Back when nightclubs were smoke-filled rooms, where people dressed up for a night on the town, and before the 1980s explosion of comedy rooms like Zanies (and various other Ha-Ha Huts, Laugh Lodges, and Chuckle Chambers featuring generic brick walls and a lone mike onstage), there was Mister Kelly’s.
The legendary Chicago Rush Street establishment, owned and operated by brothers and Hyde Park natives Oscar and George Marienthal, ran for 22 years (1953-1975), during which time it endured two fires and the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. Richard Pryor was booked there during the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, which according to some accounts started him on the path to more controversial and “blue” comedy that didn’t sit right with George Marienthal; at any rate, he never worked at Kelly’s again.
The brothers also ran London House, a jazz supper club in the London Guarantee building at Wacker and North Michigan, which existed from 1946-75 (first known as a diner, the Fort Dearborn Grill), and the Happy Medium, a cabaret-performance space (and later a disco) that was at Rush and Delaware from 1960 until the late 70s.
Mister Kelly’s in particular showcased entertainers who changed the course of comedy and music: Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, Joan Rivers, Dick Gregory, Lily Tomlin, the Smothers Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Muddy Waters, and “Mama” Cass Elliott, among many others, filled the bill over the years.
Now the history of the club lives on, just around the corner from its old Rush Street location (currently occupied by Gibsons Steakhouse). The Newberry Library recently acquired the club’s archives—which include everything from ephemera like Bruce’s bar tab to posters, photographs, and original recordings—from David Marienthal, George’s son. And a new documentary, Live at Mister Kelly’s, produced by Marienthal with director-screenwriter Ted Bogosian, is set to air on WTTW on May 27.
Oscar Marienthal died at 50 in 1963—right after booking the 20-year-old Streisand for the club. George Marienthal died in 1972, when his son was 21; the clubs had been sold in 1969 and George continued working for the new owners until his death. David, a child of the 60s, didn’t get invested in preserving the history of the family business until later in life, though he did occasionally run lights and sound for Mister Kelly’s. Marienthal’s eclectic career includes time as an architect in Santa Fe; running the celebrated Blue Mesa restaurant in Lincoln Park with brother Phil Marienthal for 17 years (it closed in 2000); and teaching art in California. He moved back to Chicago in 2010.
“I joined all the rest of the nation and was rebelling against authority and fame and money and became a hippie, which my father really couldn’t understand, coming out of the Depression,” says Marienthal of his early years. But with his mother’s death in 2012, he realized that the chances to connect with those who made Mister Kelly’s a vital part of Chicago cultural history were slipping away.
“I had this plan where I really wanted to create this archive of material that would be available for historians, artists, and playwrights to really memorialize this era. Because I did have a real sense that if I didn’t do something, it was going to be lost.” As he dove into the process of collecting material and stories, Marienthal realized that a documentary might be a good way to go.
Finding the material wasn’t easy; in addition to the fires in 1957 and 1966, subsequent owners had lost archives they’d taken over from the Marienthals in the sale. David Marienthal started putting out calls on social media to find people with connections to Mister Kelly’s, and also put together a website. He then began reaching out to do interviews with stars who had appeared at Mister Kelly’s. “You know, these celebrities, Bob Newhart, and Lily [Tomlin] started calling me back, willing to do interviews because they had so much respect for my father and uncle, and that’s when I really started thinking about the documentary film.” A few years into the research, in 2016, he connected with Adam Carston, a grad student from Loyola University specializing in American cultural history.
“I have to tell you that as someone who prides themselves on being a fan and an admirer of old comedy and pop culture, and, you know, certainly Chicago history, I didn’t really know about the club until right before I joined the project,” says Carston. He figured that was a sign that it was important to start saving the history. But where to start?
“It seemed pretty insurmountable early on,” admits Carston. “It seemed like, ‘Oh my God, is anything left to this club? Am I crazy? How can, you know, how can this have all disappeared?’ Because it all broke up and went to a million places. And so it was our job to piece as much together as we could.” Carston also says, “The whole project was also fighting against the actuary tables of death. You know, everybody [associated with the club] is at the youngest in their early to mid-70s.” In addition to Newhart and Tomlin, Carston and Marienthal interviewed Dick Gregory before he died in 2017. But Shelley Berman, who also died in 2017, had developed Alzheimer’s years earlier and couldn’t contribute his stories. Still, they ended up with around a hundred oral history interviews, which will be part of the Newberry collection.
Sometimes they dug up treasure from seemingly unlikely sources. Carston recalls a sweaty bike journey to the near north suburbs to meet with a couple of former waitresses from Mister Kelly’s. “I get there and I’m thinking, ‘Man, this is going to be a bust. Why did I come all the way here?’ I walk in and Dave is in there and he’s just already smiling.” The former employees had an entire room filled with posters from the club.
Newberry’s involvement in taking over the material collected by Marienthal came about through a common connection between Carston and the research institute. Elliott Gorn is the Joseph A. Gagliano Chair in American Urban History and a former professor of Carston’s at Loyola. He’s also a scholar-in-residence at the Newberry and suggested to the staff that the Mister Kelly’s collection would make a good fit.
Gorn notes two things that made Kelly’s such a popular attraction, aside from the top-notch talent. “One, it was not terribly expensive.” (The club featured “bleacher” seating at the back where, as Marienthal puts it, “You could go and see this great talent for $2 and the price of a drink.”)
Gorn adds, “It was remarkably intimate. You would see these really budding stars in a very, very close space. It was really remarkable that way.” (The club only had about 200 seats.)
Says Alison Hinderliter, Lloyd Lewis Curator of Modern Manuscripts and Selector for Modern Music at the Newberry, who is in charge of the archive, “Everyone was on board about the Mister Kelly’s collection. Because it fits in with so many of our other collecting strengths. The first is Chicago history—and this is very local history. You can’t get much more local than two blocks away.
“We collect a lot in the performing arts. Comedy we don’t have a lot of, but music we definitely do,” says Hinderliter. “David was telling me more about Mister Kelly’s as a really unusual venue in Chicago that, during the 50s and 60s, welcomed interracial acts and interracial audiences, and the staff was mixed.” Carston relates an anecdote about the National Organization for Women (NOW) recruiting Tomlin to boycott performing at Mister Kelly’s if they enforced an archaic law that prohibited women from sitting alone at bars. (The reason was apparently the sexist assumption that any woman who would do that must be a sex worker; according to Carston, the club decided to stop enforcing the law, though whether it was because of Tomlin’s threat or just the overall changing tenor of the times remains an open question.)
Right now, the materials are still being cataloged and digitized (including several rare albums by musical artists recorded live at either Mister Kelley’s or London House), but the Newberry plans to have the collection available to researchers by late spring, with a public exhibit planned in the spring of 2024.
Mister Kelly’s ultimately couldn’t survive the changing aesthetics of the 1970s with the explosion of disco and the rise of late-night television, which became the grail for stand-up comedians. (The aforementioned comedy clubs that served as feeders for the late-night gigs were also cheaper to operate than the swankier dinner clubs like Mister Kelly’s.)
Carston says, “You could point to the rise of the Internet age. People live in kind of their own curated bubbles now, instead of letting someone curate for you. And I think why the Marienthal brothers were so important and such tastemakers is they really chose. They helped people be seen, whether it’s a comedian or musician or a woman or a person of color. You just go down the list and they really helped make a major and important stage for a lot of talented people who really needed that stage or who really thrived because they were on that stage.”
David Marienthal is happy that the history of the family business will be safe and sound at the Newberry after being scattered for so many years. It also seems as if the process of collecting the interviews and material for the documentary helped him reconnect with the father he lost at a young age.
“My father did have a lot of love for Chicago and he did acknowledge how much the community gave back to him and created his success,” says Marienthal. Now the successes that the Marienthal brothers helped create will live on as a permanent part of Chicago history, in the Newberry archives and on film. v