When The Red Baron (also known simply as "The Baron") opened in June 1977, it was proclaimed one of the "very best discos found anywhere," with three bars on the main floor, a central dance floor, a dancing stage, disco lighting and "wall to wall carpeting." The lower level had a pool table, pinball and popcorn.
(For information on the building's former life, click here.)
Early Discrimination Complaints
Immediately after opening (in July 1977), discrimination charges were filed against the Red Baron by local women and black men. City Hall had already received over 50 complaints about the disco requiring multiple forms of ID and demanding customers buy membership cards. Alyn Hess of Gay People's Union represented six black gay men who were denied admission because it "wasn't that kind of night."
The charges raised questions about Red Baron's licensing. "Nobody is sure who really owns the Red Baron," said Alderman Kevin O'Connor, as the liquor license is still in use from former tenant Mother's. The discrimination charges delayed liquor license reissuing and temporarily closed the month-old bar.
Oddly, the Common Council reversed its own decision and renewed the license on July 19, 1977. Red Baron attorneys dismissed the discrimination charges as a "coordinated campaign launched by competitors like The Factory." Newspapers suspiciously commented that "the Red Baron has been advertising aggressively in the gay trades."
The Red Baron reopened, although the push for paid memberships quietly ended.
Peak Disco Bar
The Red Baron was peak disco. The Red Baron hosted several popular performers at the time. Most notable was a performance by legendary disco diva Grace Jones on March 4, 1978 in what was probably the Red Baron's finest hour. (Jones had been scheduled to perform on two nights, but never arrived on the first scheduled night, March 3. When she did appear on the second night-- almost an hour late-- she was in a foul mood according to witness Don Schwamb, who was one of her greeters in the office. Her performance was exciting and high energy even if slightly below par.)
A one-minute radio ad for the Grace Jones appearance was narrated by a deep male voice intermingled with song clips: "Grace Jones.. Is she related to a cat-- or a cobra? Grace Jones-- in Milwaukee at The Baron; where Saint Paul Avenue ends, and disco theatre begins. Grace Jones- decadent dynamo of the disco scene. Grace Jones- Friday March 3rd at 11, Saturday March 4th at midnight... At the Baron... Grace Jones.. soars above the whole galaxy of contemporary starlets." (Then female voice:) "Don't miss Grace Jones, the Queen of Disco, Friday and Saturday nights at The Baron, 625 East Saint Paul. Tickets at all Ticketron outlets and at The Baron."
In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal newspaper in the 1990s (recounted in a 2016 article "A Brief History of Milwaukee's Discos" in the Shepherd Express), Red Baron manager Jeffrery Dobbs made an observation:
Baron manager Jeffery Dobbs said that the new age of disco emerged from gay culture and-- although his club had a good mix of gay and straight dancers-- it was the gay community that "did disco" the best. "I can usually breeze through the dance floor and immediately know who's gay because the straight kids dance like turkeys," Dobbs told the Journal. "The gay kids are better dancers, are better mannered, and are more hip to clothes."
In May 1978, the lower level was reinvented and reopened as The Baron Pub, with free champagne, ice cream drinks and "quiet, cozy and comfortable conversation."
By April 1980, the Red Baron was past its prime. The bar was taken over by L&M Productions, a collective of young black men, seeking to create the best discos in the city. They also owned Rapport disco, later the Cabaret (130 E. Juneau.) Red Baron was formally renamed "The Baron" and immediately became far less "gay."
The Baron didn't last long. It closed January 31, 1981 and its entire contents were sold at auction on February 11, 1981. "This sale is a must if you are in the discotheque business!" screamed the ads.
Bobby Bell, owner/operator of the Red Baron, moved on to open Papagaio (515 N. Broadway) in December 1981. He was a locally famous fashion designer at T.A. Chapmans, brother of the creator/producer of "The Young & The Restless," manager of John Hawks Pub and quite a local nightlife personality.
By 2021, the Red Baron disco building housed a physical therapy clinic. If the walls of that 60-year-old building could talk!
The building had at least two former lives -- first, as the midcentury modern home of Milwaukee's much beloved Mamie's Grotto restaurant. Mamie's was at 532 E. Chicago Street from 1918 until May 1959. Her sons Sam and Frank Gigliotti opened the new $325,000 facility in December 1960. At a time when the last remnants of the old Third Ward were finally being torn down, Mamie's must have seemed like a phoenix rising. The unusual building was featured on postcards sold at the restaurant.
"Everything is new and fresh and spotless," said the Milwaukee Sentinel on opening day. Mamie's was open 7 days a week and planned to serve 600 daily. The new location also included two cocktail lounges, a piano bar, banquet rooms and free parking.
After only four years in business, Mamie's Grotto was sold to new owner Leonard Ruzinski on April 1, 1965. The restaurant switched to French cuisine and decor-- and soon, the name switched to "Chez Lenny." The only question is: why sell off a 51-year Milwaukee tradition? The Gigliotti brothers weren't talking. "No comment," they told the press. Old Third Ward families still speak of the shock of losing Mamie's.
Chez Lenny overextended itself with an aggressive remodel -- and the supper club went bankrupt in its first year. Aladdin's -- "the Place for Ribs" -- opened here in December 1966 and was gone in six months. The Bang Bang opened in October 1967 -- with a dance floor often exceeding 400 people -- but closed in May 1971 after a topless dancing scandal.
Mother's Nite Club opened in November 1971 with a successful formula of cheap beer and live music. "The best in dynamite rock entertainment," promised the ads, as Mother's attracted Summerfest talent. After six rocking and rolling years, Mother's closed in February 1977. It's not clear why.
Credits: contents, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Bar history and Mamie's photos by Michail Takach.
Last updated: September-2023.
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