Sam was born in Milwaukee in 1950. He grew up in the Mid-City neighborhood around 37th and Kilbourn. One of his favorite childhood memories is watching the Miss America pageant every year, while the rest of his family wanted to change the channel. He also remembers decorating the house for the holidays with his mother and grandmother, and always trying to create picture perfect experiences.
Like many queer youth, he was sometimes teased by neighborhood kids. “Ah, it was alright for me,” he said. “I had older brothers who would protect me when people would say things. I just didn’t really pay attention to the bullies. I didn’t give them the time of day.”
He remembers his father pointing out the old Mint Bar, 422 W. State St., as they drove past it. He’d also share the story of how he got “manhandled” there by gay men in the 1950s, something that made the emerging Samantha raise an eyebrow or two.
As he got older, he began to seek out his people.
“When we were underage, we would meet up with the queens at Big Boy on 5th and Wisconsin,” said Sam. “I’d heard about the Loop Café, but I think it was closed already.
“That’s how we found out about gay places back then: meeting people and sharing stories. A lot of gay people hung out on Wisconsin Avenue, so we’d walk up and down the street to find them. There are a lot of people still alive who got into the gay community at that Big Boy!
“The first gay bar I ever went was the River Queen. I entered the Miss River Queen contest and got second runner up. It was the grooviest place, and everybody went there. I remember a long, narrow bar, with a short dancefloor, but I can’t remember anyone who worked there!”
Sam remembers the ruling queens of the era: Tiger Rose, Billie Shephard, Andretta, Duchess, Josie Carter, Jamie Gays, Mama Rae, Brandy Alexander, Ricki Vegas, Vicky Renee, Peaches Toy, the Powell Sisters, Andretta, Stormy Weather, Mother Chris.
“There were so many of them – and they would all talk about the pageants with such reverence,” said Sam. “I was fascinated by the costumes and performances and so inspired by these stories. So I started doing drag myself.”
Sam started working at the Ad Lib nightclub, 323 W. Wells St., as Samantha. The bar was an early and unlikely refuge – and reliable source of good income – for drag queens and transgender women. Owned by the Balistrieri crime family, the Ad Lib replaced its female strippers with female impersonators in 1969 to circumvent B-girl and obscenity laws. Strange as it was for 1970s Milwaukee, the Ad Lib created opportunities for regional fame and fortune.
“Mickey Chanel got me the job,” said Sam. “The show was only $2, so the house was always full. There were so many horny sailors! They didn’t even know these were female impersonators. They looked THAT good. They had those men in the palm of their hands. And here I was, right in the middle of all that, trying to figure myself out.”
Sam remembers the opening of The Factory, 158 N. Broadway, one of Milwaukee’s first gay dance clubs.
“It was the top gay bar in all of Milwaukee. All the queens would come in drag on Friday and Saturday nights, not even to perform, just to see and be seen,” said Sam. “They started doing these shows in the backroom – Tiger Rose, Mama Rae, Tina Capri – but I would just go with Miss Donny for drinks and people-watching.”
Sam remembers being fascinated with Tiger Rose, a glamour queen who sometimes looked exactly like Kim Novak and other times like Sheree North.
“At that time, drag queens hung out at the Ballgame (196 S. 2nd St.) and the Riviera Show Lounge (183 S. 2nd St.) That was THE drag scene," Sam recalled. "Ballgame was always a big place for queens, going back to when it was Castaways and New Jamie’s. The Riviera was an interesting one. Tiger Rose worked there too. They were always struggling to find the budget for these gigantic, ambitious shows. They advertised in the paper and tried to bring in a straight audience. That was brave in the early 1970s. Straight people just did not go to gay places!
“Now, these baby queens go anywhere and everywhere, and the gay bars are filled with straight girls.”
Queen of the pageant scene
Sam started dating a boy from Canton, Ohio and moved there for a while. While there, he entered the first Miss Gay Ohio America pageant in 1973 – and won. Later, he won the Miss Northern Ohio pageant. He spent the next few years going back and forth between Ohio and Wisconsin.
“I always loved planning the perfect outfit – you know, evening gowns, shoes, hats, gloves, jewelry, hair. I loved meeting new people. And I probably loved the money!” said Sam. “It felt so natural to become part of this life. Little did I know I would live in drag for the next 40 years.”
Her next victory was at Michelle’s, located in the Royal Hotel at 5th and Michigan, which had been a LGBTQ landmark since the 1930s. In 1972, Michelle, a trans woman from St. Louis, opened a five-day-a-week drag cabaret with reigning hostess Winnie Storm. Michelle’s “husband,” Sam Mazur, owned the business – at least until September 1973, when it was acquired for redevelopment by Blue Cross Blue Shield, shut down and demolished.
“I really enjoyed the vibe at Michelle’s,” Sam said. “It was a really nice, up-to-date kind of place, with a restaurant across the lobby. We would all go to that restaurant and drink coffee for hours, gossiping about everything that was going on. I was dating Bill, a bartender who lived in the Royal Hotel penthouse. This was an actual mansion, built on the roof for the original owner, and after all those years, it was still sitting up there. We would have to take people up in the elevator to prove it really existed. It was huge!
“And then I won the Miss Michelle’s 1973 pageant! It was really funny, because I was up against older people, who had done drag long before me. Michelle and the older queens were glaring at me, like 'Why did SHE win?'
“Here’s what I think. My look was modern, natural, glamorous. I didn’t look like a female impersonator. I just looked like a glamorous woman. These older queens were so serious, so joyless. They looked like 1920s and 1930s Hollywood, with none of the mystique. Drag is about the performance AND the appearance. That’s real talent. I knew that way back then.
“I didn’t take the title, though, because you had to go back and do the whole thing over the next year, and hand over your title and crown. At the time, we didn’t know there wouldn’t be a next year for Michelle’s. I went back to Ohio. So, they gave first place to Mickey Chanel instead.
“Mickey Chanel was one of the first Miss Gay Wisconsins and one of the most beautiful queens I’d ever seen, and she won everything she went out for. Except the one time I ran against her!”
After a few years in Ohio, Sam moved to San Francisco for three years.
“No matter where I lived, they always said I had an accent,” Sam said. “Eventually, I got homesick, so I came back to Milwaukee. And Milwaukee had changed a lot since the early 1970s. I’d lived in big cities, and now I was coming back to a small city that suddenly felt much bigger.”
Samantha decided to get back into the pageant business.
“George Prentice was running the Circus Disco (219 S. 2nd St.) and he put me in the Miss Circus 1976 Pageant,” said Sam. “Bianca Martine won that show. I came in second place runner-up. I got a cash price and this gigantic trophy, but I can’t tell you what the hell ever happened to that trophy. It was the only one I’ve ever gotten!
“Then I entered Miss Gay Wisconsin three years in a row, and if you can believe it, I got second runner-up each time. It was starting to feel very déjà vu!
“The first pageant was held at the Centre Stage theater at the Antlers Hotel. It was a very beautiful and dramatic space. People said it was old and run-down, but I thought it was the perfect place for a pageant.”
The Antlers Hotel was demolished in 1980 for Grand Avenue parking. The Miss Gay Wisconsin pageant continued at the Marc Plaza Hotel – now the Milwaukee Hilton – until 1995. And Samantha moved on to a new career path.
Making faces famous
John and Margaret Garlic, proprietors of the popular J.J. Garlic’s, launched a new concept in November 1979. After a long and complicated remodel, they converted an 1894 public bath house at 1646 S. 4th Street into a 230-person “neo-eclectic” restaurant complete with painted skylights, white marble tables, massive floral arrangements, a 130,000-gallon illuminated swimming pool, 300 parakeets and two trained dolphins, Gypsy and Star.
“It’s going to be 'Fantasy Island' right here in Milwaukee,” Margaret Garlic told the Journal on Oct. 16, 1979. “We’re even going to have our own Tattoo and we’re training a cockatoo to sit on our manager’s shoulder. We want this to be a tourist attraction the people can be proud of.”
Now, they just needed a celebrity hostess. And Samantha Stevens added just the elegance they needed.
“It was a gorgeous restaurant, just really incredible,” Sam recalled. “I was there as a hostess and dining room manager for about three years. I’d worked at J.J. Garlic’s before that. I also spent a lot of time with John and Margaret. Those people knew how to party! Eventually, two of my brothers worked there as chefs, and two of my sisters worked there as salad girls. They all quit, but Samantha stayed."
“I like the dolphin shows, which were really a unique thing for Milwaukee,” Sam added. "And I liked the birds flying around overheard too, except when they’d fly right into the ceiling and kill themselves."
Sam also remembered more than one customer receiving a special bird dropping in their meal.
At the Natatorium, Samantha met Baby Jane Hudson, another drag performer and fundraiser, who was working as a server. Shortly afterwards, she met someone else who would change her life forever.
“Ginger Spice was living about a block away from me on 14th and Wells with another queen,” Sam said. “We were all neighbors, so we got to be good friends and eventually got to talking business. I said, 'Hey, why don’t we start something together?' And that’s how the Who’s No Lady Revue got started.
"They were just opening up Club 219 (219 S. 2nd St.) and they asked me to become show director. And the Who’s No Lady Revue was a powerhouse cast. We had a cast of four-to-five girls at all times, and we traveled all over doing shows. I booked the shows, I collected the money, I picked out the overtures – the whole business operation."
Who’s No Lady was a superstar drag factory that launched some of the biggest names of the 1980s: Ginger Spice, Abby Rhodes, Coco Lopez, Josie Blake, Gloria P. Hole and Miss B.J. Daniels. Some of Sam’s earliest favorite shows happened at Zak’s on Humboldt and Niko’s, the predecessor to La Cage.
“There had been drag shows before,” Sam said, “but nothing like the shows we were putting together. These were true theatrical productions, top to bottom, start to finish, with high quality standards. You didn’t just go out there in a wig and a dress and lip synch. Oh no, no, no. You presented the full illusion until you became the illusion.”
Samantha remembers traveling to Madison to recruit Miss B.J. Daniels, who was performing at Going My Way, 111 W. Main St.
“She was just stunning,” Sam said. “I was mesmerized by this beautiful blonde bombshell. I thought, 'Hey, maybe she’ll come with us to Milwaukee.' And she did!”
The arrival of Miss B.J. Daniels
“I was Miss Gay Madison in 1980,” said B.J. Daniels. “They saw my photo in one of the bar magazines and came out to see me. Back then, I was just ‘B.J. from Madison.' I didn’t even have a real name yet.
“Everyone in the Revue had a role, and Sam told me that my role was going to be glamour queen. Tony and Dell had just opened Club 219, and they hadn’t even remodeled yet – the interior was very different than what people remember today. I was traveling back and forth from Madison for the shows, but after a terrifying car accident, I was like no. I’m not doing this anymore.
“Ginger said, you’re going to move in with Samantha – and so I did. I stayed on a studio bed in Sam’s parlor, which had pocket doors I could close at night. We lived in this fabulous, three-story Victorian rooming house at 939 N. 15th Street that was filled with eccentric characters, including Uncle Jerry, Sam’s actual uncle; Frank and Judy, an elderly couple on the third floor; Gertie, who cooked on a hot plate and smoked and drank all day; and Dirty Dog, Sam’s cousin and sometime drag performer. There was a grand foyer with a curving staircase, shared bathrooms and one pay phone in the hallway that rang off the hook. It was like a Damon Runyon story, filled with nutty characters. I remember eating a lot of grilled cheese – someone was always bringing home government cheese. I remember watching Sam get all dolled up before his boyfriend came over.
“Sam introduced me to everyone in the world. I met a lot of older, more established people in the business because of him. I felt so embraced by this enormous community of talented performers and elders. I remember visits with Mel and Jerry, who ran the Miss Gay Wisconsin pageant, at their Mineral Street home. They’d show us trunkloads of costumes in their attic from their glory days.
“Sam pioneered the idea of a really glamorous show. She would always remind us: You’re not a drag queen, you are a female impersonator. Drag queens are obvious men. Drag queens are not artists; they just get dressed up and go out.
“She put together a real variety show of people – and she made sure every single person looked stunning in every single number. Gloria P. Hole was a comedian, but she looked amazing doing comedy. Coco Lopez would do Carmen Miranda numbers, but she was always dressed to the nines. There was nothing tacky or cheap about the shows. That was Sam’s claim to fame: She started a new trend for a new era, with a new cast of fresh faces, steeped in feminine glamour and illusion. She raised expectations and elevated the art of drag to new levels. People were so taken in by our performances, they would actually be surprised that we weren’t women.
“Sam got me a job at J.J. Garlic’s. We were inseparable for an entire summer. I knew when it was time for me to leave the nest, so I moved to Brady Street after two or three months, and Coco Lopez got me a job at the Finlandia Spa.
“Truth be told, I would not be here in Milwaukee today without my connection to Sam.”
"My work here is done"
After three years at Club 219, the Who’s No Lady Revue was raking in customers, but the bar owners questioned whether or not the partnership was really viable.
“Some people complained, ‘Why do we need to pay Samantha when she doesn’t host and she doesn’t perform? What is she actually doing?’” B.J. said. "She was more than just our agent, more than a den mother. She was bringing the vision to life. That’s what she was doing.”
“People were always trying to undercut the girls,” Sam recalled. “I always found myself in arguments with venue owners who didn’t want to pay after a gig. Things got bad at Club 219, because the owners didn’t like me. I was too outspoken – they wanted me to do as I was told. But that’s just not me. One day, I told Ginger, 'Here you go, take the reins.' And I walked away.
“Ginger stayed there until she died. She produced beautiful, enchanting, heart-stopping shows with B.J. and the Club 219 Girls. I would still go to the shows and visit her upstairs afterwards. But I was done.”
Samantha went to La Cage where she served as the bar’s first show director for seven years. During that time, La Cage and Club 219 were deadlocked in competition to produce the fiercest drag shows Milwaukee had ever seen. A golden age of drag was in full effect. Competition raged so hard that employees and customers had to choose their loyalties to one venue over another. Performers were so highly regarded that they became Milwaukee royalty. Under the tight quality controls of Samantha Stevens, La Cage’s shows elevated to Broadway-level productions that attracted crossover crowds several nights a week.
“Samantha created my stage persona David Rogers,” said Milwaukee performer and restauranteur David Kotke. "She put me on stage at La Cage and guided me on my journey to Mr. Gay Wisconsin 1986."
“I was the producer of the Dreamboys, a male dance group, and David was just so gorgeous," Sam said. "I convinced him to join the group and the rest is history. The way he carried himself, the way he spoke, the way he delivered to his audience – I knew he had star power that even he didn’t see himself.”
“I met Samantha at LaCage in 1984,” Kotke added. "La Cage had just started a new weekly show, Strip Search, emceed by Steve Reid (a former dancer at Circus/Club 219) and his partner Stephen. As the show director, Samantha was always recruiting contestants. She was already well-known for the Who’s No Lady shows.
“I was just coming out and rather shy. I was standing in the corner of the bar, sipping a Coke, when she approached me. She was very well-dressed, very complimentary and very persuasive, and eventually she talked me into entering the competition. I’m sure the several shots of tequila didn’t hurt!
“I won the stripper contest that night, eventually advancing to the finals where I won $1,000. Samantha took me under her wing and encouraged me to get more involved in the male pageant scene. I was later named Mr. Fox Valley and Mr. Gay Wisconsin 1985.
“We moved upstairs at La Cage, where we shared one of the four apartment units above the bar, along with George and Corey and Dennis and Michael. You don’t even know the fun times we had!
“Samantha became known as The Mother. She helped us staff the roster of strippers seen at La Cage every weekend. She had the smarts, the charm and the savvy to get even the shyest dudes on stage. She made fast friends with everyone!
“One of my favorite memories was when Samantha booked a stripper show in Lac du Flambeau on the reservation. One of Samantha’s old drag queen friends owned the bar, and she closed it down for the night so that women could see the 'hot strippers from Milwaukee.' There were only three of us guys and all three of us were gay. As soon as the show was over, Sam escorted us out a back door to someone’s house instead of the hotel. Seems the husbands were not too happy with their wives looking at other guys! They were ready to teach us a lesson about gyrating on their wives. Samantha was in full force Mother mode and made sure we were safely ushered out of harm’s way. The next morning, we laughed at how ridiculous this was!”
By that time, the Public Natatorium and J.J. Garlic’s had long closed.
"I went to work one day and the doors were locked,” Sam said. “They were always getting into trouble for some reason or another. Licensing. Taxes. Violations. One day the doors just stayed locked.”
La Cage’s popularity continued to soar with the arrival of Holly Brown & Company shows in 1988.
After a decade of star-making and show-running, Sam stepped out of the business in 1991.
“There were so many cliques,” Sam said, “and I think the cliques kind of killed drag for awhile. That’s why I quit it all. I got sick of going to bars and having to deal with the drama. And truth be told, so many of my friends were dying. Ginger. Josie. Holly. So many more.
"One night I just said, ‘My work here is done.' It’s time to be in the audience now.”
In the late 1990s, Sam moved to Nashville, worked in a restaurant and frequented the famous Cabaret nightclub. From Nashville, he returned to Lac Du Flambeau circa 2003, then back to Milwaukee.
“I’d spent so many years of my life as a woman, but for some reason, I wasn’t feeling it anymore,” Sam said. "And then one night, I got dressed up and went out again.”
“I ran around for awhile with Miss Donny, another old queen, who was crazy but a lot of fun. I knew her and Brandy Alexander for 30-40 years. We all went out in drag everywhere: bars, restaurants, everywhere. We looked like real women, not the drag you see running around these days. And we were treated and respected like real, older women. But Miss Donny and Brandy are both gone now, like so many of my friends.”
The golden years
For the past five or six years, Sam has been living in Lac du Flambeau. He no longer presents as Samantha, mainly because, as he said, “They wouldn’t know what to do with Samantha up here.” He jokes that he is going back into the closet kicking and screaming.
“For forty years, I lived every day as a woman,” Sam said. "I went everywhere as a woman. I competed in pageants and competitions as a woman. I got on hormones and nearly had the surgery myself in the early 1980s. And I was never one ‘outed,’ never once hassled, never once arrested, never once sent to jail. Nobody ever tore off my wig once.”
Despite living half his life as a woman, Sam doesn’t identify himself as “transgender.”
“Transgender just isn’t a word people my age use," Sam said. "I am often asked: How do you identify? Well, I identify as me. When I was Samantha, I used female words to describe myself, because I was a woman. Now, I use male words to describe myself, because I am living as Sam. In the end, I’m just me.
“We called ourselves queens back then, because we really were the queens of Milwaukee. And that is all you need to call me, if you have to have a word: queen.”
“Samantha is and always will be the First Lady of La Cage,” said George Prentice, owner. "It was so wonderful to see her again at our recent '80s/'90s Reunion party."
This summer, Samantha was honored by Miss Ohio America as their first-ever historic titleholder. There was just one catch: They posted someone else’s photo, and it wasn’t someone that Samantha especially liked.
“When I saw that they posted this really, really rude drag queen’s picture, you bet I called them right away,” Sam said. “I sent them pictures and set them straight. Now, they’re very sweet to me. They offered to pay for everything for me to return to Ohio. They’ll give me a new crown and everything. Back then, we had to give up our crowns to the incoming queens – nowadays, they get to keep them!”
After five decades on the scene, what does Sam think of the state of drag?
“You have to be very, very glamorous, as a woman,” Sam said. “You have to look like a woman. Period. I was in drag for forty years! I walked everywhere, I went anywhere, and nobody knew I was anything but a woman. You must look absolutely feminine, unlike those girls from RuPaul. Glamour doesn’t get attention from RuPaul, only freakshow faces wearing gobs and gobs of makeup that make them look foolish.
“Youth today are not as free as we were. We were real free. We carried on. We were out in the streets. Freedom meant being able to do what we wanted, and nobody being able to stop us. They’re not like that now. It feels like young gay adults nowadays are so uptight, so inhibited. I don’t go out to bars as regularly as I did in the 1970s and 1980s, but when I do, I see people drinking. But there’s no laughter, there’s no joy, there’s no hurrah.
“People have forgotten how free they are.”
Want to learn more? Explore over 100 years of local LGBTQ heritage at the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project website. Our mission is to reconnect Wisconsin with its hidden LGBTQ history and heritage.