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

Rodney Scheel


July 12, 1990
Primary Involvements:

Business Owner
Madison Gay Activist





Rodney Scheel was the founder and owner of the bar "Rod's", in Madison, which was to become a gay icon and legend among gay men. Located in the lower level (basement) of the Hotel Washington just west of downtown Madison (which Rodney owned with his brother Greg), and with a decidely leather/levi ambiance, the bar became an extremely popular destination for men throughtout Wisconsin and even from northern Illinois.

At the age of 21, in December, 1972, Rodney opened the first exclusively Gay bar in Madison's history. This bar, The Back Door, Ltd. went through its share of experimental phases- bar, restaurant, piano bar, dance club, and home-away-from-home for many of the newly-liberated Gay men and Lesbians and their friends of that era. But already at this young age, Rod's commitment to Madison to make that bar a success was a preview of the many gifts and opportunites he provided in later years.

Rodney was a people person; he had a knack for remembering names and faces, and an uncanny way of enjoying his businesses while managing a diverse group of people and committing so very much to them.

After opening Rod's bar, and with its success, the Hotel Washington gradually became a complex of activity. Upstairs in front, a cafe/restaurant, the Cafe Palms, was opened, and 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. Then, the upstairs of the hotel building became the setting for The New Bar, which quickly took its place as "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 in the 1980's, the AIDS epidemic took hold, and Rodney was an early victim. Rodney died after a long and drawn out battle, having not set foot in his bar or succcessful hotel complex for almost a year.He was survived by his partner of over 20 years, Dr. Warren Olson, by his parents Jo and Doc Scheel, his sister Sherry Nelson, his brother Greg Scheel, and three nephews and a niece.

A private internment service for Rodney was held on Sunday, July 15, 1990. On Saturday, July 21, hundreds of Rodney's friends from Madison and all over the country jammed Madison's Luther Memorial Church for a memorial service. Afterward, friends gathered as they always had, at the Hotel Washington to toast their friend and comrade on his way. Contributions in Rodney's name were encouraged to be made to the Rodney Scheel House for PWAs (Persons with AIDS).

When Rodney became very sick, his brother Greg took over and carried on management of the businesses in the Hotel complex very 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 Rodney's named legacy came to an end. But Rodney lives on 15 years later in memories, in the continued success of the annual MAGIC picnic, and the freedom that Madison and Wisconsin citizens still enjoy in openly celebrating their lives as gay and lesbian people.


An early photo of Rodney

Last letter from Rod to customers

In Step - vol 7 issue 14

Photo of Rod from In Step Obituary

Wisconsin Light - vol 3 issue 15
Read text of Obit/biography.

Editorial at Rod's death
Wisconsin Light - vol 3 issue 15

Credits: information recalled by Don Schwamb,
and from various In Step and Wisconsin Light articles;
Last updated: February-2016.