I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot!

at Gerri’s Palm Tavern

By Adam Langer

There was a time when 47th and King was the epicenter of commerce and culture on the south side. Forty years ago, when Martin Luther King Drive was called South Park, 47th Street was lined with stores, and at night some of the greatest names in jazz and rhythm and blues played the Regal Theatre. Folks from the north side would come to revel in the entertainment at nightspots like Club DeLisa and Rum Boogie. And just a few blocks away, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Junior Wells plied their trade at Theresa’s, the quintessential south-side showcase for Chicago blues.

At the heart of it all was Gerri’s Palm Tavern, the watering hole on 47th where musicians and entertainers would gather before and after their shows at the Regal. The Temptations came here to throw back a few. So did the Dells. So did James Brown and countless others. They’d stay until the wee hours, sipping Manhattans and Singapore slings and chatting with the proprietor, Gerri Oliver. Everybody knew Gerri. And everybody knew the Palm.

The Regal shut its doors 30 years ago. So did the clubs. Even the Met–the theater that stood in ruins for so many years across the street from Alderman Dorothy Tillman’s office–was finally leveled. All of it is gone, except Gerri’s Palm Tavern.

Behind the bar, Gerri Oliver still pours sloe gin fizzes and stingers, just as she did in 1956 when she started running the place. But now celebrities come through the doors only to reminisce about the old neighborhood; people come to sightsee when someone like Bruce Willis shoots a movie here (Mercury Rising). Though little of the decor has changed since the 50s, stepping into the bar isn’t quite like stepping into a time warp; Gerri’s is more like a dreary reminder of the ravages of time, something on the order of Miss Havisham’s house in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. The party decorations hanging from the ceiling have faded, as have the photographs of visiting celebrities on the walls: in the dim glow of Gerri’s Christmas lights, they’re difficult to make out.

If someone wanted to paint a picture of the blues, it might look an awful lot like this. So setting a play about a blues club here is nothing short of a masterstroke. No stage set could evoke the loneliness, the dinginess, and the history that fairly ooze from the Palm Tavern’s dank walls. Not even the Goodman, with its loaded coffers, could re-create the atmosphere conveyed by such exquisite details as the dusty Howlin’ Wolf poster on the bathroom door, the cracked linoleum floor, the ripped vinyl upholstery in the booths, the faded labels on the liquor bottles behind the bar, the photo albums, the jukebox, the faintly acrid odor, the red neon Gerri’s sign behind the stage, and the green neon palm trees flanking it.

Though the excitement so prevalent at Gerri’s in the 50s and 60s is gone, writer-director Fernando Jones–an accomplished blues singer and guitarist in his own right–aims to bring it back in his musical I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot! True, there’s a certain bleak irony in the fact that the best way to create a hopping scene at Gerri’s is to hire actors and musicians to deliver a facsimile, but Jones’s musical does provide an effective illusion, if not a satisfying drama. For the purposes of the show, Jones converts Gerri’s into T’s, a blues bar-hangout that’s equal parts Gerri’s and Theresa’s. And he doesn’t use only the stage area for the show–he uses the whole bar. Characters come in the front door and walk out the back. T’s regulars wander through the audience, sit at the bar, and shoot the shit as Gerri pours drinks for the Palm Tavern’s actual customers. The lives of T’s denizens are revealed as Jones and other blues musicians blaze through half a dozen or so original songs.

Jones has populated T’s with a motley assortment of characters: a trash-talking tomboy named Money Makin’ Mary, a cackling blues singer named Jay-Bee, a stuttering barkeep named Sleepy, a hypocritical musician with a black power agenda, a foulmouthed reverend, a blind alcoholic musician. As both director and bandleader, Jones has done a fine job of using the bar setting and creating raucous, soulful musical numbers that at their best provide a glimmer of what 47th and South Park might have been like decades ago.

As a dramatist, though, Jones is less accomplished. There’s a remarkable fluidity to the way he’s structured the play, allowing characters and situations to develop in seemingly (or perhaps actually) improvised scenes. But more often than not the looseness of Jones’s structure makes sequences seem almost random. The first act is mostly made up of musical numbers, the best of which is Woody Barlow’s growling musical assertion that he’s “easy to hold” but “hard to control”; the worst is a predictably ribald number, led by Jones, in which the women in the audience are coerced into singing Jones’s leering chorus “I won’t go down.” The drama is supposed to develop in the second act, performed for the most part without music. But these scenes meander, then devolve into a poorly developed, stiffly performed conflict between two characters, culminating in a less-than-credible shooting and a surreal funeral scene played for laughs, largely at the expense of the preceding drama.

Though Jones and his crew started performing the musical in November, I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot! still has the feeling of a work in progress, with significant gaps in logic and continuity–it’s even tough to tell whether the play is set in the present or 40 years ago. Scenes, musical numbers, and characters referred to in the program have been permanently or temporarily removed for no discernible reason. Jones has a long way to go before this work is more compelling than its setting, though there’s no small pleasure in seeing actors and musicians inject some life into one of the city’s most intriguing historic but forgotten taverns.