When my roommate Harald went back to Germany I stopped going to the Gallery so much. It had been his find and his hangout, and he had reveled in it. “It’s…it’s ze Gallery!” he would crow, basking in the triumph of discovery each time the place revealed some new quirk.

He’d had to coax and promise just to get my other roommate Dirk and I to go there with him in the first place. We can hang out together in our own kitchen, we reasoned. Why walk the two blocks to the corner of Oakley and Armitage just to sit in a bar? Harald said it wasn’t just a bar–it was a “cabaret.”

We weren’t sure what he meant by that, so eventually we went over to check the place out. On our first night Mabel the bulldog whuffled at our feet in her studded leather collar and a dark-haired woman wandered around the small stage singing tipsily along with selected phrases of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” The guy at the next table warned us not to laugh: Darlene was the owner of the place.

Or part owner, and not for much longer, as it turned out. By the time we started going to the Gallery, Darlene’s four-year business relationship with Ken Strandberg was entering the stormy process through which Ken ended up sole owner sometime last year. “She’s Puerto Rican–they’re real volatile, and Kenny’s real volatile too,” is how one of the regulars explains it. “They’ve been friends for 20 years, but, well, they should never have gone into business together.”

Despite his distractions, Ken still remembers the group of Greenpeace activists that Harald hung out with. “My biggest fans from Greenpeace all moved away to Portland and Seattle,” he says wistfully. “Those Greenpeace kids were real partiers. Now it’s another bunch, but they don’t party as much.”

Ken relies on these intermittent infusions of young blood to augment his core of regulars, the loose group of musicians of varying degrees of talent who show up to play and clap for each other on the Gallery’s open-mike nights. Officially scheduled only for Sundays and Thursdays, open-mike nights can break out anytime someone’s in the mood. They’re the trademark of the Gallery Cabaret, and even more than the jazz and rock bands Ken books, the monthly art openings, and the collection of Ken’s own paintings that hangs behind the bar, they represent the fulfillment of his ambitions for the place.

“I want to have a nightclub, you know? A cabaret,” Ken says. “I could put a pool table in here and improve my early business, even my late business, but then I wouldn’t be able to have the improv, the music.”

On a recent Sunday the scuttlebutt was that one Gallery regular, a woman specializing in off-key a cappella renderings of 1950s hits and selections from The Sound of Music (occasionally accompanying herself on tambourine), had been booed off the stage the night before at a bar across town.

“Well, it wasn’t quite like that,” amends a guy who says he’s a friend of hers. “It changes with the interpretation, you know? She didn’t have a spot on the bill, she was just squeezed in at the last minute…”

Nothing like that could ever happen at the Gallery. There’s always room on the bill, and no matter how bad the act nobody criticizes and someone always applauds.

“She’s pretty brave, you know?” says regular Jimmy Zum, just before getting up to do some guitar songs. “Not many people would do a cappella, singing like she does.”

Mark, who bartends one night a week, is the only real critic. “I do one of two things,” he tells Fred, a skinny guy with long gray hair and crooked glasses who’s about to go on. “Either I point and laugh or I clap and whistle.”

“I figure I’m at about 60-40!” Fred cackles. He’s 48 and has been playing at the Gallery since it opened in 1988; he says he’s been a musician all his life. Right now he’s in three bands, one of them with C.J., a small woman who’s here tonight in green-and-white checked pants and a T-shirt with a shamrock on it. Fred and C.J.’s first gig together was at a Gallery open-mike night four years ago, shortly before they formed their band the Mythic Figs.

“We needed a name, and first we thought of the Mythic Pigs–I was picturing these Porky Pig characters with police uniforms on,” C.J. says. “But we didn’t want to alienate everyone right away, so we changed it to Figs.”

Like A.Z., the emcee, who may or may not have gotten his nickname in an Arizona jail years ago, C.J. has a past she’s trying to forget. She talks vaguely about the Chicago riots of ’68 and prohibits me from telling anyone about her career before she became a musician. “I’m kind of an underground figure. I don’t like to have my credentials talked about. You can just say I’m an anarchist revolutionary–I mean, I want to legalize pot today.”

She and Fred are the first act up. They bash out solid piano-and-guitar renditions of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “Mustang Sally” before C.J. takes the stage alone to do an original. “Mary Jane, you open my eyes to the ludicrousness of it all!” she sings, while Fred orders a beer and talks about his music.

“I play here for purely professional reasons,” he says. “You have to play for someone who appreciates you. I could play at an old folks’ home tomorrow–make a lot of money playing–but they wouldn’t appreciate what I was doing.”

He talks this seriously about all his gigs. “I played on the corner of Division and Dearborn for $10 an hour last night,” he says. “It’s a different dynamic from playing on the el. There people keep their heads down, and they act like they don’t even see you, and then just as the train comes three people come over and throw dollars at me. On Division and Dearborn I get a couple of guys and a man and woman on a date, and I do a little miniconcert for them, and they give me ten bucks. I get people throwing pennies and quarters out of car windows, but that’s the panhandling aspect of it. I like the little miniconcerts, that’s what I like.”

When C.J. finishes, she joins him and they gossip about their band and the other Gallery regulars, speculating on who will show up tonight. Gradually the talk turns to musicians they’ve known from the Gallery who went on to some version of success: one guy who got some national radio play a few years ago, another who wrote a song for Arlo Guthrie.

Over an afternoon beer with Ray, a musician and an old friend, Ken is talking about other bands who’ve gone on to bigger and better things. “Red Red Meat played here a number of times–it was their favorite place to play,” Ken says. “But now that they’re real successful, well…”

He’s interrupted by his landlord, who has stopped in to get his opinion of three German Expressionist watercolors that he’s adding to his collection. Then Ken serves a couple of stray customers, makes a pot of coffee, and negotiates with the beer deliveryman and the guy who’s come to fix the soda machine. After that Darlene shows up. She asks Ken how things are going, hugs Ray, and shares her sandwich before taking off.

Ken and Ray do some more name-dropping. They talk about the old Birdhouse, a venue Ken’s landlord used to own back in the 50s, where you could hear Thelonious Monk or Dizzy Gillespie for a two-dollar cover but you had to bring your own booze; David Shepherd, whose Hyde Park group the Compass Players was the precursor for Second City, and who still stops by the Gallery to do improv on the occasional Monday night; a tenuous link with the Smashing Pumpkins.

“There were a couple of young rock players I booked in here a couple months ago, they said they were at a Smashing Pumpkins concert and the lead singer talked about getting his start here,” he muses. “Hey, Ray! You remember a group called the Smashing Pumpkins ever playing here?”

But Ray has padded off to the other end of the bar to reset the clocks, which had shut off during a brief power outage that morning.

“Ray’s been a big part of this place,” Ken says. “He’s been here since we opened. He used to run the open-mike nights, back when we first started doing them, and now he plays for the art openings sometimes. I’ll have to ask him to play for you–it’s a real treat.”

Ray comes back for his beer, and then at a word from Ken he heads for the piano and eases into something classical. He plays slowly, his subtle, measured phrases offset by occasional clanks from over where the repairman is working on the soda machine. “He’s good, isn’t he? Very good,” Ken says softly.

Ray finishes the piece, and Ken and I clap. I ask him what he played.

“That was a little thing by Domenico Scarlatti, a little sonata,” Ray says. “I like the Baroque a lot.”

“I’ve heard him play Bertolt Brecht, Bach, Mozart. My partner has gotten up and sung with him, too,” Ken says, forgetting for a minute that he doesn’t have a partner anymore. “She does all right–I mean, for not being a professional singer.”

Ray plays another meditative classical melody, then a blues riff. Ken moves around quietly, turning down the TV, switching off some of the lights, fiddling a little bit with the sound board. Then he pours a cup of coffee, pulls one of the red Naugahyde bar stools up near the piano, and listens until Ray is done.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.