Bear. They strung it up in their garage. The Milwaukee Journal came and took a picture. He was famous in our neighborhood.

Two young girls lived there, too. Joan and Barbara.

BARBARA  (1938-1941)

Barbara, lived next door, upstairs.
little kids, we played, making mud pies
under back porches,
digging dirt, all tiny pails and shovels.
Her sister, Joan, older by 4 years, taunted us
“Look! Boyfriend and girlfriend.”
Angrily we denied,
not understanding what it meant anyway,
but knowing nothing good
could come from being

We played movies,
acting out all the parts
in grassy backyards
and concrete alleys
of the Polish South Side.
We had a secret hideout
dark dense bushes
one street over.
Here we could hide.
no one else allowed.

Then suddenly,
grade school.
She to Catholic, I to Public.
We saw each other
but all was changing
We, evolving, living new adventures,
far from secret hideouts,
mud pies under back porches.
Becoming new people,
Wiser, distant.
Why do we have to grow anew?

Left then with only distant memories
Of a little girl who lived next door,

Show business

My Mom had this vision for me. She thought it would be wonderful if I could be in show business.

I mean, her very own cousin, Johnny Davis, had a big dance band that played all the big venues in Milwaukee. His band looked something like this.

She was very proud to be his cousin. Johnny’s band had these two young guys, Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson. They went to Hollywood and became movie stars! One of their movies was called “Two Guys from Milwaukee.” Movie critic, Leonard Maltin, gave it 2 and half stars. Not bad.

And my Aunt Frances, well, she was very good friends with a Polish musician from the South Side of Milwaukee. He played piano at all the fancy dinner restaurants in town. His name was Liberace.

My family was just surrounded by all these talented people.

My mother thought, “Why Not Freddy?”

Dance lessons

So, when I was seven, she signed me up for dance lessons.

I think she imagined me to be in a show, dressed in costumes, applauded by the masses.


We climbed 101 wooden steps up
Up, to the very tip top
of the 5th Street viaduct,
Mom and I, my tiny tap shoes in hand.

We paid a nickel each and rode the Hinky Dinky,
Milwaukee’s super small streetcar.
Rattling across the South Side,
past smoke stacks,
heady smells from the yeast factory,
we emerged from the rackety ride
and hurried down Wisconsin Avenue
to the School of Dance!

We climbed 31 wooden steps up
Up, to the very tip top
of the old brick building
Mom and I, my tiny tap shoes in hand.

In the hot, sweaty dance studio,
crammed tight with little kids
tap, tap, tap dancing,
steel cleats clanging wooden floors.
the tall thin dance teacher
trying to train little feet
Click, tap. tap, pat, click. click

Mom, sat, silently, secretly,
dreaming Dreams,
Dreams of Show Business,
Dreams through me.
Click, tap, pat, pat, click, click
My feet stomped, banged, kicked,
Hoping to create
rhythm grace
energy  Beauty!

Click, tap. Tap, tap, pat, click
Me, a 7 year old kid,
who bought his clothes in
the Sears husky department

Click, pat, tap, click, click, click
those tap shoes took a beating.
Me, too.
Click, pat, tap, click.

After the fourth tap dance lesson,
riding back on the
Jiggling, clankingly, Hinky Dinky,
it happened.
Breakfast, lunch, snacks
all made a nasty return.
Raining everywhere,
over the hard train seats.

Mom knew the dream was gone.
She put away the tiny tap shoes
way back, in a dark hall closet,
Never to be worn again.
No more click, clack, tap.
Not for those tiny tap shoes.
For that is how dreams die… sometimes.
Without a click or tap,

But I didn’t give up on her dream. I announced that I would become a piano player! Only problem was we didn’t have a piano.

Piano lessons

I started taking lessons practicing on a piece of fold out cardboard designed to look like piano keys. They knew eventually, I would need a real piano. I don’t think they could afford one, but somehow they managed to buy a small spinet piano. I still have it today.

I really never could play the piano, even after years of lessons. However, it was known in my neighborhood that I had a piano. This fact alone brought me face to face with a dilemma.

I had forgotten about this incident until I started writing this personal history. I learned a lesson that day: Do not judge a book by its cover.

POEM (1948)
“I can’t even remember his name”

Like a lingering shadow in my memory bank
Hanging there in the void, frozen, pale, fragile —
Almost brushed aside by other fading images
His freckled face —
His sandy hair —
His wet hazel eyes —
His grimy glasses —
So often I ignored him, thinking nothing of him
And now, I can’t even remember his name

It was the end of summer, hot and dry
He came to my porch and knocked on the door
He had never come to my house before
My God, we hardly even talked
But there he stood —
clutching papers,
How could I have ignored him, thinking nothing of him?
And now, I can’t even remember his name

He heard that I played the piano, that I knew music
He was just a 14 year old Polish kid from the South Side
Not polished or trained in music, awkward and shy
He told me his dream and thrust the papers into my hands
Can you play it?
I wrote it myself.
I can’t play the piano, you know —
Can you play my concerto?
He stood, waiting, hoping
And I can’t even remember his name.

Where did he get the blank music paper?
How did he know about D minor?
Allegro molto?
I stared hard at his hand written notes, bewildered —
How could this be?

But there it was
It looked real,
Musically correct
way too difficult —
I stuttered, swallowed hard, and admitted my failings
It’s too tough,
I’ve only begun to play the piano
Maybe someone else —
He said nothing, smiled and nodded his head
took his papers back, and left
I watched as he walked away down my street

We saw each other on the playground near St. Helen’s
We played basketball and hung around a little
Summers are like that
He never mentioned our meeting
Neither did I
My piano lessons went on and on
Never mounting to much
I stopped thinking of him
until now.
I wonder if he ever heard his concerto?
I hope so.
So sad that I can’t even remember his name.
Just a lingering shadow in my memory bank

The playground

Ohio Street playground.

Concrete, stark, a battle field where kids become ensnared in the thoughts of winning and losing, fighting through fears and hoping to win, you know, throwing in the winning basket just before the final bell goes off!  It doesn’t usually work out that way.


  1. fred barzyk on January 18, 2019 at 1:06 pm

    Hey Paul… great to hear from you. Actually it was early in the day so we had Mai Tai instead. I can give you a link to one of the Shep shows. Just email me.

  2. Jon Miskowski on January 4, 2019 at 9:41 pm

    Your story reminded me of an interview with Dorothy Zmuda who was also in Milwaukee on VJ or VE Day. You find her story about VJ Day (I think) at 50:52 in the linked video.

    I first heard Dorothy when I walked in our producer who was editing her interview. Just hearing her voice, I asked who that was and if she was from Steven Point — my hometown. He thought maybe I knew her. I didn’t but I knew the patter, the language, the laugh. Turns out Dorothy grew up a couple houses from my mother. I love the chapter title, “Something Else.” When I asked my mom if she knew Dorothy, she said she did and that’s when I learned she was just up the street. My knew her and that she was “something else.”

  3. Fred Barzyk on January 4, 2019 at 1:22 pm

    Hey Gordon not only the tape machine but the pcp 90. We took the machines back to the motel, washed the camera in the shower, while Dave wiped down all parts of the tape machine. We put it on the bed, put our one light on and pointed at the wet camera and went out for some “libations”. My God, it worked. Hits here and there but enough to get us thru the series. Yea!!!

  4. Paul Gay, The business guy. on December 21, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    Hello there Fred Barzyk:

    With your life experiences, how could you not connect with Jean Shepherd?

    Missed you at the reunion this year, but talked to Al and Gordon to confirm my memory that the pcp portable swam in the Pacific.

    Why can’t “Jean Shepherd’s America” be seen on 2? I really, really liked it and meeting him at your party.

    Thanks Fred. Merry Christmas.

    • gordon mehlman on December 28, 2018 at 9:24 pm

      Reply to Paul Gay
      Dave Hutton was operating the Ampex VR3000 two inch video tape machine in the Pacific ocean (I believe in Hawaii) and was knocked over by a wave on one of the Jean Shepards America shoots and the machine took a swim and became submerged. The salt water eventually caused the machine to be a continuous source of problems from that day on with many intermittent problems because it continued to eat away at the lands of the printed circuit boards.
      Gordon Mehlman

      • Jim Lewis on January 4, 2019 at 11:16 am

        Was this not the first national program to be produced on tape entirely in the field?

      • Jack Caldwell on January 4, 2019 at 3:35 pm

        The maiden voyage of that tape recorder was Jean Shepard’s trip via a domed dining car from chicago to LA. We recorded all programs on that machine, shipped them to the then National Educational Television duplication center in Ann Arbor for quality checks to confirm viability. (The NET center was then the largest 2 inch duplicating center in the World — and the largest purchaser of tape. Back then, all NET (eventually PBS) shows were duplicated and bicycled around the country. This preceded the evolution of AT&T land lines — followed by satellites)

        We did a shoot while in Chicago on a large lake boat that carried iron ore. Ha. Ann Arbor called back and told us all of the pix were wavy lines. umh. Iron ore! magnetic field! Every time the engineer turned in any direction, the swiggly lines on the tape moved. Lesson learned.

        Also the camera was attachd to the tape deck on the back of the recording engineer with three heavy six foot cables. Teamwork, teamwork. The camera was serial 2. I think it was a PCP 90.

        Fred can feed many anecdotes to this story. Like having to grab Jean by his collar on the train platform as the train began to move — and hoist him aboard. We pushed him into a cabin and asked that he stay there until we came for him. He obliged. And the borrowed Winnebago used to get to
        Chicago with all of our gear was left parked on a curved entrance to the RR station. We were running late. It was still there when the crew returned.

        • Paul Gay, The fincancial guy on January 11, 2019 at 12:10 pm

          Hi Jack! (that’s a greeting NSA) Can anyone remember why “Jean Shepherd’s America” isn’t reshown? Or available on tape disc or archives? I think there is a shoreline view from the water ( from Hawaii?) that is part of Thanksgiving show I’ve seen recently. Yep, Fred I had heard the shower part of the story, but not the libation part, “BEER” I hope!

  5. Colleen -Cheney-Trawinski on December 7, 2018 at 6:47 pm


    Loved reading about the history of your south side neighborhood. I am the Executive Director of the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation. Would love to hear more about your stories connected to the Basilica.

    Please contact me. Thanks!


    • Bob Nesson on January 25, 2019 at 11:55 am

      FRED!! I’m so grateful for this beautiful recollection of your early days on the piano, gracefully leading to your attempt to find new visual ways of presenting music. In particular I remember the sequence on Michael Colgrass!! In archives I still have 3/4 tapes of the SOUNDINGS programs we did [with Bunny Olenick] on Colgrass, Joan Tower, Ralph Shapey, Lukas Foss, and Ivanna Themmen. I’ll never forget editing the many-camera sequences of studio musicians playing — and trying to keep them in sync on the then-new VO 7600 editing system we used!!!

  6. Ron Pogodzinski on August 20, 2018 at 12:41 pm

    Your story brings back fond memories, thanks for the refresh!
    Grew up on 9th and Lincoln, went to St. Josaphat, climbed the wood stairs to the Hinkey Dinkey, and did all the things we did back in the good old days!

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