For 40 years the Cardinal Bar has been the spot to check Madison's pulse for Latin music, innovative dance music theme nights and progressive politics. And much of that has to do with founder and owner Ricardo Gonzalez.
On Saturday night the Cardinal Bar was in full festive regalia, with pine boughs lining the dark woodwork and red and white lights working in tandem with the stained glass fixtures to provide a low, chocolaty glow. The bar, built as part of the original Cardinal Hotel in 1909, was draped in holiday decorations and dotted with pint glasses made to celebrate the Cardinal Bar's 40th birthday.
Free champagne was flowing, and hors d'oeurvres were streaming out of the kitchen. Cardinal Red, a special red ale from Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company that brewer Nathan Zukas says was created after a random conversation with Cardinal bartender Franklin Parr, was on tap.
DJ Jo-Z and Latin dance band MadiSalsa were on hand to provide the music.
In the middle of it all was Gonzalez, dressed in a white tuxedo jacket and a burgundy tie. He thanked everyone for coming before a showing of Mad Media's short documentary, The Bird.
The Bird combined old footage and photos with interviews to cover the Cardinal's four-decade history, including a fire in 1981 and the new club vibe that set in around 1986. The video touched on the brief success of new owners in 2004 and the setbacks two years later that Gonzalez says cost the Cardinal its regulars, many of whom rejoiced at Gonzalez's return in 2009.
From the beginning, when the Cardinal was a "funky little dance bar with a jukebox in the back," the place was about fun, says Gonzalez. The bar also became a gathering place for local liberals.
"We were in Madison, after all," says Gonzalez, a former city alderman.
Gonzalez says the Cardinal was Madison's first fern bar -- so named because of its bounty of plants -- before becoming more of a dance club in the 1980s.
"The Cardinal always maintained its sense of community, its tradition for political events, and I always remained true to my ideals, although I became more realistic about running a business," says Gonzalez.
Saturday's celebration marked the culmination of a week's worth of events that included tributes by the Darren Sterud Orchestra and Golden Donna and a salute by WORT featuring Latin jazz maestro Tony Castañeda. Disco vamps VO5 also made an appearance, as did Mayor Paul Soglin, who used to spin soul at the Cardinal in the '70s and early '80s.
A lot of people have passed through the Cardinal over the years, but Gonzalez is the one individual indelibly linked to the bar.
"This place has always been a little piece of my mind," Gonzalez says.