The Bearded Lady Credit: Charles Shotwell

Though it opened in 1973, four years before the iconic New York club, Dugan’s Bistro in River North became known as the Studio 54 of the midwest, attracting appearances from Bette Midler, Diana Ross, John Waters, Andy Warhol, among many others, and often as a surprise to the bar’s patrons. But the one star they were almost guaranteed to see was Bob Theiss, better known as the Bearded Lady.

It was a time of new liberation for the queer community, and River North was known for its glamorous gay nightlife. Same-gender dancing had recently been decriminalized in Chicago. The cops were looking for ways to arrest gays on public indecency charges, but with politically mobilized queer groups like Gay Liberation and Mattachine Midwest backing them, the queens were free to dance. When Eddie Dugan opened his club at Hubbard and Dearborn, across the street from a police station, he intended to attract the most flamboyant gay crowd. It drew police harassment starting from its opening weekend.

Dugan's Bistro decked out for its sixth anniversary party in 1979
Dugan’s Bistro decked out for its sixth anniversary party in 1979Credit: courtesy Daniel Goss

“After all these years of repression, people were just ready to party,” says LGBTQ grassroots historian Owen Keehnen, “and they partied like no generation before them.” Some arrived in costume, others rushed to the safety of the Bistro bathrooms to prepare their looks for the Christmas party, featuring a large tree hanging upside down from the ceiling beside an upside down Santa; or the “Roman Orgy party,” filled with men in G-strings and giant palm branches; or the circus night with wild caged animals. But no one was as flamboyant as Theiss. Dugan’s eventually became known as “The Home of the Bearded Lady.”

Now, 45 years later, Keehnen is documenting the tales of the parties remembered, despite many stories lost to a night of cocktails, a devastating epidemic, and the wrecking ball. Dugan’s Bistro and the Legend of the Bearded Lady is the latest in Keehnen’s long list of queer history books about various Chicago legends, among them lesbian feminist activist Vernita Gray, Baton Show Lounge founder Jim Flint, and entrepreneur Chuck Renslow, whose many businesses included Man’s Country bathhouse, physique photography provider Kris Studios, the International Mr. Leather competition, and the Gold Coasta, a leather bar down the street from Dugan’s Bistro.

While he was writing about Renslow’s bar, many people asked Keehnen what day-to-day life must have been like for these 1970s club kids. As he asked around, the people who danced at the extravagant parties sent him their memories.

The club was always packed. “People couldn’t believe so many gay people existed in the world, much less in one city,” Keehnen writes. Keehnen’s interviewees most remembered the Bistro characters who aimed to scandalize the straights. Enter the gleefully subversive Bearded Lady.

Inspired by Hibiscus, the leader of the San Francisco psychedelic hippie performance group the Cockettes, the Bearded Lady, or BL, became known for his bizarre performances, during which he slowly stripped away several layers of “women’s” clothing until he was left wearing little more than his ornate headdresses made of plastic pink flamingos, kitchen utensils, and birdcages. “He was totally outrageous onstage, very strange,” gay activist Rick Karlin told Sukie de la Croix of the Windy City Times in 2001 (at the time published by current Reader publisher Tracy Baim). BL was the perfect fit for the Bistro. Every aspect of the experience was meant to be memorable, so flamboyantly against the norm that patrons couldn’t help but tell all their friends. Dugan told the drag queens who worked at the club to get on the bar to dance and kick off all the drinks to the floor, and then he’d buy everyone a new drink. For Dugan, people asking one another “Did you hear what happened at the Bistro?” was the best form of advertising.

This type of history, of long-ago parties and nightlife socializing, is almost impossible to document, but it survives in the memories of the people who put on the glitter and costumes, a flagrant transgression against what general public considered “decent” behavior. Keehnen set out to collect their anecdotes in what he calls a “mosaic of stories.” His book grew bigger than the story of the Bearded Lady: it became an homage to the many queer people lost in the epidemic in the years after the Bistro’s demise in 1982.

“People like to think we don’t have a history,” Keehnen says. But that’s not true. Much of it wasn’t recorded during the heat of the party, and then stories went unwritten as friends took care of each other through the AIDS crisis. Many of the parties have long been forgotten. “It’s a very fragile history,” Keehnen continues. “But it was an important part of people’s lives, and that’s the part of history I’ve always been most attracted to. There’s plenty of coverage on the big court cases, but I think the way you really connect with people is to let people know how they had fun, how they had sex, where they went to party, things that people can relate to on a really basic way.”

The Bearded Lady in later years
The Bearded Lady in later yearsCredit: Jeff Bruce

After disco died due to racism and homophobia, redevelopment began in River North. In 1982, the newspaper GayLife eulogized the Bistro as BL’s home “succumbed to the wrecking ball and ‘progress.'” There remains nothing quite like the Bistro today.   v