Odd Wisconsin Attractions: Clinton’s Truck in the Tree

March 15, 2011


Truck in The Tree: By Brian D'Ambrosio

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Driving along Interstate 43 in southern Wisconsin near Clinton, the shiny, classic Chevy truck in the sky rises above the concrete and asphalt horizon like an absurd vision. You look once at the Chevy wedged between two tall trees. You look a second time. You gawk at it a third and fourth time. You still cannot comprehend what you are seeing. It’s a spectacle unlike any other: a truck in a tree.

The Truck in the Tree began as an ordinary request to a father from his son for a tree house. A creation of the “Mad Man of Wisconsin”, a play on Clinton resident Mark Madson’s last name, the turquoise and white 1959 half-ton Chevy Fleetside pickup truck has been wedged between two basswood trees since 1994, It stands as a sentinel to Madson’s maniacal, motley collection of reworked vehicles, statues, and sculptures made of old scraps, parts and components.

Madson has long been an ardent thinker, recreating new from old and looking at things from a uniquely keen perspective; in fact, he describes himself an “upside-down and backwards guru.”

One of Madson’s more recent vehicular-based creations is the Packer Mobile, a 1978 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz that he debuted in 2008 when the Pack was headed toward a 13-3 season. He drove nearly 400 miles roundtrip to Green Bay to watch his beloved Packers annihilate the lowly Lions. Four hundred miles isn’t too demanding of a pilgrimage. Except for when it is late December, and you are driving the northern section of Wisconsin in an exposed convertible, top down, with the wind whipping front to back, and sideways. During the drive, it was a bitter 13 degrees, with a wind chill dynamic of about 40 below. The Packer Mobile featured a six-foot flagpole bearing the Packers flag, as well as an 11-foot flame-painted surfboard, a blue shark fin, and bullhorns. The Packer Mobile is in fact Madson’s sixth conversion of this Cadillac-turned-convertible, the last of which was dedicated to the saucily insolent Jimmy Buffett.

The Truck in the Tree stands testament to one Wisconsinite’s bold attempt to change or enhance the state’s built landscape. In fact, Madson’s experience and imagination has garnered him appearances on television shows such as Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Junkyard Wars, and the Discovery Channel’s Monster Nation. On Monster Nation, he morphed a car into a small package – the ultimate act of inventive recycling and mashing.

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of Madison For Dads: 101 Dad-Related Adventures.

The Day Otis Redding Died: December 10, 1967, Lake Monona, Wis.

December 6, 2010

By Brian D’Ambrosio, Editor

Soul singer Otis Redding had acquired his own plane to make touring less hectic, but the twin-engine Beechcraft H18 would prove his fatal undoing. At around 3:30 p.m. on a foggy Sunday afternoon, December 10, 1967, the plane, which encountered a storm en route from Cleveland to a concert in Madison, plunged into the frigid depths of Lake Monona. Redding, 26, and four members of his Bar-Kays band were killed. The musicians were headed to The Factory nightclub, scheduled to perform at 6:30 p.m.

The crash killed six others, everyone on board except for trumpeter Ben Cauley (bassist James Alexander had luckily avoided the flight altogether). On the cusp of achieving pop superstardom, Redding, best known for his hit, “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” recorded just three days earlier and released after his death, was dead. The tune was Otis’ first posthumous release and his biggest-selling single ever, topping both the R&B and pop charts on its way to going gold. Engineers tastefully overdubbed the sound effects, the mournful cries of seagulls, the singer’s lonesome whistling, after Otis’ death.

About 4,500 mourners, including a dazzling array of soul giants such as James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Wilson Pickett, crowded Macon’s City Auditorium for Redding’s funeral, a week later.

On December 3, 1997, thirty years later, hundreds of people showed up to the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center to Georgia-born soul singer and songwriter. They’d never met the man, but they loved his music, and came to express their appreciation of the full impact of Otis Redding as a soul pioneer who inexorably altered the rhythm & blues landscape – and, ultimate, all of pop music- with his gritty, lustrous vocal, sexy, slinky lyrics and unforgettable songs.

Cauley, who hadn’t visited Madison since the crash, received a standing ovation. He told his audience how he’d awakened early that Sunday four decades ago and headed to the Cleveland airport for the trip to Madison. That day, he said, Redding told him he’d just finishing recording the supremely meditative “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” A few hours later, Cauley was flung out of the plane on impact. As he floated in the icy waters of Lake Monona, clinging to a cushion, he watched the rest of the plane’s passengers — including the man he once described as “…a groovy cat, like an older brother” — drowned.

When his short speech was finished, Cauley sang some of the songs that might have been on the bill at The Factory, including a trumpet-laced version of Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

He was born in Dawson, Georgia, approximately 100 miles south of Macon, on Sept. 9, 1941. His family moved into a Macon housing project when Redding was three. He began singing in the choir of the Vineville Baptist Church. Now home to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, Macon is arguably the vital center of soul. Little Richard, James Brown and Otis Redding – three men who shaped American blues music in from the 1950s to the 1970s and beyond — all launched their careers here. Strangely, although he consistently impacted the R&B charts beginning with the Top Ten appearance of “Mr. Pitiful” in 1965, and he is remembered for producing some of the toughest, sweetest, most enduring soul music ever created, none of Redding’s singles fared better than #21 on the pop Top Forty.

There’s one noteworthy aspect to Redding’s life not often touched upon: No one has anything unflattering to say about him. No scandals lurking in the closet, no unsavory incidents of rampant egotism to shatter his clean image, no shafting of his sidemen on long road jaunts. Just a sincerely talented soul man who enhanced the lives of everyone associated with him but died much too soon.

Heartbreak never sounded good. Or happened so abruptly.

Article excerpted from Brian D’Ambrosio’s travel book A Wee Bit of Wisconsin

A Dropped Egg and Flannel Cake

November 17, 2010

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

In other words, a larruping breakfast. More specifically, a poached egg and pancake. Delicious!

photo by Jessica Becker

I’ve been futzing around on the Dictionary of American Regional English Website to increase my knowledge of colloquial sayings. Why? To make interesting party conversation, of course.

You can start by taking the quiz of synonyms. The first one is pretty easy, just to get you feeling confident, but don’t allow yourself to be honeyfuggled.

A colleague forwarded a New York Times article to me about the latest humanities frontier. Powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials are allowing for completely new ways of understanding languages, history, and the arts. The author argues that because these projects are digital, searches and contributions can be done remotely, making for a more global humanities community and replacing the traditional stereotype of the humanities professor, working alone in an archive composing a philosophical treatise or historical opus. Very cool.

It is no surprise that Google awarded $1 million to people doing digital humanities research last summer. The Humanities seem elusive when referred to as such. But I think we all, to some degree, care about and concern ourselves with finding meaning in life. Historians, linguists, anthropologists, scholars of religion or philosophy, they are interested in comparing the different meanings, different ways of experiencing things, different ways of seeing the world. With new technological tools that can map the evolution of language from databases of correspondences between early writers or that can animate the stories within a medieval tapestry, I might have a chance to engage with the information on some level. And while I joke about improving my social chit-chat, I truly believe that exposure to interesting nuggets of information makes my life more interesting, rich, and fulfilling.

So I’ve book-marked the DARE site (a project that has received WHC grant awards) and will check back for the word of the month. And I seriously considered making eggs and pancakes for dinner. In the end, leftovers won out.

Star power…

October 20, 2010

Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to interview some fairly large personalities – people well-known for their craft.  Household names in the entertainment world.  I had that opportunity years ago as well while on commercial radio in Milwaukee and Tampa.  It’s one of the cool things about media production.  And almost to a person, except for a couple along the way, the bigger they were the more cordial they were.  I found – and still find – it both interesting and satisfying to note that people with amazing skills to entertain were also well-schooled in the art of congeniality and cooperation.  I wonder whether that’s the case with many of today’s young entertainers.  If they’re anything like many of the professional athletes we see and hear every week, I think things may have changed.

Remember when 15 minutes of fame was a joke…a cliché…and it didn’t happen to very many folks?  How crazy is it then that, today, people can submit a video – or a recording of almost anything – and it can make it ‘on the air’ and many times world-wide!  Destinations like YouTube have provided a foundation for a concern about how we entertain ourselves and what we find entertaining.   Years ago, something could be deemed entertaining simply for having the ingredient of ‘once-in-a-while’.  It was noticeable and appreciated simply because it only happened occasionally.  It seemed as if real entertainers – movie stars, singers, bands, authors, etc. – were few and far between – and that, too, is what made them….special.

Today, it’s all around…yelling at us, trying to get our attention.

Let’s see…’entertainment’, in an old dictionary of mine, is defined as: ‘Diversion or amusement afforded by something entertaining’.  That does nothing to help my cause.  All that does is whittle it down to: entertainment is in the eye/ear of the beholder – and that’s the way it’s always been. 

But, because all this stuff is aired on computer monitors, television screens and audio devices – they are perceived as real entertainment – competing with the kind many of us are accustomed to:  theater, movies, music, books  – produced by professionals. 

Maybe that’s the difference….amateurs are doing most of the entertaining today.  Pros are still doing it, too…but, in their case, it costs more for them to do it and for us to see/hear it.  I wonder if ‘you get what you pay for’ still has meaning in today’s entertainment world?

I guess I don’t what I’m driving at.  I’m rambling again…yet, blogging is about rambling.  My thoughts flow through the keyboard and appear here as they appear in my head. 

All I know about the topic-at-hand is that the world around me is chock FULL of people trying to entertain me and get my attention – some in traditional, and others in radical, ways. 

It’s a crowded playing field – and I don’t recognize a vast majority of the names or the faces.  And I wonder how cordial and humble they would be during an interview…like the big folks.

 Keep in touch,

Al Ross

 PS: Goodbye, Mrs. Cleaver….and Mr. Cunningham.

The Man Behind Madison’s Name: James Duane Doty

September 27, 2010

by Brian D’Ambrosio

James Duane Doty was born in Salem, New York, in 1799, and died in Salt Lake City, Utah, in June 1865. During his 66-year lifespan, his distinguished life included overseeing the creation of Wisconsin and giving the City of Madison its name.

After studying law as a teenager, Doty moved to Detroit, Michigan and took on the role of secretary of the territorial council and clerk of court. Two years later in 1820, he took part in the Mississippi Headwaters expedition under the famed military officer and politician General Lewis Cass. The expedition “explored the upper lakes in canoes, stretched 4,000 miles, and enacted treaties with regional Indian tribes.” Afterward, he spent nearly a decade as a land speculator and U. S. judge in northern Michigan, holding his first court at Prairie du Chien military settlement. There, in 1830, he ordered a congressional-appointed commission to blaze a cavalry road from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien.

Four years later, Doty became a member of the Michigan legislature, where he assisted in dividing the Michigan Territory into the three Territories of Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. Doty had hoped to govern the Wisconsin Territory, but was met with extreme disappointment when President Andrew Jackson appointed Doty’s rival, Henry Dodge, to the position.

Despite this setback, Doty continued create what would soon become the City of Madison — and the state’s capital. After contracting to have the land surveyed, Doty began to create plans for a city nestled between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. He chose the name Madison in honor of the fourth president James Madison. Doty lobbied for recognition of his city and proposed that it be named Wisconsin’s capital. In his proposal, he gained support by mapping transportation plans and offering land to legislators who voted in the city’s favor. Madison was named Wisconsin’s capital city at the end of 1836 and construction began the next year.

Doty served as the Wisconsin Territory’s elected congressional delegate to Congress from 1837 to 1841. He continued serving as a public official in 1841 when he regulated as governor of the territory, beginning a period marked by great tumult. According to information provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society, his tenure “was marked by bitter contentions and a collision with the legislature, and after the appointment of his successor he was placed by the war department on a commission to treat with the Indians of the northwest.” When Doty’s term ended in 1844, Vice President John Tyler did not reappoint him.

Two years later, Doty became a member of Wisconsin’s first state constitutional convention. He served two more terms as a congressional representative following Wisconsin’s admittance to the Union before leaving Congress to lead a more private life. But in 1861, he returned to public eye after he was named superintendent of Indian affairs by close friend President Abraham Lincoln. Three years later, Lincoln appointed Doty to govern the Utah territory. He held this position up until his death in 1865.

Read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s  Wisconsin history and travel articles.

Say goodbye…

August 2, 2010

Wow….what a coincidence!

On Sunday, August 1st, with leisure summer time on my hands, I decided to look for some long-lost cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes from my broadcast past.  I started with some boxes on shelves in the garage and worked my way into the attached woodworking shop.  I uncovered the tapes I was looking for, but also discovered a box containing papers and photos dating back several decades – in fact, all the way back to my childhood.  Pressed between the volumes of ‘experience’ was a photograph I was describing to someone just a while ago.

It is a shot of me with my arm around none other than Mitch Miller…and both of us have rather large cigars protruding from our mouths.  I’m not sure of the date, however it was somewhere between 1983 and 1988, during my stint as Creative Director for Sundance Broadcasting in Milwaukee.  Mr. Miller, an icon of my and my parents’ generation, had stopped by the studio to record some promotional announcements and I was thrilled to meet, greet and record him that day.

When he arrived, he lightly complained about his limo driver not allowing him to have a cigar on the way.   I informed him that I, too, enjoyed a good cigar now and then – after which I gained his immediate favor.  After the interview, he reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a couple stogies – and we sauntered outside into the cold to have our photograph taken.  I wasn’t about to pass up that opportunity.

Finding the photograph prompted me to search for his whereabouts and biography – only to discover he had passed away the day before at the impressive age of 99!  I found what I was looking for – but regret that I hadn’t searched several years earlier.

Mitch Miller – and people like him – are a brand of entertainer very quickly becoming extinct.  I don’t expect many readers to remember his TV show or his albums – but it was the kind of music that defined a simpler and much more innocent era.  His all-male chorus, dressed in matching sweaters, sang for us and invited us to sing along.  His Christmas albums were memorable and downright traditional.  His smile was genuine – proof that he was, indeed, enjoying himself and his vocation.  He was also a producer of other people’s music – but he never seemed to put his name in lights in that category.

I’m saddened by the news of his passing.  I’m saddened each time I read about the passing of a writer or a singer or a musician from what I consider to be the good ol’ days; times when all one had to have was a good voice and a little bit of luck to make it in the business.   No shock factor – no bad language – in fact, lyrics and music worked together to make a song enjoyable.  Today, it seems as if one, or the other, takes the spotlight….unless pink hair gets in the way.  And identical to most other things, there are a LOT of singers and bands and CDs from which to choose….just like cars and beer and kinds of chewing gum.

Selection is overwhelming – while the quality can be underwhelming.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I do like a lot of today’s music and I’m pretty comfortable and contemporary with most things – I’m just feeling sorry for myself at losing another of the good guys in the entertainment business.

I’ll get over it.

Hey, next time, remind me to tell you about the impressive gathering I was fortunate to attend in Hayward.

Glad to do it.

See ya.

–Alan Ross


Betty Boop Festival in Wisconsin Rapids

July 30, 2010

Have you ever visited Wisconsin Rapids?  I have not, but I plan to go there next weekend.  A jewelry artist from Wisconsin Rapids sent me an invitation and  information about  Betty Boop Festival.  I  grew up in Europe where we loved Betty, but have to admit that I am guilty of not knowing that Myron “Grim” Natwick, original top animator of Betty Boop at Fleischer Studios in 1930 was Wisconsin Rapids native son!

The organizers of Netwick’s celebration invited  artists, vendors, retailers, etc. to rent a booth during  Aug 7 & 8 events – an outdoor venue in downtown Wisconsin Rapids, and an indoor venue at Hotel Mead.

I will copy
  the announcement I have received:

“Betty Boop Festival, August 5 -8, 2010, is a four day celebration of animation art and history in Wisconsin Rapids, WI, honoring hometown native son Grim Natwick who was original top animator of Betty Boop at Fleischer Studios in 1930.  Events include: Grim Natwick Art Exhibit from ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archives; Animation Film Festival featuring Wisconsin filmmakers, Nina Paley, and Betty Boop films; Nina Paley Art Exhibit and Meet the Artist events; Betty Boop Bash dance; Betty Boop Revue song and dance with Broadway star Tom Berklund; Motorcycle Shine, Show & Ride; Arts & Collectibles Show and Presentations; Dedication of Grim Natwick State of Wisconsin Historical Marker, and more!  Vendor and Artists booths are available to rent at two locations, Aug. 7-8; forms and details can be found at www.BettyBoopFestivalWI.com. 
> Mark your calendar for a boop-oop-a-doop great time and help spread the word: