In a town teeming with historic icons, the storied Rush Street nightclub Mister Kelly’s makes the grade in spades. Long the place to see and be seen on Chicago’s hippest strip, its shuttering 30 years ago, on Aug. 25, 1975, struck a major blow from which the area didn’t soon recover. And even when it did, things were never the same.***Kelly’s demise, though, was anything but sudden. Death throes had become increasingly apparent well beforehand, as northward gentrification and verdant suburbs poached patrons from their stumbling-distance Near North digs; security issues and late-night TV kept would-be revelers homebound, and disposable income became less disposable. Plus, far roomier concert venues, including the Mill Run Theatre in Niles and the Palmer House Hilton’s grand Empire Room, proved stiff competition. Top talents commanded top fees, and affording them required volume — butts in seats, of which Kelly’s had less than 200.
Opened in 1953 — sans entertainment — at the outset of an American comedy revolution, and named after its manager at the time, Pat Kelly (the added “Mister” assured uniqueness), the hopping boite was for nearly two decades a supernova in the local and national nightlife firmament. Since 1989, Gibsons Steakhouse, formerly Sweetwater, has occupied Kelly’s plum plot at Bellevue and Rush amid a bustling poseur’s paradise known in recent years to natives as the “Viagra triangle.” Aside from thick steaks and expense account-wielding conventioneers, the two establishments share little in common.
Owned and meticulously run by the late brothers Oscar and George Marienthal — whose phenomenally successful empire included the upscale London House jazz joint at 360 N. Michigan (in the former London Guarantee/Stone Container building), and the theatrically oriented Happy Medium on the northeast corner of Rush and Delaware — the posh Kelly’s was a springboard to fame for countless entertainers.
Kindred song stylists Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan dazzled capacity crowds and taped live albums there in the ’50s. So did singers Anita O’Day and Buddy Greco. Blues god Muddy Waters followed suit later on. Barbra Streisand, appearing in 1963 as a virtual unknown, shot freewheeling photos for her career-boosting “People” album at nearby Oak Street Beach. The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, had a wardrobe malfunction. Her accompanist and music director, a jingle writer named Barry Manilow, did multiple solo stints on his way to the pop stratosphere. Others: Nancy Wilson, Mel Torme, Duke Ellington, the Kingston Trio, B.B. King — the list of musical monoliths is long and luminous.
Twice risen from ashes, after fires in 1955 and 1966 necessitated overhauls, Kelly’s also birthed numerous comics, many of whom started as opening acts and soon became coast-to-coast headliners, not to mention best-selling recording artists, in an era when brick-walled laugh shacks weren’t yet in vogue.
With its comedy-friendly blend of tight space and smart crowds, Kelly’s proved ideal for the brainy stylings of such rising talents as Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart, Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller. In 1964, Woody Allen paid a repeat visit to make his first comedy record. “I was in group analysis when I was younger ’cause I couldn’t afford private,” went one bit. “I was captain of the latent paranoid softball team. We used to play all the neurotics on Sunday morning. The nail-biters against the bed-wetters. And if you’ve never seen neurotics play softball it’s really funny. I used to steal second base and feel guilty and go back.”
Bill Cosby was so impacted by his Kelly’s experience that he recalled it at length in two recent college commencement speeches and in his book, Cosbyology. “The place … was packed and the trio was playing,” he told Juilliard School graduates in 2002. “The announcer said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mister Kelly’s is proud to present one of the leading new faces on the comedy horizon, Mr. Bill Cosby Jr.’ And I go out and look at this crowd, and my first thought is: ‘I’m not funny. These people are not going to laugh.’ I proceeded to do a 35-minute act in 18 minutes. I don’t remember if I had ‘flop sweat.’ I just remember that when I said, ‘Thank you and goodnight,’ they all said, ‘Yes!'”
In addition to optimal atmosphere, the tight-knit staff at Kelly’s made performers feel welcome and above all respected. Elsewhere, that wasn’t always the case. “I made some good friends there,” Sahl recalls. “It was a wonderful place. You never missed home when you were there. I was having a good time, and people were awfully good to me.”
Likewise, lots of show folks who stalked Kelly’s stage still have a soft spot for the night spot that gave them a shot when shots were rare, that paid well when pay was poor, that honed skills and bolstered confidence. Here, their memories of those thrilling and formative days.
A touch of class
Phyllis Diller: In those days there was a very chic ‘discovery circuit’ [a small group of small clubs that included Kelly’s, San Francisco’s hungry i and New York’s Bon Soir]. I wasn’t ready for the big rooms and the big tents and the big concert halls. That circuit kept me alive in my beginning days, ’55 to ’60. They were A places. They may not have been big, [but] they were hot, cerebral.
At the Copa Cabana [in New York] it was a roomful of rag merchants and hookers. I cannot play to hookers. Ah-HA-HA-HA-HA! They just don’t wanna hear about ironing and children or the neighbors … All of the discovery circuit [including Kelly’s], they wanted that.
Mort Sahl: The Near North had very smart people. A lot of people from the advertising agencies, J. Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett, and a lot of academics [from] the University of Chicago and Northwestern.
Shelley Berman: One night Milton Berle was in my audience. Incidentally, [famous] people did come there all the time. It was in the middle of the room, late ’50s, early ’60s, around that time. And I had a heckler, and I wasn’t very good with hecklers. So this one guy was clowning and givin’ me a bad time, and finally I nailed him and it worked beautifully. I don’t remember what I said, but it worked beautifully. And he said, “Come on outside and say that!” And Milton stood up and said, “He’s busy. I’ll go with ya.” He brought the house down. That was it. That was it.
Joan Rivers: People came to see you because it was a comedy room. They knew if you were there you were good and you were special and you were a little offbeat. You weren’t the Vegas circuit at that point, you didn’t play the Latin Quarter in New York. You played the chi-chier rooms, the smaller rooms, the boites, and that was a great badge of honor ’cause Elaine May and Mike Nichols had gone through, Shelley Berman, they were all before us. It was a great group to be with, it was a very elegant group to be with.
Bob Newhart: There were two different rooms. The Dick Marx trio was the house band, with [jazz violinist] Johnny Frigo, and they would play a set, and then you’d come on. And it was a very small stage in the front, and then it’d be like four tables deep and 20 tables wide. It was an oddly laid-out room, but it worked. People were right there. It was like you were in somebody’s living room. Which, of course, gave rise to the joke that everybody used: “Are you in show business, sir?” “No.” “Then get your foot off my stage!” But it was true.
Dick Smothers: I remember after work, about midnight or later, we’d walk up and down Rush Street just hanging around, my wife and I, with [our] little girl. And people would say, “Oh, that’s terrible! She should be in bed! Blah blah blah.” But she slept our hours, and she’d go to bed when we went to bed and get up when we got up. It was a time of discovery for us.
Bruce Vilanch: Bette Midler opened for [comedian] Jackie Vernon [in 1973]. Barry [Manilow] was playing piano for her at the time. No one knew who she was, and I was sent up there to cover the opening [for Chicago Today]. The house lights went down and she came out of the kitchen, which was how you entered the stage at Kelly’s. And she was wearing a blouse that was unbuttoned to the waist and no bra — which at the time she said was a feminist statement and I said was a terrorist act — tuxedo pants with a cummerbund and a gardenia in her hair. And she came out singing “Sh-Boom,” her opening number. She would be shakin’ her jugs as she went through the room, and you heard forks dropping and ice hit the floor and people were just stunned, ’cause they’d never seen anything quite like this.
During the up-tempo numbers this boob was always threatening to fly out. And once, when it was peeking out, it was like the audience was fixated on whether this boob was gonna [show]. So she decided the hell with it and just pulled the shirt out and flashed them and then put it back. And of course it brought the house down, because everybody had been looking to see what was gonna happen, if this boob was gonna make an appearance. And it did.
The Green Goddess
Newhart: The one thing that I remember was the Green Goddess salad. Oscar and George would never divulge the ingredients. But when I think of Kelly’s, I think of the Green Goddess salad.
Diller: It’s nowhere right now. It was only at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco — that was the introduction of Green Goddess salad to this country. I think Oscar got the chef there drunk and got the recipe. I can fake it. It’s pale green, and it’s got a bite to it. That’s your anchovies. You can use it on anything.
Berman: The Green Goddess salad, my God. Miracle. My wife and I still like to concoct it every now and then, but we have to read the recipe.
The Kup connection
Tom Dreesen: In those days, coming into that room were the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Today, the Chicago Daily News. There were four or five newspapers, not to mention magazines, that would come and see you and review you. Or maybe an Irv Kupcinet would come in, and he’d mention you in his column.
Sahl: Kup got me my first raise at the club. He used to come in all the time, and when the crowd was all lined up for the next show he said, “Well, boss, how’s business?” And Oscar blushed and gave me a raise!
The Brothers Marienthal
Berman: I think I had something to do with the dressing room upstairs in the back. I think I was the hero. They had no dressing room [in the first Kelly’s]. You’d have to go to work dressed. You could walk upstairs and maybe use the bathroom back there, but they didn’t have a place to dress. And one night — this was a few years later after I was establishing myself and getting going pretty well — Ella Fitzgerald was sitting back there changing shoes and she was sittin’ on a bag of potatoes. And I recall that I went to George, who was a very decent man — [the Marienthals] were both very, very decent fellows — and I said, you know, “Give us a damn dressing room. Look what you got — that great lady sittin’ on potatoes!” And I didn’t phrase it as a demand. I would never do it with those guys. You didn’t have to with those guys. They always treated you so well.
Shecky Greene: Oscar had a big lip. Strange-looking man, sweet as they make ’em, nice as they make ’em. You would not think he was the type of guy that knew that much about show business. And George was in the background, but Oscar did most of the things up front. And when Oscar died [in 1963] it really wasn’t the same. Although George was nice, I don’t think George could pick out talent the way [Oscar could]. By that time agents were booking things in there. And [Oscar] had this thing for me, I don’t know why. ‘Cause I didn’t think I was worth it or deserved it. Every time I’d go over, I’d walk off the stage and say, “Jesus Christ, what’d I do?” I never had confidence in myself. He kept bringin’ me back and telling me how good I was and giving me raises all the time. So I says, Something has to be [right].
Tom Smothers: One [brother] was taller and one was short [with] big thick glasses. But they looked like brothers. They were always very polite and enthusiastic, they were fun to work for, and I guess they were kind of characters around there. They were big celebrities.
Sahl: They were both big liberals. You know, Humphrey liberals. George was kind of a businessman, and a good one. And Oscar was more gregarious. He got a kick out of the music and the performers and all that stuff. These comedy club guys today, they think there’s something odorous [in] paying people. But he paid people and he enjoyed it and it kind of vindicated him when he guessed right and the audience ratified his estimate by responding to the acts.
Diller: The Marienthals were gentlemen. I always did so much more than I was being paid for … but George would then take me into a jewelry store and buy me a lovely jewel or pearls. You see, they were so honest. They knew I shoulda been paid more, but I wasn’t one to ask for that.
David Brenner: George came up to me one night and gave me one of the greatest pieces of advice. He said, “I told this to Woody Allen and other people. Go outside and stand by the curb where the valet parking is. And just listen to the comments you hear from people about your show.” And I went outside and I stood there like I was waiting for a cab or something, with my back to the people so they didn’t see me, and I listened to what people were saying. Like, “He talks too fast.” The other, “Oh, he’s so funny. I like when he did this thing.” And I picked up a lot of tips. George was right.
Dreesen: Kelly’s legitimized me in comedy. If you could put on your resume you appeared at Mister Kelly’s, you appeared in the best club Chicago had to offer. I used to walk up and down Rush Street and pray that my name would be on the marquee at Mister Kelly’s one day.
Before the Smothers Brothers — Tom (left) and Dick — had their own TV variety show in the late ’60s, they honed their act at Mister Kelly’s. –>