Marsh Shapiro at a Nitty Gritty reunion, August 1981.
I first became aware of Marsh Shapiro -- the Madison TV personality and restaurateur who died on Wednesday, Dec. 26 at 74 -- in junior high school. We lived a few blocks from each other, me on the hill above the Catholic cemetery seven blocks west of West High and Marsh a couple of blocks further down toward University Avenue.
He was three years ahead of me, a senior, but I knew him as a wrestler, centerfielder in baseball, and student manager for the football team. He always wore his letter jacket, and I have a lasting image of him racing onto the field at Breese Stevens during timeouts, resplendent in maize and blue and tan leather, hauling a rack of glass water bottles.
In college, Marsh was a bartender and bouncer at the Varsity Bar, which vied at the time with The Pub as the most popular student joint on State Street. A lot of jocks worked there, including Tommy Thompson, later a state legislator and eventually governor and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Like Marsh, he was on the UW boxing team. They all wore white T-shirts at work, some of which had "UW Ath. Dept." stenciled in red on the front. Only rarely did they have a hassle, certainly not one they couldn't easily handle.
Marsh continued playing ball, and throughout the '60s earned a place as one of Madison's best -- a perennial all-star in fast-pitch softball. One night, a select local squad was matched against Eddie (The King) Feigner and His Court, a barnstorming foursome which consisted of Eddie the pitcher and three infield/outfielders. The other three were barely needed because Eddie struck everyone out. He could do it blindfolded, throwing between his legs and from second base. Marshall got Madison's only hit -- a swinging bunt down the first base line. He beat it out by a step.
It was around that time when Marsh appeared again in a broader public venue -- a kids' TV show on WKOW which he hosted daily in his new incarnation as Marshall the Marshal. He wore a getup akin to Roy Rogers, and carried a stainless steel Colt .45 Peacemaker loaded with blanks that he occasionally would draw from its holster and fire. It was so loud, especially in a studio or even theater, that it never failed to get the kids' attention (probably scaring the hell out of some). One afternoon, while gigging at the Orpheum, he held it so close to his ear that he went partially deaf for a while. He wasn't wearing earplugs.
At some point not long after, he switched over to sports and soon became WKOW's nightly anchor. I was writing for The Capital Times, a daily sports column, and we often would cross paths while out on assignments. We once shared a room in Columbus, Ohio, after a flight over there with the UW football team, and we sat together in the press box at the Horseshoe, watching the Badgers get their annual shellacking by one of Woody Hayes' merciless juggernauts. On the opening drive, Neil Graff led Bucky downfield to a touchdown, but on the second offensive series, Larry Mialik, the All-Big Ten receiver, broke his leg. After that, the Badgers went nowhere and OSU rolled up its customary 50-some points.
Although the game had been touted as possibly Wisconsin's best chance in 50 years to break the Buckeye curse, for those of us who monitored things closely, the one-sided loss wasn't really unexpected. When afterwards we drank at the motel bar with a handful of assistant coaches, the mood swung lazily between crudely stated analysis, rank fatalism and merely mild disappointment.
In the late '60s, Marsh bought Glen and Ann's, the old neighborhood bar at the corner of West Johnson and Frances, and renamed it the Nitty Gritty. Still holding on to his day job, he would switch as darkness fell from the gaudy sportscoats favored then by TV sports personalities (often plaids) into a more appropriate uniform, Levis and a blue jean jacket. Like most of us, he had sideburns, and to this he added a bushy mustache. If the dim light and shadows hit him a certain way, he invariably reminded me of a muskrat.
In my mind, Marsh was a good egg, although he did have his critics. He sometimes got the rap at the Gritty for, in effect, being a businessman -- and imagine what that had to be like, trying to maintain order in a nuthouse like the Gritty. They said he underpaid the bands, but who didn't? He had a lot more serious problems to contend with, like the time some jamoke in the men's room blasted a hole through the ceiling with a shotgun.
We always got along well. He always seemed genuinely happy to see me, even decades later.
"Freddie the Mil," he'd say. "How ya been?"
Somewhere on the wall at the Gritty, he hung a photograph -- my young son and I, Marsh posing with us.
I'll think of him fondly whenever I drop in there and see it. I'll think of him whenever I drive past the door.
Fred Milverstedt is a cofounder of Isthmus.