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The last cut: Eau Claire barber to retire after decades, but ‘Ed’s’ lives on

Ed Valk is a constant in downtown Eau Claire.

In his two-chair barbershop on Grand Avenue, Valk, 83, has cut the hair of residents, city officials, community leaders and visitors Mondays through Thursdays for the last 57 years.

On Thursday, Valk will hang up his combs, trimmers and razors and retire.

But don’t expect the name “Ed’s” to disappear from the shop’s window on Grand Avenue: Valk’s grandson, Brett Watnemoe, who already cuts hair at the barbershop, is taking over the family business.

Ed’s Barbershop is known for its cheerful posse of regulars and Valk’s annual Christmas party as much as its haircuts and trims.

The Christmas celebration — which Valk himself calls “customer appreciation parties” — draws family, friends, customers and passersby in for a drink and a good meal

“There’s no big secret to it,” Valk said of his decades-long career. “People have been with me for so long, they just stay.”

The shop’s troop of regulars are a fixture too, teasing and wisecracking as Valk cuts hair. The group includes Jeff Ellenson of Eau Claire, who directed a steady stream of good-natured ribbing at Valk the afternoon of July 23.

“I’ve been a sucker for the last 30 years,” Ellenson said of the barbershop. “No other place I’d go.”

“Putting up with these guys is no fun,” Valk quipped. “I am going straight to heaven.”

Before setting up shop on Grand Avenue, where he’s been for nearly six decades, Valk spent four years learning the trade.

“I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid,” Valk said. “I wanted to be my own boss. It was the best move I ever made.”

Some of Valk’s customers who got their hair cut as kids keep coming back decades later.

“Many people have been with me for 62 years,” he said. “That’s why it’s kind of hard to walk away.”

Valk has always had ambitions of staying in the business long past age 65. He told the Leader-Telegram in 1994 he didn’t plan to retire for another 50 years.

This spring, joining other local businesses, Valk had to close up shop due to COVID-19 restrictions: “I feel kind of blessed, because sure, we had three months of a lot of bills, but so many people lost so much more,” he said.

Months later, Valk reopened; operations are almost back to normal, except he and Watnemoe wear masks and their customers must sit six feet apart.

For the first time in the shop’s history, Valk has required that customers make appointments, instead of just walking in the door.

Valk’s seen a post-quarantine flood of appointments — and plenty of homemade haircuts to fix.

“We had a couple people come in yesterday. I always ask them, ‘Does your conscience bother you at all?’” a grinning Valk said of his customers who’ve decided to try cutting their own hair during quarantine. “They said no.”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Valk is untroubled by retirement plans. He and his wife Ione “are just going to wing it,” he said.

Watnemoe said he doesn’t plan to change the name of the shop in honor of Valk.

“Ed’s is the way I wanted to keep it. He deserves it,” Watnemoe said. “I just think it’s such a staple. He’s created a really favorable spot for a lot of people, and I want to keep it that favorable spot.”

As a kid, Watnemoe used to help Valk sweep the shop, he remembered, but didn’t become interested in cutting hair until after high school.

“Brett said, someday I might take over your shop,” Valk said. “I said, well, why not? I’ll be about 83 then.

“I’m glad to have him,” Valk said, snickering. “He’s the second best in here.”

“Here we go again,” Ellenson chimed in.

A rural need for speed

Back in March when the ‘safer at home” measures were rolled out and the quarantine began, I felt confident that my family was well situated and incredibly fortunate. We have a wonderful warm home to weather the storm, a freezer in the basement stocked with food, and both my wife and I have jobs that allow us to work from home. On our 16 idyllic acres south of Eau Claire, I felt like the adolescent apocalyptic fantasies I’d once harbored were coming true. If you’re thinking, “Who has fantasies of the apocalypse?” consider for a moment that apparently, we all do, in some fashion. Whether it’s Young Adult literature, Hollywood, or a New Testament rapture, the notion of end times is old as the hills, and somehow, as commercial as gold.

I suppose I always imagined the apocalypse not in terms of utter environmental destruction, untold human carnage, or Mad Max-style gasoline shortages. It was mostly about being with my family. As the gears of capitalism ground to a halt, I imagined we would have ample time to play board games, watch birds, read books and take naps. A very rose-colored apocalypse. As it turned out, COVID-19’s presence in Wisconsin (especially early on) mostly meant no school, a lot of cancelled speeches, and my wife working from our guest room. We were blessedly untouched by unemployment, sickness or death. I don’t mean to make light of that, only to display my own naivete and privilege.

If there is a drawback to riding out a global pandemic in rural Wisconsin, it’s the internet. Where we live, eight miles from Eau Claire — not eighty miles — the internet is about as reliable as a weather prediction. Most of the time it works. A not insignificant amount of time, it does not, and our only recourse is to flip a button on the router and pray. Pre-COVID, this was just an inconvenience, the kind of thing people living in the richest country in the world complain about because there aren’t other things to complain about, like say, malaria, famine, or civil war. But as the quarantine stretched on, and home-based education relied more and more on internet connectivity, the issue became less of an inconvenience, and more of an actual problem. Sometimes, our children were unable to join Zoom meetings with their teachers and fellow students. Other times, the connections were glitchy at best, like driving an old, rusty, VW Bug with a very bad transmission. Imagine being 7 years old. The excitement you would feel to see your beloved teacher’s face or the faces of your young friends, if only on a computer screen, and then — nothing but frozen or balky images. You would feel like you were stranded on the moon.

It wasn’t just the kids. If my wife or I needed to join an essential Zoom meeting for business, we often drove into town to set up a temporary office at a relative’s home. As my father’s guardian, I have been unable to see him in-person since March. Zoom meetings are my only chance to see his face, or to interact with his heroic caregivers. It is not an exaggeration to say that I find myself apologizing for my internet connection during each and every Zoom meeting.

I do not understand why statewide rural broadband isn’t a slam-dunk bipartisan issue. It should be. It should be the tool with which we fulfill the Wisconsin Idea. Reliable internet connectivity is the fulcrum of 21st century commerce. Without reliable internet, it is difficult to attract young entrepreneurs to rural areas or small towns; it would be like having no telephone connection in the later half of the 20th century, no mailing address in the first half of the 20th century. Or perhaps worse yet, a phone that worked only 70 percent of the time. A mailbox that a postal worker could find only 70 percent of the time. Business thrives on predictability, on steadiness. Twenty-first century business moves at the speed of the internet, if possible, at 5G speed.

Congress passed immense aid packages in the wake of COVID’s destruction on the economy, but to my knowledge, little discussion resulted about improving rural internet. Why not? My most cynical theories are that politicians representing such districts are actually perfectly content with how things are. So what if their constituents don’t have ready access to information or the news? Who cares if populations drop in these areas? Sure makes it easier for the powers-that-be to gerrymander smaller populations into larger districts while focusing urban or semi-urban districts into tiny bullseyes.

If you love small-town America, small-town Wisconsin, nothing is more heartbreaking than witnessing a hollowed-out Main Street lined with abandoned storefronts. But I’ve always thought small-town America offered great opportunities for young people struggling to get by in America’s metropolises. Imagine if every small town in Wisconsin had reliable lightning-quick Internet. Suddenly, those beautiful old brick buildings along Main Street, with their rock-bottom rents and easy commutes, might look a lot more attractive to younger entrepreneurs looking to mitigate startup costs.

This isn’t the apocalypse, thankfully, not by a longshot. But it is a moment in American (and Wisconsin) history that reveals our weaknesses, and the sincerity of our political responses. I wish every rural Wisconsin politician would take the time to join a Zoom call with one of their young constituents, a third-grade girl for example, who wants nothing more than to learn at the speed of their own attention-span and passion. Or an elderly constituent who cannot visit their doctor in-person, but now relies on a virtual medical appointment. I wonder, why our politicians aren’t moving faster. They seem as slow as my internet, maybe worse. Let’s flip their switch and see if they still work.

Drive-in movies resurrected in Richland Center amid pandemic

RICHLAND CENTER, Wis. (AP) — The marquee has been refreshed, a stage has been installed for special events, and the concession stand has undergone a $40,000 remodel and deep clean.

The parking configuration is also improved at the Starlite 14 Drive-In after the removal of the 4-foot-tall metal poles and speakers. They’ve been inoperable for years, and customers now use their FM radios to hear the sound from the movies projected onto the 60-foot-wide and 38-foot-tall screen that has been a Richland County staple since 1953.

For Brent Montry and Holly and Tony Johnson, the timing had little to do with the fallout from the pandemic. Instead, they made the decision in early March, prior to the shutdown, to buy the drive-in last month from longtime owners Bill and Lisa Muth as a way to preserve one of the few outdoor theaters in the state.

“We didn’t go into it with expectations to turn it into a money-making career for us because we all have a way of making a living beyond this,” Montry told the Wisconsin State Journal. “Our intent was to save it.”

But instead of a recently released blockbuster to celebrate the outdoor theater’s grand reopening on a recent Friday, the first feature was “The Fast and the Furious,” a Vin Diesel action thriller that debuted in 2001. The second show of the night was “Furious 7.” It came out in 2015.

The crowd on this night was fairly light with about 15 vehicles and 45 to 50 customers. Mosquitoes were tolerable, the stars above and the fluttering lightning bugs prolific, and the weather near perfect. The smell of deep-fried onion rings, french fries and cheese curds wafted from the concession stand.

Kayla Schug, 33, came from Viola with her husband and three children. They set up camp in the bed of their Ford F-150 that was parked backwards toward the rear of the lot. Their nearest neighbor was yards away.

“We’re trying to quarantine the best that we possibly can and this is pretty amazing for kids activity-wise,” said Schug, a healthcare worker. “We’re pretty excited. You don’t really see things like this anymore.”

COVID-19 may have shut down Hollywood, but outdoor theaters around the country are providing a natural, socially distanced entertainment option in the midst of a summer inundated with canceled fairs, festivals and concerts, shuttered indoor theaters and no first-run movies.

New releases aren’t expected for weeks, so Wisconsin’s nine outdoor theaters are filling their screens with throwbacks like “Sixteen Candles,” “Uncle Buck,” “Grease” and “Shrek.” At the Hi-Way 18 Outdoor Theatre just west of Jefferson, vehicles park in every other space, masks are required in the bathroom and social distancing is required at the concession stand. “American Graffiti” and “Animal House” were that weekend’s features, while the Big Sky Twin in Wisconsin Dells was showing “Aquaman,” “Jumanji: The Next Level,” “Bloodshot” and “Shazam!”

At the Twilight Drive-In in Chilton, located about 35 miles south of Green Bay, sales are up 75% over last year, according to owner Mike Radue, who opened the theater in a former Walmart parking lot in 2012. Instead of 200 vehicles per show, Radue is allowing only 100 at a time, and the mini-golf course and video arcade are closed. The concession stand remains open and includes homemade pizza that can be ordered via text message. Last week’s movies included “Jaws” and “E.T.,” while this weekend’s offerings were “Inside Out” and “The Empire Strikes Back.”

‘A big comeback’

Radue has added live music before some movies and, like many other outdoor theaters, has a contract with Encore Live to show pre-recorded concerts like the Garth Books show on June 27 and the just-announced concert for July 25 featuring Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani and Trace Adkins. Radue is hopeful that added exposure to outdoor movie theaters could be a positive for the industry in the long run.

“I think the outdoors will make a big comeback,” Radue said. “I think this is going to change the thought process for a lot of people.”

Radue also has three indoor theaters but business has been slow. He’s limiting his auditoriums to just a third of their capacity but has yet to hit that threshold for any show.

In Monroe, the Goetz family opened the indoor theater in 1931 with 1,000 seats but over the years converted the space to three auditoriums. Those theaters, located on the city square, remain closed and likely won’t reopen until new movies are released, said Duke Goetz, whose grandfather and great uncle founded the family business. The Sky-Vu Drive-In opened in 1954 along Highway 69 just south of the city and is helping to keep the overall business afloat, even though sales are down by 40% over last year.

“We’re obviously taking a pretty big hit,” Goetz said. “I never anticipated something going this wrong. This was never anticipated, but we’re OK. The drive-in is covering a lot of the costs for things like taxes and insurance.”

The Sky-Vu can hold more than 300 vehicles, but concession sales are down 20%. Trash cans have been removed to limit exposure to his employees, and customers are asked to take their trash home. They’ve come from throughout southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois and beyond.

“Drive-ins are a unique breed,” said Goetz, who mans the ticket booth each night. “I have so many new people I’ve never seen before and some have been back. I think the drive-ins will continue to be strong.”

According to the United Drive-In Theatre Association, the U.S., as of October, was home to 305 outdoor movie facilities with a combined 559 screens. That compares to 447 sites and 684 screens in 1999.

At the Starlite, movies are only part of the equation in an effort to continue its long legacy and maximize revenues.

A car show was held on the grounds on a recent Saturday, a live Ultimate Fighting Championship event will be streamed next month, and the facility will also be used for private parties, business functions and another 11 concerts from Encore Live. Instead of closing on Labor Day Weekend, the drive-in will be open through October, with a Christmas tree lot near the entrance opening a few weeks later.

‘Perfect timing’

“I actually think our timing is perfect,” Holly Johnson said, referring to the purchase. “Not everybody is willing to gather inside for movies. Now is the perfect time for (the Starlite) to flourish and it will give us a chance to do the renovations we need to do at the indoor so we can be ready for the public to enjoy the indoor theaters again.”

Johnson and her husband live in the town of Orion south of Richland Center and met Montry when he took a dance class for dads at Holly Johnson’s Dance Elite studio, where his daughter was taking a class. The trio began talking about buying the outdoor theater and the indoor Center Cinema downtown while sitting around a pool at Disney World over spring break. The theaters came as a package, but the outdoor theater did not include the land. It is leased but would have reverted back to farmland had the Starlite closed for a year or more.

“It’s pretty entertaining. Most of us aren’t that coordinated,” Montry, who owns a basement repair business, said of his dancing. “It kind of turned out to be an expensive group to belong to.”

The last two weeks of June were spent remodeling the concession stand and building a stage under the outdoor screen. They finished just in time to host an outdoor recital on June 26 and 27 for Johnson’s students who dance at her studios in Richland Center, Fennimore and Prairie du Chien. Over 1,000 people attended the recitals, normally held indoors but pushed outside due to COVID-19. The drive-in showed the Garth Brooks concert that weekend and its first movie of the season on July 3.

Bill Muth purchased the indoor cinemas and Starlite in 1988. After he put the business up for sale in October for $180,000, there were 23 people interested in the property, some from out of state. He’s grateful that the business will remain locally owned by the Johnsons and Montry.

“They understand the people around here and they know the community,” said Muth, who is helping out during the transition. “I was real comfortable with selling to these guys. They’ll do a good job.”

On that Friday night, employees wore masks, there was a separate entrance and exit for the concession stand, and signs encouraging social distancing.

Seirra and Ethan McCracken made the 35-mile drive from their home in Edmund, in rural Iowa County. The couple, married just two weeks, sat on the hood of their 1990 Dodge D150 pickup, using the windshield as a backrest. For Sierra, 21, it was her first outdoor movie.

“In a movie theater you’re kind of like all scrunched in and stuff,” said Sierra, who has been with Ethan, 23, for four years. “Here, you get to enjoy the weather and the movie and the stars and everything all in one.”