History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Wisconsin - Businesses - Bars and Clubs

Cardinal Bar
Location: 418 E. Wilson St., Madison WI


August 1975
January 2017

Men's Bar/ social



Opened in 1975 by Ricardo Gonzalez, The Cardinal Bar was for many years THE dance bar for Gay Madison. Opened in the space that once housed the original restaurant, the long wooden bar and mirrored backbar was considered one of the finest in Madison, and original mosaic floor was especially memorable. During the first half of the 1980's, Rod's bar was the best gay men's bar in Madison; but for high energy dancing, people often started the evening at The Cardinal Bar.

When the New Bar opened in the Hotel Washington complex (which before its fire in 1996 held Rod's, New Bar, and Cafe Palms), dancing was available in the same destination as Rod's, and Cardinal become less common as a destination. But Cardinal Bar stayed popular as a more subdue and nostalgic destination, and was especially popular on Sunday afternoons for their 'Tea-dance'.

The bar was also the perfect venue for various meetings, parties, dinners, and other celebrations. Examples of these are represented in the articles shown below. (While in 1978 the bar began to offer Sunday brunch, and then Saturday dinners, the outdated facility was no longer suitable for running a restaurant, and its restaurant operation soon closed.)

In January 1981, a fire broke out, and the building was left uninhabitable. Most of the damage in the bar area was due to smoke and water, and Ricardo was able to reopen his business in July 1981; (the hotel remained closed for good.)

In 1983, rumors began that the bar was about to close. Advertising in April 1983 included: "Keep your ears to the grapevine regarding The Cardinal's closing. We promise to go out on a high note!". But the news was soon positive, and by November advertisements read "Here to stay and better than ever!". (See both ads below.)

Eventually a developer purchased the building with the intent of converting its 60 rooms into apartments.The entire structure underwent an eight-month-long renovation and refurbishment. When the Cardinal reopened on May 1, 1986, the original bar retained all its historic character and charm but a new space (the old hotel lobby) was added making it more suitable as a dance club.

By 2004, owner Gonzalez had become politically active, frequently drawing him away from his beloved Cardinal and he decided it was time to sell. Unfortunately, with the new owners (one of whom was Corey Lee) came a rapid decline in the Cardinal’s reputation and in July 2010 it closed. In October 2010, Ricardo Gonzalez reopened the Cardinal Bar after a thorough sprucing up, anxious to bring it back to its former place as one of Madison's best bars.

By that time however, the LGBT community had found other bars and venues, and The Cardinal was no longer considered an LGBT destination. The bar was permanently closed in 2017.

(Some information in this summary from Madison Magazine's March 2010 article "A Real Phoenix".)

Historian Michail Takach wrote the following history of The Cardinal and owner Ricardo Gonzalez:

    During a Key West vacation, Ricardo Gonzalez had his first real taste of gay liberation. This inspired him to do something similar for Madison's LGBT community. He was motivated to do something that celebrated both his Latin heritage and his identity as a gay Latin man. "I came into my office one day... and there it was: 'Tavern for lease, décor ca. 1912, overlooking the lake, near State office buildings.' Eureka! The rest is history." - recalled Gonzalez in 2016.

    In May 1974, Gonzalez toured the aging Cardinal Hotel (418 E. Wilson St.) He signed a lease, redecorated Skid Row chic with ferns and mirrors, traded dining for dancing, and reopened the Cardinal Bar as Madison's first Latin gay bar in December 1974.

    The Cardinal Bar became known as that "funky little dance bar with a jukebox in the back." In August 1975, it became Madison's first real disco: "The Cardinal Discotheque".

    Gonzalez always planned The Cardinal as a gay bar, but it was better known as "the gay bar straight people went to," even in the 70s. The Cardinal became a home for political fundraisers, community rallies and social activism -- as well as performance art, drag shows, comedy and theatrical events. “My formula is simple—we define diversity through music. That’s what defines a nightclub," said Gonzalez.

    In 1981, the Cardinal suffered damages from fire and flooding that nearly closed the bar forever. The bar rose from the ashes, remodeled extensively in 1985 and 1986, and became a popular destination for rave, jazz and Latin music throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

    Gonzalez tried to sell and retire in 2004, but returned to the business in 2009. In 2014, filmmakers produced "The Bird," a 40th Anniversary documentary about the Cardinal's lasting contributions to the community. (That video can be viewed on YouTube.

    Ricardo Gonzalez was elected alderman of Madison's 4th District in 1989. He was the first openly gay Latino man appointed to political office in the US.

    But Gonzalez remained hands-on in daily operations at the Cardinal. Citing health concerns, he chose to sell in 2017. In January 2017, the Cardinal was sold to restauranteur and UW-Madison graduate Mike Eitel of Milwaukee. Eitel announced plans for a Nomad World Pub at this location, offering tavern by day, dancing at night, and lots of soccer watching.

    The Cardinal was the longest-operating LGBTQ landmark in Madison AND the nation's longest-running nightclub when it closed. It was also the longest-running Latino-owned business in Madison. We thank Ricardo for 43 years of hot, sweaty, happy memories!

Early advertisement
Jan-Feb 1975, GPU News
Mention in "Mad City" article:
"A pleasant, stylish hotel bar with hanging plants
and jazz playing in the background"
August 1976, (GLIB, vol 1-02)

Advertisement: about to close?
April 1983 (Out!, vol 1-06)
Advertisement: "here to stay"
November 1983 (Out!, vol 2-01)

September 1984 (Out!, vol 2-10)
April 1986 (Out!, vol 4-10)

The Cardinal hosting LGBT community Groups and Events

Sponsoring community meeting to discuss
AIDS prevention
April 1983 (Out!, vol 1-06)
Awards reception for Midwest Invitational
Volleyball Tournament
July 1986 (In Step, vol 3-13)

Photo from Awards reception for Midwest Invitational Volleyball Tournament
August 1986 (Out!, vol 4-10)
Fundraiser for Gay and Lesbian Visibility Alliance (GALVAnize) of Madison
February 1989 (Wis Light, vol 2-03)

Benefit for The United,
January 1990 (Wis Light, vol 3-01)
Soccer team fundraiser
May 1990 (Wis Light, vol 3-10)

Reception to celebrate the life of
the late community leader Grid Hall
September 1990 (Wis Light, vol 3-20)
David Clarenbachj pre-election party
November 1990 (Wis Light, vol 3-23)

Dairyland Rainbow Squares dancers
March 1995 (Wis Light, vol 8-06)
Reception for new Director of The United
June 1996 (Wis Light, vol 2-03)

View of building
(after its sale and renaming)

Entrance way

Invitation to Grand Opening

Owner Gonzalez outside the entrance
(photos courtesy of Michail Takach)

Credits: web site concept, contents, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Cardinal Bar and Ricardo Gonzalez history by Michail Takach.
Media articles researched by Don Schwamb.
Some information in this summary from Madison Magazine's March 2010 article "A Real Phoenix".

Last updated: June-2021.

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