For more than a decade, rumors rumbled that La Cage (801 S. 2nd Street, Milwaukee) was for sale, had been sold, or would otherwise be changing owners. Yet, the landmark nightclub—a cornerstone of the local LGBTQ community dating back to March, 1984—remained proudly and defiantly open for business.
On June 15, 2022, those rumors became reality.
“My last day at La Cage was June 15,” said former owner George Prentice, “and we closed on the business the next day. We close on the real estate at the end of June. It’s a done deal. It’s over.”
La Cage wouldn’t be here today without the long-time commitment of owners George Prentice and Corey Grubb. The couple managed the business on a day-to-day basis for more than 21 years before retiring in November, 2005. Twelve years later, the couple unexpectedly returned to Milwaukee to rescue the financially struggling club. Its owners had defaulted, and the future of the business was grim.
“I did not want to come back to La Cage,” said George. “I made no bones about it then, and I make no bones about it now. But I knew I had to. God knows what would have happened if I didn’t. It might have been sold at auction. I had to protect my interests, and I wanted to protect the legacy. We went to work putting the business back together. We had a lot of work ahead of us, and we left a lot on the table to do it. It was for sale from day one in 2017.
“We had legitimate offers over the years, but the pandemic really squashed any real movement,” said George. “Nobody would pull the trigger until the restrictions were lifted. Rightly so: we are a dance club and our dance floor was closed. Everyone had to remain seated. Nobody in their right mind would have taken over with those restrictions.”
Eventually, the deal came down to two competing bidders.
“It was a difficult decision,” said George, “but we’d like to see La Cage continue to serve what’s left of the gay community. This weighed heavily on us as we considered the offers.
“Ultimately, we chose Dave Wolz. We’ve known him a long time, we know where his heart is, and we know he can make La Cage better for the future,” said George. “It’s time for new ownership, new life, new ideas. This is good for us, good for him, and good for Milwaukee. Dave will be very hands-on and very committed to this business.”
George was only 20 years old—“not even old enough to drink!”—when he opened his first business, the River Queen (402 N. Water Street) in 1971. Later, he was involved in the Circus Disco (219 S. 2nd Street), and other ventures, before opening La Cage in 1984.
How does George feel—to finally step away—after over 50 years of running LGBTQ businesses in Milwaukee?
“I am 100% relieved,” said George. “This time around, it’s nothing but relief. We are entering a new business and a new chapter of our lives in Florida, and we are done with this chapter and this business in Milwaukee.
“When I look back, La Cage was all about the people,” said George. “We met so many good people here, and had so many good employees. Some of them now live near us in Florida. The good memories come back to us in bits and pieces, but it’s the overall collection of memories we created that matter.
“It was a fight in the beginning, but an important fight for the community,” said George. “Gay bars weren’t supposed to be so out in the open. But here we were, like us or not. We worked very, very hard to make it what it was, and it was fun building it, and watching it grow. We can’t think of another nightclub—anywhere in the country—that’s still open after 38 years.
“We also know it’s time to get off the stage,” said George. “We know it’s time to go. Nobody wants 70-year-olds running a nightclub.
“When we leave Milwaukee in early September, we don’t really have to come back ever again. Of course, we will, though: There’s a certain 40th anniversary party coming up in 2024. I can’t promise I’ll still be around for the 50th, but I’m not going to miss the 40th! That’s going to be a party to remember,” George said.
Meet the new owner
“It’s not something I ever imagined doing,” said Dave Wolz, new owner and operator of La Cage Nightclub. “It’s not something I really even thought about. And yet, here we are.”
Last winter, he was visiting George and Corey in Florida, who shared their readiness to move on. They wanted to move into new directions with their lives, but the burden of La Cage was holding them back.
“George said something sassy—which, if you know George, is not surprising—but it’s what he said that really stuck with me,” said Dave. “He said, ‘You know, if La Cage turns into something else, so be it, life will go on.’
“I couldn’t imagine the legacy and history of that space just fading away,” said Dave. “and suddenly, it seemed like it was moments from happening.
“While driving across Florida after our visit, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Who do I know that could take the reins for them?” said Dave. “I talked to a few people, and there was a legitimate interest from one group. As negotiations moved along, George and Corey started asking me about my own interests. I thought I was just bringing people together to talk ownership. I never thought of myself as a possible owner. Fortunately, George and Corey did.”
The potential deal fell through. And then, last summer, Dave’s father passed away suddenly. He found himself with an inheritance he hadn’t expected, as well as the rare opportunity to do something unexpected for the community.
“Another person was interested in the bar, but it was not someone from within the community,” said Dave. “I’ve seen what happens to legacy gay bars that are taken over by straight owners. I knew in that moment I had to find a way to make it happen. And, in the end, we did.”
What’s it feel like to be the caretaker of a community insitution?
“More than anything, I am humbled,” said Dave. “You have to understand: I didn’t just buy a bar, I bought the first gay bar I ever went to in my life. I still remember the first night I came here. I still think about where I was when I heard a certain song, or where I met a certain person, or where I was part of a particular moment. La Cage was the backdrop for so many important moments of my generation. There’s so much déjà vu when you’re in this space.
“And I’ve heard, from so many people, how thankful they are that La Cage will live on,” said Dave. “I’ve heard so many ‘thank yous,’ so many ‘alleluias,’ and so much support. Older people are relieved to know that La Cage will continue, and that young adults will have a place to make their own memories. There really aren’t that many gay bars left.”
Dave has no small plans for the future of La Cage. His first order of business is amplifying the second floor, “Montage Night Club” space, rechristened the Jackie Roberts Show Lounge in fall 2021.
“La Cage was at its peak in the late 90s,” said Dave, “when it offered multiple spaces, experiences, and memories. It’s a big space, and so much of that space is currently unused or underutilized. How can we make the second floor a destination? I foresee everything from a rotating schedule of live entertainment to LGBTQ non-profit events, from rising local talent to ticketed shows with national headliners. We want to bring back some of that M&M Club feel, with fish fries, brunches and bar food, so you can eat, drink, and be comfortably entertained under one roof. We want to bring back the days when people would come for the shows, stay for the dancing, and enjoy the neighborhood. The second floor is at the heart of all these plans, and we need to get that heart beating.
“La Cage is one of only a handful of dance clubs left in Milwaukee,” said Dave, “and we plan to pack that dance floor again. It’s the center of La Cage for a reason.”
He promises the cage above the dancefloor since 2005, will remain.
“Make no mistake, I know this place has seen its ups and downs,” said Dave. “I have seen it for myself. I have been a customer for more than 25 years, and I’ve seen good nights, and I’ve seen bad nights. I know it has not always lived up to the legend. This is a LGBTQ community space—and we want everyone to feel that they belong here. We will be working very hard to ensure that La Cage is a space that is open to all. Our future depends on it.
“Trust me, when I say that I am committed to making La Cage the best place it can be,” Dave said. “It’s more important to me than anything else.”