Come to Chicago Cabaret: Past and Present

When most people hear the word “cabaret” they probably think of Berlin and the Weimar Republic and, of course, the musical and the cinema. Cabaret. But Chicago also has a rich cabaret history stretching back 100 years.

In honor of this story, a two-part series, free to the public, is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events as part of “Chicago in Tune,” a festival in citywide celebrating Music in the Chicago Key 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 take place on September 19th while “Black Voices in Cabaret & the French Connection” will take place on October 3rd. Tickets are free but reservations are required. Aperitifs and cocktails will also be available for purchase.

“Cabaret Burlesque & Great American Songbook” celebrates LBGTQIA artists and features drag and burlesque artists, comics and dancers, as well as songs from the Great American Songbook, including Jazz, Broadway and Tin Pan standards Alley. “Black Voices” highlights the interchange of cultures from Paris Montmartre to Chicago’s State Street and the often overlooked 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. Performers include well-known cabaret performers like 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 Wilsyne. Musical direction is provided by Mark Burnell and Elizabeth Doyle. The programs are led 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 World War I and the post-war periods. Since the early decades of the 20th century, the city’s cabarets and nightclubs were concentrated primarily, but not exclusively, in three city districts: the Loop, particularly along Randolph Street; the Near North Side, in particular the area formerly 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 fringes of so-called polite society: gays and lesbians, mavericks and iconoclasts of all social leanings. Like Greenwich Village, it was cheap and therefore affordable for people with precarious incomes at best. Among the many cabarets in Towertown was Ye Black Cat, a semi-private club for the better-off members of the gay community before its luster faded and it became more known for its seedy drag shows. Another cabaret, the Green Mask, was located in the basement of a building in Towertown. The poet Kenneth Rexroth worked there in his youth. 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 on the corner of Clark and Erie was the home of female impersonator Frances Carrick, one of Towertown’s most famous and singular residents.

But Towertown was not the only neighborhood on the North Side to have nightclubs. Other sites on the north side included Rainbo Gardens in Clark and Lawrence, which had a stage that opened up to the outdoor gardens of the same name and featured various forms of entertainment and vaudeville acts. But the most famous club was probably the Green Mill. The Green Mill opened in 1907 and is Chicago’s oldest club (located on Broadway near Lawrence in Uptown). Its name is a deliberate nod to the Moulin Rouge, which means Moulin Rouge.

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

Clubs and cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge Café at 416 S. Wabash Ave. and the Blackhawk Restaurant at 139 N. Wabash Ave. as well as Ciro’s, Hotel Morrison’s Terrace Room were also located in or near the Loop. Among the most popular was Friars’ Inn at 343 S. Wabash Ave., which advertised itself as the “Land of Bohemia where good comrades meet”.

The most popular cabarets and clubs on the south side were located in Bronzeville. By the early 1920s, many venues had opened on the Stroll, such as the South Side Amusement Zone along 35th Street and State Street was called.

The Pekin Inn, located at 2700 S. State St., was a 20th century game room, theater, and nightclub / cabaret and was considered the most important club on the South Side at the time. It was also one of the first black-owned clubs in the country.

Among the most popular jazz-era cabarets were the so-called black and tan clubs, which consisted of entertainment by black performers who catered to both black and white clientele. Here, unlike anywhere else in segregated Chicago, the races could interact with each other: talking, dancing, listening, even flirting. “Whites could venture into black cabarets, but blacks could not enter most of the nightclubs or dance halls in white Chicago, not even the white establishments where black bands provided the music,” writes the ‘historian William Howland Kenney in Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930.

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

In the late 1930s, Bronzeville’s most popular gay nightclubs were Club De Lisa at 5516 S. State St. and the Cabin Inn at 3119 S. Cottage Grove Ave. The Bronzeville middle class particularly 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 advertised itself as the South Side’s “Oddest Nite Club”: He was known for his female imitators. Drag queens with names like Joanne Crawford, Jean LeRue, Nina McKinney and Dixie Lee perform every night.

Also in Bronzeville was the Dreamland Café, at 3520 S. State St., another black and tan cabaret, where Joe “King” Oliver performed concerts 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 Champion’s Cafe at 41 W. 31st St. Boxer Jack Johnson opened the cafe in July 1912, two years after he became the world’s first black heavyweight champion. Johnson was making a lot of money and he wanted to make sure his club reflected his high status. According to a Chicago Tribune article, the place had monogrammed solid silver spittoons, oil paintings valued at $ 15,000 of Johnson and his family, and a mosaic floor encrusted with tiles. He boasted of white-gloved waiters in formal dress and a beautiful mahogany bar. The Pompeii Hall, where music and dancing took place, held hundreds of people.

Bronzeville is important for another reason: there was a direct Chicago-Paris connection. Among the most singular figures in the history of Chicago-Paris cabaret was the African-American dancer, singer and club owner Bricktop. Born Ada Louise Smith, she earned her well-deserved nickname due to her red hair and freckles. She grew up in Chicago and as a teenager performed in the choir at the Pekin Inn in Bronzeville. She moved to Paris in the mid-1920s where she not only performed in Parisian cabarets, but also owned several clubs including Le Grand Duc and Chez Bricktop. Everyone has been to Bricktop, 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 writes that Montmartre has “as many cafes, dance halls and brothels as. . . State Street in Chicago.

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

It took many years for the cabaret scene to get back on its feet. During the post-WWII era, new cabarets opened, particularly at or near Rush Street. The most popular at the time was probably that of Mister Kelly, owned and operated by the Marienthal brothers. Although he served food, what set Mister Kelly apart were his top performers, from Barbra Streisand to Bette Midler. The club was destroyed in a fire in 1955, but rebuilt and reopened in August 1956. In the late 1950s, various artists recorded live albums there, including Ella Fitzgerald and Buddy Greco. A fire destroyed the club again in February 1966. And once again it reopened in May 1967. The club finally closed in August 1975.

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

100 years of Chicago cabaret! premieres on September 19 and October 3, both at 3 p.m. (doors open at 2:30 p.m.) at Haven Entertainment Center, 923 E. 43rd St. (parking available west of the building). Entrance is free, but reservations are required. Masks must be worn when not seated and proof of vaccination must be presented at the door. Places are limited (limit of 2 per person). Register at; telephone: 877-554-7714. For more information, send an email to [email protected]

June Sawyers is the author of Cabaret FAQ: Everything you need to know about Broadway and Cinema Classic (Applause Books). All images are from the personal collection of Sawyers.

We strongly recommend that you check out this wonderful event and all the musical performances that are a part of DCASE’s Chicago in Tune! This new city-wide festival celebrates music in the Chicago Tone during the 2021 Chicago Music Year. This month is intended to bring us together across the spectrum of local music events in a variety Parks. Discover all the participating venues and shows on their website!

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