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Milwaukee Vice: Where the Action Was

Aug. 8, 2012
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“Where's the action in this town, man?”

In a November 1972 cover story, the Milwaukee Sentinel posed this question from a hypothetical out-of-towner. Their mini-exposé on the city's west-of-the-river downtown vice district was hardly news to most Milwaukeeans. The area had become the city's sordid little secret. The blocks where Milwaukee once window-shopped and took in afternoon matinees was now where the city's skin trade flourished. This was where the action was, man.

For downtown Milwaukee, the immediate postwar years were a boom time. Shoppers flocked to Gimbels, Boston Store and T.A. Chapman. Smash-hit pictures played to packed houses at the Warner, Wisconsin and Riverside theaters. But these good times would prove fleeting. In the postwar era, the population of Milwaukee's suburbs grew at a rate more than six times that of the city proper. Milwaukee's middle-class backbone fled the cramped urban confines for the wide-open spaces of suburbia, leaving behind a depressed urban core and a downtown area that was struggling to entice shoppers from outlaying malls and moviegoers from the glow of their television sets.

North Third Street's Princess Theater was the first city movie house to go blue, swapping its seventh-run cowboy pictures for tart European sex comedies in 1960. Other downtown theaters, like the crumbling Alhambra and aged Palace, would soon follow suit. Go-go bars began replacing cozy restaurants and specialty shops during the decade that followed. Several had ties to Milwaukee organized crime. Adult bookstores and newsstands began to peddle smutty pulp novels, topless photo packets and men's “physique” magazines. Deserved or not, the area gained an unenviable reputation as a bad part of town. More people avoided downtown, and more of the long-standing mainstream shops closed.

By the 1970s, when the Sentinel ran its exposé, the area's leading business was sex, and all the old pretensions of masking it with innuendo and suggestion were long gone. The streets were literally lit by the skin trade, as the neon lights of dirty bookstores and strip clubs mixed with the glowing X-rated marquees of the old movie palaces to cast an unholy tinge upon everything. For a quarter, you could see two minutes of silent topless action in one of dozens of downtown peep show booths. For a buck, you could get a seat in a strip joint and watch girls peel down to pasties and a G-string as an uninspired house band kept the beat. For $2 you could see the latest offerings at the Princess or the Palace—pictures like Altar of Lust, A Fistful of 44s or Midnight Plowboy. And if you had some real cash, you could go see Shorty, the resident pimp at the Clock Bar at Fifth and Wisconsin. Shorty could always find the kind of companionship a man was seeking—for $30 a throw or $75 for an all-nighter.

Prostitution became a plague on downtown by the '70s. The typical cycle started with a hard-luck girl lured to the area by the fast cash of topless dancing. They liked dancing, one longtime downtown stripper said, because it was a place where men could not touch them. “But when their bodies go,” she added, “they turn to streetwalking.” After sundown, the hookers were hard to avoid. They prowled the adult theaters, jazz clubs and barrooms, answering to pimps like Shorty and turning their tricks in the worn-down grandeur of North Third Street's Hotel Wisconsin.

While most Milwaukeeans knew of the action downtown, it was out-of-towners who kept it flourishing. Conventioneers and traveling salesmen arrived at the Union Depot (now the Amtrak Station) at Fifth and St. Paul, pining for cheap drinks and fast women. Sailors on liberty from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station were dropped at the USO office at Third and Wisconsin, pockets full of cash and action on their minds. So many young sailors were “rolled” at the Hotel Wisconsin—the term of the day for getting a man drunk and robbing him—that commanding officers forbid their men from visiting the place.

The area had so besmirched Milwaukee by the mid-1970s that the city finally took action. They cracked down on so-called “body studios,” model services that offered a naked woman in a private room and made amateur “artists” out of hundreds of men passing through town. They forbid any female masseuse to offer her services to men—an ordinance that rightly perturbed the few legit operators in the city. They raided theaters, barrooms and clubs. The Antlers Hotel, long past its prime as a downtown men's club and hotel, was given extra attention as one of the prime downtown gay cruising spots.

But with every pinch, the action simply moved to another block, another corner or another building. It would not be until the physical confines of these “dens of sin” were removed that the old vice district would finally begin to fade away. In the late '70s, a flood of federal cash washed clean the old haunts west of the river, bulldozing miles of Old Milwaukee to make way for conference centers, parking ramps and the Shops of Grand Avenue. The streetwalkers, skin theaters and strip joints that survived the physical transformations of downtown renewal found themselves in a world unknown by the 1980s. Some followed the masses to the suburbs, while others just faded away.

So where's the action in this town today? It's anyone's guess.

Matthew J. Prigge is a freelance author and historian from Milwaukee. If you have any memories of Milwaukee's vice industries, please contact him at mjprigge@uwm.edu.


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