Stewarding a Legacy

by | Nov 1, 2021 | 0 comments

  • George Schneider outside This Is It.
  • June behind the bar serving up drinks, circa 1970. Photo courtesy Wisconsin LGBT History Project.
  • Photo of the bar from sometime in the 1970s. Photo courtesy Wisconsin LGBT History Project.
  • George Schneider & Joe Brehm , circa 2014. Photo courtesy Wisconsin LGBT History Project.
  • George Schneider at This Is It.
  • New co-owner Trixie Mattel at This Is It in May. Photo courtesy Ariel Kassulke for This is it.
  • George Schneider at This Is It.

Like many little girls, Sarah and Jessica loved to go shopping with their grandmother. They have warm memories of their trips to Mayfair, where they’d eat lunch at the department stores, and Grand Avenue, where they’d visit the lady who played the grand piano. Grandma always dressed like a celebrity: fur coats, leather pants, and always a splash of Opium perfume.

“My grandmother had really good taste,” said Jessica. “We spent a lot of time at local restaurants like Watts Tea House, Karl Ratzsch’s, and Mader’s. We always had a lot of fun!”

At the time, the sisters didn’t realize their grandmother, June Brehm, really was a celebrity. She was the owner of This Is It, one of the city’s most popular and longest-running gay bars; a well-known businesswoman and community leader; and, to her customers and friends, an unstoppable “force of nature” who always got what she wanted, or else. 

“My grandma always said she was the Gay Queen!” said Sarah. 

Established in 1968

“These places, they would take me, I just couldn’t even believe them,” Catherine “June” Brehm said of her gay friends and the bars they frequented during an interview in October, 2008. “First, you had to find the damn place, which was never easy. Then, if they even let you in, you have to pay to get in. And for what? Rooms so dark you couldn’t see a single face. If you were lucky, there was a tiny little record player playing scratched records. And they were filthy. The toilets never flushed. The drinks were always watered down. And there was never any ice!”

By the late 1960s, Milwaukee already had nearly three dozen gay bars. While there were many places to go, almost all of the bars were owned by straight people capitalizing on a community who wouldn’t complain about the quality of the experience. (Only Your Place, opened by Jim Dorn and lover Jerry Stinson at 813 S. 1st Street in May 1965, really catered to their gay clientele.)

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“I decided I was going to find these guys somewhere better to go, even if I had to open the place myself,” said June. “And that’s exactly how it happened. We looked at a bunch of places, and at the end of the day, we got here. I said, This Is It, we’re not going anywhere else.’ And we opened a new kind of bar.”

This Is It opened in August 1968—nearly a year before the Stonewall Riots—at a time when, technically, serving alcohol to known homosexuals was illegal. Old-school laws banned gay men from congregating at any place of business, and business owners could lose their licenses for allowing them to do so. If anyone actually looked at the law books, they’d see a law that forbade two men (who did not know each other) from sitting on bar stools next to each other, and another one that allowed for their arrest if they turned to face each other while seated. 

Ten years earlier, the Pink Glove (631 N. Broadway) was shut down for ignoring the laws. As a woman navigating a business dominated by men, June already had a rough road ahead of her. Now, she was opening a gay bar. Wasn’t she worried about public scorn or scrutiny?

“You know, I never really thought about it,” said June in 2008. “Everyone was so busy telling me I was crazy for wanting to run my own business. You’re a mother with two children, can’t you just be happy with what you have? You’re a woman, what do you want with a bar? These questions didn’t make any sense to me. They called me stubborn, silly, stupid—on and on! I just couldn’t let people fill my head with nonsense. I do remember one person, a gay friend, saying June, you’re going to get yourself in trouble, and for what? And I said, because I know it needs to be done, and if that gets me in trouble, then so be it.” 

June, who already had a successful restaurant in Butler, envisioned This Is It as a “friendly bar and grill.” Her business partner, Michael Latona, was onboard with the plan. But when tensions arose between the luncheon crowd and the cocktail crowd, June started losing her gay business. Closeted customers weren’t interested in mingling with a straight crowd, especially co-workers who might “out” them to their employer.

June made a historic decision: rather than losing her loyal customers and friends, she would rather lose money and shut down the luncheon operation. Latona, concerned about lost income and even more concerned about earning a “gay bar” reputation, challenged her decision.

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“So I pulled out two $20 bills and asked him, you tell me which $20 is gay and which $20 is straight,” said June in 2008. “He looked totally confused and just kept getting redder and redder in the face. I don’t know if he was going to have a stroke or what! I just laughed and said, ‘Until you can tell me what the difference is, I’ll serve whoever I want to serve, and you can shut the hell up!’” 

Latona exited the business in June 1970, and June became sole owner of This Is It going forward. 

Urban renewal, freeway construction, and gay liberation transformed the local community, as Walker’s Point became the epicenter of gay life in Milwaukee. The long-running Seaway Inn (744 N. Jefferson), a companion bar to This Is It, was demolished in 1971. 

But This Is It continued to thrive, because, as Joe Brehm said in 2008, “My mother took care of her people. Regular customers knew they would be taken care of. When someone was sick, she’d call them up and check in on them. When someone lost their job or broke up with their boyfriend, she’d invite them in for a drink on the house. She was really in tune with what people were feeling, all the time.”

“She wasn’t just a shoulder to cry on, she would be straight with them. If someone bounced a check, they would avoid coming in, because nobody wanted to be scolded by June in front of everybody. So, after a while, she would call people at home and scold them in private. And what do you know, as soon as that check got repaid, all was forgiven, and they were back in good graces. When it came to ‘her boys,’ she held no grudges.”

“Some of these guys, they’d been disowned by their families, so they had nobody to call when things got rough. They always knew they could call June.”

Enter Joe Brehm

Karen Brehm married June’s son Joe in 1968, shortly after June opened the bar. Her parents also ran a tavern business, but she never expected she nor Joe would become involved in either of their parents’ bars. They were living out of state at the time, with no real plans to return to Wisconsin.

And then, one night in 1981, June called. 

She needed help. Her bar manager was leaving—either to retire, move out West, or both, depending on who you ask—and it was too much for her to manage alone. So, Joe returned to Wisconsin, ultimately becoming part-owner after June suffered a stroke later that year. (Joe’s father, Joseph T. Brehm Sr., passed away in 1984). This Is It was now a family business.

“Forty years ago, it was a different time and place,” said Karen, who became a substitute teacher in the Franklin school system. “Sure, you could talk about running a bar, but you didn’t mention it was a gay bar.”

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As Joe took on more and more responsibilities, his daughters were invited behind the scenes. Sarah tagged along on trips to the Third Ward to buy lemons and limes, or on trips to Fein Brothers for bar supplies. Her dad would make them Shirley Temples and set up the jukebox so they could play songs. Later, they learned how to use the soda gun themselves, and were always sure to add generous amounts of grenadine. Sometimes, customers would introduce themselves, including a man who opened his wallet and showed them a picture of his pet tiger. 

Later, Sarah and Jessica would spend extra time with her father and grandmother at the bar, doing registers, washing glasses, running errands. 

“My best memories are going to Radio Doctors (later Rose Records) with my father to shop for new releases,” said Sarah. “He would bring the old records home, and we would play them on the record player and jump on the bed. It’s probably why, to this day, I’m still obsessed with learning about new musicians and finding new music.”

She remembers being surprised by how many people knew her father and grandmother on a first-name basis. They seemed to know everybody in Milwaukee.

‘When people needed help, Joe always did the best he could,” said Karen. “He was always there to hear them out and help them find the help they needed. He helped out so many people over the years, and never asked for anything in return. I remember all the thank-you letters he used to receive, but I don’t know anything more specific. Joe was always very careful to protect his customers’ privacy.”

This Is It was always open on holidays to welcome those whose families didn’t welcome them—complete with complimentary, home-cooked meals. 

AIDS comes to Wisconsin

Shortly after the Brehms returned to Milwaukee, an unwelcome visitor made itself known in the state. In 1982, the first AIDS case in Wisconsin was reported. 

“The community was just devastated,” said Karen. “Family friends, people Joe and June had known for years, people they really deeply cared about, were getting sick and dying so fast there wasn’t even the chance to say goodbye. Joe kept things pretty close to his chest, but I know he was hurting. The whole family of friends was hurting.”

“By the early 1990s, my father was going to a lot of funerals,” said Jessica. “Before I even understood that the bar was a gay bar, my father explained that some people weren’t accepted by their families for who they were. He wanted This Is It to be a fun place where everyone could go for a nice time.”

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“When I was younger, my father always conveyed the importance of accepting others, based on the experiences of his customers,” said Sarah. “He never used any customers’ names, but he shared many examples of why this was so important.”

By the 1990s, This Is It had become less of a hot spot and more of a cocktail lounge frozen in time. With minimal remodeling since 1968, the quieter, calmer space (and its aesthetics) appealed to refined, older gentlemen seeking the same, outside of the wilder Jazz in the Park or Bastille Days nights that brought in tourist crowds. Even in the 1990s, most customers still used the back door as the main entrance, as they still weren’t comfortable being seen in a gay bar.

“My father worked very hard to keep the bar open,” said Jessica. “There were a few times money was tight, and he almost didn’t make it. I’m proud of how hard my dad worked to keep it going.”

Changing times

This Is It celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008. The bar enjoyed a rebirth of cocktail culture, powered by Mad Men, and a massive surge in millennial popularity. No longer known as “The Wrinkle Room,” This Is It appealed to a new generation who loved its dark woods, stained glass pendants, red carpeted walls, and black leather banquette booths. A new generation of bartenders began to curate a jukebox powered by personalized mix CDs. However, the collection still served up everything from Sinatra to Streisand to Sarah McLachlan to Scissor Sisters. 

After four decades, June was still coming into the bar every morning to oversee the business functions and bar cleaning. She admitted she was slowing down, but she liked being part of the daily business, even if she was in and out of the bar long before it opened for the day. 

June passed away on January 3, 2010 at the age of 92. Although she always threatened to write a book about her customers and their crazy lives, no known book was ever started.

Joe took full ownership of the bar but knew even he couldn’t manage it alone. In fall 2010, he reached out to regular customer George Schneider to fill a shift.

“I still remember the day Joe said, ‘Want to make some extra money tending bar?” said George. “It was November 5, 2010, and I had just left my job opening The Iron Horse. He needed help for Monday happy hours, and I said sure.”

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Mondays quickly turned into two-to-three days a week. Before George knew it, Joe was talking to him about a management position. 

“He knew what I was capable of,” said George, “and he asked me to consider this while I found my way. At the time, I really wanted to get back into hotel and hospitality management.”

When George notified Joe that he’d accepted a management job in Dallas, Texas, Joe intercepted those plans with a special request.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you come to lunch with me and let’s talk,’” said George. “When we sat down, he said, ‘I have a proposal for you. How would you like to step into the business as a partner? I’ve had a lot of people express interest in managing, buying, and taking over the bar, but you’re the only I’ve ever had here that I’d entrust it to.’

“My initial thought was, ‘This is a family business,’ and I didn’t want to take this away from his children. Joe said, ‘No, they have careers of their own, and they are not interested in becoming bar owners.’ He’d really thought through this for a long time. He reviewed the serious offers he’d received, and he wasn’t comfortable with any of them. He’d seen so many bars come and go over the years, and he knew what made a bar survive. He wanted someone who would run This Is It with respect for its history and commitment to its priority. He wanted someone who would give it 100%, not treat the bar as an afterthought.”

“My father was not interested in having my sister or me work at the bar,” said Jessica. “He wanted someone that loved going to the bar to take over and continue the bar as long as they could. He wanted someone who would love it and have fun at work.”

“Most of all, he wanted someone who would carry June’s vision forward another 50 years,” said George. “I couldn’t believe the opportunity I was presented with. Joe needed someone of my experience and a next generation to step up and take ownership of the business, and we got along so well!”

The next 50 years

As people learned about the new partnership, some long-time customers expressed concerns.

“People thought we were going to change everything,” said George. “Some changes did need to be made, but we made those changes slowly and evenly so it wouldn’t be too much at once. Larger changes were done thoughtfully and carefully, so we could preserve the overall look and feel of the bar in the process.”

The black leather booths, a longtime favorite, limited capacity as the bar was getting busier, so they were replaced with high tables. The bar switched out the curated jukebox for an internet jukebox powered by mobile apps. The colorful carpeting, which required ongoing daily maintenance, was finally retired this summer. Next, George wants to remodel the bar’s bathrooms, which were built in another time—for another time.

On April 3, 2016, Joe Brehm passed away after a long battle with ALS. After six years, George suddenly found himself the keeper of a family legacy. He wants to be clear, though, that this was no inheritance.

“I did not inherit the bar from Joe,” said George. “I bought it outright in a business arrangement that I am still making payments on. There has been some confusion about this.”

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This Is It celebrated its 50th anniversary in August, 2018 with an exciting announcement. Neighboring restaurant space had become available, and This Is It would be expanding with a cabaret space that would greatly increase their capabilities and capacities. The expansion opened in January, 2019 with 18+ dance events, performance space, and a permanent exhibit from the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project. 

The pandemic presented universal challenges for all businesses, but LGBTQ businesses nationwide were hit hard. This Is It reopened as soon as it was safe to do so, carefully enforced COVID-19 protocols, managed fundraisers to cover operating costs, and offered a colorful schedule of virtual drag events, including a virtual Pride Weekend in 2020 when PrideFest Milwaukee was cancelled. Eventually, in-person performances and dancing returned.

In February 2021, This Is It announced that Brian Firkus (aka Trixie Mattel) had made an ownership investment in the bar.

“Some seemed to think Trixie came in with a bag of money and saved us from COVID. That’s not what happened,” said George. “Truth be told, the community saved us from COVID. They supported us with all their heart. They showed up full force even with all the restrictions. This Is It left the pandemic in a healthy financial situation.

“As much as Trixie loves our bar and community, she is a very astute businesswoman. She would never have signed up to save a failing business. This wasn’t a bar rescue,” he said. “Trixie’s homecoming has been a good thing for the This Is It family. When she’s in town, she is accessible and conversational with bar customers. She’s not in a roped-off VIP section or too good to speak to her fans. I think it’s inspiring for all of us, to know that someone at that level of stardom has not forsaken her roots or her fans. She’s really opened up some new opportunities for us!”

What does the future hold?

George is thankful for the long-running regular customers who have become part of the family. “There are so many. Scott ‘Marcia’ Munoz. Mark ‘Rose’ Maurer. Dale ‘Dahlia’ Servais. ‘Professor Mark’ Srite. Barb Larkin. Marvin Zingler. Dean Diplaris. Scottie. Tracey, who was once a famous bartender herself, at the Mint Bar. The list goes on and on.

“I know something personal about each of these people. We’ve spent significant time together inside and outside the bar. But it all started in the family room of This Is It. That’s where it all begins. You’re not just an order taker, [and the customers] are not just a source of income. Our connection goes way beyond that.”

Maintaining the family feel of the bar is really important to George.

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“Every time I interview a new staff member, I talk about this,” said George. “We are responsible for upholding a tradition. June wanted a place where people would be accepted as they are. She was very outgoing and took good care of people. Joe continued that: he could remember names, and favorite drinks, and something personal about everyone who walked into the bar. Even if you were there once every six months or once every six years, he remembered you. He instilled that in the staff who joined later, including myself. It’s not about making the drinks, it’s about treating people with kindness and respect, and always inviting them back. I do my best to keep that tradition going.”

“I’m so happy for Joseph,” said Karen Brehm. “He put so much of himself into that bar. He was so happy to find someone to manage the bar as well as he could do himself. George is doing fantastic. I am just so proud of his work. He’s done a marvelous job. Joseph couldn’t have found anyone better.”

“My dad always made it clear to me that he wanted someone within the LGBTQ community to take over the bar,” said Sarah. “I love hearing from people about the positive impact that my grandma, dad, George, and This Is It had and continues to have for the LGBTQ community. Surviving the pandemic is demonstrative of strong community love and support, combined with the business’s ability to adapt and overcome unprecedented circumstances.”

“I love all of the great ideas that George has come up with to modernize the bar,” said Jessica. “I’m grateful the bar continues to flourish.”

With due respect to the past, George is also embracing the future.

“We are wrapping our arms around the next generation,” said George. “That is really our drive, our mission, and our purpose.

“It’s easy to say we’re witnessing the death of the gay bar, but I have to tell you they’re needed more now than ever,” said George. “At the end of our 18+ nights, I see young people making connections they would not have made otherwise. I see them thriving in a safe space and finding their people. My last thought at the end of those nights is that we did good. We’re not force-feeding a bar environment, we’re fostering a sense of belonging.”

George also sees a more inclusive and diverse future for This Is It, one that challenges the white-washed reputation that challenges most of Milwaukee’s gay bars.

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“I can’t change who I am, but I can change how we welcome our community, the opportunities we create, and who we invite and celebrate as our family,” said George. “We’ve had our problems in the past, but so has the entire gay bar scene. The future is breaking down the barriers and moving forward together in a way that embraces all people. This isn’t virtue signaling, it’s evolution. Bars need to reflect our entire community because that community is our family.

“Emerging generations want more face-to-face contact, versus the ‘picture-perfect’ world of social media existence,” said George. “The pandemic really taught everyone how much they value human contact. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to create a world that we’re all in together, where we can call each other family and mean it.”

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