Ricardo Gonzalez owned The Cardinal Bar, 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.
Gonzalez was an activist in the true sense of the word. In addition to owning a bar that welcomed and encouraged both straight and LGBT people, he was the first openly gay Latino man appointed to political office in the US, running for and serving three terms as alderman of Madison's 4th District from 1989 to 1996.
Historian Michail Takach wrote the following history of The Cardinal and owner 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, 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!
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 The Cap Times' May 2016 article "Q&A: Cardinal Bar owner Ricardo Gonzalez unpacks U.S.-Cuban relations".
Last updated: June-2021.
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