Wisconsin's Oldest Gay Bar Should Be Your Next Destination for Drag Shows
Co-owner Trixie Mattel wants to put This Is It! on the world map.
The façade of This Is It!—or “Tits,” if you’re in the know—is hard to miss. Right off Cathedral Square Park in downtown Milwaukee, its brown brick wall is painted with diamonds the color of the rainbow. Out front, the patio was recently given its own rainbow makeover—a splash of color that lets you know if you’re looking for the oldest gay bar in Wisconsin, well, this is it.
In business since 1968, a year before the Stonewall riots, the bar's decor spans its history. Decades-old stained glass chandelier lamps dangle near a disco ball that, when turned on, signals two-for-one specials with fractured light. A TouchTunes jukebox provides music when the stage isn’t in use. Old Hollywood stars like Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable are tacked to a bathroom wall, and movie soundtracks play in the background while you pee.
But of course it’s not really the decor that people come for, or even the ridiculously cheap drinks (a Long Island Iced Tea is like, $3). This Is It! has secured its place in LGBTQ+ history by having broad appeal: an inclusive space to mingle, serving both subdued tipples to the weary after-work crowd and over-the-top nightlife for those seeking charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.
“It’s basically the gay Cheers in Milwaukee.”
“It’s basically the gay Cheers in Milwaukee,” says drag superstar Trixie Mattel, aka Brian Michael Firkus, a RuPaul’s Drag Race favorite and winner of All Stars 3. Ten years ago Mattel had her first alcoholic drink, on her 21st birthday, at This Is It!. New to the whole drinking thing, she didn’t know what to order. “I was like, one cocktail drink please!” She ended up with a Tootsie Roll, a mix of Kahlua and orange juice that somehow tastes like the candy. The rest of the night is understandably a blur.
“It was not a drag bar. It didn’t have drag shows and drag queens didn’t really go there in general. But I really liked it there,” says Mattel. She became a regular, stopping in before drag shows in nightclubs. “I knew if I went in drag, I would get free drinks.”
Earlier this year, Mattel went from patron to co-owner of the bar, ensuring free drinks for life. And her business partner is George Schneider, the same guy who served her that very first drink ten years ago.
On the other side of our phone call, Mattel is at her home in Los Angeles prepping for the day—her dress a purple, pink, and green neon extravaganza, her hair a massive blonde bouffant, her signature makeup slicing her cheeks in two. The day’s activities include promoting either her makeup line, or bestselling book, possibly her documentary, or critically-acclaimed album. “The queens say I don’t go anywhere without having something to sell,” she quips. Next month she begins work on an HGTV show about the renovation of her new seven-room, themed hotel in Palm Springs.
“I believe in my POV as far as creating experiences,” Mattel says. “I want to be able to create experiences that are extremely gay. I’m so gay that when I leave a building it’s like somebody burned toast in that room. Like weeks later you can still tell that I was there.”
But her investment in This Is It! is less about pink burned toast and more about preservation: of a place, and of a mindset, especially at a time when queer bars are rapidly shutting down. 37% of queer nightlife spaces closed between 2007 and 2019 in the US, and that number drastically rose during the pandemic. Mattel’s involvement had been in the works for a while, but finalizing it this year has helped the bar flourish post-Covid.
“I just wanted [the bar] to be exactly what it used to be for me,” Mattel says. “My life is so crazy and busy that when I take time off, I want to go back to Milwaukee and stay in my house and go to my favorite bar, and I want it to be the same experience I had when I was 21.”
But there might be some changes. “Of course now that I’m an owner drinks will be $25 each. All my friends are like ‘you own the bar, I’m gonna get free drinks!’ And I’m like, ‘no you’re not. You had a better chance getting a free drink before I owned it, for sure.’”
The origins of This Is It! were not so much queer as it was a judgement-free space that embraced all types. That’s thanks to June Brehm, who opened the cocktail bar in 1968. The story goes that when she found an available space in a mostly vacant office building she said, “This is it!” and set up shop.
The 2012 book "Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin's Historic Bars & Breweries" explains the shift in clientele: "In the late 1960's... Gay bars were far from common, but [Brehm] knew a lot of gay people and wanted to create a comfortable and safe gathering place during a time when gays suffered great discrimination." At the time, serving LGBTQ clientele was dangerous and technically illegal in Wisconsin, resulting in raids and brawls.
This Is It! was particularly convenient for its front and back entrances, the latter of which was used by closeted patrons. (“There’s still a back entrance,” says Mattel. “I’d say at this point it’s usually two guys trying to sneak out so none of their friends see that they’re leaving together.”) For some, it was an adopted home when their own families had turned their backs on them; Brehm kept the bar open on holidays, serving Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.
“We love a theme, and we love a dumb theme.”
Brehm eventually passed the bar to her son Joe, and George Schneider joined the team in 2010, taking over operations when Joe died. “He’s very good-looking, very Midwestern, and he’s very nice to everyone,” says Mattel of Schneider. “And the bar is his whole life.”
Schneider is also a fiend for seasonal theme nights. “We love a theme, and we love a dumb theme,” says Mattel. A Silence of the Lambs-themed Halloween featured lamb chops hanging from the ceiling, baskets of lotion, and pictures of Shari Lewis. One Christmas, the letters of the alphabet hung around the bar—“It was like a dizzying number of figures, ABCD everywhere”—but the L was missing. The theme: Noel. “George gets some kind of sick joy out of picking something that would confuse most people. But what’s the point of owning a bar if you can’t do a joke that only you find funny?”
In 2018, the bar expanded with an event space for karaoke nights, drag bingo nights, dance parties, movie nights, and performances. And Mattel’s co-ownership does have its perks, of course. “That’s a nice thing, to be able to text huge name gay talent and say ‘Can you come to my bar and do a number?’” A recent performance featured Katya Zamolodchikova, Drag Race alum and Mattel’s co-host of multiple series, including Viceland’s The Trixie & Katya Show and the delightfully unhinged UNHhhh. The bar broke its record for the number of drinks sold.
And then there was the time Mattel dropped in unannounced for a surprise free show. “Literally I came out on stage and no one clapped,” she recalls. “I think they thought I was somebody doing a Trixie impersonation. I was like, okay, I thought this would be a freak out moment, but it truly was like ‘You don’t even look like her.’”
A year after expanding the bar, a permanent wall of queer history was added in conjunction with the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project. And the location of This Is It! also has a deeper historical significance: Milwaukee’s first Pride March in 1989 concluded at nearby Cathedral Square.
That first march has turned into Pridefest, one of the country’s largest and longest-running LGBTQ+ festivals. Rather than a one-day street parade, the festival takes over the fairgrounds for four days, with performances on eight stages. “It’s huge, crazy A-list talent, on multiple stages, thousands and thousands of people. It’s like Lollapalooza or something,” says Mattel.
And though This Is It! won’t be painted pink anytime soon, it will soon have yet another piece of history: the coveted scepter that Mattel received as winner of All Stars 3. “We’re going to have it mounted on the wall. It was just rotting at my house and I was like, let’s put it on display and let’s let people look at it,” she says.
The ultimate goal is to make This Is It! a must-do for all visitors to Milwaukee. “It’s already legendary to everyone in town; my MO is making it more of a landmark,” she says. “When you go to Kenosha you go to the Mars Cheese Castle. When you go to Milwaukee, you should go to This is It!”