The owner of Milwaukee’s Nomad World Pub (above) wants to honor the Cardinal’s legacy.
It was no secret that Ricardo Gonzalez had been trying to sell the Cardinal Bar on and off for years. But when news broke last week that he had found a buyer in Mike Eitel, owner of Milwaukee’s Nomad World Pub, it was still a little hard to absorb.
Gonzalez isn’t the rocking-chair type, but at 70 he’s ready to retire from the bar biz and focus instead on writing projects, travel (especially to South America) and local Cuba initiatives like the Madison-Camaguey Sister City project.
Gonzalez tried to retire once before, back in 2004, when he sold the Cardinal to a couple of his managers and a co-owner of the building. By 2009, however, the new owners had made a mess of things, and Gonzalez found himself back in the nightclub business. It was supposed to be temporary, but legal entanglements with the failed ownership group prevented him from bailing within a couple of years as planned. Besides, by the time all of the litigation was resolved in 2012, he was having fun again.
“We were in this great encore period,” Gonzalez says. “We were doing things I never did with the bar before, including a wider variety of Latin music. So for a while I really wasn’t thinking much about selling.”
But when longtime manager Franklin Parr left in September 2015, Gonzalez knew it was time to get serious again about offloading the Bird. Meanwhile, Eitel had been casually looking for an opportunity to open a Madison establishment, and when he stumbled across a listing for the Cardinal, he was instantly intrigued, having been a regular customer years ago as a UW student. Eitel and Gonzalez had their first conversation well over a year ago, but it took until December to shake on a deal. If license and permit processes go smoothly, the space will reopen as the Nomad World Pub in March.
To people familiar with both the Cardinal and the Nomad, it seems like an outstanding fit. While a certain amount of change is inevitable, Eitel doesn’t envision dramatic overhauls of either the structure or the programming, so the transition could be relatively painless for the Cardinal faithful. Eitel is keenly aware of the Cardinal’s special place in LGBT, Latino and jazz communities, and he hopes to cultivate strong ties with all of them.
In addition to hosting live music, the Milwaukee Nomad is known as a place to watch early morning international soccer broadcasts, and Eitel plans to establish that in Madison as well. He thinks soccer might help forge connections with the Latino community here that go beyond music and dance. And by being open more days and longer hours than the Cardinal, he hopes the Nomad can not only maintain much of the Cardinal’s current music programming, but even expand on it. He has already had conversations with such Cardinal music stalwarts as DJ Chamo, Latin jazzer Tony Castañeda and trombonist/bandleader Darren Sterud. Gonzalez and Eitel say Sterud was particularly tickled to learn who the new owner was; he played one of his first-ever gigs at the Milwaukee Nomad as a teenager.
“I fully appreciate the weight and responsibility of taking over a spot like the Cardinal,” Eitel says. “There are so many different communities that think of the Cardinal as home, and I plan to make sure they’re all still comfortable coming in and are happy with what we’re doing.” Morning soccer notwithstanding, Eitel says there’s no danger of the new Nomad morphing into the kind of sports bar where patrons stare glassy-eyed at every meaningless mid-season Brewers game. That’s the opposite of the vibe he’s trying to create.
You can replicate programming, but you can’t clone the Cardinal’s historic role as an epicenter of progressive organizing in Madison. The Madison Press Connection — the newspaper launched by striking Madison Newspapers Inc. workers in 1977 — was essentially born at the Cardinal. Two years later, Union Cab was born out of meetings held there by striking Checker Cab drivers. Community radio station WORT routinely packed the place for a series of Wednesday night dance benefits during its infancy. And it’s not just politics. The Cardinal was also Madison’s first full-fledged disco, complete with dual turntables and a dangling mirror ball.
No musician is more closely associated with the Cardinal than Castañeda, whose Latin jazz group played a weekly show for 13 years, and continues to perform there frequently. Castañeda is optimistic that the Nomad will be a worthy heir to the Cardinal’s legacy, but mostly he’s just happy for his friend Gonzalez.
“People should understand that he really introduced Latin music to Madison, and he played a big role in bringing the Latino community together,” Castañeda says. He says he hopes to have a strong relationship with the Nomad and continue playing there. He’s also excited that Eitel is promising to expand the bar’s tap beer offerings. Says Castañeda: “That’s important to me in a bar.”