Credit: Sarah Lawhead

Wood, 62, is the karaoke host at Alice’s Lounge.

I’m retired from the state of Illinois. I used to work for the Department of Human Services, 30 years or so. It was pretty cool. I was kind of a project leader. We would travel statewide. I’ve been everywhere from East Saint Louis all the way up to Jo Daviess County.

I grew up in the northwest suburbs, Arlington Heights and Palatine. I moved into the city and went to Roosevelt University. Then I got married and moved out to Wheaton and have been there ever since. [We have] four kids. All of them are out of the house except the youngest one. He graduated from the University of Chicago a year ago. He can’t find a job so it’s like, “Welcome to America.”

I’ve been doing this karaoke thing for about 23 years. The first one was W.C. Flicks in Shorewood. I built up a real big following in Joliet. The River Club was a really big spot for a while, and Zelmo’s. I was ten years at a place called the Grand Slam in Schiller Park. I would usually be working four to five nights a week even though I was doing a full-time job. I would do places as far north as Waukegan and also as far south as Gardner. In fact, I’m still doing gigs in Gardner.

Most of these bars are out of business now. Bars don’t last too long. Especially in the burbs. They come and go really quick.

I’m kind of funny and entertaining. Having that strange personality makes things a little more interesting. Half of the people there aren’t really singing. They’re just trying to watch and see what’s going on. Their friends are the singers. So I try to do things that are gonna keep everyone interested and having a good time—not just the ordinary, “Give it up for Joe” and “Come on up, Sarah.”

The first company I worked for before I went out on my own was a place called Record-a-Hit. They were the first karaoke people in Chicago. When we first started out we operated on eight tracks, and you had a [printed] song with words on it that was on a stand in front of the singers because we didn’t have TV monitors at that time.

I started out with drum sticks and a guitar neck, but over the years I brought on a bass guitar. As far as I know I’m the only [karaoke host] who has a bass guitar in addition to the regular guitars and keyboards. And I was able to find inflatable saxophones, all kinds of stuff. I have hundred-dollar bills that I get from a place in Vegas. They look exactly like real hundred-dollar bills. I’ll throw them up in the air when someone does a song that has to do with money, and because of the lighting in the bar you’ll always have a few tipsy customers that’ll pick one up and actually go to the bar to try to buy something.

I’ve had people make me things. One of the coolest things were sock puppets. I had these black ones and white ones, and I used the black ones for backup singers for the old Crystals and Ronettes tunes, and then for Neil Diamond, who does “Holly Holy,” I used the white puppets. That always gets a laugh from people.

I’ve been at Alice’s eight years. It’ll be nine this January. One of the managers there saw me at one of my bars out in the western suburbs. He liked the show so he took my card and called right away. I started doing Tuesday nights there but then after a couple of years I lost one of my Friday-night jobs so he said, “Why don’t you come here and work?” He wanted to take advantage of the fact that I was open, so he added a Friday—and pretty soon it was Saturday too. The crowds kept getting bigger and he added more nights.

They had karaoke for about six months before I came on the scene. The previous guy had to go in for some surgery, but they didn’t want to lose any of the business they had built up so they called me and I filled in—and I’ve been there ever since. It’s been great for both of us. It’s a much better crowd than out in the suburbs. They’re definitely more with it, more intelligent. They even get some of my jokes.

Alice’s is a cool place and it has cool people. Alice doesn’t like drunk and annoying people. There are always people that like to get too drunk and start to do all kinds of wild stuff. We’ve had guys swinging mike stands and microphones, throwing guitars around because they’re not paying attention, they’re just having fun. But their fun becomes someone else’s injury. When it approaches that line I just have to step in and say, “No.”

Some of the singers there are good and they like to show off and perform. So they don’t appreciate it when another drunk person jumps on the stage and takes the microphone and starts singing along. I have to know when it’s OK and when it’s not. And when it’s not OK, their mike is cut off and they give up and go sit down.

It’s like kindergarten; everybody has a turn. Everybody gets in sooner or later. Sometimes it’s really busy. It means you might have to wait longer to sing. I’m not focusing on my friends or my favorite performers. I just try to make sure everyone gets a chance to have fun. That’s why I don’t really take money. I’ve had as much as a hundred bucks offered to me. It’s a situation where they’ve already been up, they want to sing some more, and if you let them sing you’re taking somebody else’s turn away. The money is nice but if you take it, it comes around and bites you in the ass—because sooner or later everyone in the bar knows that they could lose their place because someone’s gonna pop Fred a five or a ten and then why should they come there anymore? —As told to Kevin Warwick