OLD-FASHIONED: THE STORY OF THE WISCONSIN SUPPER CLUB (2015) review
produced by: Holly De Ruyter
directed by: Holly De Ruyter
runtime: 51 min.
U.S. release date: April 10, 2015 (Wisconsin Film Festival) and January 23, 2016/January 28, 2016 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL )
Long ago there was a time when families across the U.S. would hop in their automobiles on the weekend and go for a ride. Where? Anywhere. Imagine that. No determined destination. Just driving and looking around. Okay, maybe not that long ago, because I remember experiencing that as a kid. The point is, it just doesn’t happen anymore. Now, if you grew up in Wisconsin, sometimes those drives would end up at a supper club. A supper club? That term will conjure fond memories for some, while others will scratch their heads. Either way, “Old-Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club”, the directorial debut of Wisconsin native Holly De Ruyter, is a lovingly made documentary that offers a past and present tour of a cherished dining tradition. In the opening minutes of “Old-Fashioned”, there’s a quote from George “The Turk” Gogian, an Armenian immigrant from Istanbul who in 1935 founded the now-closed, Turk’s Inn, a popular supper club in the Wisconsin northwoods, in which he reflects, “…eating should be an unhurried pleasure, not a task to get over with quickly”.
Imagine that. I like what he’s saying there. It certainly sounds attractive, but I can’t remember the last time I sat down with family or friends and spent hours eating, conversing and just enjoying each other’s company. Heck, I can’t remember the last time I was eating at a restaurant with my family and not thinking of where we had to be next or how I can persuade my child to sit in her seat. Maybe that’s more indicative of me, but I bet if I feel that way, so do other big city dwellers as well. Eating usually happens while on the go or sitting in a meeting. Rarely do we ever sit somewhere for two or three hours and focus on/engage with those around us.
As a sucker for travelogue movies and an interest in discovering the history of cultural traditions, “Old-Fashioned” already caught my interest immediately, but my mind lingered on that quote long after viewing.
Supper clubs do not consist of an elite group of membership-only food snobs, but rather a place to call home. It’s not just a darkly lit restaurant with wooden tables that serve relish dishes before the main course – although that’s a partly accurate description. They were, and still are, considered locations where families and friends would relax and park themselves for the entire evening – starting out with cocktails and then dinner, often with nightly entertainment of some sort. The decor could range from simple to elaborate with specific themes like Western or Tiki to an old night club feel. They are also traditionally run by a husband/wife team – with the wife in the kitchen preparing and cooking fresh food (not microwaving here) and the husband behind the bar – or vice versa, primarily located in rural locations.
Director De Ruyter, who also served as producer and editor of “Old-Fashioned”, isn’t just interested in defining supper clubs for us, she knows that we’ll have the same questions she had. Therefore, she’s interested in sharing with the history behind supper clubs with us. How did this all start? What kind of people ran them and were they always called supper clubs?
We learn the very first supper club was opened by Wisconsin native, Lawrence Frank – in Beverly Hills, California. We’re also told that many of the Wisconsin supper clubs started out as roadhouse prohibition joints that were ignoring the alcohol ban, which is why they were located off major roads. There’s also learn why Wisconsin had such an extensive network of roads back in the 30s and 40s. We also learn that since supper clubs were considered a family environment, it was one of the first places where women could feel just as comfortable as a guy ordering a drink. Sounds crazy now, but that’s how it was back then. It’s all quite interesting and told in a very easy-going manner with great motion graphics by Rebecca Berdel throughout the film with a fitting retro original score by Glenn Crytzer to boot.
Speaking of history, the film’s title isn’t just referring to the history of the supper club, but rather the definitive drink of the supper club. That’s right. It’s called a brandy old-fashioned and there’s even a demonstration of how they’re made.
The film divulges such details and answers, but you’ll find any lingering questions will find you doing some of your own research. I wound up Googling the supper clubs visited, such as: The Stagecoach Inn, Smoky’s Club, The Duck Inn, House of Embers, Ray Radigan’s and Hob-Nob – and in doing so learned that some have already closed down due to the waning interest in supper clubs. One hopes that a film such as “Old-Fashioned” and the seemingly evident subculture for supper clubs, will help build awareness and interest in the still-existing venues.
One obvious element that stands out while watching “Old-Fashioned” is how specific supper clubs are to a certain culture. Since so many of the supper clubs in Wisconsin were predominately founded by European immigrants, it’s no wonder you won’t be seeing many minorities in the film. That may be slightly polarizing for some viewers, but considering the history, context and culture, it kind of makes sense to me.
One thing that is touched on that I wish was addressed in a little more detail was how existing supper clubs are changing with the times in order to adapt to their patrons needs. There is a mention of changes to menus, such as gluten-free – but is there such thing as a vegetarian or vegan supper club? Somehow I doubt it, considering Wisconsinites love their meat and cheese.
De Ruyter spent eight years making this documentary and it all began with the fond memories she had as a child when her parents would take her to supper clubs. Since then, there have been books on the subject of Wisconsin supper clubs as well as other docs – and while I haven’t read or seen any of them, I enjoyed what De Ruyter has done here in creating a film that focuses on a culture that has history and is still thriving today. She fills her doc with regular patrons, owners, historians and journalists that add their personal knowledge and passion for the subject that winds up enriching the viewing experience.
As I watched “Old-Fashioned”, it sparked a yearning in me to get out of the city and slow down. Find a place off the beaten path, sit and chill – maybe even sip my first old-fashioned. De Ruyter has definitely piqued my interest and I’m now interested in figuring out which Wisconsin supper club would be my first stop.
NOTE: I will be moderating a Q&A with director Holly De Ruyter at the Siskel Film Center on Saturday, January 23rd – which is SOLD-OUT – but there’s another change for you to see it at the same venue on Thursday, January 28th!
AND if you can’t make either, check out www.oldfashionedthemovie.com for info on how to purchase a DVD or download of the documentary.