Where Everybody Knows Your Name

by | Jul 1, 2022 | 0 comments

Through the door, there came familiar laughter
I saw your face and heard you call my name
Oh, my friend, we’re older but no wiser
For in our hearts, the dreams are still the same

On Sunday, May 13, 2006, the M&M Club (124 N. Water Street) ended a 30-year run as Gay Milwaukee’s most beloved bar & grill. At the stroke of midnight, a tearful crowd sang “For the Good Times,” and the lights went out forever. Owner Bob Schmidt retired to California, the staff moved on to new ventures, and the story of M&M Club was over.

Until it wasn’t.

After an extraordinary 10-year reunion in May 2016, M&M veteran Ron “Rona” Thaite began planning a 15-year celebration for May, 2021.

“Rona wanted Bob to feel the love and appreciation so many have for the M&M Club,” said Karen Valentine. “After 29 years at the bar, he was a very devoted employee and very good friend to Bob. The bar was only open one year without him!”

Unfortunately, COVID-19 discouraged large indoor gatherings, so the 15-year reunion became a 16-year celebration instead. The eventual reunion, held on Sunday, May 8, 2022, attracted hundreds of M&M customers—so many, in fact, that the old tavern was literally bursting at the seams.

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“The biggest challenge is turning back the clock,” said Karen. “We are reverting a modern-day bar to what the M&M Club was in 2006. The second is getting the word out! It’s sometimes difficult to remember real names, as so many were known by nicknames, and not everyone is on social media. Third, making sure we can accommodate everyone’s budget, expectations, and any special needs. It’s all a labor of love.”

With a drag show hosted by Karen and Maple Veneer, featuring Shawna Love, Dita Von, and Shannon Dupree, and a video reel showcasing happy M&M memories across four decades, visitors were overwhelmed with a flood of emotion. As old friends reconnected, some for the first time since 2006, there wasn’t a dry eye to be found in the house.

“The M&M Club was home!” said Karen Valentine. “I was 18, a college freshman, and an admitted old soul. I felt as if I were in a real ‘gentlemen’s’ club. Show tunes, martinis, sophistication, ties and jackets. And yet, there was a glory hole in the men’s room! It was gay Cheers, before there was ever a straight Cheers. Many have tried to copy M&M, but there will never, ever be another.”

“I’ll always remember my first visit to the M&M Club,” said Steve. “I met my now-husband, his co-workers, and his friends for a Thursday night outing. This was the first close group of gay friends I ever had. The bar had a tremendous influence on my adult life. Today, like on that first night, coming to M&M felt like coming home.”

“My first time at M&M Club was in the early 80s,” said David. “I remember parking my car across the street from the bar and just sitting there watching people come and go. I was too shy, too scared, and still too closeted to go in. Eventually, I went in and ordered a soda, when a very large man asked me, ‘are you lost, little boy?’ I freaked out and headed out the door, and I heard behind me ‘you will be back, and we will make you a man!’ I later learned that man was ‘Doris Delago!’”

“I was beyond blessed to have been welcomed into that family,” said David. “I wound up working at M&M Club for over 16 years.”

Debi first went to M&M Club with Ron Geiman to visit a bartender friend. Cindy went after work with her co-workers from T. A. Chapman’s. After meeting at the M&M, they forged life-long friendships and sparked a romance that has spanned over four decades. “Some people we still see every week,” said Debi, “others only once or twice a year. But it doesn’t matter. It’s like time stood still. We just pick up right where we left off.”

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“I was thrilled to see the old gang back together, laughing, reminiscing, enjoying each others’ company….  Just like we did so many years ago,” said Mark. “We really lost a sense of family when we lost M&M. The people who went to the M&M Club were tight. This was a group that really cared about each other. Hell, we even went on vacations together—that the bar organized!”

“Milwaukee always had a large gay nightlife scene,” said David, “and we’ve seen many close over the years. But when M&M closed, we lost our anchor. We lost our foundation. We lost our favorite meeting place.”

“This was home for so many LGBT people in Milwaukee,” said Steve, “and it very much felt that way again at the reunion. When Milwaukee lost M&M Club, we felt a little hole in our hearts. That hole still hasn’t healed.”

“We lost that special place where everybody knows your name,” said Debi, “but love keeps on bringing us back together. It’s as simple as that!”

“People traveled from all over the country for the M&M Reunion this year,” said David. “It’s all for the chance to see—and share some laughs and tears—with those we don’t see often. And that is priceless. Gone way too soon, and sorely missed, were Buffy, Bill Lalacata, Wheezy, Ruth Ann, and so many more. We also lost chefs ‘Hazel’ and ‘Grunie.’ Many people were not able to make it, and sadly, we have lost so many more since the bar closed. I hope they were all smiling down on us and feeling the love.”

“It was all worth it just to see the smiles on Bob and Rona,” said Karen. “Looking around, I was awash in nostalgia. Having these faces, these smiles, these people gathered one more time, just one more time, was simply magical.”

“Whether you came for a beer, a fish fry, brunch, Boo-Boo’s weiner dog races, Possum Queen, 2-for-1 Thursdays with Rona, Larry, and Randy, once in your lifetime or three times a week, please keep M&M Club in your memories,” said David. 

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Are organizers aiming for a 20th reunion in 2026?

“Absolutely—and hopefully sooner!” said Debi.

“As long as Bob and Rona are up for it, I’m happy to help any way I can, as are so many others,” said Karen. “It takes a village to keep the village once known as M&M Club alive. My gratitude goes to the hard work, time, talent, finances, creativity, and drive of both Bob and Rona. I was honored to take a bow with these men at curtain call.”

Those were the days, my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
Those were the days, oh yes, those were the days.

For more information about the history of M&M Club, visit the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project website, mkelgbthist.org.

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