This article was last modified on February 23, 2020.

The Dangle Lounge and Visions Burlesque

Alphonse “Al” Reichenberger operated the Dangle Lounge (119 East Main) with his brother, Thomas G., in downtown Madison from 1968-1982.

1968: The Reichenberger brothers purchase the former Lombardo’s Piano Lounge. For many years, the business was run by James D. Lombardo. From 1963-1968, the business was run by brothers Thomas and James McEvilly, but apparently didn’t work out. (Lombardo, in the meantime, moved to a new location at 514 East Wilson that he called a “discotheque.”) Prior to operated the Dangle, Alphonse was a salesman for North Central Airlines in Milwaukee.

The transition to nude dancing was spontaneous. “I don’t know exactly where he got the idea. But Tom had a waitress who agreed to get up and dance on the piano. Take her top off,” said bartender Vince O’Hern. “It started a sensation.” O’Hern, after hours one night, decided to launch a newspaper: The Isthmus. The Dangle purchased the first ad.

The business seemed to stay out of the news for the first year, and then Al was arrested with dancer Nita Horne (sometimes written Lita Horne) on September 8, 1969 in violation of a city ordinance prohibiting “the conduct of an immoral show.” Attorney David Loeffler fought the arrest, saying the ordinance was too broad and could infringe on First Amendment rights.

The city ended up dropping the case, and topless go-go dancing began appearing at bars around the area. District attorney James C. Boll suggested a new idea on February 9, 1970: if a bar was caught with topless dancers (legal or not), they would not get their liquor license renewed. In Madison, all licenses came up for renewal each June. Boll had heard that some bars were even thinking of pushing he limits to full nude dancing, and he said such an act would be prosecuted as “lewd and lascivious behavior.”

The city was also in the process of passing a revised obscenity law, based on one that was upheld by the courts in New York. In March 1970, Loeffler pre-emptively sued the city on the Dangle’s behalf before the law could ever go into effect. Any ban would infringe on their right to “free expression,” they claimed.

When liquor licenses came up for renewal in June 1970, the city council approved the Dangle’s license but Mayor William Dyke would not sign off on it. He said that if they could expect the Dangle to violate any new ordinance put in effect, there was no reason to give them the license. Some council members expressed disapproval with Dyke, saying such a move was “vindictive” – the tavern had met every legal qualification.

July 15, 1970: With the liquor license still in limbo, the Dangle Lounge took their business to the next level. They could only sell soda, coffee and fruit juice, but the absence of liquor meant they could also serve 18-year olds rather than 21+. For the first time in Madison’s history (and possibly the state), teenage customers could see topless bartenders and nearly-nude dancers. Police were onsite just in case things went awry, but all was well. Tootsie Rolls were sold for $2 at the door as an admission fee.

November 23, 1970: After the city council approved a liquor license, Mayor Dyke again halted the process. His reasoning? Community standards “would not be strengthened” if the Dangle had a license. Al Reichenberger told the press, if the license wasn’t renewed, “I have a surprise plan that will make my lowering the age to 18 controversy seem like a fairy tale.”

January 20, 1971: Alphonse Reichenberger announced his candidacy for Madison mayor. He said he would provide better social services, free mass transit, and lower property taxes. He would pay for the improvements through legalized gambling after replacing the city attorney and police chief.

The city of Madison went after a production of “Hair” in February 1971 under their obscenity ordinance. Although the obscenity law had been struck down by Judge James Doyle, the city appealed the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in the hopes of turning things around, and said they would continue to arrest people while the appeal process was in motion. The producers of “Hair” retaliated, asking for an injunction to stop the city – citing the decision Doyle had made in the latest Dangle case. In short, Doyle said the Dangle was protected by a “right to privacy” as was established in the Supreme Court case Stanley v. Georgia (1969) – in that case police had discovered pornography in the home of a suspected bookie and arrested him for it. The Court ultimately decided material deemed “obscene” could not get you arrested for “possession of obscene material” if it was in a private residence. (Obscenity law in general is very tricky. The material deemed obscene in 1969 would probably be tame by 2020 standards.)

March 23, 1971: The Dangle was issued a summons for violating the city’s theater ordinance, requiring a permit for live entertainment. Al Reichenberger told the press, “I think it’s a little bit odd that only the places that offer nude entertainment were charged with theater license violations and not the numerous places that charge admission for live entertainment that’s more acceptable.” Although I do not know the exact wording of the ordinance, his point makes sense: how is a strip club any more of a “theater” than a bar that charges a cover for a touring band?

July 1971: The Dangle changed its name to the Jazz Workshop, and attempted to operate as a jazz club. Under this new identity – with no nudity offered – the mayor granted them their liquor license.

July 1972: The Jazz Workshop was short-lived, and the Reichenbergers again changed the name to Minsky’s Burlesque. They planned to feature live jazz, comedians and “the highest-priced strippers.” The theme was 1940s nostalgia and would be “in good taste.” Mayor Dyke found the timing suspicious, coming just after the 1972 license renewal.

October 1972: The Dangle Lounge building was for sale, but in the meantime still offered nudity “because there’s a demand,” according to Al Reichenberger. He said that interest had decreased, but he was still making a “good living.” He told the press that his business – at least the nudity part – probably would have died out on its own if the mayor hadn’t provided so much publicity.

March 27, 1973: City attorney Edwin Conrad released an opinion saying that a recent Supreme Court case would “slightly increase” the city’s ability to regulate topless dancing. Although he did not mention the Dangle by name, it was the ONLY establishment in Madison offering nude entertainment at the time. Unfortunately, the newspaper did not report which Supreme Court case Conrad was referencing, and I haven’t been able to figure it out.

December 1977: Pastor Wayne Dillabaugh was put in jail for spanking a 5-year old boy hard enough to leave bruises on his buttocks. Although he could be released on signature bond, he refused to sign and remained in jail as a martyr. Christian groups throughout the country flooded the sheriff with phone calls and telegrams protesting, and one university even awarded Dillabaugh an honorary doctorate of divinity. Dillabaugh was known in Madison as one of the anti-smut pastors, second only to Richard Pritchard. At one point he had even protested “The Exorcist” as obscene. Alphonse Reichenberger, one of Dillabaugh’s long-time opponents, told the press that the pastor was making a mockery of the justice system. Reichenberger brought $200 to the jail to post for bond, forcing them to free the pastor without the signature.

The Reichenbergers opened Visions Night Club in east Madison in 1978.

August 1980: A lawsuit that the Reichenbergers filed against Alderman Jean Steward and Rev. Richard Pritchard was dismissed as “frivolous and unreasonable” by Judge Barbara Crabb. The lounge owners alleged the pair was involved in a conspiracy to deny them their constitutional rights. Attorney fees the brothers had to pay the alderman and pastor were estimated at $20,000.

December 1, 1982: The final day of operation for the Dangle Lounge. Moving on to the premises were law offices. The Reichenbergers made an unusual deal with the city: if the city would cease trying to pass an obscenity ban, they would close down the Dangle and only operate Visions, whose lease was to expire in April 1988. After that, the brothers would be retired and the city could do what it wished. Speaking with the press, Alphonse recalled a night where the bar had to be cleared by the Secret Service because a delegation from the Soviet Union wanted to drink there. They spent the evening taking shots of vodka and watching UW cheerleaders dance. Reichenberger said that contrary to common belief, his bar had done some good for the community. “I have put hundreds of peopel through school,” he reflected. “They are very successful people. They always call up or stop in when they are in town and we bring out the old pictures.”

Alderman Jean Stewart made a last minute push to cancel the deal. She argued that it would open the possibility that Visions could get even more obscene or expand the premises and the city would be unable to act. The Reichenberger brothers said if the deal wasn’t carried out as promised, the Dangle would stay open. Ultimately, Stewart lost and the deal went ahead.

In the early 1980s, Al Reichenberger said dancers at Visions were a mix of “girls from UW, housewives who worked a couple nights a week” and dancers he calls “professionals.” But for most, it was more of a gig than a career.

Strangely enough, I wasn’t able to find ANY articles between 1983 and 1994, though I’m sure some exist. Most obviously, the 1988 lease agreement was apparently renewed, probably to the dismay of the city. Visions was still at the same location in 2018 – 30 YEARS after they were supposed to close!

Al retired on June 11, 1995 at 53 years old. Tom continued operation of Visions. Al reflected, “It’s a different kind of crowd. There’s a criminal class in Madison now. Bad actors walking around with guns and drugs,” says Reichenberger. “We didn’t have to deal with those people before.”

Reichenberger says it’s a problem at every nightclub, not just the ones for gentlemen. “Visions didn’t change. The world did.”

1997: Tom told the press, “Every kind of entertainment is attractive to somebody. We happen to have burlesque entertainment.”

August 1997: The city approved Reichenberger’s plan to move Visions from Washington Avenue to 1314 Parkside Drive. The new location was bigger, had more seating, and had considerably more parking, including for buses. Reichenberger said business was picking up, and he even had people coming fro mas far as Rockford ever since the Vegas Club in that city burned down. Again, I was unable to find follow-up articles, but I don’t think Visions ever moved. Why the move was canceled is not known.

Just before closing time on December 9, 2018, police were dispatched to Visions after receiving a call about a large fight with injuries and reports of gunshots. Police later determined an argument between two men — one allegedly a member of “a motorcycle gang, possibly the C.C. Riders” — escalated. One of the men was stabbed multiple times in the head. He then shot his aggressor in the chest. A Visions employee and a patron were also injured by gunfire.

Tom died March 13, 2019 at age 75. Tom was survived by his children, Thomas Jr., Elena (Doug) Ticus and Zachary Reichenberger. He was further survived by his former wife, Cindy Reichenberger and brother, Al (Jayne) Reichenberger.

In August 2019, assistant city attorney Jennifer Zilavy filed a 56-page complaint seeking to revoke Visions’ liquor and entertainment licenses. It documented 60 infractions, including the unapproved construction of private dance booths, the purchase of alcohol from unlicensed sellers, and dozens of other incidents going back to 2012 that Zilavy said violated the city’s prohibition against maintaining a “disorderly or riotous, indecent, or improper house.”

“The police said that Visions employees had done everything right,” said club attorney Jeff Scott Olson. “I think the city began to feel like they might not secure a revocation decision and ought to negotiate a compromise which would allow them to achieve something.” An agreement signed November 1 between Visions and the city allowed the club to retain its licenses provided it improved security and shut down for the first three months of 2020.

At midnight on December 31: “We made it! Who would have ever thought we’d start the new year like this?” says dancer Jasmine before hurrying away. “I got to give a private dance to a smelly old guy now.”

“Visions is a hub for drugs. Probably prostitution,” said Alderman David Ahrens in early 2020. “What can I say? It’s a pit.” The renter who lived upstairs agreed. “You learn to keep your head down. But biker gangs. Prostitution. Drugs. Those are common at strip clubs. Visions is no exception,” said the man who wished to remain anonymous. “I will say, it is perhaps the last and only place in Madison with that kind of rent ($250 per month). I can’t imagine the people who live there have any other option. I didn’t.”

“People who live around Visions have seen everything. A couple years ago, there was a woman giving a blow job at the end of my driveway at 10 in the morning,” said former Alderman Mike Shivers. “If it weren’t for Visions, it’d be a nice neighborhood. It’s not exactly the epitome of a community builder.”

On January 15, 2020, the Alcohol License Review Committee dealt a significant blow to Silk Exotic’s plans to take over Visions Night Club by unanimously rejecting Silk’s request for licenses to serve alcohol and host nude dancing. But Silk is exploring another route, which includes a challenge to the city’s prohibition on the transfer of an alcohol license when an establishment is sold to new owners. “In any other city in the state, if you buy a business, the licenses automatically transfer,” said Kyle Zubke, director of operations for Silk.

Visions’ co-owner David Brown vowed to reopen the strip club if Silk can’t take over the business. He said those opposed to Silk don’t understand that he can legally reopen on April 1. “It’s either Silk or Visions. A strip club will still be there,” Brown told Isthmus. “So how is it that people don’t want Silk, who are going to class it up a bit? Madison needs an adult entertainment bar. Please quote me on that.”

Also try another article under Organized Crime
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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