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The C'est La Vie was founded and operated for many years by Clarence Germershausen, known to most in the community as "John Clayton". The bar's heyday was in the 1980's, when it was relatively popular and at the hub of an area of several gay bars (for many years it was one of 4 bars in a 1 block area: also including Gary's/ Circus/ Club 219 and BallGame, both just to the north, and The Phoenix just to the south). The bar had an active dance floor, good music, and a party atmosphere, with occasional shows.
It was during this period that the bar was most popular with a wide range of men. Many younger guys met up with friends or otherwise started the night at C'est La Vie for a few drinks (and maybe a look at the strippers or the drag show) before moving on the the dance clubs, primarily Circus-Circus or Club 219, and less frequently The Phoenix. When there was a cover charge, it was modest compared to the cover charge of Club 219, and often included a drink in return- pretty much no cover if you had at least one drink.
Throughtout, the bar was also known as a pickup place for young boys being sought by older men; and John's own prediliction of hiring the cutest and youngest men he could find certainly didn't detract from that reputation! The upstairs of the bar was also available for lodging, and many the young man saw his start in the gay community in Milwaukee by taking a job at C'est la Vie and living immediately above the bar.
The August 1976 issue of the local "GLIB Guide" describes the business as follows: "Mixed traffic. Pool table, dancing, loud talk. Busy bar block."
The 1980's also saw the bar's owner (Clarenece aka John Clayton) become something of a gay mogul in the city: he leased a building just to the south of the bar to both the Cream City Foundation as a community center space, and to the In Step newspaper. Within a few years however, both of those businesses moved out, partly because of the poor condition of that building.
In the 1990's the bar went into something of a decline, mostly due to the neighborhood. The Club 219, which for a while was THE largest and most popular gay dance club in Milwaukee, was eclipsed by La Cage; and the gay/lesbian bar to the south began to go through several ownership changes as well. The neighborhood also became gentrified, with condos and art galleries moving into the area; these detracted from the closed "gay neighborhood" feeling, and also greatly restricted availability of parking. To keep up, the bar became less of a mainstream bar and became a speciality bar: its shows were either drag shows or young-men (almost boy) strippers.
In September 2005, after a short but serious illness, Clarence passed away. Shortly before his death, he had passed on management of the bar to Marty (Martin Belkin), who pledged to keep the business going for at least another year. But the Club 219 had recently closed, and C'est la Vie was struggling; there were few customers, with about the only regulars being a few young gay black men who continued to put on occasional stripper shows. And the bar began to be closed without advance notice at unusual times and days.
On April 1, 2006, Marty made the bar "no smoking"-- the ads announcing the change were greeting by many as "probably a joke" given the date- April 1st (April Fool's Day). But Marty was serious, and the bar continued to operate as non-smoking.
There were rumors throughout 2007 that the bar might soon close, but it was not until April 2008 that rumors began to be more credible. During the last 2 weeks of April 2008, flyers and ads began to appear announcing the last show at the club, and it became known that Saturday, May 3, 2008 would be the last night the C'est La Vie was to be open. In fact, the bar closed its doors several days earlier without fanfare (supposedly because no one could reach agreement on how the final show would be run or cast), and C'est La Vie simply ceased to be.
Recollections: The following are recollections of others who have been kind enough to submit their personal memories to the webmaster. You are welcome to do the same!
"(When I first came out as gay), one night I walked from 30th & Michigan with a dollar and change in my pocket. I walked into Cíest La Vie and ordered a bottle of Pabst. It was 90 cents. I drank that beer and due to money, ordered a tap. I think they were 40 cents. I drank two more and headed for the door. John Clayton was at the door and started talking to me. I told him my short story about moving in with my sister and he offered me a job that night. No, I did NOT have to sleep with John. I know some of his bartenders did but there were plenty of us who didnít. I moved above the bar shortly after starting there and lived on the 3rd floor in room #8. It was the largest room on the floor. I did the Cíest La Vie thing for a couple of years. Got fired and rehired. One night the guy came in who was looking for a bartender for the bar he just purchased called the Finale (810 East Center St.) I accepted his offer and moved above that bar.
"When I worked at Cest La Vie, John Clayton had an unwritten rule; Cest La Vie bartenders were not allowed to go into 219 or Phoenix. Mostly 219. (There was friction between John and Bobby Lyons over property that was adjacent to Cest La Vie but was owned by 219. John was pissed because 219 would not sell it to him). Well not all of us bartenders followed that rule. I went on a date with what would become my 1st boyfriend (Danny Fonz) at 219. It was exciting as that had been the 1st dance club I had ever been to."
Credits: bar history by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: February-2021.
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