The Fox opened in 1948 in an ancient saloon formerly known as the Clybourn Inn. Patrons remember a long, dark, dusty hallway of a bar that you had to step down into. The bar was sometimes called "the Skinny Fox" because the space was so incredibly narrow. The Fox offered "noon lunches" in its onsite restaurant throughout the 1950s.
While Frank Demling opened the Fox in 1948, it's unclear how he was openly operating it as a gay bar. In July 1955, Demling died suspiciously of a "stroke" in the basement of the Tunnel Inn (today's Safe House.) He was found dead at the bottom of 11 stairs by a cleaning crew. Was his death related to his highly profitable bar business? Entirely possible.
The bar remained open, but it's not clear who was operating it from 1955 onward. Contributors remember an "Otto Fenzel" or "Otto Ferkel" but these names don't appear anywhere in city directories.
In 1959, the Fox sold off its curved mahogany bar-- for $6/foot-- and installed a stainless steel bar in an attempt to modernize the somewhat run-down space. The bar was listed in national gay guides from 1963-on. It made news headlines for being robbed on a regular basis, which speaks to the questionable safety and character of the 'Plankinton Strip' (as this area of Plankinton Avenue was then known, being a popular area for gay bars.)
Josie Carter remembers being asked to do a drag show here, but the stage was made out of card tables, and she said "get me a real stage and we'll talk." (from the oral interview on the UWM Archives website)
Former Milwaukee police sergeant turned gay bar operator (!) George Bemis took over in 1964. Knowing the property was condemned for freeway construction, Bemis mortgaged the liquor license and fixtures to loan shark Harry Kaminsky. (Bemis owned the nearby New Yorker Lounge until the mid-1970s.)
The Fox Bar closed on July 1, 1966 after 18 years in business, when the land was acquired for the freeway.
Demise of the 'Plankinton Strip' of gay bars
Although Crystal Palace (402 N. Water St.) continued until at least 1970, the Fox Bar was the last survivor of the old Plankinton Strip. The Riviera was long gone by 1967, as was Bourbon Beat (closed in Wally Whetham's 1966 bankruptcy.) An era was quickly coming to an end.
Although city planners thought they'd eliminated blight-- both architectural and social-- gay bars were already gathering at 1st and Pittsburgh, with more to come by the early '70s. Rather than erasing the gay community, the "renewal" of the Plankinton Strip mobilized it.
The loss of the Plankinton Strip is really quite a tragedy. These pre-Civil War buildings had almost limitless possibilities for renovation and reuse; instead, they were all reduced to rubble by a city drunk on power.
Credits: web site concept, contents, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Bar history and photo by Michail Takach.
Last updated: July-2021.
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