Kathy's Nut Hut, widely known as The Nut Hut, was opened approximately 1980 by (who else) Kathy.
The bar had its informal beginning as a lesbian bar in 1979, when Sharon Dixon opened a new neighborhood bar, Shorty's Party Room, on 15th and Scott. She wasn't sure what kind of place it would become, but she knew it would become something, because it immediately attracted a loyal following. After a year, Sharon subleased the business to someone else; and soon after, it became Kathy's Nut Hut.
Long quasi-gay (with a wide lesbian clientele), the bar "officially" was pronounced by the owner as a lesbian/ gay bar late in 1992, when it began advertising in In Step magazine. (InStep magazine, vol 9- no. 25)
The bar briefly closed in 1997; according to the 'Keepin In Step' column in IN Step newspaper, vol 14-11, "Kathy's Nut Hut is back. She leased the bar out for awhile but people kept asking her to re-open so she did... Stop in to say hi to Kathy and the staff and let her know your (sic) glad she re-opened."
Kathy owned the bar for about 22 years, until selling it to Michelle in about 2002. Michelle continued to operate the bar, then known simply as The Nut Hut, as an openly lesbian/gay bar, with a sizeable regular clientele and good relations in the neighborhood. The popular woman's bar ended its 34-year run in 2014.
In January 2012, the bar was featured in an article on 'OnMilwaukee.com', written by Molly Snyder:
Nut Hut celebrates diversity, 30 years in business: Nut Hut- formerly Kathy's Nut Hut- opened in 1982 and although it has a history of lesbian ownership, it attracts all types of people. There is only one rule at Nut Hut: customers must show acceptance and respect, and if they do, friendship and drinks will flow.
Kathy Krau did not intend to open a lesbian bar when she opened Kathy's Nut Hut, 1500 W. Scott St., in 1982. She says she thought she was opening primarily a "straight" bar, especially since she inherited the mostly heterosexual neighborhood clientele from the previous bar.
But it didn't take long for gay women, particularly those involved on softball and pool teams, to find the place. Word traveled fast through the lesbian community that Krau, who is gay, opened a comfortable, affordable tavern.
What happened next is almost idyllic. The old-school clientele, members of the LGBT community and young, new guys from the neighborhood started hanging out in the same space. And they interacted. And they got along.
This melting pot mentality has existed now for 30 years. Ray Santiago says he came into the bar years ago on a bet and has returned almost every night ever since. "The friendships here are beautiful. And these ladies challenge me and I was glad I was challenged," says Santiago. "A miracle has happened in this bar. As long as you show respect, you are welcome here."
A few years ago, Krau sold the bar to friend and Nut Hut bartender, Michelle Murphy, who runs the business with her partner, Dawn Musbach. Murphy changed the name to Nut Hut, and has recently, finally, settled on a new logo for the tavern. Musbach says they plan to hang a sign on the exterior of the building later this year.
According to Santiago, it's Murphy's and Musbach's personalities that make the bar what it is. Musbach, who calls herself a "beer server" not a bartender, is the face of the Nut Hut and a customer favorite. "Any given day, I'll tell it how it is to my customers," says Musbach. "One day, I was picking on all of them, and I said, 'I'm surprised you come in here.'"
Later, on a more serious note, Musbach admits to loving people and having a lot of patience for the human race. She then nods at an elderly man sitting at the bar drinking a can of soda. "Like him. He gets really grumpy when he drinks, so we came to a compromise. He can come in here, but he only drinks soda," she says. "We worked it out."
The secret to Nut Hut's three-decade-long success, she says, is the diversity, the tradition and the prices. Pints of beer are $2 and bottles, including imports, are $3. They have nightly specials, like Tipsy Tuesday, offering up $5 pitchers and $2 shots of Jack Daniels and 2-4-1 Thirsty Thursdays.
Plus, they often serve food during baseball and football games, and not just the typical crock pot of chili. During a recent Packers game they had Indian tacos. Whenever there are leftovers, a woman from across the street comes over and delivers the food to neighborhood people and shelters. "Whether people knew us as Kathy's or Nut Hut, they know that we're good people and our prices are cheap," says Musbach.
Nut Hut has continued the softball tradition and still has teams today. They also have dart leagues, a pool table, video games (including Ms. Pac Man) and, up until recently, karaoke. Bruce Tabora, a dear friend of the owners who passed away last summer, hosted the karaoke nights and Musbach says it hasn't felt right to bring back the event just yet.
2011 brought a lot of loss into Murphy's and Musbach's lives, which was the main reason why they did not participate in the Pride Parade last June, even though they had created a float almost every year prior and won multiple trophies.
There is a large collage of photos of Tabora hanging on the wall of the bar, not far from another cluster of photos memorializing other employees and friends who have passed away. Over the years, they have had many raffles to raise money for ill employees and customers or their families. "If somebody needs someone, we step up to the plate," says Musbach.
Musbach says she and Murphy, who have been together for six years, have traveled to many other cities, and are yet to find a bar with the same vibe as Nut Hut. Despite the hardships, which include a challenging economy, they know they have something pretty special. "We have it really good here. People are really accepting," she says. "There's been no trouble here. None."
The popular woman's bar ended its 34-year run in 2014.
LGBT historian Michail Takach wrote a summary of the bar's history in 2021 for the 'History of Gay Wisconsin' Facebook group page:
January 1979: Sharon Dixon opens a new neighborhood bar, Shorty's Party Room, at 15th and Scott. After a year, she leased the business to Kathy Kau, who first named the bar Sassy's -- and then, in 1982, reopened as Kathy's Nut Hut.
Little did Kathy know she was launching the longest-running women's bar in Milwaukee history (to date.) She would also operate Hot Legs, a women's video bar at 814 S 2nd. St., from 1984 to 1987.
For the first ten years, the bar was somewhat "in the closet" and did not identify entirely as "gay." In 1992, Kathy decided to come out swinging with advertisements in the gay press and sponsorship for the gay pride parade.
Although Kathy closed briefly in 1997 and finally retired in 2011, Kathy's Nut Hut remained open until February 2014 under the ownership of Dawn Musbach and Michelle Murphy. The reasons for closing and selling the Nut Hut have never really been explained.
Kathy always said her bar succeeded because it was a melting pot: elderly neighbors, old-school lesbians, happy hour workers, sports fans, young women and Hispanic families came together seamlessly. "A miracle has happened in this bar. As long as you show respect, you're welcome here," said a 2011 interview.
The closing of Nut Hut may have been quiet and unnoticed locally, but it was mourned deeply by national researchers. Kathy's was a LGBTQ landmark for generations-- and a regular stop on traveling LGBTQ sports tournaments and invitationals. It was a real loss.
When Nut Hut closed in 2014, it left one remaining women's bar in Milwaukee (Walker's Pint) and only 16 surviving women's bars across the entire United States. Some major metropolitan areas, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, do not have a single women's bar left open.
If anyone knows the current whereabouts of Kathy Kau, please let us know, as we'd love to build out this section of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project further.
Credits: web site concept, contents, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Bar history written in 2021 by Michail Takach.
Last updated: January-2021.