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The Wreck Room was Milwaukee's first cowboy/ levi-leather bar. Opened in July of 1972 by Wayne Bernhagen and his lover Bill Kindt, the bar had a rustic but tasteful theme. Its first advertisement, appearing in the August 1972 issue of the GPU News, stated "Find the 'Wheel' Thing at the Wreck Room- Milwaukee's new fun spot!", and sported a drawing of the front end of a car. A visitor to the bar would find the entire front end of an actual car sticking out of one wall in the back room of the bar.
By June of 1973, the Wreck Room became home to a newly formed club, Silver Star Motorcycle/ Leather Club. Begun as a motorcycle club, it evolved into a combined motorcycle/ leather social group, for which the Wreck Room was its sponsoring bar and hangout.
The August 1976 issue of the local "GLIB Guide" describes the business as follows: "For those who think macho. Hunky numbers, lively bar, funky layout and even a T-bird's front end. Sound too good to be true? It is. Entertainment on Sunday and Tuesday."
In its heyday, the bar had three rooms plus a small outdoor patio. In addition to a large almost triangular shaped front room, there was a long and narrow back room with another bar, and a dark and narrow outside patio used more for sex than anything else. Although the front bar was reasonably respectable most of the time, the entire back section was renowned for availability of sex, with its dark atmosphere and crowded space on Friday and Saturday nights. There are also many rumors of after-hours sex parties on the pool table and in the basement.
(For a time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, there was also a bar named "Wreck Room" in Sacramento, California, which shared a logo and showed both the Sacramento and Milwaukee bars' addresses in advertisements in the "Classic" softball tournament booklets. Those ads always included the statement "Independently owned and operated". It is unknown how the bars were associated.)
The Wreck Room for many years also housed a small store called "The Cell" just off the rear bar, selling leather paraphanelia. When the store was closed, the shop was secured by a large barred door (think jail door), adding to the overall ambience.
Over the years, the Wreck Room housed various interesting features. For a time the entire front end of a car was housed in the back room, appearing to be coming through a wall. The walls in the back room were covered with posters from other levi/leather bars around the country, and the wall nearest the pool table had several old hub caps mounted on it and was covered with a large section of chain link fence. A large barrel in the back room held peanuts in the shell free for the taking, and part of the ambiance was peanut shells all over the floor. A wooden cart with a front "yoke" or hitch carved in the shape of a large erect penis greeted visitors in the front room. (The cart was salvaged and later installed in Woody's Bar back room. See photo below.)
The Wreck Room was generous to its clientele. It was known to regulars for Wednesday pizza nights, where one got a ticket good for a slice of pizza with every drink. Many Sunday evenings had a variation of the then-new "Wheel of Fortune" TV game. The bar also had a variety of stage shows (bands or singing groups) as well as occasional contests. But the entire LGBT city looked forward to its legendary annual anniversary parties, when the two streets surrounding the bar were closed to traffic on a Sunday afternoon and the owner hosted a free corn roast and brat/ burger fry. (This tradition began at least by 1976: an ad for its 4th anniversary that year mentioned an outdoor party and food on Sunday Sept. 15th, and an indoor party with food on Sunday Sept. 22nd.)
Meanwhile, the owner of the bar, Wayne Bernhagen, was also extremely active outside the bar. Wayne and Tom Theis together were the force behind the Wreck Room Classic, a softball invitational tournament held every Memorial Day weekend and hosting teams from virtually every major city in the country during its heyday. The tournament went into decline when other cities also got into the tournament game; the draw of attending a Memorial Day tournament in Atlanta or New York was too much for Milwaukee to compete with. The tournament continues in reduced form, now sponsored by the SSBL, and usually held on a weekend with less competition.
Unfortunately, the owner Wayne Bernhagen was an early victim of the AIDS epidemic, and died in 1987. (Bernhagen and Kindt had ended their relationship in 1980, and Bernhagen bought out Kindt's interest in the bar at that time. But when Bernhagen died, he left the bar to Bill Kindt, who held it until the end.)
Although the bar carried on after Bernhagen's death, it began a gradual decline, partly as a result of his loss but also because the entire bar landscape was changing. The extremely popular Factory bar had moved away late in 1982, so the 3-bar triangle (Factory, M&M, and Wreck Room) was split up. Other levi/ leather bars opened, both the popular Boot Camp (which carried on into the 2000's), and another more short-lived bar in the Sydney Hih building.
But above all, the bar was being crowded out: the building that once housed The Factory was converted to a theatre, and the industrial building right across the street from the Wreck Room was converted into MIAD, an art/ design school. Although the bar had a final large street celebration for its 21st anniversary in August-Sept. of 1993 and another more low-key celebration of its 22nd anniversary in 1994, the bar was struggling.
Still, the end came more suddenly than many expected. After a few events are mentioned in LGBT periodicals in early June of 1996, the July issue of 'Wisconsin Light' newspaper announced the bar's closing, and printed a nearly-full-page article of the bar's history. The building had been bought by the art/ design school MIAD (the Milwaukee Institute for Art and Design) and was to be converted into a student center.
-- AFTER-STORY --
The building suffered a small fire in 2013, and was boarded up and vacant for some years. In 2017, a study was made to refurbish the building, and an Historical Designation study was done that same year with outlines the full history of the building. (The building was originally built in 1884 by Catherine Foley as a rooming house and saloon.) (Some renderings of the proposed remodeling in 2017 are on the Images page.)
The Wreck Room bar was the inspiration for a tavern, "the bar on the other side", in chapter 9 of a running story, The Beef Matson Mysteries written some years later by R. Chris, a prominent national artist who grew up and came out in Milwaukee. (Scroll to about 3/4 of the way down the story to see the artist's excellent rendering of the bar. The writer accurately describes the bar: "The bar had a slightly rustic feel to it with a worn wooden floor and large barrels filled with peanuts in the shell.")
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!
The Wreck Room - Probably my favorite bar. The Wreck Room had a no drag policy for awhile. This was in the early days when the bar was trying to go against the stereotype that gay men were all drag queens. It was more of the just jeans bar where you didn't feel like you had to dress up. Remember drinking a beer while sitting on the front end of the T-bird that stuck out of the wall, all the hubcaps and license plates on the walls. Lots of free peanuts in barrels around the bar and lots of shells on the floor. I found it easier to meet guys at the Wreck Room, it had a neighborhood feel and I felt safer there since some of the guys would watch out for you and it didn't seem to have the crazies or druggies that the dance bars would attract.
Shared ad with Sacramento bar
"The Cell" membership card
Credits: bar history by Don Schwamb.
Web site concept and design by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: November-2022.
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