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La Cage Aux Folles began as a dance bar, and was relatively popular from day 1. Upon its opening, it is also believed to be the first bar with windows open to the street (closely followed by the M&M Club, which opened theirs within a month or two). Although the dance area was not large, the location and timing was excellent, and La Cage quickly took dominance of the gay dance scene, largely helped by DJ Tony Aiello, who presided as DJ at La Cage for almost 20 years. La Cage quickly overtook Club 219 as the city's premier gay dance bar, and over the next few years competing venues such as Factory II closed; and it kept a good and loyal share of the dance crowd market as dance venues such as Kisses, Factory III, and others came and went.
Over the years, La Cage evolved. In 1988 the area of the building to the south of the La Cage bar opened as the separate but connected "Dance, Dance, Dance". About the same time, as separate area called Jazz was opened, advertised as "A not so loud adult retreat", featuring fine wine and champagne by the glass, ice cream and blended drinks, and other special touches.
La Cage was also known as the bar that never stayed the same. The owner was never satisfied, and it seemed every year or two the bar underwent a drastic remodeling: bars would be ripped out and pop up against another wall, the dance floor would move and shift, the DJ booth would be remodeled, video screens came and went, etc.
The building became a small complex, with varying degrees of success. An outdoor patio was somewhat popular, but the limited summer season, and the bar's main draw as a dance bar, caused the patio to quitely go away after a season or two. A basement restaurant in the mid-1990's was never too successful, although it did offer something of a refuge from the louder music above, and there was regular traffic between the two floors. The basement eventually closed. A bar/restaurant in the basement was resurrected in 2003, named "etc", but again it had limited success, and mid-2004 held rumors of a layoff or cutback of staff.
La Cage was also the source of some controversy. In the relatively conservative Milwaukee market, La Cage's habit of charging cover charges well above the average for a Milwaukee gay bar often caused grumbling, and the bar's habit of both charging for "prefered-member" cards, and invalidating and forcing people to buy new cards after just a year, was further criticism. Through it all, there was a loyal following. There were also some comments that La Cage was catering too much to the straight clientele; although, located as it is in the midst of several popular straight bars, that is almost unavoidable. There were also occasional rumors about large tax debts of the business.
Early in 2004, La Cage was remodeled again, this time tearing out the entire center of the building to creat one large room: a large dance floor in the center surrounded by bars, tables, walkways. In July, the club was renamed from "La Cage" to simply "Cage". The "too straight" mumbles started again, and the new "Cage" began advertising "We're not going Straight, We're going Forward".
On November 1, 2005, after nearly 20 years, the bar saw a change of ownership: original owners George and Corey sold the bar and retired to sunny Florida. New owners Michael and Kris took over the reins and re-adopted the old "La Cage" name. Under their helm, there was much less controversy and fewer rumors. What didn't change was the bar's popularity: it's dance music, location, and community involvement caused it to remain the most popular bar in the city, especially among the younger dance crowd.
On March 20, 2009, the bar hit its 25th anniversary, and celebrated in grand fashion with a special party on Friday, April 24th, 2009, at which copies of advertising from the previous 25 years were displayed. And after countless rumors over the years, the second floor was under construction, due to open as a new dance and show place (probably to open about July 2009). It seems clear that La Cage will continue to be at the center of gay bar activity in Milwaukee for some time to come.
Read the 25th Anniversary article from Q-Life Newspaper.
Recollections: The following are recollections of others who have been kind enough to submit their personal memories to the webmaster. You are welcome to do the same! (Recollections collected and organized by Jamie Taylor.)
---> "Original LaCage owner George Prentice had previously owned a restaurant called Auctioneer's Inn II in Elm Grove. Two famous fixtures in LaCage originated there. One was a brass bank entrance, which was transplanted from the Inn to the corner entrance of 2nd and National, as the main entrance to La Cage; the brass entrance remained there for many years. Also, Auctioneer's Inn had a bar that had numerous pennies embedded and lacquered into the top; that bar inspired the penny-top bar that was created in the LaCage."
Credits: some photos compliments of Tony Aiello;
bar history by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: October-2009.