by JIM KNIPFEL
October 14, 2012
I Know How Howard Carter Felt
Every time Morgan and I pass the Pyramid Club in the East Village, we note with some shocked amazement that it’s still there. It may well be the last of the old school punk rock clubs still operating in New York. Back in the eighties Morgan saw a number of wild shows there (including GWAR, which still leaves me jealous), a few years ago we went there to see our friend David E. Williams open for Death in June, and walking past today the windows were still plastered with handmade and photocopied flyers for upcoming shows by local bands. It’s a culture that has all but vanished over the past two decades, which is sad.
But there’s another Pyramid Club—this one in central Wisconsin—that also remains a relic of a dead culture. This one, however, is much stranger and funnier.
When I was attending the University of Wisconsin back in the mid-eighties, my old high school friend Steve and I were in the habit of driving back and forth between Madison and Green Bay on a fairly regular basis. During the school year we were driving back to Green Bay to see our families, and during the summer we’d drive down to Madison to hit the record stores. It was something to do.
It was about a two hour drive either way, and it wasn’t exactly a picturesque or interesting trip in and of itself. Dry, flat farmland dotted with barns and silos, the countless fields separated by clumps of trees. So we spent these trips talking, joking, listening to the radio, making fun of other drivers and cracking wise about the billboards.
There was one series of billboards in particular that came to obsess us both. We saw these coming and going every time we approached Beaver Dam.
They were smaller than most of the billboards you saw along the highway, but twice as effective. On us, anyway.
They were gaudy things, with a sparkling gold picture of King Tut set against a vibrant, deep purple background. In stylized letters (I guess it was supposed to look “Egyptian”) they read simply:
The Pyramid Supper Club
Dining, Dancing, Parties
At the bottom were the usual cryptic billboard directions (“Right at Exit 14, 8 Miles”). That was all. I’m sure over the years hundreds of thousands of drivers had sped past the sign without giving it a second glance. Over a couple of years, and I don’t know how many trips, that’s exactly what Steve and I did as well. But all that time those billboards began to do their subliminal work, and we began to wonder. What’s with the Egyptian motif here in the dead heart of central Wisconsin? Who were they trying to attract, exactly? What the hell was this place?
Complicating matters was the whole “supper club” angle. Remember those? Time was, every middlebrow restaurant in the world with pretensions to class called itself a supper club, but to me it always sounded like something off a kid’s show (“Egbert cleaned his plate, so he’s going to join the other kids in our supper club!”). By the mid-eighties, however, they were a dying form, relics of the suburban explosion of the fifties, which may explain why I was such a sucker for them.
Anyway, Steve and I began to speculate aloud about The Pyramid as we drove along. Every time we passed those billboards it started us going again. We created wild, insane fantasies about what the place was like and what dark business transpired there. We knew of course that it was nothing but some cruddy joint with a parking lot and glass doors, like every other supper club in Wisconsin, but it kept us entertained.
It was a summer afternoon before our senior year and I was off work, so we hopped in Steve’s car and took an impromptu road trip down to Madison to scour the record stores again, same as we’d done two or three times already that summer. On the way back, about five or six o’clock, we again began passing the billboards for The Pyramid and began speculating, same as ever. But this time when we hit the exit in question Steve, with no warning, turned the wheel hard to the right and we sped off the highway toward destiny.
“We need to see it for ourselves,” he explained, though there was no need to explain. We both knew it was inevitable one of these days.
We drove for a long time. Longer than eight miles, that’s for sure. The route became much hillier, and the woods to either side of the car much denser. At the crest of each hill we expected to see something for god sakes, some sad, square dump—no pyramid at all, but with a gravel parking lot and a sign out front. We’d still have to go in, whatever it was. The anticipation and ridiculous giddiness had grown for too long.
So we kept driving, up and down those hills, until we finally began to think the whole thing was a joke—that there really was no Pyramid Supper Club, that those signs were put up by some local pranksters to see how many people they could sucker, and how far the rubes would drive in search of this mythical restaurant.
The sun was beginning to set when we decided we should give up and start heading back. This was pointless. Then as we crested one last hill we both screamed.
At the bottom of the hill opened a vast, flat, empty and barren plain. Empty, that is, except for the giant fucking pyramid just off the side of the road to our right. From this distance and amid all that endless surrounding emptiness, it was difficult to gauge its size, but it was big. The pink of the setting sun was only then beginning to catch the sides of the bone-white pyramid, and Steve and I were laughing so hysterically that he nearly careened off the road.
Once again I was thankful to be from Wisconsin, where the roadsides were dotted with insane personal museums and giant animal sculptures (trout, cows, badgers, deer), and where in the mid-sixties two couples wanting to open a theme restaurant built an enormous pyramid outside of Beaver Dam.
Well, we tried to contain ourselves as we pulled into the parking lot. The joint wasn’t exactly jumping. We guessed the only other cars there belonged to the manager, the cook, and the waitress. But it was early yet.
To our left as we entered was a glass case, inside of which stood a cheap department store mannequin in a Betty Page wig, wrapped in electric blue silk and dripping with fake gold jewelry. A card identified her as “Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile.”
Inside things got even better. The large and dim dining room was decorated with faux-Egyptian murals, oversized reproductions of Tut’s sarcophagus, other fake Egyptian artifacts, purple drapes, and plaster columns. Caesar’s Palace had nothing on this place—it was a gibbering overload of glorious tackiness. All of our wild speculations about what the place could and should be were ground to dust under the heels of the explosively bizarre reality.
We were led to a table in the middle of the otherwise empty dining room, and at that level the high-class pretensions took over—real tablecloths, silverware wrapped in cloth napkins, wine glasses—but the menu, in spite of its promise of “fine Egyptian dining,” confirmed everything I loved about supper clubs, even if the breaded sole and prime rib were given Egyptian prefixes like “Cleopatra’s” or “King Tut’s” or “Nile.” It all merely added to the experience, especially given that I’d eaten in real Egyptian restaurants and didn’t want to go through that again. No, flamboyant artificiality is one of the things I love most about this country.
As we left I grabbed a business card next to the bowl of chalky mints. The folded “card” was of course triangular and purple and was designed to be turned into a mini pyramid should you choose to do such a thing (though that would make it hard to carry in your wallet).
Along with the pertinent information, the card also contained a poem, which Steve and I instantly turned into a song. I remember it verbatim to this day, and often find it running through my head for no apparent reason. It goes like this:
The King Tut Room is available to you
For parties, weddings, and meetings, too!
We’ll help you plan it to your desire
And all your friends will surely admire
And you’ll be surely glad you did
Had your party at The Pyramid—yeah!
(Steve and I added that “yeah” at the end.)
I think it was that poem more than anything that made the whole trip worthwhile. Sadly, we were only able to get back to The Pyramid one other time, as we were driving back from Madison with our families after the graduation ceremony. It had lost some of its original insane magic by then, but that was to be expected.
I think about making a pilgrimage down there every time I return to Wisconsin, but never quite get around to it. After a quick bit of research not that long ago I learned the supper club closed down in 2009 thanks to the economy (people just didn’t have the free cash to go around eating in pyramids the way they used to), but the building is still there. Last I heard it was for sale.
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