Fannies is best known to some for its colorful and checkered history. Extremely popular with the lesbian crowd for many years, there were a few accidents and fires and a great deal of speculation about whether the owner was involved in one or more of them. The bar was closed several times for renovation after fires or other reasons. The most remembered incident is a fire at Fannies on October 28, 1997 which resulted in the bar sustaining extensive damage; at the time, it is said the bar was in disrepair and facing competition from a new lesbian bar, Dish, that was scheduled to open nearby. Owner Dixon was convicted of arson in January 2000 (In Step v17-03), but appealed.
Through that time, the bar was fixed up and reopened in early 1998. But the rumors had hurt business, and by the year 2000, Fannies became more a mixed lesbian/gay bar, with a male DJ occasionally mentioning the different mix of songs he needed to master to cater to the male clientele. The bar seems to have been on rocky grounds however. The bar was no longer being listed in most issues of local LGBT publications' "bar guides". A mention in the daily calendar of Quest v7-09 for Friday June 9, 2000 simply said that "Fannies (Milw) reopens today, under new ownership and management". The July 2000 issue of In Step magazine (v17-15) mentions that the bar has been renamed 'The Club', and yet in Quest v7-21 (December 2000) a mention is made that "Fannies is open again and drawing respectable crowds". Quest continued to list daily events at 'Fannies' while In Step mentioned events as being at 'The Club/Fannies'. Confusion among patrons reined, and the media seemed just as confused so often left the bar off their listings (by any name)!
By January 2002, the only mentions in media are of 'Fannies' again, 'The Club' name having been quietly dropped. In September 2002, the bar noted in the "Diversions of the Day" calendar in Quest v9-11 magazine that they would be holding a "20 Year Anniversary Weekend Party" on September 20, 2002. In the next issue of Quest (v9-12, October 2002), word that the bar had been remodeled and reopened as Pulse, a mostly gay bar.
In a rare interview Sharon gave to LGBT historian Michail Takach in 2017, she outlines much of the inside story and history of Fannies: (Note that SHaron recalls the bar opening in 1983, but the bar held a "20 Year Anniversary Party" in September 2002, and other records also indicate it opened in November 1982.)
Fannies (200 E. Washington St.) opened in 1983. The bar was known for its monthly theme parties, including Trekkie Night, Pajama Party, Black Party, White Party, 50s and 60s parties and and more. For a long time, the bar featured a basketball court and a sand pit volleyball court. There were countless cookouts and street parties over the years, some including elaborate outdoor stages and performances.
The bar would get big-name drag talent for its shows, sometimes from competing clubs, as well as local newscasters (like Marty Burns Wolfe of Channel 12 News) as emcees. Over the years, Fannies raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local AIDS, cancer and LGBTQ causes, as well as community members in need of care.
"Everyone supported me right from the start," said Sharon. "From the junkyard owner behind me, to the owner of George's Pub next door, to the men's bars owners and the neighborhood. They always stood with me."
However, the name and connotation of Fannies didn't always sit well with everyone. After all, we weren't talking about a woman named Fannie. One night, Sharon was criticized by a group of "militant" women who didn't like the imagery of women's swimsuit bottoms behind the bar.
"They told me I was demeaning women by having swimsuit photos on the wall. I said, I'm a lesbian, and I'm not demeaning anyone. I like a pretty face and a pretty ass. The regular customers never complained, just these three women. They also criticized me for allowing men in the bar. Since I advertised as a women's bar, they felt that men should not be welcome. I told them that men would always be welcome here.
"That's something weird about Milwaukee. Women weren't supposed to go to men's bars, and men weren't supposed to go to women's bars. That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of. I had fun with the boys, and of course I wanted them to come to my bar. I mean, I used to hang out at the Wreck Room. I would dress up in leather and intimidate them!"
Despite the drama, Sharon recalls only one memorable bar fight over the years.
"One Saturday night, some guys came in and grabbed the woman who was checking IDs at the front door," said Sharon. "They literally pulled her off her barstool, dragged her outside and started kicking and beating on her. I told the bartender, lock this door and don't open it until I come back. I went right out there and did what I needed to do. I shut that down right away!
"And afterwards, I said, 'you do realize that you've just attacked an off-duty police officer, right? That's an instant felony.' She pressed charges and the story spread like wildfire. I got the reputation for being a "female Clint Eastwood" and the next morning I got a standing ovation at the M&M Club brunch!"
Longtime employee Mary Connell remembers Sharon keeping a protective, watchful eye over the younger patrons.
"Sharon ran a tight ship, but it was also a fair and caring place for any woman to come into," Connell said. "No matter how rough someone's life had been in the past, Sharon would help them get on their feet with a fresh start. I can't even count how many women she's helped over the years."
Over the years, Fannies became one big happy family. Softball, darts and pool leagues continued for decades. Regular customers would frequently ask to have their names engraved on their barstools, because those were known as their seats.
One Halloween, a group of a dozen women dressed up as men and forever became known as "the Brothers." Sharon fondly remembers coming downstairs one morning and finding the hanging pendant lights over the bar covered in bras and a single pair of men's Jockey shorts.
Diane "Legs" Gregory remembers, "All the women hung out at Fannies back then. It wasn't a young women's bar or an older women's bar. It was a women's bar, period. Sharon would always be at the corner of the bar, holding court and watching out for us. It was always about dancing, drinking, talking and laughter. I have only the best memories of Fannies!"
For a while, Fannies hired local drag performer Vanessa Alexander to bartend and work the grill. "The girls would egg her on and say, 'show us your breasts,' and Vanessa would just laugh and say, 'You're just jealous mine are bigger than yours.' Sharon and Vanessa became great friends. In 1990, Vanessa won the Miss Gay Wisconsin pageant with Sharon's full sponsorship. The two later worked together in the Etc. kitchen at La Cage.
Fannies continued until 2000. Sharon subleased the bar for a while, then began testing a number of different concepts. Before Out-n-About (1407 S. 1st St.) opened in 2003, the owners considered purchasing Fannies, but declined because it didn't have a full kitchen. Eventually, Sharon opened Studio 200 – which is the bar's identity in 2017.
Credits: major content and photos from an interview by Michail Takach.
Select photo from former Fannies employee Mary Connell.
Web site concept, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: September-2021.
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