History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin - Businesses - Bars and Clubs

 
This Is It
Location: 418 E. Wells Street

Opened:
Closed:

August 1968
(still open November 2022)
Clientele:

Male/ female
Bar/ social

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This Is It was opened in 1968 by June Brehm. Its first advertising in a gay publication doesn't appear until the August 1972 issue of the relatively new 'GPU News' newsletter, the first LGBTQ periodical in Wisconsin, with an ad stating "The East Side's New Food 'N' Fun Bar", and listed proprietors Mike and June.

The August 1976 issue of the local "GLIB Guide" describes the business as follows: "Popular downtown lounge busy with reserved gentlemen and then some not so reserved."

Joe Brehm, June's son, continued to operate the bar as a gay bar in relatively unaltered condition architecturally. Of course, color scheme and other changes have been made (the booths along the east wall were removed, etc.) but the bar retains it overall ambiance. While June retained ownership for over 40 years, until her death in January of 2010, her son Joe was the effective manager throughout many of those years.

Under Joe's management, the bar has the distinction of being not only one of the longest continuously running gay bar in the city, but also being a staunch supporter of the gay community. Joe was close friends with Terry Boughner and Jerry Johnson when they produced the Wisconsin Light newspaper, helping them computerize and use new technnology for typesetting, layout, email, etc. Joe and This Is It! are also often the first in line to support community causes, hosting fundraising events for the Cream City Foundation, AIDS, and other worthy causes.

Around 2010, George Schneider joined the staff of 'This Is It', and has since become part owner and manager. George brought both experience from other bars in the city and a loyal following of new customers. Together George has helped Joe modernize in small but important ways: a new paint scheme and a sign were added out front, new drink specials and promotions, and a major presence on social media (Facebook etc.). But the overall character of the bar continues unchanged- and still successful.

In 2012, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press published a book "Bottoms Up- A Toast to Wisconsin's Historic Bars & Breweries" (written by Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz). The book highlights 70 bars and breweries that have defined Wisconin as a tavern state. "This Is It" is mentioned in the text as a bar that shaped gay and lesbian bars in the state, and is one of only 6 bars in Milwaukee singled out for a 2-page writeup. The article begins in part: "In the late 1960's... Gay bars were far from common, but (June Brehm) knew a lot of gay people and wanted to create a comfortable and safe gathering place during a time when gays suffered great discrimination." (The bar has a copy of the book on hand for curious patrons.)

Through the years, Joe and now George have together kept the bar exciting, and have maintained a loyal following of old-timers as well as new blood. The bar continues to be busy on evenings when other bars' business lags, in part because it is the only gay bar in the immediate downtown area (and thus easy for visitors staying in downtown hotels to get to), but also because even the young guys new to gay life like the combination of old and new they find in the bar.

Joe Brehm passed away on April 3, 2016. George Schneider assumed ownership and continued to operate the bar as before.

2018 saw three major milestones. First, the bar took the major step of doubling its footprint. The additional space (formerly part of the next-door restaurant) added additional space for nicer rest rooms, another bar service area, a removable stage, and changing areas allowing the bar to host drag shows. On drag show nights, the bar became packed like never before. Then, in recognition of the long-time LGBT bar, in November 2018 "rainbow crosswalks" were installed around the nearby Cathedral Square. (The bar has continued to supplement the cost of re-painting those crosswalks into at least 2021.)

Meanwhile, in August 2018, 'This Is It' celebrated 50 years in business. The 'Urban Milwaukee' website reported as follows:

    Proclaimed as Milwaukee's oldest running LGBT+ bar, This Is It! will celebrate its 50th anniversary this weekend with three days of events beginning Friday, August 3rd at 5:30 p.m. Located at 418 E. Wells St., the downtown bar will kick everything off on Friday night, with an outdoor open bar from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., just before the official opening ceremony at 6:30 p.m.

    Karen Valentine will host the opening ceremony with commemorations for the milestone the bar has achieved. Others who will speak include Michail Takach as the keynote speaker, providing some history of the oldest gay bar in Milwaukee, along with additional commendations from U. S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, County Executive Chris Abele, and more to be announced. It is also rumored on social media that Mayor Tom Barrett will attend sometime during the celebration as well.

    This Is It! is not only the oldest running LGBT+ bar in Milwaukee, but in the entire state of Wisconsin. The bar was opened in 1968 by then owner June Brehm, who had been previously running a supper club in Butler (a village in Waukesha County) before wanting to move to downtown Milwaukee. After searching for a vacant building in Downtown, she stumbled upon the prime location at 418 E. Wells St. and proclaimed "This is it!" The rest, as they say, is history.

    Although June passed away in 2010, she handed ownership of the bar over to her son Joe Brehm, where he operated it for a while until recently handing over operations to George Schneider and Michael Fisher (aka drag personna 'Trixie Mattel'). Urban Milwaukee's Michael Horne wrote a comprehensive and fun story about the bar's history back in 2014.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 hit, and the bar (along with millions of other bars, restaurants and other businesses around the world) was temporarily forced to close in March 2020 to reduce the spread of the disease. During it down-time, the business installed large plexiglass sheets over the bars to shield customers and bartenders. When the bar reopened around July 2020, legal capacity was temporarily greatly reduced and customers had to remain seated with social distancing and face mask use by staff and customers enforced. Through the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years holidays, large capacity-size crowds were essentially banned and (like all bars) the ambiance was subdued.

In February 2021, Michael Fisher (drag superstar Trixie Mattel, who came to national fame competing on the Ru Paul's Drag Race All Stars in 2018) became not just a co-manager, but a co-owner of This Is It. One of her primary reasons given was to ensure the bar survived after COVID, as it was one of the bars most responsible for the beginning of many drag performers' careers. (See writeups in: Out.com; Them.Us; and JSOnline.)

COVID restrictions were gradually reduced, and about June 1, 2021, mask use by those vaccinated was lifted and capacity limits raised back to pre-pandemic levels. 'This Is It' had survived the pandemic-- but many bars and restaurants across the country had been forced to close permanently, having been unable to sustain a year or more of no or greatly reduced business. Even such national gay bar landmarks as The Stonewall and Julius' in New York City had nearly gone under. The bar landscape was drastically changed.

By late 2021, things were back to normal. The bar was once again popular and often packed, with favorites including Thursday evening "drag bingo" and drag shows many weekend nights.

In late summer of 2022, several cable programs were released (primarily on Netflix) that sensationalized the Jeffrey Dahmer murders. Bad feelings about those terrible murders still resonated in the LGBTQ community. In response, 'This Is It' was one of most LGBTQ bars that banned Dahmer costumes for Halloween 2022 parties. 'This Is It' posted the following on their Facebook page:

    In solidarity with our other queer establishments, this Halloween weekend, we reserve the right to refuse access to anyone wearing hateful, racist, and otherwise disrespectful costume choices. This includes anyone dressed as Dahmer. Please be safe & have fun this weekend! (bolding by the webmaster to emphasize)

 

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 Joe was bartending and anyone had a question about an old movie, or song on the great jukebox, Joe knew the answer. A walking encyclopedia of so many things. I'm so honored to have befriended such a nice and supportive man. With a twinkle in his eyes. And mischievous! Many fun "theme" parties for my birthdays were had there at "Tit's" All so precious, as is he.

      -- Darcie M. (aka Darcie McClarskie), via email (2017)
       

The bar celebrates its 50th anniversary in August 2018. (See article on the UrbanMilwaukee web site.)

Read the article about This Is It!'s 40th anniversary from the November 2008 issue of Q-Life newspaper.
 
This Is It featured in the book "Bottoms Up" (copyright Wisconsin Historical Society Press)
Read the book's chapter on This Is It here.
 
This Is It included in an article "Tolerant Times" in
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2012 (copyright JSOnline)
Read the article on JSOnline.    -OR-     Read the article here.
 
Mayor's Proclamation of Joe Brehm Day
March 31, 2016
U.S. Senator Baldwin Letter
March 2016

 


Advertisement, May 1973


Advertisement, May 1979


Photo of the bar from sometime in the 1970s
(posted to Milw. LGBT History 'Facebook' page;
copyright Darcie L Muckler)


Advertisement, May 1991


Halloween, October 1995


Owner Joe Brehm, May 2004


Interior, May 2004


Interior, May 2004


George Schneider (left) and Joe Brehm (right), c2014

Credits: Contributors via "History of Gay Milwaukee" Facebook group and Jamie Taylor.
Special thanks to Darcie L Muckler for archival photo and recollection.
Web site concept, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: October-2022.

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