By Michail Takach Special to OnMilwaukee Published May 19, 2017 at 4:02 PM

Milwaukee’s LGBTQ history isn’t just hidden history. It’s a history that is slowly being lost as the elders and pioneers of our community leave us. Without their stories being protected and preserved for future generations, the 20th century history of LGBTQ Milwaukee is rapidly disappearing.

On Saturday, May 20, Milwaukee Pride and the Wisconsin LGBT History Project are hosting a Remember When: Women’s History Party at Studio 200, 200 E. Washington St., focused on capturing the stories, photographs and souvenirs of Milwaukee’s lesbian history. All content will be added to the project’s archives, website and the History of Gay Milwaukee Facebook page.

Many Milwaukeeans will remember Studio 200 from its former life as Fannies, one of the city’s longest-running lesbian bars. As a bouncer, bartender, businesswoman and community advocate since 1971, owner Sharon Dixon has made significant contributions to Milwaukee’s LGBTQ history. At one point or another, she has been involved with almost every women’s bar in town.

She laid the foundation for three of the city’s most beloved and longest-running lesbian bars (Sugar Shack, Fannies and Kathy’s Nut Hut), nearly bought a fourth one, almost sold her building for a fifth and still serves the community today at Studio 200.

(PHOTO: Courtesy Mary Connell)

Sharon doesn’t usually do interviews, so I was very honored to speak with her this week about the upcoming Remember When party, her life experiences and the future of LGBTQ Milwaukee.

Coming to Milwaukee

Sharon’s story began in a border town on the Wisconsin-Michigan border, where she played in the tunnel system between its sordid saloons as a child and baked Cornish pasties before school as a teenager. After losing her father and her uncle, Sharon decided at age 14 to run away.

"I just wanted to get out," said Sharon. "I wasn’t getting along with my mother or the man she was seeing. I didn’t approve and I didn’t understand. So, it was time to go."

Sharon bought a bus ticket to Duluth, got off in Ashland and then hitchhiked all the way down to Milwaukee. When she arrived, she found it nearly impossible to secure a steady job or apartment as a 14-year-old runaway. Like most homeless LGBTQ youth, she took safe shelter wherever she could find it.

"I had to sleep in a lot of gas station bathrooms back then," said Sharon. "When the station closed for the night, the guys would lock the restroom doors, so I’d have a safe and warm place to sleep for the night."

One chilly night, Sharon realized she could stay overnight in a 24-hour downtown movie theater for just 25 cents. She picked up a hamburger from the nearby A&W on Wisconsin Avenue, bought her ticket and settled in for the night. She didn’t even realize that the Princess Theater was an adult movie theater – or that the only other patrons spending the night had more dubious intentions.

"Nobody even carded me," said Sharon. "I knew nothing about that type of movie, but I can still remember the movie that night. It was called Chatterbox and it featured a woman with a talking vagina. It was as stupid as it gets.

"So I’m sitting in this theater, laughing my ass off, and all these dirty old men around me are trying to get their rocks off and yelling at me to shut up. Oh, and the story gets better: In the end, the woman with a talking vagina wound up on a TV talk show, met a man with a talking penis and rode off into the sunset together. It was the funniest thing that happened to me in months. I couldn’t make this up if I tried!"

The next morning, Sharon found a live-in nanny job through the Milwaukee Sentinel. She was hired and moved to Lake Drive for the next two years. At age 16, she moved into the Abbott Crest Hotel, 1226 W. Wisconsin Ave., and worked third shift at Della’s Drive-In restaurant on the hotel’s ground floor.

"There was no lease or anything," Sharon explained. "I just paid my weekly rent in cash and nobody asked any questions. It really wasn’t a hotel anymore by then, but more of a residence for senior citizens. I was the only young person in the hotel, and they all loved me. They thought I was older than I was, of course, but then again I lied about my age a lot back then."

Right before her 17th birthday, Sharon finally got caught. Two elderly neighbors overheard two brewery workers promising marijuana to Sharon and a friend. When she got home from work, the police were waiting for her in the elevator. As the only young person in the building, she was an easy mark.

"The whole thing was ridiculous. I’d never tried marijuana, and I didn’t want any from those guys, either. They just wanted to pick us up. Try telling that to the cops. So, this female sergeant made me promise to stay at the hotel all weekend, because they were sending me back up north on a bus Monday morning. I smiled and acted happy about going home, but trust me, I crossed my fingers behind my back when I made that promise."

Monday morning came, and Sharon was long gone. She’d seen an ad in the Sunday Milwaukee Journal promising she could "Travel the USA – No Money Needed!" She was hired immediately and went to Terre Haute, Indiana the next day. For the next several years, she traveled the country in a Volkswagen van nicknamed the "Blue Goose," eventually seeing all 48 continental United States.

"My first driver’s license was from Florida, and my first auto registration was from Vermont," said Sharon. "I got pulled over once and they said ‘is this even legal?’ How the hell would I know?"

Becoming her best self

While traveling, Sharon became increasingly aware of her sexual identity. As a self-described "good little small-town Catholic girl," she half-expected she’d grow up to become a mom like everyone else. At the same time, she half-expected that she was a lesbian. She just wasn’t sure.

"I was aware that there were gay bars in Milwaukee, but I didn’t recognize them as gay bars. I spent some time at the old Mint Bar on State Street, but that was just because they’d let me in. I was just happy to get into a bar."

One fateful night in New Orleans, her boss’s wife dragged her out on the town. Sharon was surprised when the night ended at a gay bar.

"I was still in my old fuddy-duddy mindset at the time," said Sharon, "and it took me awhile to realize what was going on. It was very clearly what would be called a ‘dyke bar.’ I couldn’t tell the difference between the men and women. I kept looking at the bartender, and only when they took their coat off, did I realize she was a woman. She was that masculine. Then, I looked around and realized that all of the kissing couples were women.

"I actually got really upset. It’s hard to explain how I felt in that moment. I went and found my boss’s wife making out with a woman laid out on a pool table. I never would have guessed that she was gay or bisexual. We went into the girl’s room and I read her the riot act. She backhanded me – hard enough to make me fly – and said ‘It’s about time you come out of your closet. You’re gay. You’re a lesbian. You’re a dyke. You can’t tell me you haven’t thought of women."

I didn’t know what to say, I was speechless. I had thought of women, but my religion had told me that it was wrong. That night, the bartender took me back to her place. She left for a while, and when she came back, she showed me a strap-on. I said ‘If I was interested in women, why would I want that thing?’ It upset me so much that I left. I went right back into that closet."

(PHOTO: Courtesy Mary Connell)

Sharon finally came out six months later in Seattle – thanks to a drag queen’s advice.

"I was a petite little thing with long hair and ‘girly girl’ clothing, and I couldn’t understand why none of the women would talk to me," said Sharon. "I was talking to a drag queen and she said, ‘Girl, if you want to be a lesbian, you have to decide first of all if you’re going to be a she or a he, and then you have to figure out what you like.’ I said, ‘what do you mean? I’m a woman.’ I just didn’t get it."

That night, I proceeded to get very drunk, and went back to the hotel, where I attacked my head with a pair of scissors. I woke up the next morning yelling at the mirror, and the whole hotel heard me screaming. I refused to leave the room until a woman from the hair salon came up to fix my haircut. The night before, my hair was down to my back. The next morning, my hair was so short. I cried for days about that hair, but I never grew it back to that length.

"The first time I went back to a gay bar, all the girls were suddenly interested in me. I learned that I had to look butch to get a femme girl. I wasn’t crazy about it, but it worked!"

Making it in Milwaukee

Sharon returned to Milwaukee in the early 1970s and worked as a third-shift switchboard operator at the Belmont Hotel. "It was an interesting place to work, for many reasons," said Sharon. "I can’t even talk about some of the things that went on at that hotel."

Sharon started hanging out at the River Queen (402 N. Water St.,) a gay bar opened by Al Barry in 1971. As a self-described "brick shithouse," she took a job as a bouncer and started connecting with local nightlife leaders. Gay bars had been emerging in Milwaukee’s industrial areas since the 1940s, and the 100 and 200 blocks of South 2nd Street were lined with eight known venues by the early 1970s. Now, a new loop was taking shape in the Historic Third Ward.

"Gay bars in the 1970s didn’t have huge windows or well-lit signs," Sharon explained. "But they sure did have great drink specials. You could get 10-cent beer taps on Sundays, and the bar would just be packed. I met so many, many people. It was like my life really began over again. I knew all the owners and managers very well, as well as all of the regular customers. I saw Liberace, Milton Berle and other visiting celebrities in that bar.

"One night, some guy came into the bar and said he was the governor of Illinois. I told him I was the President of the United States. Then, he whipped out this badge from Illinois and proved who he was. I wondered, why is this guy coming all the way to Milwaukee to hang out in a gay bar? But that’s just how it was back then. You couldn’t be seen, you couldn’t be ‘known.’ You might have to travel to a different city to live out and openly for a night here and there, because there were real risks for doing that in your hometown."

The River Queen had some built-in protection from the police. I can still remember the time a police officer was in the bar drinking, when the message "afterhours party at 402 N. Water" came over his radio. All of the cops who just got off shift were heading down to meet him. Those parties were absolutely wild."

When she wasn’t working, Sharon was partying at The Factory disco, 158 N. Broadway. Sharon was friends with the bar’s owner, Chuck Ciccirello, as well as Tiny, its famous bouncer.

"The Factory was mostly a guy’s bar, but I didn’t care. I hung out mostly with the guys. They always teased me, ‘if you ever need any help at The River Queen, just call or send a runner down here.’ I was probably the only female who ever got into the so-called ‘Club Health Spa’ (225 E. St. Paul Ave.) bathhouse before the police closed it down. For a while, they were more interested in shutting down that place than any of the gay bars."

Rise of the women’s bar

Women’s bars had existed in Milwaukee since the days of the Wildwood, 1430 W. Walnut St., the original Castaways, 424 W. McKinley Ave., and the Nite Beat, 901 W. National Ave. Opened in 1971, the Beer Garden, 3743 W. Vliet St., quickly became Milwaukee’s premier women’s bar. In 1974, it was joined by The Leaded Shade, 157 S. 1st St., which promised a more upscale experience than earlier venues. The Lost & Found, 618 N. 27th St., opened in 1978 as Milwaukee’s first women’s disco.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Wisconsin LGBT History Project)

Although there were many women’s spaces, none of these were owned or operated exclusively by women for women. They were all owned and operated by straight men and women. Sharon saw more than a business opportunity. She saw a historic chance to create a space for women to go and feel entirely comfortable and understood.

"If you wanted to make money back then, you opened a men’s bar," said Sharon. "Men made more money, spent more money, and were more likely to go out. Married men who were bisexual would sneak away to the gay bars because nobody asked any questions. A lot of lesbians had families to take care of, while making less money for the same job as a man.

"So people thought we were crazy to open a bar for women. But it was a lot harder to open a man’s bar, because gay men got more of the heat. Lesbians were just something the cops joked about. We didn’t get harassed, raided or beat up the way gay men did.

"I was a bartender at the Leaded Shade for a while, and also worked in the kitchen as a cook," said Sharon. "Because of the kitchen, we could stay open all night as long as the liquor was locked up. That place was a trip. The owners were a straight married couple that later went on to open the Lost & Found. I was actually in the process of buying the Lost & Found property before they were, but we got into a huge fight and I left the discussion."

Instead, Sharon and her partner Joann Kilsdonk opened the Sugar Shack, 135 E. National Ave., in 1975 with the full support of Alderwoman Mary Ann McNulty. The Sugar Shack was the first bar in Milwaukee history owned by lesbians for lesbians. And it was an immediate success.

The Sugar Shack years (1975-81)

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Wisconsin LGBT History Project)

"It wasn’t a big space, but we’d still have 150 women in there at a time," said Sharon. "The women would come from all over Wisconsin and northern Illinois, several days a week. They were just so happy to have a space of their own, and owners who knew what they wanted. They were giving their dollars to members of their own community for the first time."

"Of course, guys would come and cause trouble for us. One night, we tried to throw out some rowdy men who refused to leave. They threatened to tear the bar apart. Joann and I got on the loudspeaker, cut off the jukebox and said ‘Hey ladies, these guys want us to know what we’re going to do if they won’t leave.’

"Suddenly, the women closed in around them, and the guys started backing out the door. The next thing I know, the guys are running west down National Avenue with this huge mob of women chasing them. One of them dropped their ID, and one of the local beat cops offered to take it home to him.

"As it turned out, the guy’s father was a police officer. When he got his son’s ID back, he asked where the police found it. The officer said, ‘we found it in a woman’s gay bar, where he and buddies went to beat up the lesbians.’ The father’s face got tomato red, he ground his teeth and steam started coming out of his ears. We never did see his son or his buddies again!"

In 1979, Sharon and Joann separated, and Joann kept the business running another two years. Sharon opened a new neighborhood bar, Shorty’s Party Room, on 15th and Scott. She wasn’t sure what kind of place it would become, but she knew it would become something, because it immediately attracted a loyal following.

After a year, Sharon subleased the business to someone else. Soon after, it became Kathy’s Nut Hut, 1500 W. Scott St., a popular woman’s bar with a 34-year run that ended in 2014.

When Joann sold the Sugar Shack in 1981, Sharon decided it was time to open a new business.

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin LGBT History Project

"I told myself, I’m not opening another gay bar until Joann doesn’t own one," said Sharon. "I wasn’t going to interfere with her business. And I didn’t even know if I was opening a gay bar or a straight bar at first. But the girls came in and they decided it for me. They said, we want this to be a woman’s bar. We want this to be our bar. They vowed to keep both this bar and the old Sugar Shack (renamed D.K.’s) busy. I said, show me what you want, and they did."

Fannies (1983-2000)

Fannies, 200 E. Washington St., opened in 1983. The bar was known for its monthly theme parties, including Trekkie Night, Pajama Party, Black Party, White Party, '50s and '60s parties and and more. For a long time, the bar featured a basketball court and a sand pit volleyball court. There were countless cookouts and street parties over the years, some including elaborate outdoor stages and performances.

The bar would get big-name drag talent for its shows, sometimes from competing clubs, as well as local newscasters (like Marty Burns Wolfe of Channel 12 News) as emcees. Over the years, Fannies raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local AIDS, cancer and LGBTQ causes, as well as community members in need of care.

"Everyone supported me right from the start," said Sharon. "From the junkyard owner behind me, to the owner of George’s Pub next door, to the men’s bars owners and the neighborhood. They always stood with me."

However, the name and connotation of Fannies didn’t always sit well with everyone. After all, we weren’t talking about a woman named Fannie. One night, Sharon was criticized by a group of "militant" women who didn’t like the imagery of women’s swimsuit bottoms behind the bar.

"They told me I was demeaning women by having swimsuit photos on the wall. I said, I’m a lesbian, and I’m not demeaning anyone. I like a pretty face and a pretty ass. The regular customers never complained, just these three women. They also criticized me for allowing men in the bar. Since I advertised as a women’s bar, they felt that men should not be welcome. I told them that men would always be welcome here.

"That’s something weird about Milwaukee. Women weren’t supposed to go to men’s bars, and men weren’t supposed to go to women’s bars. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. I had fun with the boys, and of course I wanted them to come to my bar. I mean, I used to hang out at the Wreck Room. I would dress up in leather and intimidate them!"

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Sharon Dixon)

Despite the drama, Sharon recalls only one memorable bar fight over the years.

"One Saturday night, some guys came in and grabbed the woman who was checking IDs at the front door," said Sharon. "They literally pulled her off her bar stool, dragged her outside and started kicking and beating on her. I told the bartender, lock this door and don’t open it until I come back. I went right out there and did what I needed to do. I shut that down right away!

"And afterwards, I said, ‘you do realize that you’ve just attacked an off-duty police officer, right? That’s an instant felony.’ She pressed charges and the story spread like wildfire. I got the reputation for being a "female Clint Eastwood" and the next morning I got a standing ovation at the M&M Club brunch!"

Over the years, Sharon has assisted numerous LGBTQ youth in urgent need of care.

"We’d have these underage guys and girls try to get into the bar, and I’d have this motherly instinct to talk to them and try to get them help. There just weren’t many places to get help back then.

"I became like Old Mother Hubbard, even though I wasn’t even that old. I’d help them find a safe place to stay, a good place to work and help them find like-minded people their age to hang out with. I knew what that help would mean to them.

"One of these kids was a transgender man who was just starting his transition. He was so smart and so kind, but so worried about what his parents would think. He was even afraid to talk to me about it, but I told him, ‘it’s not a problem or an illness, you have a right to choose your life and your lifestyle, and nobody can say why you have the feelings you have, but if you’re going to be happier as a man, then be happy.’

"Today he is a very successful businessman who owns multiple properties. He gets along very well with his parents, and we still talk regularly.

"For years, I also did something fun for women I knew needed a little extra help during the holidays. I would sneak a great big basket of stuff onto their porch, with food, candy and necessities, ring the doorbell and run. They never knew it was me, but I know people really appreciated it."

Longtime employee Mary Connell remembers Sharon keeping a protective, watchful eye over the younger patrons.

"Sharon ran a tight ship, but it was also a fair and caring place for any woman to come into," Connell said. "No matter how rough someone’s life had been in the past, Sharon would help them get on their feet with a fresh start. I can’t even count how many women she’s helped over the years."

(PHOTO: Courtesy Mary Connell)

Over the years, Fannies became one big happy family. Softball, darts and pool leagues continued for decades. Regular customers would frequently ask to have their names engraved on their bar stools, because those were known as their seats.

One Halloween, a group of a dozen women dressed up as men and forever became known as "the Brothers." Sharon fondly remembers coming downstairs one morning and finding the hanging pendant lights over the bar covered in bras and a single pair of men’s Jockey shorts.

Diane "Legs" Gregory remembers, "All the women hung out at Fannies back then. It wasn’t a young women’s bar or an older women’s bar. It was a women’s bar, period. Sharon would always be at the corner of the bar, holding court and watching out for us. It was always about dancing, drinking, talking and laughter. I have only the best memories of Fannies!"

For a while, Fannies hired local drag performer Vanessa Alexander to tend bar and work the grill. "The girls would egg her on and say, ‘show us your breasts,’ and Vanessa would just laugh and say, ‘You’re just jealous mine are bigger than yours.’ Sharon and Vanessa became great friends. In 1990, Vanessa won the Miss Gay Wisconsin pageant with Sharon’s full sponsorship. The two later worked together in the Etc. kitchen at La Cage.

Today’s Studio 200

Fannies continued until 2000. Sharon subleased the bar for a while, then began testing a number of different concepts. Before Out-n-About, 1407 S. 1st St., opened in 2003, the owners considered purchasing Fannies, but declined because it didn’t have a full kitchen. Eventually, Sharon opened Studio 200 – and the rest is history.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Wisconsin LGBT History Project)

"Electronic dance music really inspired me," said Sharon. "I discovered how enjoyable it was and I really liked dancing to it. We bring in top DJs from all over the world. Suddenly, we had all these excited and energetic people coming in here, just happy to have another place to go. It just works!

"Everyone has been so respectful, and it just surprises me when they come up to me and say, ‘Sharon, thank you for allowing our kind of music to be played here.’ I have met some really nice people.

"Every once in a while, my lesbian friends come in and ask how I can play this music, or even call it music. I say they’re missing the point, because I want people to have fun, and they’re definitely having fun at Studio 200. Like myself, many of these women don’t drink anymore. They only go out every six months.

"Women have a habit of finding a significant other that wants to lock them up in the house. They stop going out to the bars alone, and, eventually, they stop going out together. In the end, there just isn’t that big of a market for older women once they settle down. I appreciate everyone who supports me, but if I can’t pay the bills every month, I can’t stay in business."

The future of LGBTQ Milwaukee

After 45 years in the bar business, Sharon has seen tremendous change in local LGBTQ community and culture. Living above the bar since 1983, she’s also seen the Walker’s Point landscape change dramatically, as dozens of historic gay and lesbian landmarks have closed their doors.

What does that feel like for someone who’s spent nearly five decades in this business?

(PHOTO: Courtesy Mary Connell)

"Every now and then, I sit around here and visualize Fannies as it used to be. I remember all of the people who used to come here, and how their lives changed over the years. We changed, the bar changed, the city changed and the world changed.

"Do we still need lesbian bars? Yes, but not as much as we used to. We can go anywhere we want nowadays, and we won’t get treated like garbage. You don’t hear the words ‘dyke’ or ‘faggot’ when you walk down the street. Straight bars don’t kick people out for looking queer anymore. They don’t even mind if same-sex couples hold hands, kiss each other or cuddle in their tavern.

"We’ve all put in so much time to persuade society that we’re just like everyone else. Bars have always been a place to socialize, have a good time, meet new friends and catch up with old friends. A bar is supposed to be a place to feel safe. Nowadays, most of the gay community feels perfectly accepted and safe in any bar. You’d really have to look for trouble to find it. It’s almost too safe.

"But are we really safe? I think about that a lot, especially after the elections and recent national conversations. All you need is a president to start a witch hunt and suddenly the clock turns back 50 years.

"As a person who grew up in the gay world the way I did, I would hate to see it go back to the way it was in the 1960s and 1970s. I would hate for people to be put back in the position of being afraid to be themselves. Gay people were considered degenerates, pedophiles, criminals, psychopaths. People used to drive around Walker’s Point looking for gay men to beat up. You didn’t walk from Pittsburgh Street to National Avenue unless you wanted to get beat up. This was the real world.

"LGBTQ youth doesn’t have the slightest clue what that was like. They’re not taught their history, and so many don’t have an interest in learning it. The focus is on what’s happening now, without paying attention to what could happen in the future.

"There’s a small percent of me that fears for the gay community. We’ve been granted great liberties and freedoms, but those things can always be taken away. We shouldn’t totally let go of our institutions: bars, community centers, sports leagues, neighborhood associations.
"We shouldn’t be so quick to give up the things that make us ‘us.’  Gay and lesbian people have always had such an exciting, colorful and adventurous life. Let’s not trade that in just to be like everyone else."

Want to learn more? Explore nearly 100 years of local LGBTQ heritage at the Wisconsin LGBT History Project website and the new book, LGBT Milwaukee.

Michail Takach Special to OnMilwaukee
Growing up in a time of great Downtown reinvention, Michail Takach became fascinated with Milwaukee's urban culture, landmarks and neighborhoods at a young age. He's been chasing ghosts ever since. Michail, a lifelong Milwaukeean, dreaGrowing up in a time of great Downtown reinvention, Michail Takach became fascinated with Milwaukee's urban culture, landmarks and neighborhoods at a young age. He's been chasing ghosts ever since. Michail, a lifelong Milwaukeean, dreams of the day when time travel will be possible as he's always felt born too late. Fearlessly exploring forbidden spaces and obsessively recording shameless stories, Michail brings local color to the often colorless topic of local history. As an author, archivist and communications professional, Michail works with community organizations (including Milwaukee Pride and Historic Milwaukee) to broaden the scope of historical appreciation beyond the "same old, same old."