Businesses in the History of the LGBT Community in WisconsinBars and Clubs in Wisconsin
Bars as Meeting Places
Gay people (men and women) have experienced a drastic evolution in their methods of social interaction over the past 50 years. Prior to the 1960s, gay people tended to gather with one another only in the privacy of their own homes, there being no or few public places to gather. (There is some question about, how did a gay person find another gay person in those days? Perhaps it was what we now call "gaydar", the ability to pick up on slight nuances of speech or mannerisms, that enabled one gay person to find another. But I leave that discussion to the psychologists!)
As late as the early 1960s, the only "public" venues in which to gather and meet others of like mind were a few restaurants or bars that provided an opportunity for gays and lesbians to meet either in certain sections or in separate “back rooms”. Examples of these places in Milwaukee are the Loop Restaurant, Antlers Hotel bar, and The Royal. The sole exception known to the author is the Mint Bar, which was founded in 1949; but even that bar and many other gathering places for gay men were still often either primarily "straight" or at least "mixed".
Milwaukee began to see more dedicated gay bars in the early 1960s; The River Queen opened in 1960, Your Place in 1965, and both This Is It (which is still open), and The Rooster in 1968. After Stonewall (1969), gay people throughout the country began to stand up and demand some rights. This of course was an evolutionary thing, happening over time rather than overnight. But the list of gay organizations and media shows how things evolved over the next few years (more of that another time).
Since the early 1970s, there have been no shortage of both gay and lesbian bars in Milwaukee and the major metro areas of Wisconsin; Castaway, Stud Club, Nite Beat, Beer Garden, The Wreck Room, JoDee's in Racine, the Shack (Kenosha), Back Door in Madison, and many others opened in the first half of the 70s.
The mid-late 70s was also the era of disco, and the combination of gay rights and the popularity of disco, particularly among gay men, was a key factor in seeing an explosion of bars and clubs founded by and dedicated to gays and lesbians. This was when many of Milwaukee’s legendary bars (many of them dance bars) came into being: Ten Hundred East, The Factory, C’est La Vie, the Ball Game, Red Baron, M&M, among many others.
But even in the 70s there was some bias against gay bars; in fact it was not until 1984 that the first gay bars in the city opened up large windows to the street (with the first being the M&M and La Cage); prior to this time, windows and doors were closed to outside view (with the exception of the 12” square window that city ordinance required of all bars).
Less well documented are 'gay' bars outside the mainstream; for example, black and latino bars catering primarily to the LGBTQ community. Many such bars are included in our lists of bars and other businesses, even if not necessarily identified as such. One example of these is the series of 'black' gay bars called 'Tina's RTI'.
Since the mid 1980s, gay and lesbian bars are a staple in the major metro areas of Wisconsin, and violence against them is seldom heard of. Since the 1990s, bars are openly advertised as gay in public media, chambers of commerce literature, etc.
(Note: the bulk of this perspective is from the standpoint of gay men's bars and meeting places. Lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people all have developed their own patterns of meeting and socializing, unique not just to them as groups but to individuals. For example, even today, some gay men go almost exclusively to straight bars and clubs, while some bi men go to straight and gay clubs about equally. So there is no attempt to depict every nuance, but rather to convey a somewhat predominant thread of change and evolution.)
(The preceeding is largely from an article that first appeared in the January 2006 issue of Q-Life newspaper, written by the webmaster.)
What was Wisconsin's first 'Gay Bar'?
Historically speaking, this question has many answers.
"Gay bars," meaning a bar that is designed specifically to serve the gay community, are a midcentury-modern invention. Homosexuals were prohibited from opening a business. Licensed bar owners were forbidden from serving homosexuals, and it was against the law to allow them to congregate anywhere. Businesses could be closed, and bar owners could lose their licenses, just for serving the wrong person. Customers could be refused service or even forcibly thrown out just for being suspected of being gay. This didn't stop gay people from going to bars --- or bar owners from making a buck on thirsty customers. In fact, some tolerant (or lucrative) bars even became known as safe spaces for gay people.
So, maybe the real question is, where were gay people first known to gather? In recent years, our research has *really* taken us back, long before liberation, long before Stonewall, and long before "gay for pay" bars ever opened anywhere.
One of the earliest known LGBTQ bars might surprise you. Following the 1911 demise of the River Street "sporting district," infamous madame Kitty Williams opened a tavern next to her elaborate cathouse (219 E. State St.) As it turns out, Kitty became a bit of a fairy godmother to wayward gay men in her golden years, opening up her elegant 42-room home to those who had none. Miller lost her tavern license in 1939 under similar charges of "allowing the unsavory to congregate and conspire."
Another known destination was the St. Charles Hotel (786 N. Water St.,) a notorious speakeasy across the street from City Hall. "Degenerates will find doors open to them here, as bull daggers and pansy boys haunt the [St. Charles] hallways," reads a 1928 FBI report. "Liquor was sold promiscuously at the hotel....persons prominent in Milwaukee’s social circles had sexual parties there." One wonders if the one -year padlocking of the hotel -- the largest "dry law nuisance" ever prosecuted in the country -- was partially influenced by homophobia.
When the St. Charles closed in 1931, the free-living, loose-moral residents followed manager Joseph Budar to the Royal Hotel (435 W. Michigan St.) Almost immediately, the Royal acquired a reputation as a place where gay travelers and locals could comingle freely and without fear. The Royal Hotel Bar later became the Stud Club and Michelle's Club 546. At the Royal Hotel's closing party in September 1973, old-timers spoke about its long legacy of gay hospitality -- and took home souvenir keys from their most memorable rooms.
The Antlers Hotel (616 N 2nd St.) opened in 1924 as a men-only hotel, and quickly became a confirmed bachelor's paradise. The second-largest hotel in Milwaukee offered 11 floors of lonely men and a stylish lobby bar for discrete meetings. Later the home of the Futuristic Ballroom, the Swan Theater, the Scene nightclub, the Centre Stage dinner theater, and the original home of the Miss Gay Wisconsin pageant, the Antlers was deemed an "ashtray hotel" and demolished in 1980. Its lavender reputation long preceded it.
The 1930s Pansy Craze came to Milwaukee in a big way. At least seven drag cabarets operated, most of them illegally serving liquor, including the Bon Ton (206 E. Juneau,) College Inn (161 W. Wisconsin,) Nut House (626 N. 6th St.,) Club Milwaukeean (1123 W. Vliet St.,) Club 26 (2601 W. Wisconsin Ave.) Chez Paree (4507 W. Wisconsin Ave.,) and Club La Tosca (631 E. Clybourn.) While not overtly gay bars, they were exceptionally gay-friendly, as were a dozen more clubs and cabarets during the 1950s Drag Craze.
Incredibly, gay cruising bars also existed by 1940. The Legion Bar (745 N. 6th St.) and the Clifton Tap (336 W. Juneau) had thriving backroom operations -- for a price. The Red Room, future Liberace venue, was a thriving gay pickup spot nicknamed "the Bedroom."
In the Old Fifth Ward, the Old Mill Inn (400 N. Plankinton) and the Anchor Inn (401 N. Plankinton) had a longtime reputation as "sailor bars," men-only spaces for lake workers seeking same.
Milwaukee already had an astonishing number of tolerant taverns, with many, many more to follow World War 2. But it's important to note that tolerance did not mean acceptance. Being "gay" or "lesbian" in these spaces simply meant you could spend money. You were not welcome to be yourself. Two men who did not know each other could not sit next to each other bar stools. Two men could not turn to face each other while seated at the bar. There was no touching, no affections of any kind, and no same-sex dancing. You were effectively neutered, and for the most part, trying very hard to stay invisible. Calling attention to yourself was never a good idea.
Oddly, by the time the first "gay bar," designed and marketed to gay people, opened in 1958, Milwaukee's first gayborhood was already ten years old. But all of the bars in that gayborhood were "straight" bars on the surface, owned by straight people, and capitalizing on gay business that had nowhere else to go.
On the other hand, The Pink Glove (631 N. Broadway) was owned by straight men, but advertised and socialized within the gay community. The Klein brothers hired popular gay men to "host" the nightclub and encourage business. It worked -- far too well. The Pink Glove was too profitable for its own good, attracted the attention of organized crime and corrupt politicians, and was shut down within 58 days.
It wasn't until 1965, with the opening of Your Place (813 S. 1st St,) that Milwaukee had its first gay bar, designed and marketed to gay people, hosted by gay people, and OWNED by gay people. Your Place remained open for 30 years. Go figure!
Recollections: The following are recollections of others who have been kind enough to submit their personal memories to the webmaster. You are welcome to do the same!
It was our perception that most if not all of the gay bars in town were "syndicate bars" or at least working in total cooperation with the Milwaukee Vice Squad. The owners always seemed to know in advance when a raid was about to occur. They'd hustle the younger-looking kids and married men out the door, forget to inform the patrons they viewed as druggies or troublemakers, and then have a designated bartender take the official hit on any given night. I think they took turns getting busted.
Credits: web site concept, contents, design and format by Don Schwamb.