Twenty years ago the River North area was a skid row. It was also home to the epicenter of the city’s punk scene–a bar called O’Banion’s at 661 N. Clark. “I go down there now and can’t believe it’s the old neighborhood,” says former O’Banion’s bartender Roseann Kuberski. “That whole area used to be old bum places and discos and on-the-edge places, like O’Banion’s. Now it’s full of places like Hard Rock Cafe and the rock ‘n’ roll McDonald’s.”

When it opened in June 1978 many of the club’s DJs, doormen, and bartenders were refugees from the city’s premier punk bar, La Mere Vipere, which had burned down two months earlier. “There were rows and rows of bikes parked out front and it was hot as hell–so hot you thought you were going to die,” recalls former regular Lauree Rohrig. “The dance floor was pitch black except for a strobe light, and God help you if you were looking for someone because you’d never see where they were unless they were right in front of your face.” The men’s room lacked a door. “You could just look in there and see men peeing.”

Its appeal, says Rohrig, was that it was the only place where people could go to hear music by groups like Joy Division, the Undertones, the Buzzcocks, Skafish, and the Sex Pistols. “Except for college radio, that was the only place where you could learn about those bands,” she says.

There were also occasional concerts by bands such as Naked Raygun, Toxic Reasons, Husker Du, Strike Under, and the Dead Kennedys. “The Replacements played there when they were teenagers,” recalls Kuberski.

O’Banion’s closed amid financial problems in 1982, and the punks moved on to Exit, Neo, and Smart Bar, and later to Club Dreamerz, Crash Palace, and the suburbs. Rohrig went on to DJ at other clubs and work a “terrible” day job at a grocery store; Kuberski found work behind the bar at Tuts before moving to San Francisco. She returned to Chicago in 1990, and Rohrig hired her when she and Chuck Uchida opened Club Foot three and a half years ago. “We wanted someplace that would be comfortable for people who had gone to bars for a long time and didn’t feel like they had a place,” says Rohrig.

The walls of Club Foot are full of memorabilia from the old days, including Kuberski’s old O’Banion’s jacket. One of the bar’s biggest nights is its annual O’Banion’s reunion, where the old DJs spin the old music and the old punks fill the dance floor. “It always amazes me, the people who come out of the woodwork for it,” says Kuberski.

“All those old punks come, except now they’re in their late 30s and 40s and live in the suburbs and have kids. It’s the one time of year they get sitters and come to the city,” says Rohrig. “But it’s not like a nursing home. People still have leather jackets and stuff. They still pogo.”

DJs from the old days who will spin at Saturday’s reunion include Terry Fox, Frankie Fun, Michael Gorski, Mike Rytie, and Scott Tomlin. It’s from 8 to 3 at Club Foot, 1824 W. Augusta. It’s free. Call 773-489-0379. –Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lauree Rohrig, Roseann Kuberski photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.