On March 16 at the 2022 Wisconsin Governor’s Conference on Tourism, nominees for the Governor’s Tourism Awards included Jillian Macson. She got to meet the Governor because her work with Eli Wedel as a co-owner of the Pyramid Event Venue in Lake Mills was being recognized for contributions to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in Wisconsin tourism. In short, Pyramid is a destination for live music, community events, and good food in a radically inclusive atmosphere.
How Jillian and Eli opened Pyramid is a story that began in childhood.
“We’ve known each other all our lives, since birth really,” explains Jillian. “We dated in high school for several years and were really just best friends. When we got to college we realized who we were and came out to each other.”
Their close friendship was a bond that continued through college and even moving to Los Angeles together to work for big-name clothing companies. The 2008 recession made them rethink their careers and move back home to Wisconsin. Their friendship remained close even though they lived apart so Jillian could pursue other opportunities in Door County and Chicago, and Eli could advance a career in photography. Being apart didn’t last too long.
“When I decided to move back to Lake Mills, Eli had a space open in his home,” remembered Jillian. “We became roommates again and it was like everything came full circle. I didn’t like my job in Madison, and Eli was ready to try something new. That’s when we started talking about creating something that brought some of the big cities we lived in back to our community.”
In early 2020, Eli and Jillian learned about a restaurant that would soon be on the market. They contacted the owner and bought the business. They set out to re-envision the space, working with a contractor to renovate the building to support live music, community gatherings, and private events. They announced the start of their venture on February 25, 2020. Then Covid hit.
“Since we were brand-new and focused on renovations, we didn’t feel the impact of stay-at-home orders right away,” said Eli. “We were outside of Dane County, so the limits on businesses in Madison didn’t apply to us. We could start with a 25% capacity and provide a safer space right from the start. We were seeing people from Madison and Milwaukee come to see live performances, but we’re still in a small town that’s very family-oriented where not many folks were going out to bars to hear live music.”
Over time, Pyramid found its groove to provide live entertainment nearly every evening. It now features monthly drag shows, bimonthly drag bingo, karaoke, and a full range of live music in every genre. They even hosted an Elvis impersonator. Eli says their success is because of their inclusive approach and desire to offer something for everyone. Pyramid’s building has been a pizza place for many years, and they continue to offer award-winning pizza baked in a well-seasoned, 40-year-old oven, plus pasta and salads. They say the spicy cheese curd pizza is their most popular dish.
With their life-long friendship, Eli and Jillian know each other well. Jillian says they compliment each other and can bring a 50-50 partnership to managing the event space.
“Because we dated for three plus years in high school, came out to each other, lived with each other, and now have started a business together, the biggest thing is communication,” said Eli. “If you don’t communicate well, nothing is going to work well. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We can be a kind of yin and yang in our business relationship. It’s not like some husband-and-wife partnerships in business that don’t end well.”
Supporting each other helps them celebrate successes, such as the recognition by the state tourism department, but also handle the small acts of critics in their smaller community. Jillian and Eli have dealt with some negative comments online and got a critical call by someone who was offended after Pyramid hung a pride flag. But overall their experience in being a visibly LGBTQ+ owned business in Lake Mills has been a positive and welcoming one.
“Growing up here, we knew there were some business owners who were gay,” said Eli. “By the time we moved back to Lake Mills, I was hoping there would be more LGBT representation and acknowledgement here. When there wasn’t any, that was something we both wanted with this business. We wanted to be more at the forefront about it. Because of doing that, the response from the community has been great. Our Pride events are our most popular events and people come from miles—even hours—away for drag bingo. It’s fun providing that experience for people in small towns.”
Stacy Harbaugh is a freelance writer and marketing specialist with over a decade and a half of experience in nonprofit communications and advocacy. In her free time she hones her DJ skills by playing polka and vintage soul and pop records, and celebrates the cozier side of our community.