A look back in time: The Palms nightclub and its legendary history

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Photo courtesy of Larry Widen/OnMilwaukee

On February 9th, a two-alarm fire destroyed an iconic Milwaukee venue that had enjoyed a rich and colorful past; evolving with the times as first a cinema, then dance club, later a concert hall, and finally, a strip club. Clearwing Productions’ early history is entwined with that of the venue as many rock acts began their careers on its stage in the 70s and 80s.

Elvis Costello & the Attractions at the Electric Ballroom, Dec. 1, 1977.
Photo: Larry Widen/OnMilwaukee


Just over 100 years ago, the venue opened as the State Theater, a 976-seat cinema that screened the “best feature photoplays,” as claimed in their Grand Opening advertisements. The State remained a cinema for four decades until it was converted to a conservative dance club, which lasted for another two decades. In 1975, it became the Electric Ballroom and featured artists such as AC/DC, Elvis Costello, The Runaways, The Ramones, Eddie Money, Judas Priest, and Cheap Trick. Four years later, new owners took over the venue, cleaned up the building along with its rough reputation, and renamed it The Palms.

U2 at the Palms
Photo: Richard Menning/OnMilwaukee


The Palms was the first venue in Milwaukee to host The Police and U2. An impressive list of bands played gigs at The Palms, including Megadeth, The Replacements, Duran Duran, Dokken, Talking Heads, The Psychedelic Furs, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Stray Cats, Joan Jett, and Meatloaf.

Photo from milwaukeerockposters.com/OnMilwaukee


In the late 70s/early 80s, Clearwing founder and CEO, Gregg Brunclik, ran monitors and sometimes mixed FOH for bands coming through the venue. Gregg was there when The Plasmatics’ Wendy O. Williams was infamously arrested in 1981.

“The whole night was totally bizarre. The set was supposed to start with a video of police officers playing on a TV behind a sheet, which would be ‘shot’ down when Wendy came on stage. In reality, someone had to climb a ladder and manually release the sheet. But the lighting guy had run his feeder through the ladder, so we had to unhook the power before we could place the ladder where it needed to go. The entire building went black and 900 drunk punk rockers went crazy, grabbing beers from behind the bar, fighting, throwing things.

“When the power finally came back on, Wendy came out with a shotgun, fired blanks which knocked over the lighting truss, and the band proceeded to wreck the stage. Wendy left, and after a while, the guitar player- a huge guy with a big black Mohawk, dressed as a French maid- came back on stage and yelled, ‘The cops are beating the **** out of Wendy out back.’ Security had to clear the building.”

The Plasmatics’ Wendy O. Williams onstage at The Palms, Jan. 18, 1981. (Photo: Larry Widen/OnMilwaukee)


In 1986, The Palms closed up shop, and the venue was transformed into a strip club. Five years later, the city revoked the club’s licenses, and the building permanently closed its doors, remaining vacant and boarded up for more than 25 years.

Before the fire, there had been talk about an idea to take things full circle and reopen the State as a movie house. For now, though, a remarkable chapter of Milwaukee history has come to an end.

After the fire.
Photo by Bobby Tanzilo/OnMilwaukee


For more information on the fascinating history of the State building, check out this article written by our friend, journalist Bobby Tanzilo. And for further details on the site’s possible future, read the latest scoop by Bobby here.