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

Location: 636 W. Washington, Madison WI


July 7, 1979
February 18, 1996

Levi/ Leather
Bar/ social


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Rod's bar became a gay icon and legend among gay men in the 1980's and 1990's Madison. Opened by entrepreneur Rodney Scheel and located in the lower level (basement) of the Hotel Washington building just west of downtown Madison (which Rodney owned with his brother Greg), the bar had a decidedly leather/levi type ambiance. Early on, "Rod's" took on a "tradition" of the bartenders holding surprise "spot checks" for men wearing underwear- which, if found, were promptly removed (cut off) and hung over the pipes on the ceiling of the bar. In no time the pipes running in the main bar room were draped with countless cut-off underwear. The bar became an extremely popular destination for men throughout Wisconsin and even from northern Illinois.

Over time, the bar opened additional rooms in the back, one of which showed adult male (i.e. gay porn) videos. (On the seedier side, Rod's "men's room" had its own little tradition: on occasion one might find, along the walls holding the urinals, someone kneeling: aficionados of "water sports" were to be found that night!)

An outdoor patio was a very popular addition. Opened outside/ upstairs, the patio was popular spring, summer and fall evenings and nights, but especially weekends; a popular Sunday afternoon beer bust and cookout became another tradition.

The patio also became "the place to be" the Saturday evening and night of the annual Pride celebration in Madison. After a day of fun at the MAGIC picnic in Brittany Park, Rod's would be hopping later, with people relaxing with drinks around the patio. Toward evening revelers would begin dancing, and at nightfall a spectacular laser light show would excite dancers and onlookers alike.

Through it all, Rodney and his staff had a knack for coming up with new and unique events and bar specials, which other bars could never seem to match.

The Hotel Washington had became a complex of activity, in addition to Rod's basement bar. Prior to Rod's being opened, upstairs in front, a cafe/restaurant, the Cafe Palms, was often busy, especially popular for Saturday and Sunday brunch. On the same level, "Club de Wash" was popular with the straight community, and frequently had live bands performing. After the success of Rod's, the upstairs of the hotel building became the setting for The New Bar, which quickly became "the" dance bar in Madison. Several rooms in the upper level of the hotel were also available for renting by out-of-towners during special events and weekends (such as the annual pride weekend). But Rod's continued to be the ultimate mecca for gay men throughout the area.

Unfortunately, the owner and focus of festivities at Rod's, Rodney Scheel, became ill. The AIDS epidemic had taken hold, and Rodney was an early victim. Rodney died in 1990 after a long and drawn out battle, having not set foot in his bar or successful hotel complex for almost a year. Rod's brother Greg took over and carried on ably.

The final chapter was to take place a few years later. On the cold morning of Sunday, February 18, 1996, a fire was somehow sparked in the Hotel Washington, which still housed the wildly popular Rod's, New Bar, Club de Wash, and Cafe Palms. In the bitter cold, the fire department called several alarms, but to no avail-- by morning the remains of the complex were a few badly charred and leaning walls, somehow with a pride flag still flying. Although there was talk of rebuilding, that was not to be, and Rod's named legacy came to an end.

Rod's entrance- down the stairs...
Main bar in Rod's
A side bar in Rod's
Back bar in Rod's
Rod's outdoor patio
An early photo of Rodney

Inside Rod's, circa 1984

Underwear check at Rod's
(In Step vol 1-11, June 1984)

"I Gave" Underwear button
(circa 1984)

Rodney at the "watering trough"
(In Step vol 1-02, Feb. 1984)

10th Anniversary booklet
(17.5MB PDF file)

Hotel Washington fire
Wisconsin Light vol 9 issue 5

Credits: contents, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: September-2023.

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