Middleton Good Neighbor Festival president Randy Reinke has invited Dan Adler and Jim Passini to serve as 2017 Good Neighbor Festival parade marshals. Adler and Passini are the former owners of Rusty’s, an iconic Middleton tavern that operated on University Avenue, on a site now occupied by the Sonic Drive-In, for 46 years.
The original Rusty, Orville Syse, started his tavern business at the Castle Rock Motel (now the Castle Rock Apartments) in 1959. To keep up with his growing business, Syse bought land across the street and built the tavern in 1962. Jim Passini, Middleton High School Class of ’62, started working full-time for Syse in 1963 and Dan Adler, Class of ’65, took a part-time job at the tavern in 1966, which is how the two met. The men became partners when they bought the business from an ailing Syse in 1973 and together ran the tavern for an incredible 35 years. “Seeing as how the average tavern in Wisconsin changes hands every three to five years, staying in business for 35 years is pretty remarkable,” says Passini. Adler and Passini retired and sold the property in October of 2008.
Rusty’s was known, in part, for its drink specials including Thursday night quarter taps, free first drink on Fridays between 4 and 6 pm and free drinks for every Packer touchdown. The tavern also featured a basic sandwich menu. Countless burgers, summer sausage sandwiches and smoked brats, as well as Thursday-night bowls of chili, were served over the years. Passini recalls, “Sometimes the place was so busy we had to shut the grill down because we couldn’t get to it.”
Adler and Passini took pride in keeping up with the times and coming up with clever ideas to attract customers. Rusty’s always had a top-of-the-line jukebox and a dance floor and was a popular dance spot. When disco became popular, the men renovated the dance area and added a disco ball and lights and hired a DJ who packed the floor four nights a week. They were also the first bar in the area to offer a bus to Badger games and a weekly Ladies’ Night.
Rusty’s also sponsored many league sports teams, ranging from fast pitch, softball, bowling, basketball, darts, pool, trap shooting and touch football. Adler estimates they sponsored upwards of 70 to 80 teams per year. He added, “It was fun watching people connect and develop lifelong relationships through sports. Not to mention the fun celebrations that took place after Middleton Home Talent games.”
Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, 1942 Badger football star and University of Wisconsin-Madison athletic director from 1969 to 1987, was a regular at Rusty’s. And, while there were many autographed photos of celebrities on display in the bar, Adler and Passini especially recall visits from American country music stars, The Judds and Billy Dean.
Randy Reinke says he invited the former owners of Rusty’s to be this year’s parade marshals because, “many Middleton good neighbors walked in and out of those doors for many years. Rusty’s was the true definition of a local hangout. I spent many Friday evenings there with family and friends.”
Dan Adler says, “I miss meeting all the unique people who came through the door and hearing what brought them to the area. I also miss making Rusty’s a second home for our regulars.” Jim Passini, who now lives in the Town of Cross Plains, also misses seeing good friends at the bar. “I miss being part of Middleton. We grew up there when it was a small town. I’d like to think we had a hand in how Middleton has grown over the years.”
The two men seem to be enjoying retirement. Passini golfs regularly and he and his wife, Lyn, like to travel. They’ve enjoyed a European river cruise trip and become snowbirds for one or two months each winter. Adler and his wife, Patty, continue to support sports in Middleton and in Verona, where they’ve spent many hours cheering on their five grandsons who play various sports. Dan continues to work on his golf game, play cards, throw horseshoes and he’s bowled in the same league for 25 years.
Adler and Passini express gratitude for the 400 plus employees who worked for and with them at Rusty’s over the years. “We sure had some great people who went on to do great things,” says Passini, recalling the many college students who tended bar to supplement their incomes.
If you worked at Rusty’s back in the day, be sure to give a hoot and holler to Dan and Jim as they ride along the parade route on Sunday. “Or shout out if you enjoyed our quarter taps,” invites Passini. That should make it a pretty lively parade!