JOHNSON CREEK — The building that was home to the Gobbler Supper Club has been many things since it first closed in 1992.
There was the New Gobbler restaurant, another that served Mexican food and a rib joint. At one time, there were plans for a casino and, in 2003, a strip club that would have been called “A Gobbler-A-Go-Go” had the Johnson Creek Village Board not nixed the plan.
The latest proposal for one of the state’s most visible and storied pieces of property actually has a shot at succeeding and came about after a trip to shop for purses at the outlet mall here.
Dan Manesis has enthusiasm, an entrepreneurial spirit, support from the village and runs a successful trucking firm. He also has a fiance who likes to shop and the financial wherewithal to invest in the Gobbler property, absorb the start-up costs and even lose money on the project for a time.
And unlike the failed ventures that had leased the Gobbler, Manesis, a thinner version of Jerry Garcia, has purchased the 10-acre property and the building for $635,000 from Fort Atkinson car dealers Daryl Spoerl and Marvin Havill. Manesis plans to spend another $1 million to transform the dome-like building into a 450-seat music venue dubbed the Gobbler Theater.
The rotating bar will stay, but the Roost, an elevated dance floor above the bar, is going away, along with the kitchen, which will be replaced with a stage and dressing rooms.
“We’re going to bring this old gal back to life,” Manesis said during a tour of the property. “The seller was actually surprised I came through.”
Havill, Spoerl and the late Ray Krek, another partner in the Gobbler property, spent thousands of dollars maintaining it since purchasing it in 1996 for $494,000. They spent another $630,000 on upgrades. The building has not had an occupant for more than a decade and has been for sale for years. A massive billboard in front of the building advertised its sale and a website, www.buythegobbler.com, helped promote the property.
The most recent activity was in 2009 when an auction was held to sell off dishes, kitchen equipment, some of the lavender and pink chairs and the building and the land. Hundreds of pounds of petrified wood that had been used to decorate the entrance walls were also removed with drill hammers and sold at $2 to $4 per pound. There were no takers on the property but one potential bidder talked about demolishing the building for scrap.
Manesis is thankful those plans never came to fruition.
“It has so much character, and there’s so much history here,” he said. “I want to get people to remember what this was.”
Clarence Hartwig, a local turkey farmer, spent $1 million to build and open the Helmut Ajango-designed Gobbler in 1969 along with the Gobbler Hotel up the hill. The business drew crowds from Milwaukee, Madison, Lake Geneva and northern Illinois, and it wasn’t uncommon for Milwaukee Brewers or Bucks players to be spotted at the restaurant.
“Whether you were a couple of well-scrubbed kids out for a lavish prom feast, Aunt Mabel on her 70th birthday bash or jaded city dwellers longing for a circular room with country views, Hartwig’s Gobbler in Johnson Creek filled the bill,” the website proclaims.
Manesis wants to bring the crowds back and envisions country and rock n’ roll bands from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s and Christian rock groups performing at his theater. During the day, the space could be used for conferences, seminars and business meetings. He also wants to collect old menus, coasters, napkins, photos and other memorabilia from the Gobbler’s heydays to display on the walls of the more than 16,000-square-foot building, nestled along Interstate 94.
“I’m more sure of this than any other business venture I’ve had,” said Manesis. “I’m very, very confident.”
Manesis, 60, knew all about the Gobbler, even before he spotted the real estate billboard in late April during the shopping trip with his fiancee. Manesis was a customer at the Gobbler more than 40 years ago and grew up in Madison. He attended Central High School and graduated from Memorial High School before attending UW-Madison.
In 1976, Manesis purchased a small hardware store at 35th and Silver Spring and four years later bought his first truck. Daniel A. Manesis Transportation in West Allis now specializes in hauling large and heavy loads, and consists of 24 trucks, 70 trailers and 35 employees. He owns a ranch house in southern Colorado and has been driving dragsters at Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove for more than 35 years. His current ride is a 1973 pink Ford Pinto.
But for years, Manesis has thought of creating his own music venue. Last year, he put up an unsuccessful bid to buy the defunct Northridge Mall on Milwaukee’s north side with hopes of bringing musical acts to part of the facility, that at one time was one of the largest malls in the state. The Gobbler, however, will provide an intimate setting, similar to that of the 500-seat Northern Lights Theater at Potowatami Bingo Casino in Milwaukee, Manesis said.
The Gobbler Theater, which could open late this year, will have cantilevered seating throughout and with the Roost removed, a more open feel. For bands traveling from Chicago to Minneapolis, a stop in Johnson Creek will be an easy gig. And just like its glory days, the Gobbler again may attract crowds from Milwaukee, Madison and Lake Geneva.
“The days of being a restaurant are long past,” Manesis said. “It’s a very well-built building. It’s very conducive to live music, and I don’t think anyone ever thought of it before.”