Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Did the Mafia control Wisconsin's earliest gay bars?

It's an oft-repeated rumor spouted across generations: Organized crime was involved in financing and protecting Wisconsin's earliest gay bars.

But it's not entirely true. And it's also not entirely false, either.

On this "Be Seen" bonus episode, co-host Michail Takach and I dive into this topic to definitively answer the question: "Was the Mafia involved in Wisconsin's earliest gay bars?"

In an exclusive interview with Gavin Schmitt, author of "Milwaukee Mafia (Images of America)," we discuss his years of research poring over unsealed FBI files that mention specific locations and people in Milwaukee.

We also learn about Takach's favorite story in all of Wisconsin's LGBTQ history, which centers on a mob-run business called the Ad Lib.

"Although multiple people were eventually licensed as the bar’s legal owner, the Ad Lib was always part of Frank Balistrieri’s nightlife syndicate," according to the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project's website. "Balistrieri, his family and associates had deep involvement in almost a dozen bars between the 1950s and 1980s. By 1966, Balistrieri was truly one of the most powerful men in Milwaukee, and 4th and Wells was the heart of a growing empire."

As the years went on and entertainment costs rose, the Ad Lib switched over from hiring the best jazz entertainers in the world to a more risqué model that swapped musicians for stripping female impersonators. Somehow, the fact these performers were mostly genetic men was lost on the audience of straight sailors often in attendance, according to Takach.

Listen to this week's bonus episode above, and be sure to catch all six episodes from the original series.

Director of Digital Content | Radio Milwaukee