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Club 546 was the name used for this long-time bar in its final years in existence. Located in the Royal Hotel at the corner of 5th and Michigan, the bar had long been a gay and lesbian bar, cafe, and meeting place, and continued to hold a strong clientele to its final days.
This bar was known simply as the Royal Hotel Bar when it first began to be frequented by gay people. By about the mid-1930's it was already recognized as a popular meeting place for gay people in the Milwaukee area. It had various financial and business turns, and was sold in 1969 and after a renovation, briefly re-branded as The Buckskin Inn. But it still struggled and was sold at auction early in 1971. (See ad below for a sheriff's auction in 1971 connected to that failed venture.)
Historian Michail Takach compiled the following history of the Royal Hotel for his book, "LGBT Milwaukee". (That book seeks to make the story of LGBT Milwaukee accessible, visible, and portable for future generations--before it is too late. The Royal Hotel and its bars is one of many early LGBT landmarks documented in the book.):
From opening day on February 27, 1926, the Royal Nixdorf Hotel was a girl down on her luck. Original owner Ernest T. Nixdorf lost the hotel in the Great Depression, his daughter to an alienation lawsuit, and his wife to a self-inflicted gunshot. Reopening as the Royal Hotel in 1929, the 138-room lodging was the scene of continuous police activity. When runaway girls went missing, they were often found at the Royal. When bank robbers, liquor runners, and drug dealers were apprehended, they were usually caught at the Royal. When “deviates” were arrested, it was usually in the basement restroom of the Royal Hotel.
After the 1931 closing of the St. Charles Hotel in City Hall Square, the Royal inherited its manager, staff, and reputation for relaxed morals. By the mid-1930s, gays and lesbians began to gather informally at the hotel cocktail bar and café, taking advantage of an open, accepting atmosphere. The bar manager openly provided financial and civil support for anyone arrested in “bathroom busts.”By 1968, the Royal was so derelict that the Milwaukee County Board sought to convert the hotel into a jail. Plans collapsed, and the Royal was sold in 1969. Eager to change the hotel’s image, the new owner renamed it the Buckskin Inn. After $100,000 in renovations, the Buckskin still did not attract new clientele. The building was sold at sheriff’s auction in 1971 to Western Bank, which narrowly outbid the Balistrieri family.
By October 1971, when the GPU News began publishing its monthly GPU News, the bar space in the Royal Hotel really "came out of the closet" and opened its first full-force, liberated gay bar, 'The Stud'. They advertised in the new 'GPU News' as 'The Stud Club' with a "large dance floor". By late 1972 is was advertised as Michelle's Club 546, sometimes mentioning both a Gallery I and Gallery II, with the former being a 24 hour Cafe with more casual sandwiches etc., and the latter being a more formal Dining Room.
Michelle’s was incredibly popular, offering variety shows, go-go dancers, polka parties, drag balls, and a 24-hour café. Whether known as The Stud, Club 546, or Michelle's, this space was unabashedly an out-and-open gay bar.
Researcher Michail Takach discovered on NewsBank in Feb-2020 that "Misty Dawn, early transgender superstar and unlikely civil rights activist, moved on to striptease performances at Michelle's (at the Royal Hotel) when the Ad Lib went back to all-girl shows in 1972 and the City of Milwaukee eliminated misogynistic laws targeting B-Girls and female impersonators -- making it far more easy for straight and gay bars to host drag shows."
But Milwaukee officials began redevelopment negotiations in 1970, and finally agreed on terms with Blue Cross Blue Shield in 1973 to build a new Insurance headquarters building on the site.
According to an article in the September 1973 issue of the GPU News, Michelle's bar would be closing its doors for the last time on Sunday, September 23, 1973, after some 40 years of being a haven for gay people to meet and socialize- surely the end of an era. At the closing party, guests received keys to their most memorable rooms as parting gifts.
The hotel was flattened in 1974. “So there goes the shabby old Royal Hotel, and good riddance,” noted the Milwaukee Journal. “That’s the best kind of blight elimination.”
But such a sad end to one of Milwaukee's first true LGBTQ landmarks.
Credits: initial contents, web site concept and design by Don Schwamb.
Additional research and commentary by Michail Takach;
Last updated: January-2021.
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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.