November, 2008 issue
"Setting A Record - This is It!"

Setting A Record Ė This is It

By Michail Takach


"Over the years, so many people have told my mother that she should write a book about This Is It, but sheíd never do it. She loves them all too much to do that to them." - Joe Brehm

From the outside, itís almost impossible to believe thereís anything here. Three lanes of one-way traffic speed eastward on Wells Street, and if you blink, youíll literally miss it. Thereís no neon sign, no doorman, no flashing lights, no thumping bass Ė in fact, none of the usual clues that youíve arrived. But when you step up on that unremarkable mid-block stoop and throw open that big, unmarked door, youíre stepping right into one of Milwaukeeís most remarkable nightlife experiences.

With its dark woods, stained glass pendants, red carpeted walls, black leather banquettes and Tiffany chandeliers, the bar feels like the set of a 1950s Douglas Sirk movie. This is a true cocktail lounge, where everything is served in a proper glass, proven by the collection of Irish coffee mugs, brandy snifters and cordials that line the bar. Bartenders use two massive, metal cash registers that were probably antiques by 1968. Thereís a jukebox with a notoriously fussy dollar feeder and an eclectic musical collection, including everything from Billie Holiday to Bjork. Thereís an ancient, rotary dial phone in the corner that rings with the kind of brrring you havenít heard in decades.

Donít expect fancy bar food here Ė your choices include Beer Nuts or cheese and crackers. An 1,800-photo slideshow runs all night, featuring the barís friends and family members from over the years. Itís the kind of bar that maintains handwritten lists of VIP customers who can open bar tabs or write checks, the kind of bar where everyone really does know your name and really is always glad you came.

Sitting here awhile, it can quickly become easy to forget what time it is, what day it is, and sometimes, even what year it is.

Youíve arrived at This Is It. And make no mistake Ė this place is living history. This year, This Is It celebrates its fortieth year in business, and takes the title of being Milwaukeeís oldest continuously operating gay bar.

But donít come here expecting an Old World Wisconsin exhibit, because the place is popping like it hasnít popped in years. A younger generation has fallen in love with the barís retro charm, and now this really IS it.

After forty years, whatís the lasting appeal of this tiny, windowless cocktail lounge, when so many downtown hot spots have come and gone?

This month, QLIFE News answers these questions and more in our special tribute to This Is It, one of our cityís landmark LGBT institutions.

Secret origins

Forty years ago, June Brehm and her business partner were running a supper club in Butler. Business was good, but she really wanted something downtown. When the tiny corner unit at 418 E. Wells Street became available, June took one look at the property and said, "This is it Ė we arenít going anywhere else." And This Is It was born.

"My mother knew a lot of gay people, and she wanted a place for gay men to congregate comfortably," explains Joe Brehm, Juneís son and business partner. This was an especially bold business plan, a full year before the Stonewall riots, but June fearlessly forged ahead. And itís been owned and operated by the Brehm family ever since.

How were things different for customers in those early years? "When we opened, we were a manís bar for many years. It was a little bit like a private club atmosphere. And it was very rare for women to ever come here. We always welcomed everybody, but our guys sometimes didnít like their space being intruded."

Joe explains, "People had such a wonderful time, and were relaxed in many ways that they arenít today. But at the same time, people had to be more careful, more discreet. Lots of men came in through the back door and stayed towards the back of the bar. We kept the lights much dimmer then, probably half as bright as they are now."

"Remember that people were afraid back then; they could lose their jobs if they werenít careful. So when the front door opened during cocktail hour, everyoneís head would turn to see who was coming in. Like, the entire barís heads would turn at the same moment. And whoever was walking in was blinded for a few seconds while their eyes adjusted to the light. So this gave people a chance to scoot out the back door if they saw someone they didnít want to see, before that person even knew you were there. It wasnít until the law passed in 1981 that most people started using the front door." (In 1981, Wisconsin Chapter 112 was passed to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.)

Preserving Juneís original vision for the bar - and the privacy of the regular customers - has led to some major business decisions. In the early years, June served meals from the barís tiny kitchen, but the popularity of the food business caused some tension in the bar. "We opened for lunch at 11 A.M. in those days," Joe Brehm explains, "and my mother was an excellent cook. We had New York strip steak sandwiches, Ĺ pound ground round burgers, Italian sausage sandwiches - all for $1.75. We also had two homemade soups everyday. People would come for lunch and stay until 2, 3 oíclock in the afternoon."

This started to pose a problem for closeted customers who werenít interested in mingling with a straight crowd. "We were starting to lose our regular cocktail crowd. So, even though she were making money, she made a decision to focus on her loyal customers and shut down the kitchen, except for parties."

To this day, June Brehm still visits the bar every morning around 7 A.M. to count down the registers, handle the banking and accounting, and manage any business paperwork. She also works closely with Douglas, who has been supervising the impeccable cleaning and maintenance of This Is It for over 25 years. Juneís usually gone long before the bar opens at 3 P.M., and thatís when Joe takes over managing the operation.

"The primary reason ĎThis Is Ití is still around is the dedication and faith of the owner and manager, the mother-son team of June and Joe Brehm," notes Don Schwamb, curator and webmaster of the Milwaukee LGBT History Project. "By keeping the faith, and continuing to support organizations and causes meaningful to the GLBT community, ĎThis Is Ití has hung on and been able to keep its doors open through good times and bad."

Local legends

Ask five people why This Is It doesnít have a sign out front, and youíll get five different stories. Many people believe that the bar goes unannounced because itís a throwback from the "secret password" gay bars of the 1950s. Thatís a nice legend, but it was no longer common for police to raid gay bars in 1968.

So whatís the scoop? Joe Brehm sets the record straight. "We did have our name on the front of the bar in big metal letters. And those MSOE kids had fun rearranging them! It just got too cumbersome over time to keep fixing them." And thatís not all. "We also used to have a big Andeker sign hanging outside with our name on it. But when Louisaís Trattoria (just up the street) opened in the 1990s, they asked us to take the old sign down. Since then, Iíve contracted with three different companies to make a neon sign, and the contractors kept disappearing. After the third time, when a hefty down payment disappeared also, I realized we probably just werenít meant to have a sign." Joe reflected on the barís word-of-mouth popularity. "Itís really neat to have a little place where people who know about it are the only ones who can find it."

Customers arenít the only ones who canít find This Is It. Joeís favorite story about the bar is one that every first-time visitor can appreciate. "One day, I opened the front door and found a beat cop looking at me with a strange expression. ĎWhere are you coming from?í he asked me. I told him, Iím opening my bar for the day. The cop said, ĎThereís no bar in there. Iíve been walking this beat for five years and I would know if there was a bar in there.í Since he didnít believe me, I took him inside, and he still couldnít believe what was here."

This Is It only had one notable police incident in forty years, and even that underscored the barís spotless reputation. Joe Brehm explains, "One night in 1990, the community was hosting town hall meetings about police harassment in gay bars. And then the police showed up here at 2:02 A.M. and ticketed people for serving and drinking liquor two minutes after bar time. Some people were detained until 5 A.M. but nobody was arrested or mistreated. It was all so very odd."

"Well, we got into a meeting with our attorney and the District Attorney, and when they opened our folder, they said ĎThis has never happened before.í And that had two meanings. Number one, there was nothing in our folder because we had no past violations. And number two, the D.A. had never heard a case where the bar had no record. The D.A. was willing to throw out all the tickets, but since one ticket had already been paid, he said heíd hold the rest for 12 months and toss them out if there were no further charges. One year later, all the remaining tickets were thrown out, and our folder is still empty to this day."

Changing times

Few people would recognize the Cathedral Square neighborhood in 1968, years before Juneau Village, Yankee Hill, or any of todayís condominiums were constructed. Just as Downtown was recovering from urban renewal and freeway projects that decimated entire neighborhoods, the 1967 riots expedited "white flight" to the suburbs. As a result, downtown Milwaukee was a very lonely place to be.

As Joe Brehm remembers, "There was hardly anything down here. This whole building was empty when we opened. Back then, there were only a handful of bars within a 5-6 block area, whereas today you have too many to count. And until about 15 years ago, there was a parking lot next door. There were a lot of parking lotsÖ so much had been torn down around here. You had a lot of places to park, but nowhere really to go to."

Flash forward forty years: "Itís been a big change to see so many people actually living downtown, and walking around all night long. Itís done great things for walk-in business."

And business is indeed looking up. Even when so many other options exist within walking distance, This Is It is filling up with a whole new generation of customers. And Joe is thrilled.

"We love seeing younger people embracing the bar for what it is. This is the most exciting thing to happen in recent years. And itís because theyíre enjoying the bar for what it is, not because weíre changing it for them. They have surprisingly sophisticated tastes for their age."

Performing artist Jerry Grillo adds, "Iíve been coming here for over 30 years. And yet, for awhile, this was known only as an old manís bar, and mean-spirited people called it ĎThis Is Old,í ĎThe Wrinkle Room,í and ĎGodís Waiting Room.í It was so unfair. Those attitudes, that name-calling, it all hurt the business. And the barís contributions to the community should never be overlooked. Itís wonderful to see people respecting it again."

Michael, who used to work here as a bartender in the early 80s, comments, "This bar was absolutely phenomenal back in the 1980s Ė it was so packed you couldnít walk, almost every night of the week. I have to admit I donít understand the appeal of the bar to younger people, but I think itís great that they are coming back."

And then thereís Jason, one of those younger people, who at 21 is probably the youngest person in the bar. "Iíve only been coming here since Memorial Day weekend. The cheap, strong drinks bring me back. My friends always say, Ďthat bar is full of old men,í but Iíve noticed an increase in people of all ages coming here."

That increase includes a large number of young women, like Megan and Carrie, who work downtown and stop by for vodka seltzer Happy Hours. What brings two straight girls to this bar? "I was a cigarette company representative who worked the bar one night. I met Joe Brehm and I fell in love! Iíve been coming at least once a week ever since then," Carrie comments. "The Swiss Almond cheese spread and the Neptune Salad keep bringing us back. And so does Fabulous Larry busting a move!"

Whatís next for This is It?

Joe predicts the next big thing is cocktail hour. "What I see happening is that martinis are starting to wane, and the newest thing is classic cocktails from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Weíre going back to Old Fashioneds, Tom Collins, Manhattans, RickeysÖa whole menu of classic drinks for people to rediscover."

Joe remembers his favorite story about the bar, and how it speaks to what This Is It is all about. "During the streaking craze years ago, we had a guy who would run through the bar naked. Everyone thought he was probably in the closet, and as it turned out, he was. He wound up being a regular customer. Man, he could run pretty fast!"

"And thatís what weíve always done right: accepting, embracing and enjoying new people. Not every bar is welcoming to new people. And not all people want to be embraced. But so many guys have come up to me over the years and said, ĎI came out in this bar,í or ĎThis is the first bar I ever came to.í That means so much to us. We are just so happy that people have enjoyed this place."

So what is the lasting appeal of This Is It? Whatís the magic ingredient that so many other businesses have failed to find? Joe admits, heís still looking for it himself. "I almost donít want to ever find out. It may be the end of us. We have the most wonderful customers in the world, and we are just fortunate enough to know that."