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

 
Ron Thate

 

Born:
Died:

February 1, 1951
November 25, 2023
 
Primary Involvements:

Bartender
Drag Performer
 

Primary Location:

Milwaukee, WI

View the Images & Articles Gallery of Rona.

 

       
 

Ron Thate was known by Milwaukee bar goers for over 40 years as simply 'Rona', or 'Miss Rona' in his occasional drag persona. He was always the lovable and attentive bartender at a series of popular and iconic gay bars, including and most notably the M&M Club (1976-2006), and Boom/ The Room bar (2004-2014).

In his 'Miss Rona' drag persona, Ron was popular and playful. He put on a good show, competing in two Miss Gay Milwaukee Pageants (1977 and 1979) before winning in 1981. He was more selective in his performances later in life, when he performed primarily for benefits and fundraisers. He is also known for his annual visit to Acapulco, his favorite vacation spot, and often took his close friend Michael Johnston (drag personality 'Karen Valentine') or others with him.

Ron was also a lifelong lover of arts and music. He helped found or participated in local choral groups Fest City Singers, Cream City Chorus, Men's Voices Milwaukee (MVM,) and Women's Voices Milwaukee (WVM).

The following biography of 'Rona' was created from an interview of Ron Thate done by Diane Gregory of this History Project just two weeks prior to his abrupt death of a heart attack:

    Ron Thate, affectionately known as "Rona" for over four decades, grew up in Burlington, Wisconsin. He attended Burlington High School and studied art and theater at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. For over 15 years, he worked at the Potawatomi Casino in Milwaukee.

    Although Rona felt "different" as a child, he didn't fully understand himself until meeting other gay people in college. He said his history began at the Auctioneers Inn, where he worked with his mentor, Hope Waldecker, and his friends DeDe, Phil and Totie. They started doing drag shows at their home in Burlington long before visiting a gay bar.

    "After my mother passed away, Hope was really there for me," said Rona. "She took me under her wing and showed me a whole new world."

    In fall 1972, Rona visited his first gay bar: the short-lived 'New' Seaway Inn aka Jamie's (196 S. 2nd St., 1972-1974) He saw his first drag show and was inspired by the famous Ronnie Marx. While watching the show, Rona realized his calling.

    "I said to myself, I can do this," said Rona. "And this is what I want to do!"

    Hope introduced Rona to the heavy-hitters of gay nightlife, including Jimmy Zingale (founder of Castaways and Mr. Z's,) Sally Szewczyk (co-owner of the Beer Garden) and Roger Emerson (co-owner of the Beer Garden, and later the Rainbow Grille and Empire Lounge.) He worked at the Empire Lounge during its brief time as a gay bar, until Roger decided he didn't want to become a drag bar. The Empire Lounge closed soon afterwards. He went to work for the M&M Club where he would remain for the next 29 years.

    As a member of the Milwaukee Entertainers Club, Rona was involved in the Miss Gay Wisconsin Pageant every October. She was a three-time pageant girl: 1977 and 1979 (at the Centre Stage in the old Antlers Hotel) and 1981 (at the Marc Plaza) where he finally won!

    (Fun fact from Rona: the pageant was scheduled annually in October because Halloween made costumes, including drag, more socially acceptable. At the time, many still feared being arrested for public female impersonation.)

    As a lover of arts and music, Rona was a founding member of many local chorus groups. He started the Fest City Singers to sing at the 1985 Gay World Series. He was also involved with Cream City Chorus, Men's Voices Milwaukee (MVM,) and Women's Voices Milwaukee (WVM.) He attended GALA in Seattle, Denver, Tampa and Montreal.

    Ron's proudest moments happened in Acapulco, where he held his annual birthday party! Inspired after meeting a four-year-old AIDS survivor, Ron established a fundraiser for GAVIH, the local AIDS project. He always said every donation- in any amount- always helps someone.

    After over fifty years as a local LGBTQ icon, Rona has seen tremendous change. He offers this advice for the emerging leaders of our community:

    "Today's generations are so much more advanced, and so much more sophisticated, than our generation could ever be at that age," said Rona. "I just worry that, as a community, we have lost the care we once had for each other. Never forget where we came from. Never forget to lift others up. Never worry about 'me' first. Never lose compassion for others."

'Rona' died unexpectedly of a heart attack on November 25, 2023, just 15 days after being interviewed by Diane Gregory of this History Project for the above biography. We welcome the opportunity to interview other activists of the LGBTQ community at any time.

The photos below are largely of unknown dates and locations. We welcome input from anyone able to date or give us locations of them, as well as donations of additional photos.

Rona (on right) in M&M Softball uniform
(date, location unknown)
 
Golfers goofing around: L to R:
Steve Ameson; Phil Parks; Ron Thate;
and kneeling Dick Krekowski
(date, location unknown)
 
L to R: Mark Gukich; David Nihart; Phil Parks; Ron Thate
(date, location unknown)
 
Rona (on right) with Tony Canfora (also a bartender at M&M who later opened Club 219 bar)
(date, location unknown)
 
Rona (center) caroling at Christmas;
the start of the Cream City Chorus
(date, location unknown)
 
Rona with Christmas tree
(date, location unknown)
 
Rona in drag
(date, location unknown)
 
Rona in 'Two Girls Two' birthday show
(March 1981 at M&M Club)
 
 


c1975, bartending at an unknown bar
(photo courtesy B.J. Daniels)


Rona on left, in M&M softball team uniform, with Wreck Room bartender Steve Arneson
(Milw Calendar vol. 3-18, August 1980)
(photo courtesy B.J. Daniels)


approx. 1981, in drag
(photo courtesy B.J. Daniels)


Rona on right in 2016, with close friend
Michael Johnston (aka Karen Valentine)


Rona on right in 2023, with close friend
Michael Johnston (aka Karen Valentine)

Credits: interview for biography by Diane Gregory;
Photos by Michail Takach and B.J. Daniels.
Website concept and creation by Don Schwamb;
Last updated: November-2023.

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