The Black Nite, Milwaukee | Milwaukee Public Library Collection | 17041
On Saturday night, Aug. 5, 1961, four troublemakers got more trouble than they bargained for at the Black Nite on N. Plankinton Ave., one of Milwaukee’s most popular gay bars of the time.
Built by George Burnham in 1853 as a grain elevator, the old flourmill at 400 N. Plankinton Avenue was later home to manufacturers Fairbanks, Morse & Co. Long known as the Old Mill Tavern and Cafe, the ground floor storefront was acquired by local financier Harry Kaminsky in 1958.
Kaminsky convinced Mary Wathen of Omaha, Nebraska, to open Mary’s Tavern. Mary complained immediately about being “bothered” by homosexual clientele from nearby taverns. “They drove regular customers away,” she complained to Kaminsky, whose response was “if we can’t beat em, let’s join em.”
A party at the Black Nite | Wisconsin LGBT History Project | 17042
Mary’s Tavern joined The Fox Bar (open in 1948 at 455 N. Plankinton) and Tony’s Riviera (open in 1952 at 401 N. Plankinton and a longtime gay landmark earlier when it was known as the Anchor Inn) to create the city’s first gay district.
Four 20-year-old servicemen (Kenneth Kensche, John Cianciolo, Bruce Pulkkila and Edward Flynn) decided to check out the Black Nite on a dare.
Wally Whetham later reported that “this gang came in and started tearing the bar apart, and the bar fought back.” The servicemen, out for trouble, found a packed bar of 75 patrons ready and willing to defend their turf by any means necessary.
One patron suffered extreme lacerations when he was thrown through a broken window; another patron experienced a brain concussion when he was hit in the head with a barstool. He would remain in critical condition for weeks after the brawl. In the end, over $2,000 in losses were reported, including the bar’s entire bottled liquor inventory, an electric organ, a jukebox and all windows.
“One of the guys came at me and said, ‘OK you sick faggot, come on.’ I popped him right there, and the blood sprayed and he fell to the ground. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. He started it, but I stopped it. I may be a ‘faggot,’ but I’m the one who stopped it.”
“And then the cops came down, and put them all in a paddy wagon, and took them to jail,” said Josie Carter. “They said, ‘You have no business coming down here and harassing these people. The police were good to me back then; they took care of me and taught me how to stay out of trouble.”
The four servicemen were charged with disorderly conduct. Judge Christ T. Seraphim dismissed their charges due to “lack of evidence.”