After June Brehm opened the bar This Is It in 1968, gay people just started showing up. Perhaps it was because other gay bars in the area were moving south, speculates Don Schwamb. Once word got out that This Is It welcomed gay people and treated them with respect, he said, the rest became part of Milwaukee LGBT history.
By the time Schwamb was a regular at the bar in the mid-1970s, it was known as an LGBT gathering place.
Brehm couldn’t have known at the time that This Is It would go on to become the city’s oldest operating gay bar and play a significant role in the city’s LGBT history — so significant it’s recognized by the Wisconsin Historical Society. But she would have liked it, according to people familiar with the bar’s history.
Gay-friendly places were hard to find in Milwaukee during the 1970s, said Schwamb, a longtime activist and volunteer in Milwaukee’s LGBT community. He is the leading organizer of the Milwaukee LGBT History Project.
Schwamb became a This Is It regular at a time when, if someone’s car was vandalized near a gay bar, the victim would think more than twice before notifying the police. Milwaukee’s law enforcement officers were often brutal to LGBT citizens in those days.
Police also raided bars and arrested patrons. They were particularly harsh toward lesbian or gay bars frequented by African Americans. Patrons of those clubs would race for the back door at the first glimpse of a badge.
This Is It was different. Schwamb can’t recall a single police raid on the establishment. Until recently, there was no sign on the building’s façade that signaled This Is It was a bar, much less a gay bar.
Located at 418 E. Wells St. near Cathedral Square, This Is It felt safer than most of the other bars at the time, which were tucked away on dark backstreets. It was also close to the downtown hotels, making it a destination for visitors to the city.
Joe Brehm, June’s son, took over the bar in 1980. But even after suffering a stroke, she continued to help out at what had become the family business. She died in 2010.
Like his mother, Joe Brehm was a staunch LGBT ally, even though he lost friends and had his home and car vandalized because of it. He solidified the bar’s role as a community resource, using it to raise money for HIV/AIDS and other causes. He supported PrideFest, the Cream City Foundation, the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center and other community groups.
Brehm died on April 3 at age 68. His loss was mourned not only by the LGBT community but the entire city. Days before his death, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett proclaimed March 31 to be Joe Brehm Day. Barrett praised him for continuing his mother’s legacy.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin wrote a tribute in which she said, “Thank you for making the world a more welcoming, generous and understanding place.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer Jim Stingl penned a moving remembrance of Joe and a tribute to This Is It. “Joe grieved customers lost to AIDS, and he was a comforting presence when the gay community struggled to heal after it was victimized by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer,” Stingl wrote.
Friend and mentor
After Brehm’s death, his partner in the business, George Schneider, 31, took over the bar. He plans to bring This Is It more fully into the social media era, but said he’d make few additional changes to the décor.
Schneider was working as food and beverage director at the Iron Horse in the waning days of 2011 when he decided that he was “burned out on the hotel scene,” he said. Schneider was considering a move to Dallas before Brehm called to say, “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
Schneider had tended bar at This Is It for a year and a half, and Brehm asked him to stay in Milwaukee and take a full-time job managing the bar. The two men became close friends and partners in the business for the five years preceding Brehm’s death.
“He was a mentor to me,” Schneider said. “He always said, “Stick to your guns, George. Sometimes you might be the only one standing up there, but if you’re true to yourself, you’re going to end up coming out ahead in the end.”
Schneider said Brehm appeared to be in good health for the first few years of their partnership. But looking back, there were subtle warning signs that his health was faltering, Schneider said. He and the bar’s other employees didn’t worry, though: “We were thinking, ‘This is your lack of a healthy diet catching up with you.’”
Last fall, Brehm complained about numbness in his foot. Not long afterward, he was diagnosed with ALS, a deadly, progressive disease that kills nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. In January, he was put into hospice care.
Schneider tries to remember Brehm as he was before the illness set in. He holds close to his heart the memory of the bar’s Christmas party in 2014. “He was as happy as can be, and that’s how we all want to remember him,” Schneider said.
Brehm wanted the bar to continue after his death, and he and Schneider had long conversations about how he envisioned the future of This Is It without him. He saw the bar as a legacy to the community from his mother and him, and he wanted it to be preserved.
Brehm also asked Schneider to take care of the business and his family, including his wife Karen, his two daughters and his two grandchildren.
“My relationship with Karen was almost non-existent until he got sick, but now I call her almost every other day,” Schneider said.
And there’s not a day that goes by without Schneider thinking of Joe.
“Joe and June had the bar for the first 50 years, and I’m here to make sure it lasts for another 50,” Schneider said.