Long-forgotten, and yet near and dear to my heart, the tiny Empire Lounge (716 N. Plankinton Ave.) opened in 1940 as a corner bar, and was dramatically remodeled during the 1950s Milwaukee piano bar craze.
Owned by Alex Korchunoff, the Empire promised "discriminating drinks" and "atmosphere supreme" in a cozy corner space. For two decades, the Empire was famous for pouring stiff Manhattans for down low gentlemen under a gold leaf ceiling.
On May 29, 1975, Joseph Enea bought "Airlines Empire Lounge" (as it was then known) with every intention of making it a known gay bar. Enea, formerly of the Ad Lib strip club, knew that gay bars had massive profit potential, and was envious of Angelo Aiello's success at the Mint Bar. However, due to Enea's connections with the Balistrieri family, and specifically, the Ad Lib, he was unable to get a bar license. Enea overcame these challenges (presumably with a little help from his friends,) sold off the piano, and reopened the Empire Lounge as the city's smallest disco in summer 1975.
The August 7, 1976 issue of the local "GLIB Guide" described the Empire Lounge as follows: "Different forties decor hosts straights early, becomes gay as night falls. In heart of downtown." (Interestingly, the Empire Lounge had closed in 1975, so why it was still being listed in a local 1976 LGBT bar guide is a mystery!)
Operating as an eccentric piano bar for over 20 years, the Empire wasn't ready for the disco beats of gay liberation. Enea underestimated how much Empire Lounge patrons valued style, sophistication, and (most of all) privacy. After a 35-year run, the Empire Lounge closed in November 1975. A November 20, 1975 police report for Joseph Enea's arrest states that "subject was arrested selling off the fixtures of the closed and vacant bar which is 'being converted to diner space.' ".
The space later became the Clock Steak House (1982-1997), Grill 720 (1997-1999), and Mo's Steakhouse (1999-now.)
Any additional information about the Empire Lounge is greatly appreciated.
(A book, "LGBT Milwaukee" by Michail Takach, seeks to make the story of LGBT Milwaukee accessible, visible, and portable for future generations--before it is too late. The Empire Lounge is one of many early LGBT landmarks documented in the book.)
Credits: research, text and photos contributed by Michail Takach;
Photo courtesy Milwaukee Public Library, Historic Photo Collection
(used here with permission, not for reuse).
GLIB Guide research and Web site by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: June-2016.
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.