Tag Archives: bar

Beloved ally left behind Milwaukee’s oldest operating gay bar

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.

The façade of This Is It, 418 E. Wells St. The historic bar is now under the ownership of George Schneider, Joe Brehm’s partner in the business.  PHOTO: Desagesse/Wikimedia
The façade of This Is It, 418 E. Wells St. The historic bar is now under the ownership of George Schneider, Joe Brehm’s partner in the business. — PHOTO: Desagesse/Wikimedia

2 men reach plea deal in beating of gay couple, banned from Philadelphia’s downtown

Two men accused of beating a gay couple in a case helped solved by social media sleuths will avoid prison time under a plea agreement announced late last week that outraged members of the gay community.

Instead, prosecutors said, Philip Williams and Kevin Harrigan must stay away from downtown Philadelphia for several years, pay just under $1,000 in restitution and perform 200 hours of service at a facility serving the LGBT community.

In a tweet, gay writer and activist Dan Savage called the sentence “appalling.”

Williams, 24, and Harrigan, 26, apologized to the victims and the judge as they pleaded guilty to assault and conspiracy charges in the attack last year that left one victim with a broken jaw and cheekbones. They said the beating wasn’t motivated by the couple’s sexual orientation.

Prosecutors said the victims, Zachary Hesse and Andy Haught, had encouraged a resolution that avoided excessive punishment while sending a positive message about tolerance and understanding. Pennsylvania’s hate crime law does not cover sexual orientation.

“Today’s agreement is certainly about justice, but it is also about honoring the wishes of the victims to make sure they can continue to heal and gain closure,” District Attorney Seth Williams said in a statement.

A third defendant, Kathryn Knott, will go to trial.

Prosecutors say Williams and Harrigan, from the suburban communities of Warminster and Warrington, were part of a group that hurled gay slurs and profanity and beat Hesse and Haught near Philadelphia’s ritzy Rittenhouse Square on Sept. 11, 2014.

The case gained attention when police posted a video of the suspects, and online followers used social media sites to help identify them.

“This affected the sense of security for all people in Center City, particularly people who are gay and lesbian,” Assistant District Attorney Michael Barry said. The defendants, he said, damaged Philadelphia’s reputation as a safe, gay friendly city.

The plea deal further tarnished that reputation in the eyes of dozens of Twitter users who sent the district attorney’s office messages of outrage.

One of them, Sam Ritchie of the Innocence Project, wrote: “They didn’t even admit what they did And still they got a slap on the wrist. Shame on you (at)DASethWilliams! (hash)LGBT”.

Banning defendants from a certain part of the city isn’t common, Barry said.

It’s usually employed when defendants don’t have a connection to the area where the crime occurred, he said, like when a dealer sells drugs in a neighborhood far from where he lives.

Williams must stay away from downtown for the five years of his probation. Harrigan cannot return until his three years of probation are completed. Neither objected to the ban, which was also a condition of their bail, Barry said.

They could be granted temporary exemptions to attend necessary appointments, Barry said.

Williams and Harrigan’s whereabouts won’t be subject to electronic monitoring, but many downtown police officers are familiar with the case and know to be on the lookout, Barry said.

“It’s not the easiest thing to enforce,” he said.

Lawmakers: Make Stonewall Inn a national park

Two New York lawmakers are leading a campaign to designate Stonewall Inn as the first national park honoring LGBT history.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler made their announcement in late September in front of the Greenwich Village tavern that was the scene of a 1969 uprising at a key moment for the nascent gay rights movement.

“When we look at our country, we have recognized women’s rights, civil rights, all kinds of rights,” Gillibrand said. “The time has come to give this part of our history an imprimatur of national importance.”

The two Democrats were joined by other elected officials and members of the National Parks Conservation Association and the Human Rights Campaign.

National parks can only be created by an act of Congress. They include sites of cultural or historic importance.

Gillibrand says she and Nadler are first asking President Barack Obama to declare Stonewall a monument. A congressional vote on park status would come later.

Gillibrand credited gay-rights activists for spurring action on giving greater recognition to the historic tavern raided by police more than four decades ago, triggering violent protests.

During his second inauguration in 2013, Obama mentioned Stonewall and the struggle for LGBT equality as being on a par with women’s and civil rights.

Stonewall would be the first park representing the gay community, but the fight isn’t over, Gillibrand said.

“Same-sex couples don’t have the same adoption rights, or the same federal benefits,” she said. “There’s more work to do.”

Let your geek flag fly at 42 Lounge’s Cosplay Rave 3.0

When you walk the floor at a comic and entertainment convention, the superstars aren’t the celebrities at the autograph booths. It’s the cosplayers making their rounds on the floor dressed as favorite fictional characters and posing for photographs to show off months of hard work and handcrafted artistry. 

In other words, when cosplayers are in the area, no matter who you are, you’re bound to geek out — at least a little bit. 

For many years, Milwaukee cosplayers (a portmanteau of “costumes” and “players”) had to make a trip outside the city to show off their outfits. Thanks to the 42 Lounge, Milwaukee’s self-proclaimed geek bar, local cosplayers have the chance to dress up, enjoy a few drinks and dance at Cosplay Rave 3.0. 

“Because we’re gearing this towards geeks, you get a lot of that superstar cosplay crowd, kind of all in the same spot, but outside of a convention,” says Anthony Nilles, owner of 42 Lounge.

The event is in its third year, but expanding from the bar to Turner Hall due to its growth in popularity. The original Cosplay Rave in 2013 was effectively a “Halloween in the middle of July,” Nilles says, and a huge success. The follow-up in 2014 was bigger still, with a 90-minute wait to get in. 

Cosplay Rave 3.0 is a bigger deal than your average costume party. Nilles says regular Halloween parties are “amateur nights.’ Cosplay events attract more dedicated fans. 

“(For Halloween), everybody just buys their costume or just wears whatever they’ve got laying around,” Nilles says. “People who are more serious about the cosplay … really have some unique stuff. We had one person that dressed up as a psychedelic, Tron-version of a scout trooper from Star Wars. That was super cool.” 

This year, with a larger venue, the party is going to be bigger than ever. When the doors open, costumed guests can come in and get acquainted with the space. As the drinks are poured and savored, a DJ will spin tunes and, of course, there’ll be a judged costume contest. New this year is the inclusion of special musical guest Freezepop, a synth-pop band featured in the video game Guitar Hero.

“When you start to get a little energy, it moves throughout the crowd very, very quickly,” Nilles says. “I’m hoping that even with the larger venue, we can capture that.”

Nilles says although they host many themed parties every year, Cosplay Rave is their most popular. “It’s really just a bunch of people that love what’s going on, love their costumes, and love the theme and are just having a good time being around each other,” he says. 

Nilles and his customers aren’t offended by being labeled geeks. In fact, they embrace it. Cosplay Rave offers a chance for the city’s geeks to embrace such labeling and to be themselves — by being someone else.

In fact, Nilles says, there’s no better time than now to be a geek. “Not only because of prevailing culture and people getting more comfortable with being a geek, but also having venues like ourselves that are doing things out in public and not trying to hide it in somebody’s basement or behind closed doors,” Nilles says. “It’s like, ‘We’re geeks. We’re trying to do this thing.’ I think that’s really encouraging to a lot more people to let that geek flag fly.”


Cosplay Rave 3.0 will take place at 8 p.m. July 17 at 1040 N. Fourth St., Milwaukee. Admission is $24.50 and can be purchased at pabsttheater.org or 414-286-3663. Costumes are encouraged but not required.

Madison’s FIVE Nightclub lives on, thanks to patrons

When a business can transcend its original purpose, you do what it takes to keep that rare enterprise alive. 

Dave Eick, the owner of Madison’s FIVE Nightclub, may know that better than anyone. The Hartford native willingly admits to you that his earlier work in the hospitality industry is nothing in comparison to his time at FIVE, where he’s operating more than just a nightclub. He’s operating a home for Wisconsin’s LGBT community.

Eick never saw himself eventually running a gay bar and nightclub when he moved to the Madison area in the 1990s. At that time, he was a general manager for Pizza Hut of Southern Wisconsin, running outlets in Janesville, Madison and Stoughton. He also helped open a Madison franchise of Red Robin Gourmet Burgers — all while still in the closet.

That changed in 2003. “I decided to stop lying to myself and start to deal with things,” Eick says. While he was coming out, Eick started visiting the bar he would later run, then called Club 5. Located just off Fish Hatchery Road on Madison’s south side, the club was owned by Ed Grunewald, who recognized Eick from his other jobs in the industry.

After four months, Grunewald offered Eick a bartending job.

“I was working five jobs at the time, including one that I hated, so that was an easy decision to make,” Eick says. By 2008, the former bartender worked his way up to become Club 5’s general manager. Now in a position of greater financial stability, Eick and his partner began house-hunting.

But then Grunewald was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a swiftly moving variety that eventually claimed his life. Grunewald died on April 21, 2008, but not before he offered Eick sole ownership of Club 5.

“He told me I was the only one who could keep it alive, and if I didn’t take it he would close Club 5 permanently,” Eick remembers. “All I can say is that it was an incredible gift from Ed.”

Eick’s first stroke of good fortune turned into the calm before a storm of legal problems. Grunewald’s estate did not recognize the late owner’s gift, and his heirs fought Eick’s legal right to Club 5. The new owner finally settled with Grunewald’s estate just to get his late mentor’s heirs out of the picture, Eick says.

As great a gift as the business had been, it was handed over at a time of growing financial uncertainty. What eventually became known as the Great Recession had just begun to rear its head and, like business owners everywhere, Eick reduced expenses, trimmed staff and did what he could to keep the enterprise afloat.

It was enough to keep the club alive throughout the recession, during which Eick tweaked the name to FIVE Nightclub. But things went south in 2013, when the city of Madison began rebuilding Fish Hatchery Road and its bridge across the Beltline, just adjacent to the club. The lengthy construction project took traffic on the road — and consequently to FIVE — down to a crawl.

“That really shot us in the foot,” Eick says. “I blame 90 percent of my financial troubles on the road project.”

The payroll, which at its height supported 26 employees, was cut to just 10 workers, and Eick did everything he could to rein in costs. The club’s financial misfortunes began to reverse, but it was a case of too little, too late.

The club owed back taxes. Eick was behind on the building’s rent. And while two different potential partners were interested in signing on, their vision ultimately didn’t align with Eick’s, and they dropped out. 

Eick did manage to make some inroads, adding volleyball leagues and hosting regular Latin dance nights that attracted Madison’s Latino community. Those efforts helped pay off the back taxes and retired some additional debt, but it still wasn’t enough. A pending rent increase for 2014 convinced Eick that there was no hope in sight.

On April 14, Eick announced that he would have to close FIVE Nightclub. “Times have changed in society. I have explored countless options and a spirit-crushing rent (has) led me to a heartbreaking decision,” he said in his public statement.

Fortunately, the club’s fans, friends and patrons would have none of it. Social media ignited with calls of concern and cries for help or assistance. On April 15, Eick’s landlord called. He, too, had been inundated with calls, never once realizing how important the club was to so many people who called it home. 

The landlord offered rent relief for a period so that Eick could redirect his limited capital to introduce new moneymaking services to the club. But the owner still needed an additional $40,000 to satisfy his back rent and stabilize his operation in the face of the pending rent increase. 

Eick took a step he never thought he would take in his business life: He asked for help. And he did so through a medium he never had used — a crowdsourcing Internet page called GoFundMe, where fan Brian Ponce had started a campaign to save the bar.

“This was not my idea and I don’t like GoFundMe pages, but there were so many people around the country who wanted to help,” Eick says.

Both Eick and his landlord realized that FIVE Nightclub was more than a business. It was a place where LGBT people from communities throughout the Midwest could gather in a non-threatening environment where they weren’t judged. Many couples first met at the club, giving it special meaning to them. Others simply had strong emotional ties to the place. And the subsequent donations reflected that.

During the next two weeks, customers would come in and hand Eick envelopes of cash in response to the campaign, dubbed “FIVEForever.” The club sold T-shirts and cover-charge packages to raise money, and fans donated on the GoFundMe page.

Four days in, donations stood at $21,000, more than half the $40,000 needed. A week later, on April 25, Eick was able to take the stage and announce that FIVE Nightclub had reached its $40,000 goal and that the fundraising effort was over.

“It was our busiest night ever, with people wall to wall,” Eick says. “I don’t know that I will ever be able to say thank you the right way.”

Lightening had struck a second time for both Eick and his LGBT clientele. The outpouring of love and support has convinced him that failure is no longer an option.

“This will be the driving force for the rest of my life and serving community that wants us here will be my measuring stick,” Eick says. “I always felt like I was operating Ed’s bar, even after he passed away. Now I feel that this is my bar and preserving it is my responsibility to this community.” 

Bundle up for a good cause, great tunes at Mitten Fest

Why wait until the temperatures warm to enjoy an outdoor music festival? On Feb. 7, Bay View bar Burnhearts will present its third annual Mitten Fest — a free, one-day music festival benefiting the Hunger Task Force.

Burnhearts owner William Seidel says the idea came as a result of an annual summer block party, a giant bash that takes over more than a block of Potter Avenue at the end of June. Two years ago, Seidel and the Burnhearts team got tired of waiting a whole year to host another event and realized there was nothing more Wisconsin than holding a music festival in the middle of a February afternoon.

Seidel said there were some doubts. He and the bar were inundated with comments like, “‘This is not going to work, and nobody’s gonna show up.’”

But the first two years proved the doubters wrong. Both concerts featured strong attendance and last year, Mitten Fest collected more than $2,500 for the Hunger Task Force, along with a ton of food and 36 giant bags of winter clothing.

“(The winter placement) gives people a little bit of light before the end of a dark tunnel,” Seidel said. “Going on its third year, it has become quite a big event.”

This year’s concert will feature Canopies, Greatest Lakes, Towers and Sin Bad. DJ Chris Schulist, a co–founder of local hip hop rarities record label Dope Folks Records, will provide music between sets.

Seidel said deciding who to select “boils down to who hasn’t played at the festival yet,” in part, but he also likes to pick acts that are on the upswing.

This year’s bands certainly qualify.

Synthpop quintet Canopies was recently featured on college radio tracker CMJ, thanks to promotion from WMSE. Greatest Lakes’ dreamy single “Looking In” was listed as one of the 10 best Milwaukee songs of 2014 by the Journal Sentinel’s Piet Levy. And both Towers and Sin Bad made waves when they debuted in the garage rock scene this year.

Seidel said playing in the cold can be daunting for bands, but he’s able to convince them to sign on by reminding them that “people who come don’t forget that show.”

In addition to the music and a craft fair, Mitten Fest will feature specialty drinks provided by the event’s sponsors: Central Waters Brewery, in Amherst, Wisconsin, and Founders Brewing Company, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Seidel said Founders was invited because you can’t have a Mitten Fest without inviting a brewery from the “Mitten State.”

The tastiest beverage might be Burnhearts’ own concoction: a specialty brandy old-fashioned. “We take old used bourbon barrels and fill them with Korbel brandy,” Seidel says. “In one of them we put 40 pounds of fresh ginger and simple syrup, and then we age it for quite a few months. The other one we put in all the fixings for a traditional Wisconsin old-fashioned.” The cocktails are sold at Mitten Fest and then the empty barrels are turned over to Central Waters, which will age beer in them for a year and sell the result at next year’s Mitten Fest.

It’s a tantalizing treat that Seidel said always draws attendees into Burnhearts — but they’re not the only local beneficiaries. “There are lots of other bars and restaurants in the neighborhood, and they love it when people show up to get warm, have something to eat or drink, and then head back,” Seidel said.

First-timers, take heed of Seidel’s parting suggestion: “Bring three pairs of socks, and make sure you have nice warm boots.”


Burnhearts’ third annual Mitten Fest is noon–8 p.m. on Feb. 7, at 2599 S. Logan Ave. Attendance is free, but food, clothing and cash donations for Hunger Task Force are encouraged. Visit facebook.com/burnheartsbar for more details.

Game on: Where to cheer for the Packers on Sunday

The Green Bay Packers are heading to Seattle this Sunday. And where are Packer fans headed to watch the game?

Travel Wisconsin has some ideas. The state boasts some of the largest and liveliest sports bars in the country. And whatever part of the state you find yourself in this Sunday, you can bet the Packers game will be on, the fans will be cheering and the bloody marys and beer will be flowing.

A few of the TW team’s favorite spots to catch the game:

Pooley’s Sports Bar — Madison

Madison’s largest and most interactive sports bar is the place to watch the big game. If you like sports memorabilia, this is your place. Pooley’s has an impressive collection of sports memorabilia that will blow away the biggest sports fan, including signed jerseys, pennants, photos and helmets of some of Wisconsin’s greatest sports stars.

Stadium View — Green Bay

Forbes magazine named Stadium View the “No. 1 Sports Bar in the Nation.” Just steps away from Lambeau Field, this bar has 12 massive, 10-foot tall TVs to catch the game on… how can you go wrong?

Champs Sports Bar & Grill — Lake Geneva

When the game is on, Champs is a rowdy yet relaxed retreat for fans. The collection of signed sports memorabilia will impress even the most ardent sports enthusiast and the beer list will satisfy domestic and craft beer lovers alike, but the 14 high-def TVs make it perfect for cheering on the Green and Gold.

Major Goolsby’s — Milwaukee

Sports Illustrated cited this hot spot as “America’s 4th Best Sports Bar.” While it’s most famous for being a convenient stop for a cheeseburger before Milwaukee Bucks games, it also boasts food and drink specials for Packers games and 54 TVs to catch the action on.

Iron Horse Saloon — Hurley

The crown jewel of Hurley’s famous Silver Street is a great place to catch the game, have a beer, and bite into one of the best burgers around. Make it a long weekend and catch the legendary live music on Saturday, and then stick around for the game on Sunday. Plus, with Packers specials, you can’t go wrong.

Brat Stop — Kenosha

Brats. Beer. Cheese. These football-friendly staples are what make the Brat Stop famous. When you’re not cheering on the Pack, play pool, darts and video games. The friendly atmosphere will make you feel like you’ve stepped into Cheers (if Cheers was filled with flat screens).

Rookie’s — Mazomanie

You could spend an hour or two scouting out the sports memorabilia that don all of the walls and even the ceilings of this bar — but we know you’ll be more focused on what’s going on in the game than what’s on the walls. The staff is notoriously friendly, so bargain for a seat at the bar.

Rusty’s Backwater Saloon — Stevens Point

If a Bloody Mary is what you’re after, try Rusty’s Backwater Saloon. Making what the bar calls “the best Bloody Mary you’ve ever had,” Rusty’s presents a hard-nosed drink for a hard-nosed drinker. Made in a glass mug with pickle and pepper garnishes, Rusty’s tasty beverage is a must-have for any central-Wisconsin Packers fan.

Sobelman’s Pub & Grill — Milwaukee

Known for their bloodies and their burgers, Sobelman’s combines both of these favorites to create “The Bloody Masterpiece.” Featured in the UK’s Daily Mail, the Huffington Post and Good Morning America, Sobelman’s gigantic jar of tomato and vodka goodness features sprouts, celery, onions, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, lemons, pickles, shrimp, sausage, cheese, olives, green onions, asparagus and of course a bacon cheeseburger slider. Plus with Packers game-day specials, this is not a place to be missed.

The Wisconsin Gazette would like to hear where you plan to watch the game. Share your recommendations with us here, on our Facebook page or on Twitter @wigazette.

Red Star offers craft cocktails in intimate setting

Red Star Cocktail Club faces an unusual conundrum. In order to be successful, the bar must draw clients. But drawing too large a crowd could distract from the desired ambiance of an exclusive and intimate craft-cocktail lounge.

Bar managers Lance Lanigan and Drew Cyr say they’re off to a good start in achieving the right balance. The classy bar’s historic speakeasy atmosphere, high-end service and complex seasonal concoctions have generated great word-of-mouth. Clientele has grown steadily since the bar opened in November 2013, they say, but it has not become overwhelming.

Red Star has the backing of its downstairs neighbor Trocadero, where Cyr serves as manager while Lanigan helms the upstairs bar. Much like the other restaurants owned by the Lowlands Group, including Cafe Centraal, Cafe Benelux and the two Cafe Hollanders, Red Star has European roots. Lanigan says co-owner Mike Eitel was inspired by upscale bars across the pond.

Red Star is neither a straight bar nor a gay bar — its orientation is refreshingly fluid. In a recent marketing campaign, the owner referred to it as a “straight-friendly” bar, a tongue-in-cheek but accurate descriptor. 

But perhaps the most original aspect of the bar is that it stands alone in the craft cocktail genre. 

The drink menu features a few dozen drinks, each with a long list of components that the bartenders emphasize should be considered for flavor, not for the type of alcohol they contain. The menu is Red Star’s third already, and it’s been around for less than two months. And it might be on its way out as early as the end of July, Cyr says.

“We went crazy with the spring menu,” he says, “so we want to revisit things we didn’t have time to on this menu.”

Looking at the menu, it’s hard to imagine what else the bar could add. The diverse current assortment includes everything from a modified Tom Collins with cucumber and sesame to the “Lili St. Cyr,” a drink named for a burlesque dancer in Cyr’s family tree. At first sip, the Lili St. Cyr tastes simply flavored with watermelon juice — and then the ginger and balsamic kick in.

Cyr and Lanigan want to ensure that their clientele never get bored. Creating cocktails is sort of a creative game for the duo. Every so often, they go out and purchase components they want to try playing with. They set them up along the bar and go to work.

“It’s like being in a little cocktail lab,” Cyr says.

Lanigan and Cyr are so committed to the details of their work that they create their own bitters rather than purchase them. “It’s truer to what craft is,” Cyr says.

Despite all the craftsmanship, there’s no attitude at Red Star. More than anything, Cyr says, the two hope to distinguish themselves from the average craft cocktail lounge by being deliberately casual about their work. “This scene tends to be pretentious,” Cyr says. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

To complement its speakeasy atmosphere, Red Star has been hosting a semi-regular burlesque night. The next installment, “Red, White & Burlesque,” takes place on July 17.

Cyr says they’re also considering offering one-on-one cocktail-making classes, where they’d teach people to make two or three classic drinks and then help them through a mixologically concocted variety of their very own. They’re also considering creating a literal cocktail club: Patrons could sign up for and receive a variety of perks.

Also potentially on the table is a regular game night — open to everything from classics like chess and Risk to more contemporary options like Mouse Trap or Cards Against Humanity.

“We want this to feel like people’s secondary home for drinking,” Cyr says.

Raise a glass and a brush at a Wisconsin art bar

There’s a new trend brushing its way across Wisconsin — art bars. And we can’t think of a better way to unleash your inner Picasso than with a paintbrush in one hand and a glass of wine or craft beer in the other. Many businesses across the state have opened up to cater to this fun trend. Come for a painting lesson, a drink or two, and leave with a handmade masterpiece all your own. The best part? They handle the clean up.

Whether it’s a date night, girl’s night out or even a corporate event, a painting bar is an exceptional and memorable way to spend an evening. Here are a few options where fun is just a paint stroke away.

Splash Studio, Milwaukee

This painting bar, located in Milwaukee’s historic Third Ward, caters to all types. Come in, grab a drink and sit down in front of a canvas. Try a small canvas for a quick 30-minute “mini painting” or stay for a full class. Splash also offers a three-hour experience with a local artist. That artist will guide you through an original painting from a painting library, show you tips and tricks, and encourage you to take painting risks you never thought you had the skill to take. You can follow along exactly, change up colors and techniques to make it your own, or just paint whatever moves you in the moment. After a recent expansion, Splash now offers bachelorette parties, corporate events and other large groups the chance to use the VIP Milwaukee Room for private get-togethers.

Arte Wine and Painting Studio, Wauwatosa and Delafield

At Arte Wine and Painting Studio you can tackle your painting experience three ways. For those who want step-by-step guided instructions from an artist, sign up for a nightly class and pick your painting of choice. All supplies are included. Or, if you prefer a more laid-back, fly-by-the-stroke-of-your-brush experience, reserve a table in the paint bar. Guests have three canvas sizes to choose from, and all studio servers are local artists who can assist with your order and your artwork. Not ready to explore your inner artist just yet, or maybe you appreciate the arts more than being an actual artist? Come for a drink or special event. Arte Wine and Painting Studio has a full bar with art-inspired craft cocktails, a great wine selection and local beers. It also offers unique events such as poetry readings and live music to show love to all forms of art.

Pass the Paint/Pass the Wine, DePere

The second and fourth Sunday of every month the Green Room Lounge in DePere features Pass the Paint/Pass the Wine. For $20, you’ll be supplied with a canvas, paint, brushes and a bottomless glass of wine (or soda). But this isn’t your average art bar. Think more along the lines of musical chairs meets painting. Guests paint for 15 minutes at a time and then switch canvases with someone else in the group. It’s improvised collaborative painting, with no experience necessary. Each final piece is truly unique with a stroke of everyone’s point of view. Want to take home your masterpiece? Purchase your canvas for a small fee, and all proceeds go to local charities. Maybe the painting didn’t turn out exactly how you envisioned? Leave it at the lounge and they will display it in their unique gallery.

Paul’s Pub and Grapes 2 Glass, Racine and Sturtevant

Held at Paul’s Pub in Racine and Grapes 2 Glass in Sturtevant, Don’t Drink the Paint’s classes typically take two hours and currently are held on weeknights, with one or two weekend dates each month. Most classes are $35 and include a canvas, acrylic paints, brushes, other supplies, and, of course, a cocktail. Come alone to experience your creative side. Acrylic painting is forgiving, so don’t worry about mistakes. Just remember, don’t drink the paint!

A Stroke of Genius, Waukesha

This painting and wine studio in Waukesha has everything you need for a fun, creative night out. The gallery is large and allows for private parties of up to 35 people. The painting options at the art bar include unique paintings, as well as replicas of works by such great masters as Van Gogh and Renoir. Follow step-by-step instructions from the lead artist and create a masterpiece of your very own

Hands on Art Studio, Fish Creek

Hands On Art Studio is a do-it-yourself Door County destination. The studio not only offers painting, but also 8,000 square feet of creative fun. No reservations are needed — just come in at your leisure, pay a studio price of $7, and get free rein of all four studio spaces, which include activities such as jewelry making, pottery painting, metal sculpture, mosaics and more (pay separately for your activities of choice). Want a fun evening away from the kids? Come for “Adult Night,” which features live music, pottery painting and local beer and wine available for purchase.

Vino & Van Gogh, Madison

Vino & Van Gogh Madison offers private painting parties for 10 or more artists and occasional classes as well. This company brings the painting and all the supplies to your home. If you’re afraid that you’ll get more paint on the carpet than on your canvas, you can choose to visit one of the many establishments in Madison where Vino & Van Gogh teaches. Choose a subject — whether a Van Gogh or a certain theme — that the whole group can enjoy. As Vino & Van Gogh says, if you can drink, you can paint! No experience is necessary.

Paint Nite Events, Southeastern Wisconsin

Not tied to a specific location, but interested in finding the painting event that speaks to you? Try Paint Nite Events. The website provides painting night options throughout southeastern Wisconsin — Milwaukee, Racine, Lake Geneva and more — and tells you what locations offer what lessons on what days. Search by artist, by painting, by venue or even by special events to find the right place for you. 

As if you need one more reason to visit an art bar, help the Wisconsin Arts Board toast their 40th anniversary by saying “cheers!” and grabbing a brush. Go to www.artsboard.wisconsin.gov to find other outlets to express your creativity.

Gay bars in West Hollywood join Stoli boycott

Several gay bars in West Hollywood have boycotted Stolichnaya vodka – which is distilled from Russian ingredients – following the recent passage of anti-gay laws in Russia that ban gay Pride events and “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.”

Eleven Bar & Nightclub, Revolver Video Bar and Mother Lode are among the bars that have stopped serving the Russian spirit known as Stoli, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Those establishments are on a strip of Santa Monica Boulevard where gay bars and Russian bakers and stores do business side-by-side.

About 40 percent of West Hollywood residents are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, and about 11 percent are Russian and former-Soviet state immigrants.

With the overwhelming support of Russia’s parliament and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval, the country recently banned Pride events, gay adoptions and gay “propaganda.”

“Revolver Video Bar could not support any brand associated with Russia at a time when the Russian government is implementing its anti-gay law that bans gay ‘propaganda,”” the bar said in its Facebook statement.

Stoli’s maker, SPI Group, says the company is “a fervent supporter and friend” of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.

In a statement, CEO Val Mendeleev called the new laws “dreadful actions” and cited initiatives the company has taken to support the gay community, including serving as the official vodka of Miami Gay Pride Week.

“I want to stress that Stoli firmly opposes such attitude and actions. Indeed, as a company that encourages transparency and fairness, we are upset and angry,” Mendeleev wrote. “We fully support and endorse your objectives to fight against prejudice in Russia.”

West Hollywood city council member and former Mayor John Duran disagrees.

“I’ve looked for evidence of their fervent support but all I can find is sponsoring Gay Pride festivals so they can sell gays they product,” he said. “That’s not supporting the community, that’s marketing your brand to the community.”

“We can’t stand by as a community and watch the street thuggery on TV and the government’s thuggery in the papers without doing something,” Duran added. He and fellow city council member John D’ Amico have asked the gay bars in West Hollywood to perform a ceremony pouring bottles of Stoli into the gutter to raise awareness of the boycott. Since environmental law prohibits pouring alcohol down gutters, water will be used instead.

The boycott Stoli movement started in Florida and at Sidetrack in Chicago about a week ago.

Activists have also called on the U.S. to boycott the 2014 Winter Games, which will be in the Russian city of Sochi.

The privately owned, Luxembourg-based company has no ties to the Russian government. The vodka is made from Russian wheat, rye and raw alcohol at a distillery in Latvia.