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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Dining With Dolphins: Remembering Milwaukee's 'Most Unusual' Restaurant

Courtesy of Andy Gorzalski
Inside the Public Natatorium restaurant / dolphin show.

Years ago, if you stood on the corner of Fourth and Mitchell Streets on Milwaukee’s near south side, you would have been greeted by images of dolphins. The purpose of the porpoises was to mark the entrance of one of Milwaukee’s most unique dining experiences.

Credit Courtesy of Andy Gorzalski
A flyer about the Public Natatorium.

The Public Natatorium featured Wild Boar Chasseur and Porterhouse Steak on its menu -- and five daily dolphins shows in its pool.

Bubbler Talk question asker Robert Bueno used to drive past the building with his grandfather in the early 1980s.

“It really piqued my interested and I really wanted to know (more)... So I started asking questions at an early age,” he remembers. His grandfather tired of the questions and finally agreed (begrudgingly, Rob says, because he didn't like the idea of the beautiful creatures being cooped up in a little pool) to visit and find out for themselves.

Rob remembers sitting at a table right up against the glass. “(We) watched the happenings in the pool. And it was just bizarre because here you are in what used to be a swimming pool.”

City leaders built seven natatoriums in the late 19th century in an effort – according to the Milwaukee Public Library – "to encourage healthful swimming and cleanliness facilities for those not fortunate enough to have their own baths."

Credit Courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The South Side Natatorium was built in 1894.
Credit Historic Photo Collection / Milwaukee Public Library
This two-story Italian Renaissance style building had showers and bathrooms along its first-floor perimeter and dressing rooms on the balcony.

Today, the building is gone -- replaced by a park, named for a nearby funeral home owner. But Rob continued to wonder: Whatever happened to the Natatorium that amazed him as a child?

Credit Susan Bence
Today, Nobert R. Witkowiak Park is located on the land the Public Natatorium once occupied.

Luckily, Milwaukee producer and filmmaker Andy Gorzalski is on the case. He says he first heard about the Public Natatorium “through loose word of mouth from people who had been there once or twice and ultimately through these obsessive posts about it on the Old Milwaukee Facebook group.”

Andy set out to learn more about the man behind the project -- Milwaukee native John Garlic -- and plans to create a documentary on the subject.

“I think… putting dolphins inside a swinging supper club stands out,” he says. “When you go down these other layers and you learn how charismatic and amazing John Garlic was, I think that becomes the true story of the dreamer and the restaurant manifested itself out of him.”

Garlic was an entrepreneur. He sold Cadillacs – lots of them. He masterminded a gyro plant that distributed the Greek delicacy across the country. And, he created a popular restaurant in Milwaukee called JJ Garlic’s.

Then came the Public Natatorium. In 1978, John and his wife Margaret purchased the building for $4,000 and sunk hundreds of thousands more into in enclosing its pool with glass – the glass Rob remembers pressing his nose up against.

The Garlics procured and cared for two dolphins – their water had to be salty like the sea and just the right temperature. Andy says they created the mini marine world in Milwaukee as a thank you gift to their home town after the success of their first restaurant.

Son Ian remembers the Natatorium days fondly. He was a kid then. Ian says his parents were always working, so when he saw his dad, it was in the world of dolphins and exotic birds.

“My dad had a pet macaw,” he recalls, “that was always with him and was also known for going into the bathrooms and going under stalls and terrorizing people.”

But by the beginning of 1985 the wild venture went belly up – and a few years later the once elegant building itself vanished from the landscape.

While that’s the story of the building, what happened to the animals?

(Photo: Bruce Marquardt (right) is standing next to one of the Public Natatorium's dolphins. However, since the image is so dark - you can't see it. Move the toggle over to help you imagine a dolphin in the picture.)

“I know every attempt for the security and care of the animals was always at the very best intention and effort throughout the life of it,” Andy says.

During the bankruptcy, he adds, the water temperature fluctuated and the dolphins had to go. “They were put on these little stretcher things. It’s kind of an incredible visual, being rescued out of a place… They were transported, lived a happy long live, I think, back at Marine Land in Florida.”

Credit Courtesy of Bruce Marquardt
Bruce Marquardt and his mom at the Public Natatorium.

Bruce Marquardt remembers things a bit differently.

Bruce had worked at the Public Natatorium - first as a waiter; then with the dolphins. Despite 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week, he loved the work and his “co-workers” -- Scotch and Soda.

“Scotch and Soda and I all learned together, which was very unique. They didn’t know anything, We taught them from scratch and they taught us about them.”

Sadly, Bruce says, Scotch the dolphin passed away.

The Natatorium tried to work a sea lion into the act, but he recalls, “The act… didn’t work – you’ll never see dolphins and sea lions performing in the same pool.”

Soon after, the restaurant closed.

Credit Susan Bence
Question asker Robert Bueno standing where the Public Natatorium once stood.

A few years later, after he had moved west to Arizona, Bruce had an unexpected reunion. He discovered Soda – not in Florida, but at an amusement park south of Los Angeles. “She knew who I was, after three years she knew exactly who I was and I was showing them the stuff I used to do with her,” Bruce recalls.

And for question asker Rob, one thing that he certainly remembers about the restaurant is the smell. “Has anyone ever mentioned the juxtaposition of the food versus the smell of an aquarium?” he laughs. “I have that vivid memory of walking in with my grandfather and going ‘Wow we’re going to have a burger and it smells like an aquarium.’”

Future Bubbler Talk question? You decide.

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