Why Milwaukee’s oldest gay bar–This Is It!–is now co-owned by Trixie Mattel

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This Is It! in Wisconsin
This Is It’s show director Lola Rome and General Manager Zak Pekovic in front of the bar’s new rainbow-painted patio fencing (Photo: @thisisitbar/Instagram)

This Is It! in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has a history dating all the way back to 1968, when it first started welcoming the local LGBTQ community through its doors. It was founded by Catherine (June) Brehm, who was helped by her son, Joseph. The venue recently found itself in the headlines again when RuPaul’s Drag Race legend Trixia Mattel became its co-owner.

June passed in 2019, aged 92. In 2012, Joseph asked George Schneider [below] if he could take over the reins of the business.

 

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“I knew the weight of the responsibility I was accepting, knowing that Joe was trusting me to not only preserve his and his mother’s legacies but also the legacy and history of what had become a Milwaukee institution,” says George on a GoFundMe that was set up recently to help the bar survive.

“Upon Joe’s death a few years ago, the full weight of being the custodian of that legacy and that history set in. I decided to accept that responsibility head-on, and knew my mission clearly: I will see this place to its 50th anniversary, and lead it to another 50 years on.”

In fact, not only did George help This Is It! celebrate its 50th in 2018, but he set about expanding the bar. The newly expanded space was opened in January 2019. That same year, it became home to Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project’s first permanent public display.

Schneider said at the time, “We’re able not only to showcase this fantastic exhibit of LGBT history, and we can open the doors on select nights to our 18- to 21-year-old LGBT community.”

However, in 2020, the pandemic hit. It’s proved devastating for many LGBTQ spaces, and This Is It! saw a huge downturn in revenue. Fortunately, it found help from a surprising quarter. Trixie Mattel, who’s originally from Milwaukee, had always loved the bar. In fact, she says it was the first gay space she’d visited after she turned 21. Earlier this year, she became a co-owner of This Is It!

 

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“A lot of drag queens made This Is It! our happy hour moment before we had to put on the wig and go do the drag show,” Mattel told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “My relationship is such that sometimes I will come from General Mitchell [Airport] to the bar with my bags… it really is like Cheers in Milwaukee. I met some of my lifelong best friends there.”

Mattel found nationwide fame by appearing on Drag Race in 2015. She went on to win All-Stars in 2018. She hopes her profile will help to bring more people to the venue, now that restrictions are slowly lifting.

“I’m lucky enough that when people think of Milwaukee they do think of me a little bit, and if somebody comes to Milwaukee they may go, ‘Oh my God, doesn’t Trixie Mattel have a bar here? We have to go.'”

Related: Gay bars in Milwaukee

When it had to shut down last year because of the pandemic, This Is It! switched to broadcasting drag shows online. This enabled fans to continue to offer tips to performers, allowing them to continue to make a living.

Schneider and Mattel both say it’s the amazing support from the local community that has helped the bar to survive.

“Trixie wanted me to stress that even though the perception of a big name like her coming in was that she “saved” the bar, it was not the case,” Schneider told Gay Cities. “Indeed, the exposure and publicity of Trixie will help us recover, but the bar was truly saved by our supportive community. To them we owe everything!”

Angel Pabllo (center) and friends outside This Is It! (Photo: @thisisitbar/Instagram)

A regular customer and performer at the bar, Angel Pabllo [above, center], explained more about the bar’s special appeal.

“What makes This Is It! so special would be this, there isn’t a lot of places that a trans man who also does drag feels welcome. This was one of the first places I came as a customer and from day one they’ve always made me feel like part of the family. As the customer relationship switched to the employee relationship I can say that nothing has changed.

“I’m grateful to be able to entertain as a drag queen and be a part of their regular staff in such an open, welcoming and truly accepting environment such as this!”

Trixie Mattel sits on the doorstep on This Is It! (Photo: @trixiemattel/Instagram)

Schneider also wanted to point out that he’s merely carrying on the work begun by the bar’s original founder.

“One must reach back to the early days of the bar to truly understand our place in the community,” he said. “Our founder, June Brehm, was a straight-identifying woman who saw the disparaging conditions in the late 60s for our LGBTQ+ community and wanted to create a safe and welcoming queer space.

“To her credit and her son’s, my immediate predecessor and business partner, Joe Brehm, they perpetuated and fostered that spirit of inclusion, safety, and welcoming throughout the years. We have been lucky that all of our customers, employees, vendors, and the like have embraced that same spirit and have allowed us to stand the test of time!”

While nightlife venues have served as a safe haven for LGBTQ people for decades, their existence is now being threatened by COVID-19, and they need our help to survive. Make a tax-deductible donation to the GayCities #SaveOurSpaces fund, and we’ll distribute it to LGBTQ bars and clubs struggling across the U.S.

While nightlife venues have served as a safe haven for LGBTQ people for decades, their existence has been threatened by COVID-19, and they need our help to survive. Make a tax-deductible donation to the GayCities #SaveOurSpaces fund, and we’ll distribute it to LGBTQ bars and clubs struggling across the U.S.