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Tracing the roots of Wisconsin's drag history, dating back to the 1880s

Wisconsin has a long history loving female impersonators. Before Milwaukee's City Hall was even built, drag was happening here, going all the back to the 1880s, and likely even earlier.

Drag is nothing new, even though it may seem like it with the rise of RuPaul's Drag Race and all the other media the show has sparked, including podcasts and YouTube shows. But Wisconsin's drag scene is well documented, and much older than you may even realize.

On this episode of Be Seen, Wisconsin drag legends BJ Daniels and Tempest Heat share firsthand experiences entertaining in the 1980s to the present, particularly how the community came together through drag benefits during the AIDS crisis.

Listen to the show below, and find a detailed timeline of Wisconsin's drag history, written by author, historian and Be Seen co-host, Michail Takach.

Writing by Michail Takach

Pre-European Conquest
The Potawatomi, Winnebago and Ojibwe tribes of indigenous Wisconsin recognized and celebrated "two-spirit" tribe members who transcended the concept of gender. The "M'netokwe" were highly revered in tribal society for their extraordinary wisdom. They often held more authority within their communities than the tribal leaders themselves. As a result, European conquerors targeted them for extermination.

June 7, 1884
Francis "The Only Leon" performs at Nunnemacher's Grand Opera Hall in City Hall Square. Leon is believed to be the first female impersonator to take the stage in Milwaukee -- at a time when female impersonators were only glimpsed in circus freakshows. Leon's show was such a smashing success that Jacob Litt booked Annie Hindle, the nation's first known drag king, to headline the Milwaukee Dime Museum later that year.

April 13, 1888
William Dorsey Swann, the first "drag queen," is arrested at his 30th birthday party in Washington DC. It was the first arrest for female impersonation in American history, the first time queer people fought back against police oppression, and the first time "queen" was used to describe a gender non-conforming person. Newspapers, including the Milwaukee Sentinel, scandalize the nation with stories of former slaves secretly gathering in women's clothing.

In 1889, Dr. Frank Lydston reports a "colony of male sexual perverts in Chicago and in every community of size," with Milwaukee listed among the eight "homosexual capitals" of America. The "fairy boy" movement, which involved young men and boys dressed in female attire for sex work, was no stranger to Milwaukee -- where police reported "disreputable" activities at various saloons in the Bad Lands of the Fourth Ward. After years of lawless immorality, the Bad Lands were redeemed by slum clearance by 1923.

November 16, 1893
On trial for grand larceny, Frank Blunt is revealed to be Annie Morris, a Canadian runaway who had been living as a man for 15 years. As a man, Blunt had worked in men-only spaces, gambled in men-only pool halls, and stolen more than a few saloon-keeper's wives. Blunt insisted that his past life as Annie was the deception and that Frank was the real person. He vowed to return to a man's life no matter what the verdict. Both the courts and the press were offended by Blunt's bold defiance and called for his punishment. After early release from prison in December 1894, the court-renamed "Francis" Blunt disappeared and was never heard from again.

August 26, 1899
Although female impersonation was all the rage at the riverfront parks and vaudeville theaters, men expressing as women offstage were still strictly forbidden. Millie Brown, aka Harry Hynes, is arrested outside the Alhambra Theater (334 W. Wisconsin Ave.) and accused of being the mastermind of a cross-dressing crime ring. Millie is sentenced to the House of Correction for living and presenting as a woman. No crime ring is ever found to exist.

River Street, the jewel of the Bad Lands and the city's best-known red light district, is ordered closed by the vice commission and new Mayor Emil Seidel. Miss Kitty's (219 E. State St.,) the most opulent bordello of all, was the first to be shut down. According to oral history, Miss Kity was the only madame who employed gay men and female impersonators among her harem, offering truly taboo trade for high-ticket customers.

After being arrested in Milwaukee for bigamy, Ralph Kerwineo is outed by his jilted "wife" as a biological woman. Initially branded a deviant who took advantage of a confused woman, Ralph charmed the courts and the media with his defense of being a simple workingman trying to make it in a cruel world. Although most charges were dropped, Ralph was misgendered throughout the trial and ultimately ordered to resume using his birth name and wearing women's clothing. After touring the country on the Orpheum vaudeville scene, Ralph was arrested twice more and was finally forced into compliance. He took a husband and moved to Chicago, where he settled down as Cora Seifert until his death in 1932. Ralph Kerwineo is buried in Lake View Cemetery.

Burt Savoy, Julian Eltinge and Karyl Norman, the reigning female impersonators of the vaudeville circuit, make multiple visits to Milwaukee -- and inspire national and local impersonators of their own. Savoy begins using the term "slay," still in use today by drag queens everywhere. Although their shows are considered wholesome family entertainment at the time, and not an extension of queer identity, Eltinge invests significant time and energy in maintaining a hypermasculine reputation for the media. Norman and Savoy… not so much.

July 11, 1928
The St. Charles Hotel in City Hall Square is seized by the federal government and closed for one year. In the largest lockdown of the Prohibition Era, federal agents report that not only is liquor flowing freely at the St. Charles, but the hotel has become a gathering place for degenerates, "bull daggers" and "fairy boys." One agent reports being solicited by chorus girls "who may not have been girls."

The Pansy Craze, one of America's first national expressions of queer community, erupts from coast to coast as soon as Prohibition ends. "Tough Chicago has an epidemic of male butterflies," wrote the Chicago Tribune, "with 35 'pansy parlors' or more." Inspired by Chicago's flowering, Milwaukee opens its first drag cabarets: Club La Tosca in the Third Ward; Chez Paree on 45th and Wisconsin; Bon Ton, College Inn and The Nut House downtown. Although the craze was short-lived, there were long-term social implications: people began to consider "sexual identity" for the first time, as they'd never realized that alternatives existed. However, not everyone was happy with the queering of America. By 1935, police, civic leaders, the press and even the FBI were so eager for social reform that they mutually fostered the "Moron Menace," a sensationalist series of sex-panic news stories. Cities across America began banning female impersonators -- and states began to pass sexual psychopath laws that had devastating effects on human lives.

The Jewel Box Revue, a traveling drag company with over 25 marquee stars, was founded by lovers Danny Brown and Doc Benner in Miami in 1936. Originally, the company would tour the northern U.S. during the summers and spend winters at their Miami Beach club. Later, the Revue moved to the Bal Tabarin nightclub in Times Square. Over the next four decades, they inspire not only a national circuit of drag cabarets -- including Finocchio's and The Beige Room in San Francisco; Club My-O-My in New Orleans, The 181 Club and Club 82 in New York City; The Diplomat in Detroit; the Garden Of Allah in Seattle; the Jewel Box Lounge in Kansas City; and The Tic Toc Club in Milwaukee -- but the return of drag as wholesome "straight" entertainment. Benner & Brown work very hard to distance the Jewel Box girls from the gay community; however, most if not all cast members were gay, and audiences were invited to dabble in a strange sort of sexual tourism simply by attending their shows. The Jewel Box Girls became TV and magazine celebrities, offering hair, makeup and charm advice to bored housewives and budding queens throughout the 1960s. After seeding America with queer visibility for two generations, the Revue retired in 1975.

At the height of McCarthy Era homosexual panic, Milwaukee's first hometown drag superstars, Adrian Ames and Billie Herrero, are making tens of thousands each week in the downtown nightclub circuit. Drag shows could be seen at over two dozen local clubs, ranging from high-end dinner theater at Lakota's to boxing ring numbers at Club Terris to ladies' luncheons at the Gay 90s to rough trade rendezvous at the Empress Burlesk House. Milwaukee's first gay neighborhood, the Plankinton Strip, has three full-time bars operating by 1952, but none of them welcome drag queens -- as they attract attention that closeted customers don't want.

The Black Nite Brawl, led by a young black woman of trans experience, ushers in a new age for Milwaukee.

Young queens, no longer feeling limited to stage personas, begin exploring with genderfluid identities in Milwaukee. The drag scene becomes a melting pot -- and a refuge -- for gay men and pioneering trans women. The Belmont Coffee Shop, Marc's Big Boy and Loop Cafe become safe havens for emerging gay, lesbian and gender non-conforming youth. Drag queens, formerly banished from men's bars, become welcome guests and performers.

Sir Lady Java, famed exotic dancer, brings the concept of female-impersonator-as-stripper to Milwaukee, and the Balistrieri crime family is here for it. Over the course of a few months, they convert the Ad Lib Nightclub (323 W. Wells St.) from a jazz club to a strip club to a drag show. By using men in their shows, the Balistrieris could easily circumvent obscenity laws that only applied to genetic women. The Ad Lib created a safe, empowering and lucrative workplace for Milwaukee's drag performers and early trans women, each of them hoping to "make it big" and join the national performing circuit. When Misty Dawn, a trans woman, was arrested for going totally nude on stage, the courts had to navigate whether or not gender affirmation surgery qualified or disqualified Misty for prosecution. The resulting trial rewrote the rules of nightlife by eliminating 1930s B-Girl laws that policed women's behavior in bars separately from men's.

Tiger Rose, Mama Rae, Ken W and John create "MGM: Miss Gay Milwaukee" to showcase the city's growing drag community. Each of Milwaukee's 10 gay bars would nominate an annual titleholder, who in turn would compete for the MGM title. The Pageant continued for over 25 years.

Milwaukee's first gay liberation organization, GLO, forms at UWM. Within a year, GLO is replaced by Gay People's Union and the far more militant Gay Liberation Front. These activist groups are later joined by the Radical Queens and the New Gay Underground. Only Gay People's Union survives to see 1980, but not much longer. Once focused entirely on civil, cultural and legal rights, GPU resources were overwhelmed by the community health needs of the AIDS crisis.

Michelle, a trans woman from St. Louis, and her "husband" Sam Mazur, open Michelle's Club 546 at the Royal Hotel (435 W. Michigan) The club is a smashing success, offering a five-day-a-week drag cabaret with hostess Winnie Storm. The property is demolished in 1974.

The New Riviera Show Lounge opens at 183 S. 2nd St. as a drag destination. The "Dolly Revue," presenting over a dozen local impersonators, had ambitious goals to bring drag back out of the gay bars. They were the first gay bar to advertise in local papers, radio and TV. Despite their success, a fired performer set fire to the bar on Easter Sunday, 1974, which destroyed not only the Riviera but almost the entire city block.

The disco craze arrives early in Milwaukee with the arrival of The Factory (158 N. Broadway,) with its light-up floors, pulsating lighting and gigantic devil head above the dancefloor. Ruling queen Tiger Rose builds the stage that later becomes the famous "Loading Dock" drag cabaret. The Factory becomes a place where queens can come out dressed, not to perform, but simply to see and be seen.

C'est La Vie (231 S. 2nd St.) opens as a man's bar that didn't admit drag queens. Later, owner John Clayton hires his own drag cast, managed by Mandi McCall, Tabitha Stevens, Brittany Morgan and finally, Misha Mahon.

Following the demise of the Riviera, the "Dolly Revue" survivors regroup as "MIlwaukee Entertainers Club," which used Ball Game (196 S 2nd. St) as their home base. The MEC produced the Miss Gay Wisconsin pageant for many years before disbanding in 1983.

The M&M Club opens in the Third Ward and begins offering live entertainment almost immediately. Over three decades, the bar becomes a tight-knit family, embracing their in-house queens Patsy Parks, Karen Valentine and Rona.

Club 219 opens at 219 S. 2nd St. and ushers in the Golden Age of Drag for Milwaukee. Owners Del and Tony change the rules of drag by recruiting top talent from the Baton Show Lounge, building high-quality, atmospheric stage experiences, and paying the staff a living wage. The bar becomes a launch pad for famous performers, while attracting national shows by Divine, Village People, Gloria Gaynor and Taylor Dayne. After showrunner Samantha Stevens leaves the business, Ginger Spice and the 219 Girls elevate the show to epic popularity.

1982 / 1983
Wisconsin becomes first in the nation to pass a Gay Rights Law in 1982 that prohibits discrimination baed on sexual orientation in employment, credit, housing or public accommodation. Confusingly, the law bans discrimination against homosexuals, but does not specifically legalize their existence. Fortunately, the Consenting Adults Bill of 1983 bluntly decriminalizes sodomy and overturns long-standing legal penalties for gays and lesbians. Wisconsin's status as the Gay Rights State is widely celebrated; however, these new laws make no protection whatsoever for discriminations based on gender identity. Forty years later, there are no Wisconsin laws specifically protecting trans and nonbinary people today.

La Cage opens at 801 S. 2nd St. The club is a smashing success with both gay and straight crowds, who come for the Vegas-level drag shows and stay for late night dancing. Over the next few years, the 219 and La Cage casts become local celebrities, while engaged in fierce competition for the best shows and largest audiences. Holly Brown & Company, considered one of the most talented drag casts in America, runs from 1988 to 1990.

Paris is Burning, a documentary film about the ballroom houses of New York, introduces middle America to not only the origins of voguing, but the life experiences of trans people of color.

PrideFest Milwaukee is held at Juneau Park for the first time, and also for the first time, the celebration includes a performance stage for drag shows and other talent.

November 1991
Holly Brown and Ginger Spice pass away -- within ten days of each other -- and the Great Golden Age of Milwaukee Drag comes to a sad, unexpected, early ending.

June 1995
Inspired by Stonewall25, and the cultural losses incurred by the AIDS epidemic, the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project is founded to protect, preserve and document our shared heritage before it's lost forever. Today, the Project is the state's largest collection of local LGBTQ multimedia.

UWM's LGBTQ Resource Center hosts the first Annual UWM Drag Show, a tradition that continues to this day.

Three local drag kings form the Miltown Kings at the 2004 UWM Drag Ball. The group continues until 2019.

RuPaul's Drag Race debuts. To date, Milwaukee has sent four local contestants (and counting) to the competition: Jaymes Mansfield, Trixie Mattel, Jaida Essence Hall and Joey Jay.

Hamburger Mary's, founded in San Francisco in 1972, opens its first Milwaukee location.

The Wisconsin Transgender Oral History project launches to capture the voices of trans elders, many of whom had their origins in the drag community.

RuPaul's Drag Con is founded in Los Angeles.

This Is It, one of the nation's oldest gay bars, expands its space to include a drag cabaret. The new venue becomes the center of live drag talent throughout the pandemic. Through streaming drag shows and even a "Virtual Pride," This is It keeps the drag economy thriving at a time when even the local pride festival was cancelled.

The Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project publishes Milwaukee Drag: Seven Generations of Glamour, the first comprehensive history of drag's role in our local culture.

Director of Digital Content | Radio Milwaukee