Michael Horne

The Surprising Charms of Fluid

The unassuming neighborhood bar has Pride of place in the annual parade.

By - Jun 7th, 2014 03:53 pm


South Second St. between W. National Ave. and W. Walker St. offers a classic mix of Milwaukee buildings on its west side. Sure enough, there is a tavern on each corner — and one in the middle of the block, an old Milwaukee cliche, a sort of a place to drop in for a couple while you are on your way to have a drink somewhere else.

Welcome to Fluid tavern, 819. S. 2nd St., in an unassuming building that, due to peer pressure and the city’s unslakable thirst, eventually became alcoholic.

That’s quite a transformation for a modest 1880 frame two-story building that used to be a “Foot Power Job Printing” shop in 1894.

The ordinariness extends to the 1,225 square foot tavern’s interior. This is an unmistakably Milwaukee tavern, with a half-dozen beers on tap, (including Great Lakes Brewery’s Edmund Fitzgerald Porter) liquor on the shelves, (lots of Skyy Vodka)  two electronic dart machines, five devices for “amusement only” and a pair of dice cups for when things get busy and it takes two bartenders to keep things rolling.

The decor is minimal: more wall space is devoted to signs advertising daily specials than to any other feature, except the mirrors. A pair of PRIDE signs for beer and vodka provides about the only indication that this quiet little place often erupts into a jam-packed pell-mell of gay good times. Well, the solitary disco ball suspended motionless from the ceiling and the obligatory jar of free condoms, and all that Skyy Vodka provide other clues, but the message here is that it is the staff and the customers who make the bar, not the rainbow flags. So there are no Cher posters, even if she just so happens to be in town. We prefer our drag queens real and in the flesh, or not at all. The Gay Dart League team standings are posted, however.

Fluid has a capacity of 80, but all it takes is for the bar’s 15 swivel-backed stools to be occupied and it seems full. A wall of windows extends across the front of the saloon, and some customers take advantage of this feature by keeping an eye on the colorful activities of the bustling intersection, considered the heart of the Milwaukee gay tavern district. In fair weather, the windows open and the bar becomes one with the street.

The concept of gay tavern districts, not to mention gay taverns themselves, is currently undergoing a considerable shift as gay culture has emerged from the underground and come out into the open. But once a year, when the annual Pride Parade passes straight up S. Second St., Fluid is center stage, and serves as a popular reviewing stand as the units are announced to the crowd via some very entertaining microphoned banter from Jon Alan Bauer, a Fluid bartender and popular performer. Or who knows? Perhaps Lizzie Bordeaux will step into the role. The drag show outside Fluid begins at 1:30 p.m, while the 2014 Pride Parade (see our photos from the 2013 parade) will step forth from W. Lapham Ave. on Sunday, June 8th at 2 p.m.

The two Grand Marshals from Milwaukee are Bet-Z Boenning and Bill Wardlow. Boenning owns Walkers Pint, another of those middle-of-the-block joints. Hers is located right across the street from Fluid, which is owned by Wardlow, her co-grand marshal.

Wardlow has served as a board member of the parade and owns the Fluid tavern building as well as the business, having paid $145,000 for it in 2000. (It’s now assessed at $252,000.) He also owns the building to the north, a very attractively landscaped and perfectly charming Cream City Brick home that serves as his residence. It used to be a Chinese laundry, and later was the home of the owner of one of those taverns on the corner. It has a Swedish ceramic fireplace in one corner, as I recall.

Joe Pabst and friends cruise through the Pride Parade aftermath on a chauffeured bicycle. It's the way to go for special occasions like this. Photo by Michael Horne.

Joe Pabst and friends cruise through the Pride Parade aftermath on a chauffeured bicycle. It’s the way to go for special occasions like this. Photo by Michael Horne.

Wardlow has made “financial and non-financial donations to the parade,” according to the Pride Parade website, and to many other charities. Wardlow has extended his generosity to the fund drives of other taverns, including the annual Christmas Toy Drive at Y-Not II Coffeetails held by Germaine Bowers, who has guest bartended at Fluid occasionally.

Walkers Pint and Fluid complement each other in a way seldom seen in other Milwaukee bars, whether straight or gay. They have held mutual fundraisers, and joint parties. Their St. Patrick’s Day Pub Crawl conveyed customers in the Half Pint to area bars. In the best urban tradition, these two operators realize that business is best when you have busyness on the street. For the Parade, the Pint and Fluid will both expand their operations to the outdoors. For Fluid, that means the alley to the south of the building, which will hold a 600 square foot beer tent, effectively increasing the bar’s area by half.

Between the tent and the tavern is a small courtyard in unfinished shape. A work in progress, it consists of a forest of vertical fence posts, sans fence. “It will not be ready in time for the parade,” a bartender stated recently.

Who cares? The beers will be chilled, and there are plenty of shot glasses in stock. If the parade is not on your schedule, you can still plan much of your entertainment around the Fluid calendar.

The full list of activities is about as complicated as an old timetable for the New York Central railroad, but you have your basic 2-4-1 on rails and taps Tuesday – Friday, 5 – 8 p.m.; BOGO Monday, Let’s Make a Deal Tuesdays, Wild Card Wednesday, Miller Time Thursdays and Jamo Fridays. There is also Service Industry Night and the occasional Drag Queen Bingo Parties, which are insane fun.

The Rundown

  • Location: 819 S. 2nd St., Milwaukee
  • Telephone: 414 oh-fluid
  • Website: http://fluid.gaymke.com/
  • Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/Fluidmke
  • Description: Nondescript 1880s frame building in middle of busy block provides neighborhood tavern feel for gay clientele. Regulars during the day, can become quite glamorous at night with spillover from neighboring clubs.
  • Hours: Monday-Thursday 5pm – 2am, Friday 5pm – 2:30am, Saturday 2pm – 2:30am, Sunday 2pm – 2am
  • Food: Cheetos, Beef Sticks. Special events often have excellent home-cooked buffets.
  • Signature Drink: Hand-made Brandy Old Fashion. A can of PBR is $2.50.
  • Capacity: 80 in 1,225 square feet.
  • Restrooms: One men’s, one women’s.
  • Year Established: In current hands since 2000, was previously tavern.
  • Year Building Constructed: 1880
  • Estimated Annual Rent: City calculates market value rent for tavern space at $23,961 per year.
  • Street Smart Walk Score: 83 out of 100. “Very Walkable” Transit Score 58 out of 100. Plenty of bus lines nearby, including express service on Green and Blue lines.
  • Games of Chance: Five amusement devices, bar dice; two electronic dart boards and some sharp players.

2 thoughts on “Taverns: The Surprising Charms of Fluid”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Now I must try Fluid (there are so many places in Milwaukee where I’ve never been)!

  2. Eva says:

    My dad had a tavern here in the late 70s/ early 80s , first as Sams Place , then as Reed Street Inn. Years before his dad had a tavern across the street ( as well as a few others around the south side ) .

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us