Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Remembering Marsh Shapiro

Of all the things I will remember about Marsh Shapiro, my fondest memory will be of the great kindness Marsh showed to our kids – kids who are now young adults, and like their parents, have spent many hours in Marsh’s company at his famous Madison establishment, the Nitty Gritty.

Marsh passed away this morning after a long fight with brain cancer.  I first met Marshall Shapiro at a Boys State Basketball Tournament in the 70’s.  He was already well-known to the broadcasters in the state not only for his “Marshall the Marshall” kids TV show on Channel 27 in Madison from 1964 to ‘68, but for his enthusiastic sports reporting following his career in children’s TV.  Marsh got his foot in the door in TV the old fashioned way.  His first job at Channel 27 was sweeping floors.

My friend George Hesselberg has written a fine obituary for Marsh for the State Journal.

In 1988, when I moved back to Madison from Los Angeles and was doing a morning show with the smart and pretty lady who would become my wife, one of my most fun duties was doing live radio commercials for Marsh’s famous restaurant, the Nitty Gritty.   He named the restaurant after the 1963 Shirley Ellis hit song. 

Here’s a shot of the famous “birthday bar” at the corner of Frances and Johnson Street, just a few blocks from the Kohl Center.  Marsh insisted that Toni and I dine at his fine establishment at least once a month  (he and his wife Susan insisted we dine on his tab) to make sure I had a good sense of what was going on at “Madison’s Official Birthday Bar” for the radio commercials.  We liked the place so much that we often went there and dined on our own tab – and both our kids have a collection of Nitty Gritty birthday mugs from having celebrated many birthdays at the Nitty Gritty.  You got your name in lights, they rang the birthday bell for you, sang the birthday song for you, and gave you a souvenir mug for celebrating your birthday at the Nitty Gritty.

As our kids became young adults, and were accepted as students at UW-Madison, they both got what I called “The Tim Morrissey Tour of Campus” a few days before they moved into the dorms.  They’d both had official orientation through the UW-Madison’s SOAR program (Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration), but I insisted they get MY tour of campus, from MY perspective, which centered on the campus in the 60’s, and my narrative about what the war protests were like, my pointing out of what I considered the historical places – like where the teargas flowed during the Dow Chemical riots, the place where young Bob Fassnacht died when Sterling Hall was blown up, and the role the UW protests had in bringing the Viet Nam war to an end.  Our son Dru got my orientation in 2001 before his freshman year, and then Mallory in 2003.

And the tour always included lunch at the Nitty Gritty.

I’d call Marsh and tell him we were coming in for the “orientation tour” lunch, and after we polished off our Gritty Burger Baskets, Marsh would join us at the table.  He gave Dru and two years later Mal a spirited account of what it was like to be in Madison in the mid-to-late 60’s.  He’d point to a booth in the corner of the restaurant and say “that booth is where the Armstrong brothers, David Fine, and Leo Burt planned the Sterling Hall bombing in August of 1970”.  He’d point to the bandstand and say “we had live music every night of the week here, and that stage has seen the likes of Cheap Trick,  Bonny Raitt, Muddy Waters, the Luther Allison Blues Band, and a lot of other bands you’ve never heard of, but went on to become very famous back in your parent’s day. “  He explained how the Nitty Gritty had become sort of a haven for the leaders of the protest movement and the counter-culture in Madison.  He’d look Dru (and later Mallory) in the eye and say “I know Tim has told you to read Tom Bates’ book called ‘Rads’ and I hope you have, because it’s a great account of those days here.  And you’d better have watched 'The War at Home', too!” 

Marsh was so full of life and enthusiasm when he gave those personal orientation talks to the kids – his performance was unforgettable.  And when Toni and I would stop in for lunch during the years the kids were students at the UW, Marsh would always join us and give us a report: “Dru was in the other night with a bunch of his pals – he took them to that picture on the wall and showed it to them”. Marsh covered several of the walls of his restaurant with black and white 8x10 photos of the famous coaches, athletes, entertainers, and luminaries who had dined there, and was kind enough to put up a picture of Toni and me with the kids.  Or we’d hear “Mallory was in the other night with a bunch of her gal-pals from the dorm”.  Marsh was the ultimate restaurateur: he treated you like family.

When Pat Richter retired as Athletic Director of the UW in April of 2004, his “unofficial” retirement party was upstairs at the Nitty Gritty – and Marsh was kind enough to invite Toni and me to be a part of that wonderful gathering.

Many things will be said about Marsh, his kids TV days, his sports reporting days, his role as restaurateur to the community, his love of the city and his many contributions to it through the Alcohol License Review Committee, his generosity with the American Family Children’s Hospital, but I’ll remember Marsh best for those wonderful “orientation” talks he gave our kids.

Rest in peace, Marsh.


  1. Nice piece, Tim. Thanks for the link to my feature obit. Not in that feature, but part of what I found in trying to put it together, was information from an obit for Marsh's mom, Sara Sweet Shapiro, from 2001. She was introduced to Sam Shapiro, a native of Chicago, who had come to Madison to attend the UW, in 1931. They married in 1933. She loved to play softball (!). In 1950, she, Sam and Sam's brother Louis and wife Florence bought "Sweet's Food Shop" grocery store on West Main Street, which her obit says was Madison's first "self-service" grocer store. Of course the Sweet name shows up later in a food distribution "empire" in Madison. But her beginnings were in Madison's fabled Greenbush neighborhood, where her father was a blacksmith. If it seems as if Marsh knew everybody, it's partly because of this lifelong connection to Madison. My newspaper obit on Marsh has some interesting anecdotal stuff in a sidebar to the main. My favorite is of him sneaking a neighbor's apples when he was a boy, then buying her a beer at the Nitty Gritty on her 105th birthday!

    1. Thanks, George. The sidebar bits in the print edition this morning were delightful!

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