Essay: A Tribute to Angelo
We lost Angelo Mortellaro last week. He was one of Milwaukee’s great characters and his former bar on Van Buren was the kind of place that is rapidly disappearing from the American landscape. Lake Effect essayist Marge Eiseman has this remembrance:
Angelo Mortellaro, the crusty storyteller and former impresario of Angelo's Piano Lounge, passed away on Thursday, leaving a hole in the hearts of local jazz lovers. Angelo was almost 80, and grew up in Milwaukee, a graduate of Lincoln High School. He spend many years in Las Vegas, as a friend of the Rat Pack, and Tom Jones, whose pictures decorated the somewhat seedy interior of the bar on Van Buren.
I met Angelo on my birthday almost 3 years ago - on a whim, I decided to meet friends at Angelo's, in hopes that I would be able to sing a little and have a fun evening. I walked in, was greeted by local jazz man Jerry Grillo and Angelo himself - our party of 15 was pretty much the total clientele. Joe Kral was playing the keyboard, and Mario was behind the bar...and the vibe was cool and we had a blast!
Over the next months, I stopped in, sang a few songs, drank a few cocktails, learned all the words of Route 66 so I could sing it with any of the crew of piano players that rotated through the weekend lineup. On any given night, we'd hear Angelo telling stories about Frank Sinatra (and the time he asked Frank to introduce him to Dean Martin, and Frank got all huffy about it...as if to say, "You know me! Why woudl you want to meet Dino?" or how he learned to spot counterfeit currency by feel (no one EVER passed money on me!)
There were nights that felt like we were living Billy Joel's "Piano Man" in real time - 9:00 on a Saturday, and the regular crowd shuffles in...and once I stepped in as the singing bartender, I'd grab the mic and sing my lines with feeling "You know that I could be a movie star, if I could get out of this place..." Angelo drew an interesting crowd to his joint - young, old, black, white, singers and audience, first-timers and long-standing customers, and sometimes, he would come up to sing, but before he uttered a note, he would fix everyone in his stare and thank everyone for coming, and he always made a point to remind us that there is no conflict when everyone comes together for the music.
I will never hear the song, "Tenderly" without thinking of Angelo - even as his health was failing over the last years, his robust delivery of the lyrics and his trumpet solos were inspiring - and I look forward to the celebration of Angelo's life when the remodeling is completed, and the gang gets together again, and we drink a cup of kindness then, and days of AULD LANG SYNE.
Marge Eiseman is a Milwaukee based singer-songwriter – and bartender in a pinch. She knows she’s not the only one who misses, and will miss, Angelo.