Madison’s Own Paul Lynde

by | May 1, 2023 | 0 comments

  • The Fairy Lewis in Labor Dragathon
  • The comedy team Harry & Bruno,
  • Michael Bruno with husband Jim Smith

Some people live life to the fullest, and Madison’s own Michael Bruno is no exception. I’m choosing to profile his contributions to the early gay scene of Madison in the 1970s, when queer visibility in the arts was limited to outlandish comedic characters, or self-hating, closet-hugging, depressed queens.

This Madison native was all about theater from day one. “The arts saved my life. The theater brought a huge dose of adrenaline into my creative life, gave me confidence, opened my eyes, opened my mind, and gave me a much more compassionate view of humanity. I am very blessed to have the arts as an integral part of my life,” said Bruno.

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As soon as he graduated high school in 1973, he got perhaps the role of a lifetime in the Madison Theatre Guild production of Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” as the limp-wristed character of Emory. Of course, such an uber-gay stage play being performed in the most liberal city in Wisconsin, attracted the attention of the local LGBT bars and business owners. Their sponsorship and promotion helped to propel the production to a highly successful run. Those who saw the show fell in love, not only with his characterization of the gayest character ever seen onstage, but with the man as well. Thus began a friendship with Rodney Scheel, the owner of the Back Door bar, which developed into a lifelong friendship/partnership that promoted queer culture in Madcity.

Bruno soon worked as the popular door guy at the Back Door, and was an integral part of creating performances, contests, and outrageous productions for the Hotel Washington complex and specifically Rod’s bar. His Mr. Rod’s contest became a destination show for Chicago’s leading bar owners, and forged new opportunities and relationships within the LGBT community in Wisconsin and Illinois at the time.

I met Michael Bruno at the Going My Way bar in downtown Madison located at 111

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West Main Street. I had a drag queen friend named Billy Van Lonen who introduced us. I was starstruck because I knew of his comedy team Harry & Bruno which were very popular in town as well as on tour. He was out and had no filter, and I admired that!

Did you know that the Miss Gay Madison pageant as we now know it was started by Michael Bruno? It was held at 111 West (the renamed Going My Way). It had new ownership and the venue wanted to get in on the show crowd that both Milwaukee and Chicago were enjoying at the time. I was convinced to enter the contest by friends, Bruno was super encouraging, and I was eager to make good because of the high regard in which I held him. I ended up winning the Miss Gay Madison contest of 1980.

Michael then started producing epic drag events that changed expectations about what a show could be. He gathered together people, including me, to do “The Fairy Lewis in Labor Dragathon.” It was an outrageous take on telethons. Under his guidance, we had queens taking pledges on the phone bank in the back of the stage! It also lent itself to his stand-up talents as Fairy Lewis, and provided a spotlight for others to shine. More shows followed including his infamous take on “The Gong Show” which featured judges like his mother, Mama B, and local celebrity news people who wanted to be a part of anything he did. These were great times for queer expression. The pre-AIDS club era was booming.

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In between his comedy gigs, wet jockey shorts contests held at Rod’s, and participation in all aspects of the Madison theater scene, Bruno was a creative force. With the kind of talent and energy as immense as his, Madison in the early 80s lacked the challenges that he loved to take. He had already proven that gay could play anywhere—as long as it was good! Striking out for LA in 1983 with his boyfriend at the time, he left his hometown behind to see if he could work his magic in Hollywood. Lives like his are the ones that should be in a book, stage production, or even a film.

Bruno’s LGBT accessibility and star power still continue to this day. He and his husband Jim live in Madison and are still in the thick of gay life. Right before the pandemic hit, his production company started work on a play documenting his wildly incredible life, and while it has been on hold for a bit, I think there is a need for these stories, this kind of joy, and this kind of person.

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The play will tell the life story of Michael Bruno from his early comedy days in Madison as half of the comedy team Harry & Bruno and then follow his experiences in Hollywood as a game show contestant coordinator, gossip columnist for Nightlife magazine, to the executive producer of many AIDS benefits for Aid for AIDS in West Hollywood. It will also highlight the journey of his road back home to Madison, his creation of WhoopDeDoo Productions, and his eventual job as the TV host of Bruno’s Best Bets and Backstage with Bruno on WISC-TV, Madison’s local CBS affiliate station. The production will use multimedia that showcases the numerous past projects that he has been involved in. His appearance on the game show Body Language, where he was a four-day champion appearing with Didi Conn and Abby Dalton, led to his job as a contestant coordinator on the game show High Rollers with Wink Martindale, and his jobs as talent coordinator on the TV shows Love Connection with Chuck Woolery and Love Stories with Kristian Alfonso.

Currently you can catch him on “Showbiz Buzz with Bruno” on Apple Podcasts presented by Mad’s Theatre. 

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