October 09, 2023 | Michail Takach and B.J. Daniels

Who’s Who in Wisconsin LGBTQ History: Jackie Roberts & Rudi D’Angelo

“We think about you always, we talk about you still. You have never been forgotten, and you never will.” Going forward, every issue of Our Lives will highlight colorful characters from throughout Wisconsin LGBTQ history. By sharing their stories, we hope to keep their memories alive forever.
Jackie Roberts & Rudi D’Angelo

Jackie Roberts

Jackie Roberts (1972-2017) was born John Paul Jaccard. While attending Milwaukee High School of the Arts, she and classmate Rudi D'Angelo hung out at Club Marilyn's Teen Night. One fateful Sunday in May 1989, they were invited to join a group of Milwaukee Ballet employees who could "get them in" at La Cage (801 S. 2nd St.) They returned two weeks later with friends from school, and in many ways, never really left.

"I was fascinated with the star performers of that era: Holly Brown, Goldie Adams, Mimi Marks. You didn’t see drag queens on TV. YouTube wasn’t teaching kids how to contour and blend make-up. The scene was SO much more underground," said Jackie in 2009. "I just stood against a wall at the front bar, which was very dark, and took it all in!"

One week, Jackie was pulled from the audience to work the spotlight. From there, she worked her way through every job in the bar, until finally becoming a showgirl herself in February 1990.

"Coming out to La Cage used to be such an event," she said in 2009. "People planned their outfits all week. People worried about their outfits all week. Was it enough? Was it ever enough? People really dressed up just to be here. This was THE original S&M bar - Stand and Model. Now, everything is too casual. I mean, sweatpants? At La Cage? That would have been unthinkable."

"Lots of people now see La Cage as just a club. They don't respect its impact. They don't realize what being gay in Milwaukee would have been like if there hadn't been La Cage. A lot of us would not be here today." - Jackie Roberts.

Jackie became the Queen of La Cage, leading its house review, and winning multiple state and regional titles over the next two decades. She is remembered for blockbuster shows at PrideFest, Brady Street Festival, and many other venues over the years.

"Drag in Milwaukee isn't what it used to be, but it ain't dead," said Jackie in 2012. "There aren't the sequins, beads, or feathers you used to see. It's not as costumey, not as grand. You used to have to earn the right to be onstage. It was a rite of passage to be accepted by your sisters for your talent and your delivery. It meant they accepted you into their circle, which was sometimes very difficult for a girl to break into. Nowadays, it seems anyone can show up in a feather boa and get booked."

While Jackie's stage performances were always stunning, many remembered her as the "Door Girl” first and foremost. She had a "love-hate" relationship with that legacy. "So many shows, so many stages, over the past 20 years, and I still have people coming up to me, saying ‘you’re that Door Bitch who took my fake ID away!"

In 2013, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award and asked, "does this mean I'm done?" But Jackie’s story was far from over.

Rudi D’Angelo

Rudi (1972-2014) was born Rudolpho Rogelio Jr. She became close friends with Jackie while both were attending Milwaukee High School of the Arts in the late 1980s.

Rudi quickly followed Jackie’s lead into the showgirl life. She was nicknamed “Rudi Rudi the Mexican Beauty,””fresh and fruity,” and “the girl so nice they named her twice.”

“What can I say about my best friend Rudi D’Angelo?” said Gia “Lady Gia” Salazar. “I had the honor of having her in my life for 17 years. Everybody knew her as the onstage entertainer, but to me, she was a real friend who I could always count on when I needed her. She was one of the most loyal people I’ve ever met.”

“I remember the first night we met at Club 219,” said Lady Gia. “We both had our eye on the same guy. I remember we made a bet on who would land him – but oddly enough, neither of us wound up pursuing him, because we were too busy hitting it off together as instant friends.”

“She was one of the first trans women I ever met, and she taught me there was nothing wrong with being trans, and that living in my own comfortable skin was something that was meant for me,” said Lady Gia. “Thanks to her, I gained the courage to follow through with my own full transition.”

“Rudi would always find a way to stand with her head held high, strong and confident, rise above all the negativity around her, and find the goodness in life and people. She always found the goodness – sometimes after shots of tequila – but she never gave up trying.” – Lady Gia.

“She was the first one to pull me aside and tell me that my eyebrows were too thick,” said performer Jessica Daniels. “They’ve been thin ever since.”

“In hindsight, I don’t think she knew just how beautiful she was,” said Michael Todd. “She was beautiful on the inside too. She was genuinely a nice person. In my 20 years of doing drag, Rudi was possibly one of the most beautiful queens I have ever seen.”

“I was blessed to have Rudi as a friend and in my life,” said David Kotke. “Rudi was one of the flower girls at my wedding in 2001. Their job was to delicately spread flower petals as they walked to the front. Except Rudi! She was so nervous, she wound up just taking handfuls of flowers out of her basket and tossing them at people. I’ve played that part of the wedding video many times. It brings back some laughs and tears of love.”

“A drunk Rudi was a handful,” said Adam Clasen. “Rudi usually came out with Jackie and they stayed until closing. Rudi would insist on helping me clean up, but she kept dropping and breaking bottles behind the bar. I said, girl, thanks, but I think I’ve got this.”

While many remember Rudi working at a Mitchell Street thrift store, she later went back to school for nursing and found a real passion for the work.

“I lost touch with Rudi for a few years, and when we got back in touch, she was studying for her nursing degree and living right around the corner from me,” said Lady Gia. “We spent a lot of time together – and it was like no time passed at all. I helped her study for her nursing tests and I was proud to see her achieve her goal of a nursing degree. She was so excited and so happy.”

“I remember her loving what she was doing,” said Kevin Smith. “She really had found her calling in caring for others.”

“When I think of Rudi, I think of her support and readiness to help,” said Nova Beschta. “She always had her signature smile waiting for you – and a word of praise.”

Sadly, Rudi lost his mother – and really struggled emotionally to cope with the grief.

“She was crying on the phone, and I asked her why she was crying,” said Lady Gia. “She had an interview to join the nursing staff at St. Luke’s Medical Center, but she was sad because her mother was no longer here to see her achieve these dreams. Rudi had one of the biggest hearts you could ever find in a person. It was a blessing and a curse.”

Rudi passed away unexpectedly on February 1, 2014, leaving behind a lifetime of loving friends and fans who still miss him today.

“I was able to pull together a very large memorial fundraiser at La Cage,” said Lady Gia, “but I was a little worried. In all honesty, I didn’t think many people would remember Rudi, or would come out to celebrate her memory. To my surprise, the house was packed on every floor! There was an incredible show that evening, all the entertainers donated every single cent they made, the owners chipped in money, and there were a lot of private donations as well. The community really came together for a legend of our city. It was really a night like no other.”

Curtain calls

After Rudi’s passing, Jackie took a leap of faith and moved to Kansas City for a job opportunity. However, she was diagnosed with cancer and returned to Milwaukee in December 2015. She bravely faced her situation, never losing her lust for life, or her gratitude for supportive and loving fans and extended family.

“Jackie was a larger-than-life person and personality,” said Nova Beschta. “Such beauty inside and out. As an entertainer, she morphed and grew with each passing year. I was so lucky to know Jackie prior to either of us starting drags. Our paths recrossed after Jackie had solidified her tenure as a queen. I had a lot to learn from her, but also a lot to teach. We shared so much that I hold dear.”

"Jackie was one of the most courageous people I have ever met," said Nova. " We had a unique friendship that I will cherish for eternity.”

“Jackie was a force. You never had to wonder where you stood with her,” said Nova Beschta. “She was a dedicated and creative queen with a laugh that nobody could compete with. Jackie had a hard exterior with a heart of gold. Her last year of her life was her most influential and glowing year as a queen, as a friend, and as a human being.”

On January 5, 2017, Jackie was gone. A memorial service was held January 28 with a Life Celebration Memorial at La Cage on January 29. At Jackie's request, there was no show, just a circle of friends remembering and sharing their memories of Jackie. Donations were made to Courage MKE in Jackie's name.

On September 19, 2021, the second floor cabaret of La Cage was renamed the Jackie Roberts Show Lounge in her memory. As Jackie would say, "My Show Isn't Over Yet."

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.