Features

Come to Chicago’s Cabaret: Past and Present

When most people hear the word “cabaret” they likely think of Berlin and the Weimar republic and, of course, the theatrical musical and film Cabaret. But Chicago also has a rich cabaret history that dates back 100 years.

In honor of that history, a two-part series––free to the public––is being made possible by a grant from Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events as part of “Chicago in Tune,” a city-wide festival celebrating Music in the Key of Chicago in the Year of Chicago Music. 100 Years of Chicago Cabaret! will premiere at two events at the Haven Entertainment Center (923 E. 43rd St.) in Bronzeville. “Cabaret Burlesque & Great American Songbook” will be held on September 19 while “Black Voices in Cabaret & the French Connection” will take place on October 3. Tickets are free but reservations are required. Appetizers and cocktails will also be available for purchase.

“Cabaret Burlesque & Great American Songbook” celebrates LBGTQIA artists and features drag and burlesque performers, comics, and dancers along with songs from the Great American Songbook, including jazz, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley standards. “Black Voices” highlights the exchange of cultures from Paris’ Montmartre to Chicago’s State Street and the often-neglected contribution of African American music and musicians to the evolution of American cabaret.

100 Years of Chicago Cabaret!, produced by Chicago Cabaret Professionals (CCP), is a joint project with Working in Concert (Black Voices in Cabaret and Cabaret Connexion) and Cabaret Project. The performers include such well-known cabaret artists as Elizabeth Doyle, Claudia Hommel, Lynne Jordan, Spider Saloff, Denise Tomasello, and Honey West. Other artists include Arlene Armstrong, Anne Burnell, Mark Burnell, Cynthia Clarey, Evelyn Danner, Patrick Davis, the Featured Beaus, Willy LaQueue, Ava Logan, LaShera Moore, Daryl Nitz, P. NoNoire, David Stephens, Margaret Murphy Webb, and Bobbi Wilsyn. Musical direction is by Mark Burnell and Elizabeth Doyle. The programs are directed by Anne Burnell, Kyle Hustedt, Daniel Johnson, and David Stephens.

A Very Short History of Cabaret in Chicago

The golden years of the cabaret era in Chicago were during the World War I and post-World War I eras. Since the early decades of the 20th century, the city’s cabarets and nightclubs were concentrated primarily, but not exclusively, in three areas of town: the Loop, especially along Randolph Street; the Near North Side, especially the neighborhood once known as Towertown (so-called because of its proximity to the Water Tower) and, later, the Rush Street area; and Bronzeville on the South Side.

Towertown was populated by people on the fringe of so-called polite society: gays and lesbians and nonconformists and iconoclasts of every social persuasion. Like Greenwich Village, it was cheap and thus affordable to people whose income was precarious at best. Among the many cabarets of Towertown were Ye Black Cat, a semi-private club for more affluent members of the gay community before its luster waned and it became more known for its seedy drag shows. Another cabaret, the Green Mask, was located in the basement of a Towertown building. Poet Kenneth Rexroth worked there as a young man. Dave Tough, the Scottish-born Oak Park drummer, often hung out there where he “accompanied” poetry readings by Rexroth, Max Bodenheim, and Langston Hughes. Nearby, Erie Cabaret at the corner of Clark and Erie was the home to the female impersonator Frances Carrick, one of Towertown’s most famous, and singular, residents.

But Towertown wasn’t the only North Side neighborhood that was home to cabarets. Other North Side venues included Rainbo Gardens at Clark and Lawrence, which boasted a stage that opened out into its namesake exterior gardens and which featured various forms of entertainment and vaudeville numbers. But probably the most famous club was the Green Mill. The Green Mill opened in 1907 and is the longest continuously operating club in Chicago (located on Broadway near Lawrence in Uptown). Its name is a deliberate nod to the Moulin Rouge, which means Red Mill.

Downtown also had its share of cabarets and cabaret-style venues. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing in the 1930s, the Loop hotels featured a combination of dancing, floorshows, and live radio broadcasts. These included the Stevens’ Hotel’s Boulevard Room, the Palmer House’s Empire Room, and the Sherman Hotel’s College Inn. The Blackstone, LaSalle, and Bismarck hotels also featured entertainment.

Also located in or near the Loop were such clubs and cabarets as the Moulin Rouge Café at 416 S. Wabash Ave. and the Blackhawk Restaurant at 139 N. Wabash Ave. as well as Ciro’s, the Hotel Morrison’s Terrace Room. Among the most popular was Friars’ Inn at 343 S. Wabash Ave., which billed itself as the “Land of Bohemia Where Good Fellows Get Together.”

The most popular cabarets and clubs on the South Side were located in Bronzeville. By the early 1920s, numerous venues had opened on the Stroll, as the South Side amusement zone along 35th and State Streets was called.

The Pekin Inn, at 2700 S. State St., was a turn of the 20th century gambling hall, theater, and nightclub/cabaret and considered the most important club on the South Side at the time. It was also among the first Black-owned clubs in the country.

Among the most popular Jazz Age cabarets were the so-called Black and tan clubs, which consisted of entertainment by Black performers that catered to a a clientele both Black and white. Here, unlike anywhere else in segregated Chicago, the races could interact with one another: talking, dancing, listening, even flirting. “Whites could venture into black cabarets, but blacks could not enter most night clubs or dance halls in white Chicago, not even those white establishments where black orchestras provided the music,” writes historian William Howland Kenney in Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904–1930.

Other Bronzeville clubs included the Sunset Café, located at East 35th St., also known as the Grand Terrace Café. Built in 1909 as a garage, it was converted to a dance hall and featured a bandstand and full dance floor. Diagonally across the street from the Sunset was the Plantation Café, at 338 E. 35th St. near Calumet Avenue.

In the late 1930s, the most popular of the gay cabarets in Bronzeville were the Club De Lisa, at 5516 S. State St. and the Cabin Inn, at 3119 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Bronzeville’s middle class especially liked Club De Lisa, considered the largest and most important nightclub in the African American community from the 1930s to the 1950s. On the other hand, the Cabin Inn billed itself as the South Side’s “Oddest Nite Club”: it was known for its female impersonators. Drag queens with names like Joanne Crawford, Jean LeRue, Nina McKinney, and Dixie Lee put on shows every night.

Also in Bronzeville was the Dreamland Café, at 3520 S. State St., another Black and tan cabaret, where Joe “King” Oliver played gigs as well as Jimmy Noone, Sidney Bechet, and later, Louis Armstrong with his wife Lil’ Hardin.

And then there was the short-lived, and notorious, Café de Champion at 41 W. 31st St. Boxer Jack Johnson opened the café in July 1912, two years after he had become the first Black heavyweight champion of the world. Johnson made good money and he wanted to make sure that his club reflected his elevated status. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, the venue had monogrammed spittoons in solid silver, $15,000 worth of oil paintings of Johnson and his family, and a mosaic inlaid tile floor. It boasted white-gloved waiters in evening clothes and a beautiful mahogany bar. The Pompeiian Room, where the music and dancing were held, was said to hold hundreds of people.

Bronzeville is important for another reason: there was a direct Chicago-to-Paris connection. Among the most singular figures in Chicago-Paris cabaret history was the African American dancer, singer, and club owner Bricktop. Born Ada Louise Smith, she earned her well-deserved nickname because of her red hair and freckles. She grew up in Chicago and as a teenager she performed in the chorus at the Pekin Inn in Bronzeville. She moved to Paris in the mid-1920s where she not only performed in the Parisian cabarets, she actually owned several clubs, including Le Grand Duc and Chez Bricktop. Everyone went to Bricktop’s from Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker to Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. She was the undisputed queen of Montmartre. In her 1983 autobiography, she wrote that Montmartre had “as many cafes and dance halls and bordellos as . . . State Street in Chicago.”

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 had a profound effect on Chicago cabarets. The Illinois state legislators, writes Jim Elledge in The Boys of Fairy Town, “put a stranglehold of regulations on the cabarets, and the city fathers took the opportunity to send police to raid and board them up.” A few years earlier, in 1928, the federal crackdown on public consumption of alcohol “devastated the Chicago cabaret scene: 250 cabaret entertainers and 200 musicians had lost their jobs…,” notes Kenney.

It took many more years for the cabaret scene to get back on its feet. During the post-World War II era, new cabarets opened up, especially at or near Rush Street. Probably the most popular at the time was Mister Kelly’s, owned and operated by the Marienthal brothers. Although it served food, what set Mister Kelly’s apart were its top-tier performers, from Barbra Streisand to Bette Midler. The club was destroyed in a 1955 fire but rebuilt and reopened in August 1956. By the late 1950s, various entertainers recorded live albums there, including Ella Fitzgerald and Buddy Greco. Fire again destroyed the club in February 1966. And once again, it reopened—in May 1967. The club eventually closed in August 1975.

The cabaret tradition continues today. Chicago is home to not only cabarets but also piano bars and burlesque clubs, including Davenport’s, Redhead Piano Bar, Bordel, the Drifter, the Baton Show Lounge, and Lips, to name a few.

100 Years of Chicago Cabaret! will be presented on September 19 and October 3, both at 3pm (doors open at 2:30pm) at Haven Entertainment Center, 923 E. 43rd St. (parking available west of building). Admission is free but reservations are required. Masks must be worn when not seated and proof of vaccination shown at the door. Seating is limited (limit 2 per person). Register at ChicagoCabaret.org; phone: 877-554-7714. For more information, email Info@ChicagoCabaret.org


June Sawyers is the author of Cabaret FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about the Broadway and Cinema Classic (Applause Books). All images are from Sawyers’ personal collection.

We highly recommend you check out this wonderful event and all the music performances that are part of DCASE’s Chicago in Tune! This new citywide festival celebrates music in the key of Chicago during the 2021 Year of Chicago Music. This month is meant to bring us all together through the whole spectrum of local music events in a variety of venues. Check out all the participating venues and shows over at their website!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *