Michael Horne
Bar Exam

La Cage Is Center of Pride Parade

But precisely who owns it has gotten murky.

By - May 24th, 2017 04:57 pm
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La Cage. Photo by Michael Horne.

La Cage. Photo by Michael Horne.

La Cage, 801 S. 2nd St., is a giant 772-person capacity club in a prominent historic building in Walker’s Point. It was opened in 1984 as La Cage aux Folles by George D. Prentice, Jr., who ran the place until 2005 when he sold it to Michael J. Jost, who has operated it ever since.

Notice of Public Interest. Photo by Michael Horne.

Notice of Public Interest. Photo by Michael Horne.

On Monday, May 22nd, Prentice took out a Class “B” Tavern application to once again run the city’s largest gay bar. It’s a complicated situation, Jost tells Urban Milwaukee.

He bought the building and the business from Prentice, he said, to keep it in the gay community, and not be developed into condos, for example. But keeping things in the gay community is not as easy as it once was, Jost has learned.

“Twelve years ago, I bought the bar with good intentions,” Jost says. “George held the second mortgage, and I made payments to Waukesha State Bank (the principal mortgage holder) for five years.”

Shifting Landscape

During its first decade-and-a-half the audience at La Cage was 100 percent gay. But by May, 2013, when Urban Milwaukee first paid a visit, we reported the ratio had shifted to about 60 percent gay, and 40 percent straight.

“It’s interesting to see the changes in the last 10 to 15 years of Milwaukee gay culture,” a bartender told writer Audrey Posten at the time.

Posten wrote in 2013, “Today, this stretch of 2nd St. in Walker’s Point houses multiple gay bars, but it wasn’t until La Cage paved the way that the other bars started coming in.”

It’s interesting to see the changes in the last four years of Milwaukee gay culture since then. When the article was written, The Triangle and the Ball Game had only recently closed their doors, neither to reopen as gay bars. Since the article was published, Boom, the Room, the Nut Hut and Hybrid Lounge have followed suit. Three of these now-gone bars were located on S. 2nd St., and did much to give the street its rainbow hue.

No new gay bars have opened in the ensuing years, and La Cage has faced several challenges to its survival since about 2010 according to Jost. That’s when the “numbers took a nosedive,” even in the once recession-proof gay bar industry.

License Suspended 10 Days in December

The bar was closed “for some time in December 2016 due to some patrons’ behavioral issues,” Jost told OnMilwaukee on March 24th.

In fact, the bar had received a 10-day suspension at its license renewal hearing on November 29th, 2016, following testimony such as this from the owner of Fluid, located on the same block:

Bill Wardlow … stated the incidents have gotten progressively worse over the last few years. …  He stated a bloody patron from the premises came in to his establishment and cleaned themselves up in the restroom and left blood all over. He stated he has seen fights in the streets multiple times. He stated he has witnessed fights where the police have been overwhelmed and he was told the police would not arrest people because no one wanted to press charges. He stated he, his staff, and his patrons do not feel safe because of the incidents at the premises. He added that he is supportive of the applicant and would like to see an improvement. …

This brought forth a statement from Ald. Jose G. Perez, who represents the district and is a member of the Licenses committee:

Ald. Perez stated he is concerned that the applicant has not complied with the nuisance plan and does not have security cameras. He added something has to change at the premises because it is currently unmanagable. Ald. Perez moved approval with a 10 day suspension based on the police report and neighborhood and police testimony. (Prevailed 4-0)

Jost says, “In 2016 the city was unhappy with us. There is a young millenial element causing problems in bars, nightclubs and taverns and the city holds operators responsible.”

The loss of revenue was especially crippling, as December, January and February are not the best of months in his business, he said. Worse still, property taxes were due amounting to over $50,000, and the club’s escrow account was a little light, Jost says.

“Although the city lets you pay taxes on the installment plan, the bank wants them paid in full,” Jost said. In 2012 the bank, as a precaution, had taken out a $1 million plus judgment against Jost, but did not enforce it. Jost likened it to a “carrot on a stick,” that the bank used to compel him to stay current on his payments, despite the declining revenue.

Million Dollar Foreclosure

Jost told writer Molly Snyder in that March 24th story that a Sheriff’s Sale planned for March 27th had been called off after he made a substantial payment on the mortgage arrears.

“We had a bit of an issue playing catch-up due to loss of revenue, but we have since recovered,” Jost said.

Recovered? Not exactly.

What actually happened on March 24th is that Prentice, through his 801-09 LLC made a payment to buy out the bank’s interest, thus cancelling the sale and last week, on May 17th, the deed to La Cage was delivered to the Register of Deeds office. Jost’s La Cage Enterprises, LLC. no longer owns the building.

For Sale. Photo by Michael Horne.

For Sale. Photo by Michael Horne.

Earlier this month the place was listed for sale by Lakes Business Group at a price of $2,400,000. The building is currently assessed at $1,258,000. (Prentice paid only $88,000 for it in 1985). Two for sale signs were erected on the building. Jost says Prentice ordered the signs, but did not order the sign company to erect them. In any event, the real estate firm says the building is still on the market.

Prentice’s license application says he owns the building through the 801-09 LLC. The application also says the LLC paid $859,000 for the tavern fixtures and $1,300,000 for the business’s goodwill.

What Will Next Five Years Bring?

In recent years, the bar, in addition to upping its population of straight clientele, has also resorted to an increased use of all-you-can-drink specials and other promotions, like 2-4-1 drinks on Mondays and Wednesdays, and a Thursday all-night Liquor Bust “with Hot Male Dancers from Chicago’s Infinite Entertainment.”

Gay bars are famous for promotions, but generally tend to limit the hours they are in effect. Milwaukee’s remaining gay bar culture relies largely on a “circuit” in which patrons rotate through two or three bars before calling it quits for the night. This is pretty much the way most of Milwaukee’s neighborhood bar culture operates. Bar owners frown on competitors who try to monopolize business through deep discounts, concerned about a loss of business but also about neighborhood and safety issues, as seen by Wardlow’s testimony.

Being a night club, La Cage tends to open around 10 p.m., which is around the time that hot male dancers from Chicago can finally be roused from bed. An attached lower level bar called ETC is usually open by 5 p.m. Neither was well-populated on a recent early visit, at an hour when many nearby gay bars like This is It, Kruz, Harbor Room and Fluid tend to get a modest trade from the after-work crowd, before the crowd of late night trade comes by.

Center of Pride Parade

One day that is certain to be busy at La Cage will be June 11th, when once again La Cage will be the center of the Milwaukee gay universe as crowds converge at the intersection of S. 2nd St. and W. National Ave. for the fabulous Milwaukee Pride Parade. It starts off at 2 p.m. from beneath the Allen-Bradley clock tower and heads straight north for one mile, terminating at W. Florida St.

The tavern has taken out a permit to serve alcohol on the street, so you’ll get a chance to take a look at the outside. But if last year is any example, it will cost you a $10 cover to get a chance to look inside the place, which is basically dark, full of bars and panelled nearly wall-to-wall with mirrors.

The novelty in the middle of the room is a literal cage, which is suitable for dancing, and is often put to use.

The bar’s Public Entertainment Premises license includes “Erotic Dancers/Strippers/Adult Entertainment,” which could establish a precedent if perhaps a straight club would like to be similarly licensed at this location.

Your Place, a block to the east at 813 S. 1st St., was a (much smaller) gay bar, serving the community from 1965 until it abruptly closed in 1995. It reopened nearly overnight as a straight strip club, now with the oh-so-classy name of Texxxas Jays Gentlemens Club.

Well, anyway, there should be good business at the old gay corner for the Pride Parade.

Then a Grocery Store; Now a “Meet” Market

The journey from the Frederick Bahr Grocery Store in 1887 to La Cage in 2017 was a lengthy one, and serves as an example of how a High Italianate mercantile building has adapted its uses over the decades and generations. Until the LaCage era, the building had two stores on the first level, with an east-west wall bisecting the building. By 1894 it featured a cigar factory, with a tailor shop in the building to the south, the site of the lower level bar today.

In 1936  a candy factory was in the building, one of many in the area at the time. In 1937 Helen Berce ran a restaurant on the first floor, which was taken over by John Sigl in 1941. Angel Bellos operated a restaurant there starting in 1944, which may have given Milwaukeeans an early taste of Mexican cuisine.

In 1955 Mrs. Anna Levar spent $200 to build a bathroom on the second floor “to eliminate” the two apartment’s “sharing one bath,” the building inspector wrote, adding this command: “Provide proper vent.”

By 1964 the south half was the El Caribe Recreation Room operated by Mr. Augustin Garcia who offered “pool, etc. sale of cigarettes and soft drinks,” according to its license.

Nicholas Poulous took over the billiard hall on March 27th, 1969. He hung a projecting Coca-Cola sign over S. 2nd St., announcing “Billiards – Hot Sandwiches.”

On June 28th of that year, the Stonewall Riots of New York City set the gay movement on a course that would lead to massive societal changes still underway, including a new acceptance of gays that paradoxically threatens their traditional places of entertainment, such as La Cage.

In 1973 the north half of the building became a bar, and a three-foot-by-six-foot “Schlitz Malt Liquor On Tap” sign was hoisted into place at the busy intersection. The name of the place was “Rick’s Party Bar” Some party it must have been, what with Schlitz Malt Liquor on tap. Still it is better than what the tavern offers today, which is zero tap beers.

Things were shabby then, with the facade of the building largely obscured. This changed during the La Cage era, when the building was the first gay bar to proudly announce itself to the street with open windows and screaming rainbow neon. Prentice engaged in an active remodeling and expansion program, significantly enlarging the space. What will the next years bring? His license application includes a full service restaurant — a long held dream.

As for Jost, he says he will remain with the business. “I have a vested interest in it,” he said, describing Prentice’s action as one to protect his interests. Prentice now lives in Florida, and has appointed Joseph A. Angeli, 53, of Milwaukee to be his registered agent.

Jost remains philosophical: “I get nothing out of it. I have monster big payments. We do what we do for the community.”

An All-Purpose Entertainment Center

La Cage offers a considerable number of entertainment options according to its Public Entertainment Premises license, including, “Instrumental Musicians, Motion Pictures, Comedy Acts, Disc Jockey, Live Musicians, Magic Shows, Poertry Readings, Solo Singers/Groups, Dancing by Performer(s), Fashion Shows, Erotic Dancers/Strippers/Adult Entertainment, Wrestling, Patron Contests, Patrons Dancing, Female Impersonators, 5 Amuse Machines.”

On Tap

There are no tap beers available at La Cage, and the bottle selection is limited to the usual suspects.

Photo Gallery

The Verdict

  • Name: LaCage
  • Location: 801 S. 2nd St. Milwaukee, WI 53204
  • Neighborhood: Walker’s Point
  • Subdivision: None Found
  • Phone Number: 414-383-8330
  • Website: http://lacagemke.com
  • Facebook: @LaCageMke
  • Twitter: @LaCageMilwaukee
  • Description: Large building is attractive on the outside, mostly mirrors on the inside, so it depends on who is inside and what you are looking at. Once the center of gay life in Milwaukee, has weathered numerous challenges as the very concept of gay bars is evolving. Should be quite busy during the Pride Parade, June 11th, but with the building under a new owner and other issues, the future is uncertain at this 33-year-old institution.
  • Capacity: 815
  • Year Established: 1988 as La Cage aux Folles
  • Year Building Constructed: Original structure 1887
  • Estimated Annual Rent: 8,972 sq. ft. bar area at $11.03 sq. ft. = $98,961.16 per year, according to the City Assessor’s calculations. Operator owned building through an LLC. However, ownership has reverted to the 801-09 LLC, registered to George D. Prentice, Jr. who ran the place from 1984-2005 and who has taken out a license to run the bar once again.
  • Property is assessed at $61,600 for the 7,700 sq. ft. lot ($8.00/sq. ft.) and $1,196,400 for the 16,381 sq. ft. building for a total assessed valuation of $1,258,000. Building now for sale at $2,400,000
  • Property taxes: $50,860.82 Paid in Full
  • Property Owner: Was La Cage Enterprises LLC, Registered Agent. Building purchased 01/06/1985 for $85,000. Sold May 2016 to 801-09 LLC to stave off foreclosure.
  • Business Owner: La Cage Enterprises, LLC, Michael J. Jost, agent, DOB 09/10/1965, 100% owner.
  • Business: Alcohol, 70%; “Cover Charge” 30%
  • Walk Score: 89 out of 100, Very Walkable. City Average: 61
  • Transit Score: 57 out of 100, Good Transit. City Average: 49
  • Aldermanic District: 12th; Jose G. Perez
  • County Supervisor District: 12th; Peggy A. West
  • Police District: 2

The Verdict was researched by Brandon Anderegg

3 thoughts on “Bar Exam: La Cage Is Center of Pride Parade”

  1. James Rotunda says:

    I wish there were photos of the building, when the Coca-Cola & Schlitz Malt Liquor signs hung out side the building.

  2. James, there are photos on the Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory website of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Punch in the address: 801 S. 2nd St. Milwaujee

  3. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    I spent countless evenings at La Cage years ago dancing with my gay friends (and even saw Divine there and at Circus Circus doing stand-up, and was once mistaken for a transvestite – ???? – by a group of angry drunken rednecks outside the venue and then rescued by my gay friends, who felt no qualms about breaking off the ends of beer bottles and attacking to protect me, my only sin being that I was wearing a dress with a flannel shirt over it because it was cold out! This was back in the days when many gays were being assaulted on the streets by drunken white straight males). I wish that same happy time existed again – haven’t been there in years, and wonder what the dancing is like!

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