One of Milwaukee's most legendary gay and drag bars, The River Queen bar was one of several gay bars housed in a building originally known as the Cross Keys Hotel (built in 1853). Opened by Al Berry who had run the Rooster bar, the River Queen was rumored at the time to be backed by Chicago mob money.
The River Queen had a relatively long life, and ranged from a dance bar to a popular hang-out bar, the bar in which everyone was seen at one point or another. In its later years it was often referred to as a drag bar, although it continued to draw a mixed group. The bar is generally accepted as being frequented by "gay" national celebrities when in town for local shows or performances: these include Liberace (actually a Milwaukee-area native), Milton Berle, Paul Lynde, and others.
Historian/ researcher Michail Takach explains more of the history of the Cross Keys and River Queen in his book, "LGBT Milwaukee":
Built in 1853, the Cross Keys Hotel (400 North Water Street) once hosted Pres. Abraham Lincoln for a bath. Surrounded by warehouses “one sneeze away from falling over,” the building seemed doomed. The Crystal Palace, a saloon specializing in banjo players and piano singalongs, attracted gay customers from the Plankinton Avenue strip throughout the 1960s. When Al Barry opened the River Queen in 1971, the Cross Keys was the last building on the block. Decked out in crystal chandeliers and red velvet, the River Queen is remembered as the finest lounge of its time, where Liberace, Milton Berle, Paul Lynde, and Carol Channing cocktailed. Unfortunately, the bar’s license was in constant jeopardy, possibly due to its alleged affiliation with organized crime. Overwhelmed, Barry sold the business to James O’Connor in 1973.
In January 1976, the River Queen was the scene of a massive police corruption scandal. To avoid harassment, O’Connor had provided cash payoffs, expensive gifts, cases of liquor, and unlimited free drinks to over 50 policemen and their wives for years. Officers were allegedly served at the bar until 7:00 a.m. (by both bartenders and prostitutes) and sometimes fired bullets into the ceiling. Investigators traveled the Midwest to obtain shadowy testimonials, but the case was dismissed without charges. “Detectives say that homosexuals, like prostitutes, are often valuable sources of information about criminal activity,” reported the Milwaukee Journal. The River Queen closed temporarily, and then closed forever. Although few patrons knew or understood the Cross Keys’s glorious past, everyone wanted a piece of the River Queen. Some still own barstools to this day.
The last half of the 1970s sees a succession of name changes to the bar. The August 1976 issue of the local "GLIB Guide" is seemingly a last mention of the River Queen, reading: "Another familiar bar, the River Queen closed, remodeled and reopened as the Side Door. The new bar is an expanded version of the old bar, with plus carpeting and a giant-size TV screen. The Side Door also features a disco." The Side Door is named because it advertises its address as the side entrance address, 212 E. St. Paul.
But by August 1978 the River Queen is to re-open as "The S.S. River Queen", reclaiming its "402 N. Water Street" address as well. But then in May 1979 it is advertised as yet another bar, Jocks, again using the side entrance address. The struggle to remake itself ends in May 1980 when the bulding was demolished.
Michail Takach goes into more detail on the final years:
Whether or not the SS River Queen ever opened is a mystery. We do know that Tiny's Waterfront Disco was announced in the same space in March 1979. But with Tiny's April 27, 1979 disappearance (and subsequent murder,) those plans were sadly cancelled.
After the legendary River Queen closed, a revolving door of gay bars—including Sharon’s, Side Door, and Jocks (May 1979)— came and went.
By 1979, the building’s sole occupant was the Waterfront Café. On November 28, 1979, a three-alarm fire broke out at the Cross Keys at 4:15 a.m. The fire started on the first floor, but the state fire marshal never found its cause. Over 100 firefighters battled to save the building, but it was a total loss. Inspectors noted the former hotel lobby, once five feet above street level, had sunk five feet below street level since 1879. After 127 years of service, the oldest building in Milwaukee was razed in May 1980. The land remained vacant until 2005, when the Milwaukee Public Market was built on the Cross Keys Hotel footprint.
One wonders if the Cross Keys Hotel would still be with us, if Tiny and his Waterfront Disco had ever opened.
LGBT researcher/historian Michail Takach wrote the following about one effort to resurrect the business in a Feb. 2022 Facebook post:
After corrupt cops sank the rambunctious River Queen in 1976, people thought the bar was gone forever. Not quite. In fall 1978, the "S.S. River Queen" reopened at this address-- offering a "Kinky Monday Disco" (!)-- alongside a New Orleans seafood restaurant named "Doctor Feelgood's Jazz Riverboat." Sadly, both were gone within a year, the 145-year old building was destroyed by fire two years later, and "Tiny's Waterfront Disco" never happened at all.
(A book, "LGBT Milwaukee" by Michail Takach, seeks to make the story of LGBT Milwaukee accessible, visible, and portable for future generations--before it is too late. The River Queen in the Cross Keys Hotel is one of many early LGBT landmarks documented in the book.)
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!
The River Queen - First gay bar I was ever in. I was surprised to see so many guys, none of whom matched the sissy stereotype.
"The River Queen was the premier meeting and dance bar in its day, located on the site of the current Milwaukee Public Market. I don't remember ever seeing any drag queens there, unless you count Milton Berle, whose entourage announced his entrance dramatically and loudly when he walked in. I was gay-bashed twice at the River Queen, once outside by a group of guys in the parking lot (but that's another great story - we won!) and once inside, decked by two guys who were insulting my date. I had a wonderful view of the River Queen's famous crystal chandelier from the floor up! David Dudley was the big butch manager. When the bar closed, loyal patrons grabbed every memento they could, including the barstools (I was given one later as a gift)."
"The River Queen was once the elegent Cross Keys Hotel, built in the 1840's in the beautiful Italianate Style. The 4th floor was removed after a devastating fire, which erased its elaborate roofline and cornices. Ornamental iron balistrades also graced the exterior of this building. In its hey day, it was the most elegant hotel in Milwaukee. President Lincoln once stayed and spoke there. Few who patronized the River Queen knew of its once glorious past."
"The first bar I went to when I came out. When they tore it down I took some of the bricks and made a small sidewalk with them."
"I loved the River Queen, despite being gay-bashed there twice. I remember looking up at the crystal chandelier after being decked by some guy, defending my date's honor. My most prized possession is a River Queen barstool!"
"Originally built and opened as the Cross Keys Hotel in 1853, on September 30, 1859, an American president put the hotel’s hospitality to the test. Abraham Lincoln visited the Wisconsin Agricultural Society convention, held at 12th & Wells in the old Red Arrow Park. Although he stayed at the most fashionable Newhall House hotel 3 blocks away, Lincoln came to the Cross Keys for breakfast, gave a speech from the iron balcony, and then took a 'long and leisurely' bath in a Cross Keys tub. Apparently, the Newhall House didn’t have tubs large enough to suit the 6’4” president. (After the hotel closed in 1879, the tub was used as a coal bin for decades and eventually discarded. For decades, antique vendors sought to locate Lincoln’s bathtub, but it was never found.) Over the years, the building was known by other names, including the Juneau House. (See Journal artist's rendering of that hotel below, c1863, before the 1865 fire that claimed the fourth floor.)"
Credits: initial contents, web site concept and design by Don Schwamb.
Additional research and commentary by Michail Takach.
Last updated: August-2023.
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