Club Owners Sing the No-Cover Blues

Bill Gilmore isn’t quite wailing yet, but he and other blues club operators are singing a sad tune. Gilmore, who owns B.L.U.E.S. and B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, is closely monitoring the goings-on at Brother Jimmy’s, a restaurant and blues club that recently opened at 2909 N. Sheffield. Lenin “Doc” Pellegrino, who runs Kingston Mines, is doing more than watching. “I’m laying down the law,” says Pellegrino, “and I’m telling blues artists that if they play Brother Jimmy’s, they won’t play for me.”

Owned by transplanted New Yorker James Goldman, Brother Jimmy’s is seeking to put a hipper, more youthful face on the blues, a musical genre the 30-year-old Goldman seems to feel needs his help. “It is a dying breed of music that we are trying to keep alive,” he explains. “I feel it’s almost an ethical obligation that we have.”

It just might make business sense too, provided Goldman can snare a large enough chunk of a young crowd looking for casual food, drink, and fun in a single room. Three nights a week Goldman presents free blues acts at his high-concept food and entertainment venue, which boasts a state-of-the-art digital sound system. Much of his clientele, mostly in their 20s and 30s, come to drink at the large bar or eat reasonably priced southern-style chow (a barbecue variation called “pulled pork” is a specialty) served in surroundings filled with regional bric-a-brac.

In a town where most people eat early, Goldman figures the free late-evening blues music is one way to lengthen the restaurant’s operating hours and boost its revenue. Goldman himself puts the theory a little differently. “I believe you have to give to get.”

But that’s just what worries Gilmore and Pellegrino–Goldman is giving away what they’re trying to sell. “What concerns me,” says Gilmore, “is whether we’ll get an audience if a blues band is playing with a $7 or $8 cover on a weekend night at one of my clubs after having played the night before down the street free of charge.”

“I’ve got 24 years of my life and a lot of money invested in this business,” says a testy Pellegrino, “and I’m not going to let some young guy from New York come in and put small blues clubs out of business.”

Goldman claims that Gilmore has joined Pellegrino in threatening to blacklist any blues acts that play Brother Jimmy’s. Gilmore says he personally has made no such threats, but he can’t vouch for his staff. “But we are going to watch the results of what is happening at Brother Jimmy’s very carefully.” Gilmore estimates that his club revenues are down about 7 percent from last year. “We don’t make a ton of money,” he notes, “so I don’t see how I could book acts and not charge a cover.”

This is not the first time Goldman and Gilmore have competed for a blues audience. For three years Goldman has operated a small blues club on the upper east side of New York called Manny’s Car Wash. In October of last year Gilmore opened Chicago B.L.U.E.S. in lower Manhattan. That club closed last spring, a victim of high costs and partnership problems, Gilmore says. But Gilmore was back in New York this week to scout locations for yet another blues club that he hopes to open next spring. He says, “I’m going to choose my partners more carefully this time.”

Theater Notes: Steppenwolf Has a Plum; Bailiwick Pays the Rent

The Steppenwolf Theatre Company has an inside track on what could be one of the major theatrical events of the year: the epic drama Angels in America by New York playwright Tony Kushner. The world premiere of the complete two-part, seven-hour production opened this week at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where it will run through the end of November before moving this winter to the New York Shakespeare Festival. Kushner’s marathon piece brilliantly intertwines three stories and five main characters: AIDS patient and attorney Roy Cohn; a closeted gay Mormon and his wife; and a gay couple, one of whom is dying of AIDS. A source reports that Kushner’s agent has contacted Steppenwolf and indicated that the first Chicago production is theirs if they are interested. Steppenwolf artistic director Randall Arney is reading the piece but has made no decision.

On another front, Steppenwolf is racing against the clock to put together a group of investors from Chicago and elsewhere to take last season’s hit The Song of Jacob Zulu to Broadway next spring. The New York Times reported last week that a Shubert Organization attempt to mount the show on Broadway has fallen through because of the directors’ union’s precedent-setting attempt to obtain a percentage of subsidiary rights for director Eric Simonson. Steppenwolf producing director Stephen Eich estimates it would cost $1.5 million to mount Jacob Zulu in New York and says, “We need to know by early December whether we are are going to go forward.”

Finally Bailiwick Repertory has paid its overdue rent at the Theatre Building, thanks to some fast footwork by the company’s board of directors. Theatre Building managing director Joan Mazzonelli says, “I’m optimistic they will remain current.” Bailiwick executive director David Zak is working on three new productions for the holidays: a cabaret piece, Falling in Love Again; a gay comedy, Party; and a vaudeville extravaganza, Eleven Minutes Max!