History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Wisconsin - People - Bios

Mel Powell
and partner Jerry Frelke (Powell)



August 31, 2002
Primary Involvements:

'The Powell Sisters'
Drag performers, Hairdressers

Primary Location:

Milwaukee, WI



"The Powell Sisters":
   Mel Powell (1937-August 31, 2002)
   Jerry "Powell" Frelke (1934-September 17, 2002)

Mel Powell was born in Milwaukee and attended Washington High School. Jerry Frelke attended South Division High School and UWM. Both were lifelong fans of the performing arts, joining choir, band, orchestra, and drama clubs as students. Jerry was also a member of his school's AV and Ushers clubs.

These experiences would serve them-- and Milwaukee's emerging LGBT community-- very well in future years.

It's unknown how Mel and Jerry met, but they were quickly inseparable. Contributors remember them being a couple as early as 1958. They were regulars at Milwaukee's earliest known gay bars, including the Pink Glove, White Horse, Pink Pony, Wagon Wheel, Fox Bar, Riviera and Black Nite. They became known as the city's premier hairdressers, working at high-end salons from the 1960s to the 1980s. Mel and Jerry were both involved with the Holiday Folk Fair for many years, and are especially remembered for their flamboyant Iberian dance sequences in the Milwaukee Auditorium.

It's also unknown when Jerry took the name "Powell," but this symbolic gesture definitely raised some eyebrows in pre-marriage Milwaukee. In 1961, the Milwaukee Journal pictured the couple dressing an exotic dancer at the Wisconsin Hairdressers Conference, noting "Mel and Jerry Powell, both of 811 E. Mason, are not related."

The Powell Sisters are credited with elevating drag as a queer art form in Milwaukee. Until the 1960s, "cross-dressers" were not allowed in gay bars due to the attention they attracted. Drag shows were primarily entertainment for straight audiences-- and although male performers were likely to be gay, they weren't allowed to express themselves offstage.

The Powell Sisters, and an emerging generation of urban queer youth, challenged these notions with spectacular, no-dollar-spared performances in gay spaces. The Black Nite, their original home base, quickly became the one space that gender non-conforming people could call home. Later, they expanded their operation to the New Riviera Show Lounge, which offered high-budget drag dinner theater to crossover crowds from 1972-1974. Afterwards, they launched the Milwaukee Entertainer's Club, anchored at Ball Game and operating traveling drag shows throughout the region. They ran the Mister and Miss Gay Wisconsin pageant for many, many years.

Long after they stopped performing themselves, they were still revered as experts, elders, and authorities in the world of drag. Their longtime home at 1329 W. Mineral Street is remembered as a "museum of drag," with costumes, wigs, accessories, and other extravaganza filling multiple rooms. Aspiring performers often turned to the Powell Sisters for advice, direction, and support, while recognizing that their style of drag was rapidly becoming a quaint old-fashioned notion.

In later years, Mel and Jerry worked at the Pfister Hotel salon, where Mel's mother Alvinia worked as a receptionist well into her senior years. Alvinia passed away in 1988.

Tragedy struck on August 31, 2002, when Mel passed away in his sleep at age 68. Heartbroken, Jerry passed away only two weeks later on September 17, 2002. Many found the idea of a Milwaukee without the Powell Sisters unthinkable-- and now both were gone within a few weeks' time.

Even more unthinkable: the Powell Sisters, a power couple for nearly fifty years, were not buried together. Mel is buried in Wisconsin Memorial Park. Jerry's final resting place is unknown.

Our only regret is that the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project was unable to chronicle the lives of these inspiring pioneers-- before they left the stage. Thank you Mel & Jerry- for everything.


Fred 'Powell' Frelke,
the other half of the 'Powell Sisters'

The 'Powell Sisters' in drag
(date unknown)

The pair touching up the costume of a model

Jerry performing as a Matador

Ad: the Iberian Folk Dancers,
Mel listed as President

Credits: Bio by Michail Takach;
Last updated: January-2024.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.