Robbie Fulks played at the California Clipper on Saturday, December 1, and the Humboldt Park bar was so crowded that customers had to be turned away at the door. Less than a week later, graffiti scrawled in a bathroom at the Hideout read, “California Clipper, R.I.P.” The bar had closed without warning on December 3, and when it reopened on December 6, a few things were different–including the locks. The pinup girls and cowpoke paintings, the stuffed animals and antique bottles of Hadacol behind the bar, were all gone, and with them the man to whom they belonged, manager Brian Page. Bar owner Max Brumbach, it turned out, had fired Page as well as all 11 employees under him.
The Clipper, a beautiful former speakeasy whose current decor dates back to the 40s, has slowly but steadily built up a regular crowd since opening in July 1999, despite its dicey location near the corner of California and Augusta. Drink prices are relatively steep–a shot of Jim Beam costs $5–and the clientele is predominantly youngish white people from Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, Humboldt Park, and points beyond who come to soak up the retro atmosphere or the free performances by jazz, blues, and roots-music acts. According to Page, the place was doing well: from late summer on, business had been up 40 to 50 percent over the same period in 2000. The bar had also recently been written up in In Style and Men’s Journal.
Brumbach doesn’t dispute any of this, but he says he had “severe and insurmountable problems” with Page and his staff. A former blues musician who also owns the Wicker Park barbecue joint Smoke Daddy, he had been friends with Page since the late 80s. “We have the same interests. We both collect 40s neckties and vintage clothes,” he says. “We both love music; he’s a record collector, an aficionado, and I’m a musician and an aficionado.” Page helped him renovate the bar and managed it from day one. But over the past year, their relationship had turned adversarial. “That place is a result of mostly my vision,” says Brumbach. “I did the broad picture and he finished the canvas with the little things….I wanted someone to work with me, but I feel that Brian began to believe that it was his place. Every conversation I’ve had with him for the last nine months made me feel like an attorney in a courtroom. I had to fight him at every turn. He meant well, and I don’t think he deliberately meant to take the bar over and not share the power, but I’m afraid that’s what happened.”
It’s not hard to see why Page might’ve felt entitled to more of a say than your average bar manager: he’d fronted Brumbach about $30,000 in loans for improvements and deferred wages. Brumbach admits this, and says he intends to pay Page back. Page also says he was promised subsidized health insurance once he’d managed the bar for nine months, but didn’t get it until he’d been working there for almost two years.
Brumbach claims that Page and his hires–whom he repeatedly compared to the cooler-than-thou record-store clerks in High Fidelity–were rude to customers and had slighted several of his musician friends. He and Page also disagreed on whether to hire additional cocktail waitresses. Brumbach says he met with the manager in September and October to discuss these issues, and at the second meeting told him, “Brian, I always envisioned that you would be with me in this project, but if I have to I will do it without you.” Page denies that Brumbach used these words, and insists he had no idea that he’d been issued an ultimatum. He says he left the October meeting “thinking that there would be some changes, but that it would be OK.”
Brumbach didn’t give specifics on offenses by anyone other than Page, but he did give me the names of two musicians he thought had been treated badly. “The final, absolute straw,” he says, “was that Brian fired Sam against my wishes.” Saxophonist Sam Burkhardt, a founding member of the Mighty Blue Kings and a former bandmate of Brumbach’s in Sunnyland Slim’s group, had been playing at the bar every other Thursday all summer. Page says he didn’t fire him, but rather informed him that the bar was trying to vary its schedule and wouldn’t be booking him with the same regularity. I called Burkhardt at Brumbach’s urging, but he categorically refused to get involved in the dispute. Brumbach also told me that boogie-woogie and blues pianist Erwin Helfer, who’d performed at the Clipper every Friday for nearly a year, had been “pressured out” and gave him my number. When Helfer called, he said he’d found the staff “unfriendly and rude,” but didn’t think he’d been treated unfairly.
Brumbach paid almost everyone he fired a week’s severance, which is generous in the bar business, but not suprisingly his former employees–including Him bassist Fred Erskine, Califone bassist Matt Fields, and Truckstop regular Ryan Hembrey–are still angry. For one thing, it was three weeks before Christmas; for another, Brumbach had his new manager (and ex-wife) Carolyn Songin deal with everyone except Page. “The fact that he didn’t talk to any of us is something I don’t understand,” says Jill Daves, a bartender who became assistant manager five months ago. “I knew there was going to be some sort of change, but I didn’t think it was going to be that extreme….People always told me we were friendlier than most bars.”
Hembrey, who’d worked at the Clipper since April 2000 and whose band Can-Ky-Ree performed there frequently, had taken over booking in September and was working with Page to diversify the schedule. When he was fired, he says, he called the bands he’d lined up for December and January and told them if they were still interested in playing they should contact the bar themselves. “He would not take our calls to give us the phone numbers and E-mail addresses of the bands,” says Brumbach. “It sounds like he’s taken this very personally and he’s on a bit of a vendetta.” Hembrey also promptly removed stage monitors and other sound equipment that belonged to him from the club. He is the only employee who did not receive severance pay.
When Page asked Brumbach to explain the firings, he says, the owner replied, “You and I have two different visions. You don’t share mine and you don’t want to work with me.” He thought both the staff and the customers were “cigarette-smoking pseudohipsters,” Page adds. Brumbach says he never put it like that, but he agrees with the characterization. “That’s a good phrase,” he says. “That’s what they were.” Page insists that Brumbach was vague in his demands, and claims that before the fall he’d been in the bar only a handful of times all year. “I told him I was willing to try and work as a team, but I wanted him to [come in and] see how things worked,” he says. Brumbach admits he was busy, but chafes at the suggestion that he was out of touch. Page’s stint at the Clipper was his first experience working at a bar, he says, and “he believed he knew everything about the bar business. I’ve been in the business for eight years with Smoke Daddy.
“After I let him go he told me that he didn’t compromise as much as he could have,” adds Brumbach.
“Yeah, I could have compromised more if he told me what he wanted,” counters Page. “I don’t know if he told you that part.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.