There's been a bar on the southwest corner of Farwell and North for almost a century. In the 1930s and 1940s the east side neighborhood around North and Farwell had a mix of factories, apartments and taverns including a place called Rieder's which occupied the spot Von Trier does today.
During World War II, Rieder's was one of several "Super Bars" that served three shifts of thirsty factory workers. Back then, a Super Bar was a tavern that sold drinks as well as bottled liquor and six-packs to-go. In addition to Rieder's, there was the Pink Pig, the Hunt Club (now Cush), Murray Tap (now Rascals) and Hooligan's which still calls itself a "Super Bar" even though package goods have been replaced with a selection of great bar food.
In 1949, Frank Rieder, the son of the original owner, took ownership of Rieder's. That same year, the city decided to round off the corners for street cars and the current building that is now Von Trier was built with a rounded glass wall by the corner. (At that time, Reider's was the size of Von Trier's front bar.) Frank Rieder was of Austrian descent and his bar was an upscale cocktail lounge that served imported beers and specialty cocktails in a friendly atmosphere with a juke box playing classical and European music.
By 1978, Frank Rieder decided to sell the bar to Karl Lotharius, the owner of Olivers, a mid-seventies disco on Milwaukee St. south of Wells. Lotharius continued the European theme and upscale cocktails, adding his own German heritage to the decor. The name Von Trier came about when after the sale of the bar, Frank Rieder decided not to let Lotharius use the Rieder's name. Lotharius, who came from the town of Trier in Germany eventually settled on "Von Trier" (from Trier) for the new name. But the process was decidedly circumspect.
In 1978 there was a popular bar on Downer Avenue called Judge Jason Downer or JJD's for short (later the Chancery). Karl Lotharius wanted a snappy name like JJD's and came up with Karl Von Trier (Karl from Trier) or KVT, which can be seen on a few early signs still in the bar. While KVT never took off, the Von Trier name soon became widely known as the German bar with great beer selection and upscale drinks.
Von Trier's decor largely came from it's namesake town in Germany. The wood carvings, roebuck antlers, and a custom made stained glass window which we'll get to later were all imported. However, some items were made locally for the bar. The stained glass lamp shades over the bar were made by Wauwatosa Glass, some of the bronze Von Trier logos were made here as well as the wrought iron doors to the back bar.
One of Karl's employees at Oliver's was a bartender named Mark Eckert. In 1978 Eckert was asked by Karl to bartend at the newly opened Von Trier. Eckert joined bartender Guy Hawking and two waitresses. Prices in 1978 were $1.75 to $2.00 per bottle of weiss beer and cocktails ranged from $1.75 to $5.00.
The customers at Von Trier were a mix of students from UW-Milwaukee, professionals, and even members of the symphony. The atmosphere of the bar was still upscale and appealing. The juke box was replaced with a reel-to-reel tape recording of the songs Frank Rieder had played. One of the UWM students, Mike March, painted the murals on the walls and ceilings of the bar, a process that took a few years to accomplish. Unfortunately March died in the late 1990s, but his work lives on.
Another unfortunate event that makes up Von Trier's history is the death of Karl Lotharius in the fall of 1981. In the early hours of a Sunday morning, Karl was struck by an arrow just outside his home on the 2900 block of north Murray Avenue. Karl had tried pulling the arrow out and bled to death hours later in the hospital. He was just 49 years old. Before he died, Karl claimed the arrow was shot by someone he knew but to this day the case remains unsolved.
In the wake of Karl's death, bar manager Mark Eckert also became a manager for the estate. He would eventually purchase Karl's sister's share of the business in 1983 and the rest of the business from the last two shareholders in 1989.
Before his death, Karl Lotharius bought the building just south of Von Trier, which housed M&K Lunch on the ground floor and two upstairs apartments. The two buildings were attached by a doorway on the east end of the front bar. The new back room was filled with the roebuck antlers, a stuffed and mounted fox, German wood carvings, church pews from Oshkosh, a church rail from St. Bonaventure in Milwaukee, a custom stained glass window imported from Trier, Germany featuring a Bitburger Beer ad, and one very famous and valuable chandelier from the Pabst Mansion.
During the 1980s, Von Trier was still the only upscale bar in the neighborhood and in 1981 an enclosed beer garden was installed outside behind the newly added back room. At that time the City of Milwaukee prohibited outdoor seating on sidewalks and Von Trier's enclosed patio was one of only a few places that featured outdoor seating.
Beer was always the number one item at Von Trier. Hot drinks were added in 1979 and the popcorn machine was installed in 1990. Before that popcorn was purchased pre-popped from Knights Popcorn. The freshly popped corn from the new machine became an instant hit with customers and would come to be a part of Von Trier's legend and popularity.
Over the years, celebrities from movies to television to sports have stopped by Von Trier for a drink or two, including director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places) and Patrick Wharburton (Puddy on Seinfeld, Joe Swanson on Family Guy). In 1988 while the movie Major League was filming in Milwaukee, actor Tom Berenger held court in the corner booth with fellow actors and technicians. The corner booth would be removed in 1991 when the vestibule was added.
In October of 2009, Von Trier owner Mark Eckert sold the bar and retired after 31 years at Von Trier. New owners John and Cindy Sidoff, owners of Hooligan's, are committed to continuing the tradition of Von Trier's upscale cocktails, imported beers and the best free popcorn in Milwaukee. After some much needed TLC, Von Trier officially reopened on December 10, 2009.
If you have any stories or photos about the history of Von Trier, please email us at: email@example.com
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After 35 years, Sidoff selling Hooligan's
Longtime Hooligan's owner sells business to general manager
Read Urban Milwaukee's November 12th article, Still German After All These Years.
View Chef Christian Schroeder on Fox 6 WakeUp News Sept 2012 video, Whole Foods to showcase chefs in October.
Read Bobby Tanzilo's Sept 2012 article, Featured chef: Von Trier's Christian Schroeder.
Read Carol Deptolla's April 2012 article, More chefs pair craft beers, upscale entrées.
Read Jackie Dreyer's May 2012 article, Where Milwaukee and Germany unite.
Read Jeff Beutner's April 2012 article, Von Trier's New Menu Is a Natural.
Read Damien Jaques's Feb 2012 article, Von Trier will soon begin serving food.
A May 2010 Journal Sentinel article about Von Trier's Reopening by Kathy Flanigan.
Read Sarah Biondich's January 2010 article, Von Trier: Continuing an East Side Tradition in the Shepherd Express.
Read Bobby Tanzilo's October 2009 article, Hooligan's owners buy Von Trier.