This website has documentation on a string of LGBT bars and restaurants that inhabited the ground floor of the building at 814 S. Second Street in Milwaukee over a span of 15 years. The Black Forest Inn, which opened on August 18, 1976 wa the beginning of the series of LGBT businesses in the building, spanning the period from mid-1976 to December 1991. (One has to wonder if the location was jinxed, as of the 8 businesses, half closed within a year of opening):
Web site Curator, Michail Takach, wrote the following history of this LGBT business location in September 2022. (Note that the individual web pages of those 8 businesses are updated as new informaion is discovered, so see those individual pages with the latest information about each business, and not necessarily the information below. For example, we now know that the Visions Video Night Club did open, but doesn't seem to have lasted more than a week or two; see that page for details.)
Michail's writeup on the site:
September 6, 1976: the Black Forest Inn (814 S. 2nd St.) hosts a massive outdoor carnival with food, drinks and games, which extends all the way across the alleyway to the parking lot of 'Your Place' bar (818 S. 1st St.)
The Black Forest Inn opened in the former Good Luck Tavern (1953-1976) a Serbian bar owned by the Radicevich family that later opened Three Brothers Restaurant. By the 1970s, the Good Luck Tavern was operated by Mile and Nada Dragisich, and "The Europa Room' was famous for its raznjici sausage sandwiches.
The summer of 1976 was the height of gay liberation in Milwaukee. Your Place had already been running for 11 years as the only gay bar south of National Avenue. Now, it had a lot of company: the Sugar Shack, the Decision (aka the Hideaway,) and now the Black Forest all opened nearby. 2nd and National was becoming a "gayborhood" for the first time. A ton of new bars were opening in the old gayborhoods in the Third Ward and 1st & Pittsburgh: Circus, M&M Club, Oregon House, the Side Door.
The Black Forest Inn was a restaurant first, a bar second. It was opened by a gay couple who sought to create a world-class dining experience with the ambience of "the streets of Old Milwaukee." There may have been some partnership with Your Place, as the businesses shared ad space fot two years. The menu offered the usual Friday night fish fry, potato pancakes, schnitzels and steaks, a step above the workingman's bar food available at its neighbors.
Unfortunately, the Black Forest Inn was seen as a "gay restaurant" at a time when few straight people visited gay spaces. Even Milwaukee's gay population didn't want to be seen in the daylight. The owners had overestimated how far gay liberation would go. The restaurant sadly folded after only two years in business. It closed in 1978.
The Black Forest was followed by a long series of short-lived restaurants that continues to this day. In 1978, Roger Emerson of the Beer Garden opened "Rainbow Grille" which tried to be the brunch and afterhours destination. It was replaced by the Moulin Rouge steakhouse in 1980.
In late 1980, Frank Thalacker opened Shadows, the most memorable of all restaurants ever to operate at this address. It was an immediate destination that received regional praise. The restaurant had 45 seats, was open daily from 11-11, and served drinks until 2. And it was a world-class dining experience, first and foremost: the seating area was reserved for "Diplomat Dining." "Chicago has nothing like Shadows. San Francisco has nothing better. And Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto and New York have no gay restaurant to surpasss Shadows," wrote Jon-Henri Damski. "Frank had no idea he was setting up a restaurant that would be the talk of traveling gays throughout the nation."
Gay men of that generation remember Shadows as the first place they could show affection in public-- in fact, they were almost encouraged to do so. "It was the first place I could hold hands with a man in public," remembered Bunny. "You have no idea what a big deal that was back then."
Shadows was replaced by Hot Legs, a women's bar, from 1984 to 1987. Remarkably, Shadows was reborn in December 1987 as "Shadows II," owned by Dan Hewett, lover "Dave," and partner "Matt." It was decked out in the most 80s colors-- mauves, maroons and pinks-- along with thick carpeting and track lighting. "There's nothing like this in Milwaukee," said Matt. Ads called it "the Midwest's most beautiful gay bar." But beauty wasn't enough. Shadows II closed in 1989.
And the gay history of 814 S. 2nd St still wasn't over! In summer 1991, a bold ad promised the grand opening of "Visions Video Nightclub" on August 9, 1991. Oddly enough, the advertisement had the wrong address (813 S 2nd St.) Visions delayed its opening a week (August 16, 1991) which made people skeptical about its future. "You'll see why it's taking so long -- it's not the same old place!" wrote Ron Geiman in InStep. But did Visions ever actually open? There's no further mention of the bar nor any advertisements from August 1991 onward. Does anyone know what happened here?
At any rate, that was the end of a 15-year gay occupation of 814 S. 2nd Street. And it all started at the Black Forest Inn, a little restaurant that dreamed big.
Share YOUR memories -- of the Black Forest, Rainbow Grille, Moulin Rouge, Shadows, Your Place, Hot Legs, OR Visions -- and help us build out the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project!
Credits: web site concept, contents, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb;
Legacy story written by LGBT historian and Curator of this History Project, Michail Takach.
Last updated: March-2023.
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.