The building that was to become widely known in gay men's memories as "The Diplomat" was built in 1916 by Gustav Frey and spent its earliest years as one of the last Pabst Brewing Company tied saloons. After Prohibition and the tied-house ban, the tavern began a 50-year journey through almost endless name and format changes.
During the 1940s, the bar was a popular live music venue called "Thelma's Back Door."
It became known as "The Diplomat" when Jim Koconis notes in his August 16, 1958 "Nightlife Chatter" article in the 'Milwaukee Journal' newspaper that new property owners Ed and Karen Gray had redecorated the old bar in flamboyant colors - purple, orange, white and green -- which made a real, loud fashion statement. The Diplomat Musical Lounge was peak midcentury kitsch.
At the time, West Juneau Avenue was a tired, rundown and slightly rough stretch of taverns, stretching all the way from Water Street to the Pabst Brewery. No wonder that the Milwaukee County Expressway Commission targeted so many nearby properties -- even those outside the freeway's path -- for "blight removal." Opening a high end cocktail lounge in this neighborhood was a gamble for 1958.
Thanks to aggressive advertising, the bar was an immediate, tremendous success. So why did the bar lose its license after only two months? Police testified that Ed Gray was a resident of Detroit, not Milwaukee, and was allowing "unlicensed persons" to operate the bar. The real story was that the Diplomat welcomed homosexual customers in large numbers -- and police suspected the local operators were "aunties" hired to bring in gay business.
The bar reopened as the Aristocat Musical Lounge in February 1959. However, police soon discovered the new licenseholder was Adam Lisheron, brother of Ed Gray's lawyer, Frank Lisheron. The license was revoked again in January 1960 as the committee "feared a subterfuge operation." On March 1, 1960, the Common Council ordered Adam Lisheron to sell the business or lose his liquor license.
The Diplomat / Aristocrat was cited several times for serving diluted liquor-- something commonly done at gay bars of this era, because gay clients were unlikely to complain. When inspectors found three diluted bottles of whiskey during a January 1960 visit, bartender Frank Lisheron was charged $150 for "mixing drinks in the bottle."
The location reopened in July 1960 as Mr. Kelly's, featuring brass jazz bands for several years. It was later known as Gallery Lounge (1961) and Rickey's Yum Yum (1963) with long periods of vacancy in-between and afterwards.
But its time as a gay men's mecca for a quiet and discrete drink was largely over, having lasted just the few years as The Diplomat Musical Lounge starting in 1958 through its brief run as Aristocrat Musical Lounge until it closed early in 1960. While brief, the Diplomat/Aristocrat era was a very significant one. The Pink Glove was during this same timeframe and usually gets all the credit for being the first "deliberate gay bar" (marketed as catering to gay people) but from all accounts of the men who were there, something similar was going on with the Diplomat as well. Contributors remember this as a "New York style piano bar" and "high end cocktail lounge" that came and went quickly. At a time when word of mouth was the only "gay guide," someone sure got the word out to the gay community that a new bar was opening.
The building survived until 1989. Its later history is recounted by Michail Takach:
The Flame Nightclub, opened by Derby Thomas in 1946 at 1315 N. 9th St., moved here in April 1964. The liquor license was renewed in July 1964, with the caveat that a 30-day notice could be served if freeway construction was ahead of schedule. Yet, somehow, the property evaded demolition as it was deemed to be "saveable."
Derby Thomas died in October 1964. His widow, Loretta Whyte, chose to reopen The Flame after his death, but it didn't last long.
By November 7, 1965, the Milwaukee Journal commented:
"Until recently, about a dozen taverns operated on the north side of Juneau Ave. between N. 3rd and N. 7th Sts. But Tavern Row on W. Juneau Ave. isn't much of a temptation anymore to the man with a heavy thirst. Most of the small, dimly lit taverns that stood nearly shoulder to shoulder on the north side of the avenue are now dusty, vacant shells waiting to be torn down. Neon lights still twinkle outside a few, but only a few."
"The invasion of freeways accomplished what police crackdowns and the clamor of neighborhood and civic groups could not achieve: a weeding out of the taverns from this area. The land has been taken for the Park Freeway, due to be completed in 1971."
"It was probably the longest block in Milwaukee for the man with a thirst. The area has long been the target of police. Call girls operated from many of the taverns, few of which could ever possibly meet health codes."
But somehow the corner building at 701 W. Juneau survived this round of demolitions, perhaps partly because of its historic status as a Pabst Brewing Company tied house.
By October 1966, the building was again vacant -- and remained vacant until it became Irene's Club Continental sometime in 1969. Irene's was the scene of scandal in August 1972 when three off-duty people officers provoked a disturbance at the bar, made racial remarks and chased and struck an African-American bartender. Operator Irene Spivey Salter was convicted several times, including allowing minors and prostitutes to loiter in the bar, and for being the inmate of a gambling house.
By 1979, the building was a popular MATC hotspot known as "Z Bar," or the Z-Building Pub and Grill. In August 1989, MATC voted to purchase four blocks of land, including the Z-Building Pub, to expand its downtown footprint. Down went the historic Z-Bar, to be replaced with a parking lot.
Curiously, 701 W. Juneau had survived the near-total demoliton of West Juneau Avenue's Tavern Row in the 1960s because of its historic "status" as a Pabst Brewing Company tied house. However, no one came to its rescue in 1989 -- not even one Pabst or historic preservationist.
Credits: contents, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
History of The Diplomat by Michail Takach.
Last updated: April-2021.
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.