There's a radio haunting this century-old Milwaukee area bar
Editor's note: This is a report about stories that are passed down through time. In our reporting, we heard the interviewees’ version of the story. Since this report aired, WUWM has heard from the family of the man at the center of the story, Joe Sarich. The family disputed some of its details, including the age of the building and Sarich's relationship to the building's previous owners. These corrections are reflected in the story below. Furthermore, the family says that the brandy bottles and bar dice weren't part of the Sarich inventory, and while Sarich and his wife owned the property, he leased it and never ran the bar there, although he previously ran another West Allis tavern. The family tells us if there is a ghost on the property, it is not Joe or his wife. We regret the errors.
For more than a century, people have been flocking to this corner bar in West Allis, over by National and 60th. It’s been owned by different people, called different names: Kralj’s Hall, Kokapelli’s, Shipwrecked.
Today, it’s Layman Brewing, a pub that brews its own beer on-site. Layman opened in early 2020, and since then, Kieran Easter has been a Wednesday night regular.
“I’m not really a barfly, but I became one for this bar,” Easter said.
He likes the community there. The food and drink and long conversations. So he got around to talking with old-timers and the bartender. And he started to hear whispers about a ghost.
“What’s the story with the haunted radio in the back of Layman Brewing?” he asked.
I visited the pub on Friday the 13th. It was wet and stormy, grey and miserable. The kind of day you hope for, if you’re looking for a ghost. Kyle Ida runs the place with his wife, Sarah Warran. He agreed to show me the so-called haunted radio and invited a few regulars at the bar to join us.
Kyle walked us to a dark corner of a back storage room. (This, he joked, was the "shortest, crappiest ghost tour.")
“Tada! Haunted radio!” he said. “It’s an old Sears Zenith model.”
The radio sits high on a shelf, and hasn’t been moved for decades. (Kyle said the previous owner asked them not to move it.) It’s dark wood and has three dials. It’s about the size of a boombox. And it's clearly vintage.
When Kyle and Sarah bought the place, they heard from waitresses who worked at the building’s bars long gone. They were eager to share stories of their ghost encounters.
"The old employees were like, 'Well, there’s cold drafts in the building, and the lights flicker,'" Kyle said. "I’m like, 'It’s a really old building.'" It was built in 1905.
And they would ask, what about the radio? "The radio is always on," they told him.
Kyle asked them, “Don’t you think you just forgot to turn the radio off?”
The waitresses would shake their heads. "No, the radio’s got tubes in it and won’t work," he recalled them saying. "And I’m like, 'What do you mean tubes?'"
Vacuum tubes. Those lightbulb-looking devices that were used in electronics before transistors mostly replaced them in the '50s.
“When they would come in in the morning, it would always be playing one song,” Kyle said. Previous employees told him it was the slow dance of the old owner, Joe Sarich, and his wife.
That made Kyle think of all the stuff they’ve found cleaning out the old building. Bottles of peach brandy from the '40s, dusty jars of bar dice.
“We generally attribute it to Joe,” he said. “We leave it alone until we feel it’s right to move it or clean it and put it on display.”
Much of what Kyle knows about Joe comes from his good friend, Laura. She’s a history nerd to the core. The kind of person who comes up with ghost tours for friends, which is really an excuse to do more research.
“I hear ghost stories,” Laura told me. We met at the bar the night of its annual fish boil. “And I want to know about that. I want to know where this actually came from.”
A couple of years ago, Laura was digging around for material for her next tour. She wanted to bring friends to Layman Brewing, so she checked with Kyle and Sarah and asked whether they knew any ghosts.
“That was when they told me, ‘Oh hey, there’s a legend of a ghost here. Joe, Joe haunts the radio,’” she said.
The couple handed Laura all the documents they had: property records, business permits and appraisals. And a story began to emerge. A story that’s even bigger than a haunted radio.
"Joe is Joe Sarich, who was born in Yugoslavia in 1895. Married his wife, Barbara, had two sons, John and Paul,” Laura said. “On the 1940 census, he’s listed as a tavern proprietor who worked 80 hours a week.”
In 1962, Joe bought the bar at 6001 W. Madison Street.
“Then he passed it on to his son John in 1971, who passed it on to his sons, Richard and Robert in 1981, ‘82,” Laura continued. “They kept it going. So the building was in the family [for] three generations.”
Digging through old newspapers, Laura learned that the family was active in the Croatian Fraternal Union, or CFU, North America's oldest, biggest Croatian organization.
“West Allis and Milwaukee had one of the most active Croatian communities at that time,” she said.
Two local CFU chapters regularly met at the tavern. Eighty years ago, Laura learned, West Allis Croatians gathered here to write an important letter.
“In July of 1941, before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, [they] wrote a letter to Congress, urging them to support all nations involved in the right against Hitler fascism,” she said. “That was not necessarily a popular opinion at the time. There were other letters recorded in the same Congressional record from other organizations urging Congress to do the exact opposite.”
Laura gazed around at the century-old walls of Layman Brewing, haunted by the people who loved this place before she did.
“Other people’s stories are still going on,” she said. “And we’re the sequel. It’s very grounding to know what happened here. Who else experienced the same place? You look at wear patterns on the floor where other feet have tread over and over for years and years. You get a sense of who those people were.”
Back at the bar, I met a little girl who was there enjoying fries with her dad. I asked what she thought about the bar’s ghost.
“It’s kind of scary,” she said.
“He just wants people to have a good time,” Kyle said.
At the bar, people were doing just that. Instead of the usual sports, a livestream of kittens at an animal shelter played on the TV. Apple pie and burgers rolled out of the kitchen.
Gus Haggerty sat at the bar, sipping a beer with his wife. He was there to celebrate his late father's birthday. Last year, he supplied Layman Brewing with grapes from his backyard, a few blocks away, which Kyle used to create a beer in memory of Gus's father. They named it "Pop's Venture."
Asked what keeps him coming back to the brewpub, Gus said, “Kyle and Sarah. They’re good people. Neighborhood bar. Can’t ask for anything more than that. Everybody knows your name, like Cheers.”
Gus is what Kyle calls an old-timer; he’s glimpsed the bar’s past lives. A lineage of bars that, now, Kyle is proud to be a part of.
“Whether [he's] real or not, Joe's legacy,” Kyle said. “I think he is a good ghost because this is what him and his wife did to survive. And this is what my wife and I are doing to survive.”
Kyle hunted for a clean corner of his shirt to wipe his eyes on. He said if he’s lucky, he’ll get to haunt the bar in his afterlife. A bar that’s survived this long, and just keeps on going.
Personally? I don’t believe in ghosts. But I do believe in legacies.