Spirited, sassy, carefree and colorful, "Bunny" began his life as George Opper in rural Grafton, Wisconsin on April 21, 1936. Bored with the country life, the thrill-seeking teen hitchhiked his way downtown as early as age 13. By 1949, downtown Milwaukee had not only an active queer underground, but its first known strip of gay bars (400 block of N. Plankinton Ave., between Clybourn and St. Paul.)
For Bunny, midcentury Milwaukee was a playground. Long before dating apps existed, he would meet like-minded friends at the Greyhound Bus Station or Milwaukee Road Station. "You'd wait, you'd watch, and you'd follow them out. That's how I found the men and the bars."
Bunny could describe, In great detail, long-lost LGBTQ landmarks like the Royal Hotel (435 W. Michigan St.,) already gay for a generation; the White Horse Tavern (1426 N. 11th St.,) an 1890s Bavarian roadhouse frequented by Senator Joseph McCarthy; the Red Room (161 W. Wisconsin Ave.,) where men met for dates while Liberace played piano; the Antlers Hotel (614 N. 2nd St.,) where Great Lakes sailors always rented the top two floors; the "Legion Bar" (743 N. 6th St.) and the Clifton Tap (336 W. Juneau,) both of which had shameless darkroom operations; the Bull Ring (1250 N. 12th St.,) the Gay 90s (5th & Michigan) and the Pink Glove (631 N. Broadway.)
"We'd get together, dress up in drag and ride the bus around Milwaukee with our cocktails," said Bunny. "Just for fun!" It's hard to express how renegade this was, at a time when cross-dressing was illegal and subject to arrest, psychiatric evaluation and even institutionalization. "I wasn't a performer, I was a personality," he said.
Bunny joined the U.S. Army from 1954-1959 and was stationed at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. "They called me Bunny because they could never find me," George shared in November 2015. "I found a secret hiding place!" "They thought the Army would straighten me out, but you know what? I had more fun in the Army than anywhere!" Bunny received a dishonorable discharge for "sexual deviance" in 1959, the circumstances of which remain unknown.
Bunny said his longest relationship of his life was with the Mint Bar (422 W. Wells St.,) which opened in 1949, relocated in 1986 and closed in 1992. The little 12-stool tavern hosted a chosen family, including owners Bettie and Angelo Aiello: staff Rosie and Tracy; and longtime friends from all walks of life. "Everyone used to go all out on New Year's Eve at the Mint Bar, because it was their anniversary night. It was a black tie, white glove, plan your outfit for weeks in advance event. We'd stay there all night until Annadale's opened up, and pray to hell we didn't pass out at the counter in last night's drag."
Bunny always lamented the loss of the original "Fruit Loop," starting with the six-alarm arson destruction of Tony's Riviera (401 N. Plankinton Ave.) in March 1964. "I was in California and got a call: 'your house is on fire, come home right away!" When he got home, the bar was gone, and soon, so was the strip. The nearby Fox Bar (455 N. Plankinton Ave.) was demolished for 794 in summer 1964. Even the fabled Black Nite (400 N. Plankinton Ave.,) the scene of Wisconsin's first LGBTQ uprising, was torn down in 1965 for St. Paul Avenue's extension.
"People always told me, you are crazy to go out in drag. You're going to get beat up, or worse yet, kidnapped and murdered," said Bunny. "But to be honest, I never worried about it. Only once did someone call me a faggot on the street. I told him you're right, mister, but you just met a faggot who knows how to fight. And I showed him how faggots fight back. Nobody ever called me names again after that!"
Police persecution was a real danger for Bunny's generation, especially once Judge Christ T. Seraphim vowed to liberate Milwaukee from homosexuals in 1963. Many experienced harassment, intimidation and violence. "I was arrested once and only once," said Bunny, "but I was never charged. I was minding my own business, in the restroom of the Tower Theater (27th and Wells) when a gentlemen came and stood right next to me. I asked him to step away because I was pee shy. When I looked over, he was showing off his manhood at full mast! He said I was under arrest. It was entrapment, plain and simple."
In his golden years, Bunny enjoyed day drinking with his longtime friends at the Harbor Room. He is survived by his sister, nieces, nephews and countless friends. Bunny's memories have been priceless gifts for the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project. Racy, unfiltered, and always worth the listen, his memories were often the only surviving source material available of a pre-Stonewall Milwaukee the city long ago erased. We could not be more fortunate- or grateful- for the historical details he and only he still remembered. We only wish we had more time together.
We can only dream of living a life so furiously lived as Bunny's. "I once sauntered into the Belmont Hotel Coffee Shop totally nude at three o'clock in the morning, my mink stole dragging behind me," said Bunny. "No one blinked."
'Bunny' died on November 13, 2020. His obituary read as follows:
George R. Opper, of Cudahy, WI passed away peacefully on Friday, November 13, 2020 at the age of 84. George was born in 1936 in Grafton, WI. Preceded in death by his parents, George C. Opper and Agatha W. Sheer Opper, his sister Beatrice M. Opper Jeziorski, and his brother Jerome G. Opper. He is survived by his sister Audrey M. Opper Mueller of Grafton, WI, nieces, nephews, and many longtime friends. Private interment will be in Graceland Cemetery, 6401 N 43rd St, Milwaukee, WI 53209.
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!
Farewell my friend. George Opper, aka, Bunny, has passed on. Bunny was a contributor to this site, providing many good memories and photos.
Note: We have received a large collectiopn of photos and documents from Jamie Taylor. Once these are better identified by date, location, and other people in the photos, more of them will be posted here.
'Bunny', date unknown
'Bunny', date unknown
George on patio of Harbor Room bar, c2010
Credits: Biography by Michail Takach;
Photos and Facebook contributions by Jamie Taylor.
Web site concept and design by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: December-2020.
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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.