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Cast of characters make up the Keyport crew

What do you get when you put a former Buffalo Bill and Green Bay Packer with the original Killer Bee, who happens to be a Viking fan, along with a guy who has played in bands since the 1960's, who had two records released while still in high scho...

Keyport Lounge
The cast of characters at Keyport Liquor, from left, Mark Casper, Gary Engstrom, Alex Wizbicki, Jerry Schnell and Connie Austin have a colorful history and include a former rock and roller, a Green Bay Packer and a UWS Killer Bee. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

What do you get when you put a former Buffalo Bill and Green Bay Packer with the original Killer Bee, who happens to be a Viking fan, along with a guy who has played in bands since the 1960's, who had two records released while still in high school? You get a collection of characters that happen to run a very successful business in Superior, Keyport Lounge and Liquor.

Mark Casper is the captain of this menagerie. A 1968 graduate of Superior Senior High School, Casper got into music early. Two records, "I Gotta Shout" and "Flying on the Ground is Wrong" were released while he was still in high school. His group, Dynasty, featured Mark and his brother Jack, Fred Anderson, Don Beecher, Ken Clark, and Dan Egnash. They played in northeastern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, many times at the venerable Lake Nebagamon Auditorium.

"We would have loved to play at Lake Nebagamon more than we did. We were out there a few times, but what an incredible atmosphere. The auditorium has room for a couple of hundred kids and 400 or 500 used squeeze their way in the building."

Casper graduated in 1972 from the University of Wisconsin-Superior with a degree in accounting while working at Nickelson's Music Store on Tower Avenue. From 1972-1976, Casper and a bunch of local musicians formed the band Angel, playing in many of the Twin Ports hottest dance clubs. Live music was in its heyday, and you could go to as many as 15 places in the area to hear some great bands.

Despite his obvious musical talents, Casper went into accounting and became a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch and Shearson Lehman, but those gigs did not satisfy Casper. In 1991, he opened the Keyport Lounge and Liquor.

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Since the beginning, Casper has adhered to one important business practice. "Give the people what they want," he said. "Do not tell them what they want. You can suggest an option to them, but the customer is the most important part in the decision making process. Without happy customers and a great staff, we could not be in business."

Speaking of a great staff, four employees have been with Keyport, virtually, since the beginning. Jerry Schnell has managed Keyport for those 18 years and brought an expertise in customer service and knowledge of the beverage industry to help the new business get off the ground. Schnell was the original UWS mascot, the Killer Bee, engaging sports fans during the era when basketball players had names like Anthony "Bubs" Watson, Willie "The Fly" Reed, and Al "The Stork" Olson.

Schnell would provide his services for the UWS hockey and basketball teams, even at his own personal peril. He remembers one hockey game at Wessman Arena when a player of the visiting St. Scholastica Saints hockey team took exception to him being on the ice.

"I couldn't skate so I was hanging on to the boards trying to get the crowd all worked up," he said. "A player from CSS skated by and elbowed me in the ribs, knocking me down. A fight ensued and a number of players were ejected. This all happened before the game even started!"

Long time UW-Eau Claire basketball coach Ken Anderson was the reason that the costumed Schnell's days were numbered. He pushed for, and succeeded in getting a new ruling adopted by the conference. Any team mascot had to be a student at the college where they performed. Schnell was not a student. His days as mascot were done. What a loss for the program.

Schnell has been in the liquor business since December of 1966. Casper knows how important he is to the operation. Both have the highest regard and respect for each other.

Schnell answers immediately, "I probably learned more about patience and customer relationships than the actual business. He taught me how to think before reacting. Customer service is number 1 and community involvement is very important."

Casper returns the compliment. "There are so many things to say about Jerry Schnell. He knows just about everybody in Superior. He really knows the retail liquor business and how to take care of the customer."

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Former Buffalo Bill and Green Bay Packer, Alex Wizbicki, provides Keyport with wine expertise he picked up after his football playing days ended after the Packer 1950 season. Wizbicki, who went to Holy Cross with former Boston Celtic great Bob Cousy, has worked for Shenley, Seagrams and East Side Winery of California perfecting his knowledge of wines. The 18 years he has worked with Casper have been wonderful and he cannot be more complementary.

Wizbicki says of Casper, "He is a very fair and open minded boss who is concerned about the people he works with, his customers, and the entire city of Superior. He is active in community affairs and donates his time and money to many charities."

"From the beginning, Alex has greatly enhanced our wine business and he is probably one of the classiest guys I have ever met," Casper reports.

Connie Austin is the manager of the bar and restaurant and has been working for Casper since January of 1992. During that time, she has become an invaluable member of the team.

"Connie is a true professional in her work and has reduced my workload by being the manager of the bar and restaurant," Casper said. "She is a great person and does an incredible job."

Austin returns the sentiment. "I have worked for Mark for 17 years and he is probably the best boss I have ever had. He trusts me to make decisions. I will go to him for the more important decisions but he trusts my judgment. I have hired all of the employees of the bar and restaurant and feel they are the best we have ever had."

Gary Engstrom is the inventory specialist who makes sure the 150 or more different imported and domestic beers are always available and the more than 8,000 varieties of wine and liquor are plentiful.

"I have known Gary for over 40 years. He is my right hand regarding inventory and the tremendous selection we offer," Casper said. "He and I have played in many bands throughout the years and his passion for music has not diminished."

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In addition to being an outstanding businessman, a man of music, and all-around good person, Casper has helped raise around $10,000 for the Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse along with his band of musicians, Angel. Through concerts held behind Keyport in 2003, 2004, and 2006, Casper and his brother Jack, Steve Fresacher, Ken Clark, Dave Winchester and Gary Engstrom played to raise money for the center. Keyport has also had an entrant in the last four Dragon Boat races.

"We have the reputation of having the only team to ever flip a boat during the races," Casper said. "This happened in 2007. Our team has fun, gets wet, and during the four years we have raced, we have raised over $20,000 for the SMDC Breast Cancer Foundation. That is what it is all about. In fact, Angel is considering another concert in August with the proceeds going to SMDC. I love to help others who are less fortunate than I am. I am lucky to have great people working for me and for having a successful business that allows me the opportunity to help others."

Casper will be celebrating 33 years of marriage on July 17 of this year. He and his wife, the former Cathy Barrett, have two sons, Nick who is 24 and plays the bass and Phil, 19, who plays the drums. Both sons work with dad in the business.

Mark Casper and his grizzled crew of veterans run a tidy ship behind the walls of Keyport Lounge and Liquor.

Stop in, trade barbs with Schnell, choose your favorite beverage from their huge inventory, and ask Mark to sing a refrain of "Flying on the Ground is Wrong."

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