October 09, 2023 | Michail Takach

Bobby Rivers: Milwaukee’s queer media pioneer

When Bobby Rivers first arrived on Milwaukee airwaves, mainstream listeners weren’t quite sure what to make of him. He was frantic and fast-paced, sassy and sarcastic, outrageous and outspoken, hip and happening, and sometimes, heavily queer coded.
Bobby Rivers

“There was a big pile-up on Astor Street last night,” said the radio announcer. “Fortunately, no cars were involved.”

Across Milwaukee, listeners “in the know” appreciated this reference to Astor Street, a popular late-night cruising ground near Juneau Park. But they also wondered: how in the world did this guy get on the air?

When Bobby Rivers first arrived on Milwaukee airwaves, mainstream listeners weren’t quite sure what to make of him. He was frantic and fast-paced, sassy and sarcastic, outrageous and outspoken, hip and happening, and sometimes, heavily queer coded. Working the 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. morning show on WQFM, Rivers’ humor was no match for showmates (first Mark Allen, then Paul Kelly) who lacked his pace and edge.

“WQFM is number one in Milwaukee with the 18-34 age group, according to Arbitron, and the Rivers-Allen team is one of the reasons why,” wrote the Milwaukee Sentinel in December 1976.

Rivers remembers it differently. “When I started, I was so nervous, you could hear the paper rattling in my hand,” he said.

Over the years, Rivers has interviewed some of the biggest stars: Dolly Parton, Meryl Streep, Anne Rice, Shirley Mcclain, Whoopi Goldberg, RuPaul, Paul McCartney, Sally Field, and many, many more, while working in the entertainment industry from coast to coast.

And it all began with an unlikely decision over 50 years ago.

“I was not the class clown,” said Rivers. “I was an overweight, semi-popular kid. And I was shy. I was more of the class satirist. I used humor as a smoke screen. I was afraid of rejection.”

“Both my parents loved old films,” said Rivers, “so they really cultivated and encouraged this in me. I was a kid in the civil rights era. You never saw black people talking about movies on television. You never saw black people hosting a tv show. And that was always in the back of my mind: why?”

“When the Watts Riots happened, and we were in the curfew area, seeing how that was covered on TV really gave me a glimpse of the power of TV,” said Rivers. “You got the impression that all of LA was on fire – and we were four blocks away from one of the fires that actually caused a fatality – but that created a stereotype of how all black people in LA were supposed to be. And it was false. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor. The people next door had an in-ground pool and the lady next door to them had a house right out of the Dick Van Dyke Show!”

When he was 16, his mother enrolled him in a typing course, saying “I’ve seen how you dance and I won’t let you drive my car.” As a result, Rivers never learned how to drive.

One of his high school teachers had a relative who attended Marquette University. He decided, “my ultimate goal in life is to work in New York, and Milwaukee is closer to New York.” He left California for Marquette University in 1972. His major may have been broadcasting, but his first interest was acting. His parents, fearing he would never make it as an actor, thought he’d be unemployed.

“I didn’t drive a car, I don’t surf, and I’m not blonde,” said Rivers, “so I decided my future wasn’t in California.”

Upon arriving in Milwaukee, Rivers was in for a few surprises.

“I’d never been in winter in my life,” he said. “And I’d never been so cold in my life!”

Breaking into the business

Rivers took a part-time job ushering at the Performing Arts Center. He was surprised by how hard it was to get hired in his field. His Marquette University advisor told him he didn’t have the voice for radio or the face for TV. “You have to be blonde just to get a job in radio,” he was told. But Rivers didn’t listen.

While working part-time at the Pabst Theater box office, he got a job writing weekend newscasts at WRIT. “The station manager actually said, ‘we need more diversity in the hiring quota,’ and that’s how I got hired.”

After applying at WQFM five times, he finally got hired as a morning newsman – after listing “origami and performing frontal lobotomies” among his hobbies on the job application. Program director Joe Santoro called him immediately and put him on the air.

“I didn’t know a lot about rock music, but I listened to the station a lot, and I thought I could fit in,” said Rivers. “It was a cast of characters like WKRP in Cincinnati.”

A local producer wasn’t so sure. He told Bobby “do something about your face.”

Fans, meanwhile, couldn’t get enough of Rivers. When WQFM program director Bill Stedman fired Rivers in July 1978, vowing to “better reflect what Milwaukee is into,” the station saw the biggest flood of protest mail it had ever received. Over 1,000 listeners signed three separate petitions urging the station to keep him.

Rivers renegotiated his contract and remained until February 1979. He also became an extremely popular host for public events. When Gimbels hosted Darth Vader, the Great American Mime Experiment, and a Disco Contest in 1978, Rivers was there. When the stars of “Welcome Back Kotter” appeared at the Centre Stage Theater, Rivers was there. When Mayfair Mall hosted a Village People lookalike contest to celebrate “Can’t Stop the Music,” Rivers was there.

“I had to figure out how to fit in,” said Rivers. “I hadn’t realized how racially polarized Milwaukee was. I remember covering the Bicentennial, Anita Bryant, Harvey Milk, Gary Gilmore, President Ford, all kinds of heavy news. And yet, was I supposed to be an on-air personality or just a newscaster? I didn’t know. The station didn’t know. Nobody knew.”

Rivers integrated arts and culture into WQFM programming in unique ways. Carol Channing, in town for a Hello Dolly revival, offered up soundbites that Rivers ran on the air. Rose Marie and Rosemary Clooney, in town for another revival, offered him inspiring career advice: get to New York City.

Liberation, meet frustration

“Milwaukee was so liberating, and yet so frustrating at the time,” said Rivers. “This huge gay scene was booming in Milwaukee, and yet, the rest of the world only saw Milwaukee as Happy Days.”

“I remember the first time I went to a gay bar. The first time I danced with another guy. The first time I was invited back to someone’s house. All this happened in Milwaukee. Yet I still felt like an outsider. I was never in a long-term relationship in Milwaukee. I wanted one, but it was a different time. White men I liked couldn’t explain bringing a black person home. Black men I liked were always in other relationships.”

“Milwaukee never failed to surprise me when it came to the gay scene,” said Rivers. “You’d go out and dance to one 20-minute Donna Summer remix after another. If anyone finds a photo of me dancing shirtless with a tambourine, I hope someone burns it! My first gay bar was the River Queen. It had a jukebox and someone put on a polka song. So, I’m watching these big burly Wisconsin men doing the polka together, and thinking, this is gay life?”

“I remember going to Wreck Room for the first time, nervous, scared, no leather jacket, but surrounded by men in leather. So I order a beer, and the two guys in leather next to me were discussing pie recipes. ‘I like to make my Apple Betty with a graham cracker crust,’ said one to the other. Suddenly, I wasn’t so scared anymore.”

“I remember going to the M&M Club – and I’m still surprised nobody made it the basis of a sitcom – and the whole Friday night fish fry routine. I loved 219. The bartenders were all such hot guys who paid attention to you, even if you weren’t so hot looking yourself. This is It was a quiet, dark, sleepy little lounge where you went to talk. The Baron had that bi-level dance floor and all those lights. Park Avenue had a special place in my heart. That was the absolute best nightspot, because the people who were in touring Broadway shows would come there. Gay night or not, it was like a New York club, and people just could not stop dancing. I remember slow-dancing to “Let’s Stay Together” by Tina Turner with a man. I was over the moon!”

“Gay bars were the place to go. Knowing gay people became a fashionable thing. There were discos open seven nights a week! Learning about Milwaukee’s gay culture, I decided to do a little ‘coded’ humor on the radio and see if they’d get it. And they did!”

“I remember Paul Lynde coming to town,” said Rivers, “and there was this thing about him that still fascinates me. They knew Paul Lynde was gay, but they cast him as a family man with wife and kids over and over. While he was doing a sold-out summertime show in Milwaukee, playing the family man, he showed up at 219. It was like a scene out of the Marx Brothers, how many handsome men came out of his limousine, and the last one out was Paul Lynde in a caftan asking ‘is there a gay bar in this town?’ Well, I got press seats to see the play, but I also got Paul Lynde to do a 10-minute radio interview. Just by thinking fast on my feet.”

“So my career was taking off, but my dating life was so doomed. One night, I took someone on a date to see Terms of Endearment. Afterwards, we went down to Bradford Beach, and I think I’m going to get a kiss out of this. Instead, he started sobbing uncontrollably. His mother had been diagnosed with the same illness that Debra Winger had in the film. So, I’m holding him in the front seat, as he cries, with the windows rolled down. A police officer rolls up and asks what’s the problem. “We just saw a film that touched us deeply,” I explained, “She’s going to get the Oscar for sure.” That was the end of the date!”

“And look at TV now. Nowadays, you can’t swing a cat without hitting six queens who want to redecorate your kitchen.”

The dark side of fame

“Nobody really knew this, but I did receive a lot of hate mail,” said Rivers. “Letters with no return address. Letters with swastiskas on them. I didn’t get letters when I was on TV, but I did get voicemails. After all these years of working hard, and taking care of my family, and making the black and gay communities proud of me, and being worn down romantically by this solo act, I also had to deal with homophobic comments. I had a great friend who came out with me, and while we were seeing Bruce Springsteen at Alpine Valley, someone yelled ‘Bobby Rivers, what are you doing with a woman.’ It was relentless.”

“This all started at the radio station,” he said. “When I came in early to write the news, he was already on the air, and he would say ‘it’s almost 6am, that means Bobby Rivers will come in here swishing any minute now.’ I was there to hear it. He had no idea that his own brother was gay and that I’d met him at one of the bars. He was afraid to tell his own brother, and now I understood why.”

“There was nothing like GLAAD to help you back then,” said Rivers. “If something happened, you were on your own. You always had this sense that you’d be found out eventually. There were a few other Milwaukee media people who were gay, but the public didn’t know. I would hear rumors about very well-liked, very Midwestern anchors, and I couldn’t believe them. But they were true. Most people just didn’t make themselves known. I wasn’t really recognized as being out, but then again, I was on radio at the time, so people didn’t know me when they saw me.”

“I felt like I was on a treadmill to oblivion,” said Rivers. “Although the experience was tremendous, I couldn’t see myself playing three songs and breaking into a commercial for the rest of my life. I was at the dentist, and the hygienist was carrying on about how great it must be to be on the radio. We compared salaries, and I was making less than she was. It was time to quit.”

Fortunately, Rivers was getting more and more involved with TV. He had done segments on PBS shows like Talking Ebony, where he interviewed Minetta “Satin Doll” Wilson. In September 1978, he was hired to do Friday night movie reviews on PM Magazine, a syndicated series running on WISN-TV Channel 12. By April 1980, he was hired full-time as a PM Magazine correspondent and host of “Movie 12.” One of his early specialties was being the “Inquirer,” who would approach strangers in public places asking a specific, pointed question. Audiences loved it.

Over the next few years, Rivers produced excellent segments for PM Magazine, showcasing a city in the middle of colossal cultural change. He visited video game arcades, cowboy bars, historic movie palaces, a Violent Femmes concert, video bars, Market Place in Oak Creek, breweries, and dive bars. He broadcast live from points far and wide: the revolving Polaris restaurant at the Hyatt Regency, Solid Gold dance auditions, a Vegemite challenge, the Racine Golden Rondelle Theater, even a cow chip tossing contest that earned national news coverage.

He continued his hosting work at TV specials, telethons, auctions, open houses, talent shows, grand openings, and other community events. He frequented his favorite places: Downer Avenue, Acapulco Restaurant, Century Hall, Theater X, Wolski’s, Prospect Mall, the Oriental Pharmacy. He broadcast live from Summerfest, State Fair, the Circus Parade, the grand opening of Grand Avenue, and other pivotal events.

“I remember the grand opening of Grand Avenue,” said Rivers. “Our live guest was Liberace! It was so packed and so amazing to see Milwaukee women turn out and treat Liberace like he was a sexy rockstar. That was really something. He really turned it out for Milwaukee. He was the ultimate showman, extremely gracious, remembered everyone’s name, made you feel like a longtime friend. He didn’t act like a big star back in a small town. He was here to entertain, and his show was completely entertaining. A few years later, I did an interview with him, and I was warned, ‘be prepared, he’s ailing, he’s been diagnosed,’ and I was shocked to see all that vitality was gone.”

“The AIDS epidemic was like the middle ages in modern times,” said Rivers. “I knew guys who went in the first wave of AIDS. And it was so tragic, because one of the things I loved about being in the bars, was meeting guys involved with the arts. Music, theater, photography, film, dance. There was so much spark, so much excitement. I was working, very lonely, and their friendship meant so much. So many extraordinarily talented and kind gay men in Milwaukee were stolen from us by AIDS.”

“Some of the anti-gay sentiment was subtle and systematic. I could take a different girl to the company Christmas party every year, but I couldn’t take a guy if I wanted to keep the job. It’s not as much drama now. I didn’t feel totally safe coming out in Milwaukee like I did in New York.”

Baby, remember my name

Everywhere he went, Bobby Rivers’ sass would turn heads. Water cooler conversations often turned to “Rivers said WHAT now?”

For example, in May 1981, Rivers accepted an “Oscar” from the Performing Arts Center on behalf of PM Magazine, quipping “you’ve just made me a very happy Negro.” In April 1982, he spoke with the Milwaukee Journal at the one-year black-tie-only anniversary of Elsa’s. “People come here to be seen – I do – this is the Ma Maison of the Midwest,” he said. “It’s wonderful not to see people drinking out of beer cans for once.” Newspaper columnists were so aghast at what he said at WISN Channel 12’s 30th Anniversary Party – they never repeated the joke in print.

How did Rivers respond? A smile, a laugh and, “oh yes – that sounds like something I might say.”

“Lots of things pop out of Rivers’ mouth,” wrote the Milwaukee Journal. “He is invariably funny. Put him on Hollywood Squares and he would leave Paul Lynde tongue-tied.”

Rivers announced he was leaving PM Magazine, Channel 12, and Milwaukee in May 1983. Local columnist Duane Dudek said the “impish, outgoing, ambitious correspondent” “feels he has accomplished all he could in Milwaukee and plans to head to New York City.” Rivers confirmed that his last appearance on PM Magazine would be June 24, 1983. He was working on a new syndicated movie show, Take Two, and in the meantime, he was going to “clean his apartment, lose 25 pounds, and learn how to drive.”

“In all seriousness, it is time for me to grow up,” said Rivers. “I would like to make more than $16,900 by the time I’m 30. That’s what I’m making now. I’m not making much progress on finding a mate. It’s easier playing to a crowd than to one person. So I thought I’d take a chance.”

But soon, newspapers told a different story. “Bobby Rivers is not gone, nor is he soon likely be forgotten,” said the Milwaukee Sentinel. He would be headlining “More,” a new talk show replacing the long-running At Twelve with Howard and Rosemary Gernette. The show – almost immediately and universally panned – was not the chance Rivers was looking for.

“More is a celebration of the superficial and a triumph of style over substance,” wrote the Milwaukee Sentinel. “Bobby Rivers is an amiable quipster. I’m a sucker for his offbeat humor, and I’d like to see more of his type of craziness.”

Mike Drew of the Milwaukee Journal agreed. “Nowhere this side of death row at the Humane Society will you find two creatures hustling harder to be liked. When (the hosts) aren’t grinning, they’re giggling, or gushing about how wonderful everything is – their guests, the audience, whatever. If Hitler walked by, they’d probably compliment him on this mustache.”

“We got a lot of celebrities on More, because they would appear in Chicago and add on a Milwaukee appearance,” said Rivers. “They would all come on the show and say, you’re doing big city humor in a small town. You need to get to New York City.” One of those advocates was Robin Williams.

More was cancelled on December 13, 1984, leaving Rivers with six months on his contract. And this time, Rivers was serious about moving to Manhattan. “I know New York is loud and vulgar, but so am I,” he told the Milwaukee Journal in early 1985.

Working for WPIX-TV, Rivers caught the eye of Michael Musto’s Village Voice column (where he was caught leading a conga line at a movie premiere and later sitting on Kathleen Turner’s lap) – as well as Jeffrey Rowe of VH1. Rowe, formerly known as WKTI DJ Dallas Cole, offered Rivers a late-night guest VJ spot that quickly became a prime time permanent position.

“Bobby Rivers May Be on His Way to Stardom,” wrote the Milwaukee Journal on April 12, 1988, commenting on how well-suited he was to his new role. “Gone are the days of the one-man, three-ring circus, when Rivers bounced off the walls of the studio. After several years of drift and disappointment, Rivers is happy, feels challenged, and is growing again.”

“This is the best work experience I have ever had,” said Rivers. “I am at a point where I love coming to work.” A new talk show, “Watch Bobby Rivers,” celebrated the first black male to host a VH1 talk show.

The New York Times called Rivers, “a disarmingly sweet, quirky personality who exudes a benign sense of mischief…a nerdy, postcollegiate Eddie Murphy with no axes to grind. He’s a master interviewer with a gift for light, impromptu banter.”

Unfortunately, VH1 never quite reached the ratings or demographics expectations of its operators. In late 1989, Jeffrey Rowe announced a massive “reinvention” of the network, including a 25% reduction in music video rotation and a shift towards more scripted programs. Rivers left VH1 in April 1990.

“I think it’s probably best that I’m leaving VH1 now. I feel about my time there sort of like Dorothy felt about Oz. Some of it was hard, but most of it was beautiful,” said Rivers. “I feel I broke some barriers.”

Reflections on a five-decade career

After VH1, Rivers hosted late-night dating show Bedroom Buddies, and reported on entertainment news for Weekend Today and Good Day New York. In June 1994, he hosted a special episode of PBS “In the Life,” honoring the 25thanniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. He returned to syndicated TV with Top 5 in 2003.

“Looking back, the people at Channel 12 didn’t know what to do with me,” remembered Rivers. “It was the same old problem at WPIX. Station management saw talent and personality but didn’t know what to do with it.”

Although Rivers left Milwaukee in 1985, the rest of his family eventually wound up in Milwaukee, including his mother, sister and brother. “My mother sent him to live with me, and I became his legal guardian,” said Rivers. “I was working three jobs, including a weekend pizza place, and I was tired, Judy Garland tired. I stopped having a social life. But I put him through Pius High School.”

Today, Rivers lives in the Twin Cities and continues to work as an entertainment reporter. What does he think of the “new” Milwaukee – almost four decades after leaving it behind?

“It’s odd for me to see Milwaukee get so much praise,” said Rivers. “Artistically, I felt limited in Milwaukee, and I knew I had to leave. At that time, in the 80s, all the young people – who had new ideas and wanted to do original, fresh things – had to leave Milwaukee. All they heard from the establishment was ‘that’s how we’ve always done it.’ I heard that too. So you leave, and you just keep leaving. I knew at some point, the city would need to start embracing change.”

“The media focuses on race, and crime, and violence, and then turns the camera in the opposite direction, and announces Milwaukee is the new Portland,” said Rivers. “I’m like, really? What should we believe? Could I live there again without being called the N word, the F word? Would I feel safe?”

“We’ll see if it’s the new Portland. We’ll just see.”

The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003. Over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor.

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The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003, and over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor, bearing all costs for hosting the web site personally.