Topping Brought The Beatles
Topping was born Nick
Topitzes in 1918, the son of Greek immigrants who operated a grocery store at
South Fourth Street and National Avenue on the city’s South Side. Topping
attended grade school in the neighborhood and went to Bay View High School.
Before entering UW-Madison as an undergraduate, Nick Anglicized his last name
to avoid the rampant ethnic discrimination facing many Greeks at the time.
After graduating with a degree in history and communications, Topping was
drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, where he served in
counterintelligence in the Mediterranean.
When Topping returned to
Milwaukee after the war, he invested in what he knew best, and opened a
general/grocery store, Topping and Co. International House. Until Topping
opened that shop, Milwaukeeans were hard-pressed to find imported food and
goods from the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East (think goat cheese and red
wine), books from all over the world, and music from Africa, Asia, Latin
America and Europe.
As an eyewitness to the
struggles immigrants faced, Topping became a strong proponent for peace and
social justice. He was active in civil rights as well as the peace movement,
marching with Father James Groppi across the 16th Street Viaduct in the name of
citywide open-housing policies and publicly protesting the Vietnam War. During
a time before cell phones and the Internet, connecting with others meant
physically meeting up with people of like mind, and Topping’s shop, which had
moved to Walker’s Point, became a welcoming, comfortable gathering place for
citizens involved in Milwaukee’s progressive movements.
During the 1950s,
Topping started to bring ethnic and folk musicians to Milwaukee to perform,
beginning with blacklisted artists such as Pete Seeger and continuing with
South Africa’s Miriam Makeba, folk stars Peter, Paul & Mary, Bob Dylan (at
the Oriental Theatre in November 1964) and, of course, The Beatles.
According to Shepherd Express A&E Editor David
Luhrssen, Topping would “smile when asked about meeting The Beatles, comment on
the loud, screaming crowd at the Milwaukee Arena and move the conversation to
subjects of greater importance to him—topics that might include political
upheavals in Latin America, the foolishness of the news media, the enduring
hold of racism on American society.”
A 1995 robbery of his store, during which Topping was stabbed, didn’t intimidate him into closing. He maintained his post behind the register, where some of the services he offered were listed: public notary, income tax service, travel service, money orders and translation. Topping continued to support social justice until he passed away at the age of 89 in May 2007.