Greaser Redux: The 1970s Revival of the “Greaser” in Milwaukee

Dec. 28, 2016
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Arthur Fonzarelli wasn’t the only greaser in Milwaukee in the mid-1970s.

Outside a doorway at Hamilton High School on Milwaukee’s southwest side, a clutch of about ten teen boys crowded the stoop. They dressed in leather coats, tight blue jeans, and wore generous amounts of grease in their hair. A leader among the boys announced that the group – they called themselves a gang known as the “Sacred Order” – was guarding the door to make sure it was only used by fellow “greasers.” He displayed a chain on a hook and said that it would be used on any “freaks” or “jocks” who dared use the exit after the final school bell of the day. A Milwaukee Journal reporter was on hand to observe these greasers, who were causing much consternation among the neighborhoods adults and police.

And, oh-by-the-way, it was December 1975.

The revival of the “greaser” fad in Milwaukee in the 1970s was both unexpected and unexpectedly alarming. The mob “guarding” the door at Hamilton did indeed throw punches as some of the exiting students – “throwing dukes,” as the kids called it – but targeted only their fellow greasers, whom they playfully “socked” and shoved around. The local alderperson for the district had accused gangs like the Order of “rampaging” the area, with complaints ranging from drinking beer in the parks to petty theft to assault.

All over the nation, there was a mild revival of 1950’s greaser culture in the 1970s. Spurred by popular films like American Graffiti and the hit television show Happy Days, local kids began to imitate the kind of dress and behavior that once caused worry and grief over the character of their parents’ generation. The alarm expressed over the greasers of the ’70s lacked any irony of this sort, as business leaders and local residents called for more police protection against the young hoods.

The neo-greasers were not, however, anything near model citizens. Complaints of property damage were most common, but some gangs openly boasted about the burglary jobs they had pulled and the fights they had won (mostly with other greaser gangs). The greasers’ main drag was the business district along South 76th Street. The area offered a nice strip for showing off their cars (the greasers were, the Journal noted, auto-obsessed), and was also with a short jog of West Allis, which allowed the gangs to move quickly into another jurisdiction should the local cops being to hassle them.

Greasers depicted in the 1973 film American Graffiti.

Meeting with some members of the Order (a rival gang was known as the “Male Tramps” while another simply wore t-shirts with the word GREASER printed on them), the greasers were open about their illicit activity. “They said their chief activities were fighting, vandalism, drinking, cars, and girls,” the paper wrote. “[However], they were disdainful of smoking marijuana.”  

One gang leader ticked off a list of the jobs he had pulled, being most proud of chopping down a “Welcome to Greenfield” sign. Still, he complained about police harassment. “They try to bust us for anything and everything,” he told the reporter. When asked what he wanted to be when he was done with school, he replied “a hit man for the mafia” as his fellow gang members burst out laughing. Was he worried about the attention greasers were getting? “No, I keep the newspaper articles about it pasted on my bedroom wall.”

Classmates and school officials, however, dismissed the greaser fad. Kids at Hamilton seemed to think that the greasers were only putting on a show for their friends, like all kids their age. Teachers also downplayed the trend. The greasers were certainly no angels, but they were not “hard-core” criminals, only kids causing trouble. One teacher put a fine point on the matter. “They imitate Fonzie,” the teacher told the paper.

Milwaukee’s greaser saga takes an ugly turn during the early days of school integration in the city. Read Part #2 here >>

Read past installments of What Made Milwaukee Famous.


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