Tanyia was making her way through the audience for the last time at Simon’s Annex, murmuring farewells, kissing cheek after cheek, and sobbing through her mascara. The old songs had all been sung, phone numbers and addresses exchanged, and Al Russell at the working organ was his way through the final strains of “I’ll Be Seeing You” (“in all the old familiar places”).
The Annex was closing its doors forever.
“This is the passing of an era,” Mike Vercnoke said earlier in the evening, shaking his head in disbelief. “How can they let this place close after 50 years? This used to be the place on the north side. People used to come here from all over town, from Iowa, from Michigan.”
Mike paused to check out the performance on the Annex’s “stage”–a patch of dance floor: four women with an approximate collective age of 240 were swaying in formation and lip-synching the Ink Spots’ “Paper Doll.”
“Look at that,” Mike said. “You can’t beat that.”
The sign outside the North Clark Street bar reads:
Fridays and Saturdays
9 pm until 2 am
Mood Melodies and Cabaret Classics
As Sung by the Incomparable Tanyia!
Renown Song Stylist and Torch Singer
And the seeming hyperbole hardly approached the surreality of an evening’s entertainment at the Annex.
Eighty-year-old Diana Ross impressionists, a brigade of weaving, dipping, 70-year-old Astaires and Rogers, beer-drinking grandmothers, nightclubbing widows, a few hundred pounds of polyester sportswear: the Annex provided Chicago’s older citizens with the opportunity not just to listen to music they’d enjoyed through two world wars but to perform it.
“We’re not out for just going to bed all the time,” one patron explained.
To the youngsters who occasionally wandered into the Annex, there was something disquieting about these antics.
“It’s like a twisted kind of reality,” said 29-year-old Mike Noland. “It’s like Eraserhead. If David Lynch ever came to town, he’d have to see it. He could just film it like it is; he wouldn’t have to do anything.”
Bradley Sellers, 29, shared Noland’s assessment of the bar. “It’s like walking into some weird movie,” he said, watching the widows and their dates on the dance floor.
But to the Annex’s longtime devotees, nothing was very strange about the bar. “Oh, this place has been really great,” said Lillian Cornwall, 67, an Annex regular since her husband’s death eight years ago. “There used to be a lady here–Lilly. We called her the singing waitress. Y’know she’s about 94 now, but she sang in here until she was in her late 80s; she was very popular.”
However the Annex is being remembered, an undeniably central element to whatever it was you made of it was its enigmatic emcee, Tanyia M. Talley. A self-described “belter,” Tanyia was equally at home ripping off a Sophie Tucker blues number and firing off-color jokes at her audience. And if people weren’t quite sure if Tanyia was a man or a woman, well, nobody seemed to mind.
“Oh, who cares,” said Ruth Blanchard, a 74-year-old widow. “What does it matter if you’re a man or a woman, or if you’re black or you’re white? What counts is what you are as a person.”
Even Tanyia’s boss, proprietor Roy Lundberg, claimed not to know for sure. “I never really did ask her,” Lundberg said. “I feel this way: as long as Tanyia does her job, and she does it well–that’s all that counts. The rest is personal.”
“Oh, she is a man,” said a patron more sure of the matter. “Let me tell you, she is a man, but she is a very beautiful entertainer.”
Confronted on the last night with the enduring question, Tanyia brushed it aside. “Does that really have any bearing on anything?” she asked.
George Nash, 72, was out on the floor for the last time, unbuttoning his dinner jacket and singing an Annex standard. “Heart of my heart, I love that melody. Heart of my heart, brings back old memories.” Nash weaved slowly to the music and everybody joined in. “I know a tear would glisten, if once more I could listen, to the gang who sang heart of my heart.” Just about every old song seemed to reverberate with a larger meaning tonight. “You know I came here tonight dressed like I was going to a wedding,” Nash said. “But it looks like it’s going to be a wake.”
The man responsible for burying the Annex is Roy Lundberg, son of Simon Lundberg who started the adjacent tavern in 1934 and opened the Annex in 1937. Roy had been running both bars since his father’s death in 1970. A quiet man, he always seemed more comfortable in the subdued, working-class environment of the tavern than the exuberant society of the Annex.
“I have found that it isn’t really paying off anymore,” he said. “The older people can’t afford to go out, I guess, and I have found that when the younger people come in they don’t come back again.”
This explanation did not satisfy many of the customers gathered for the last night. One actually exclaimed: “It’s [Lundberg’s] wife. They can say what they like, but they’re closing it because she doesn’t like Tanyia; it’s been like a power struggle between the two of them.”
Tanyia would not comment on Lundberg’s decision to shut down the bar. She did have somethinto say about her clothes. “I’m sweltering in this thing,” she howled, pulling at her glittering red ball gown. Tanyia led the way to the Annex’s “dressing room,” a tiny storage room in back crowded with cases of beer as well as her elaborate wardrobe.
Tanyia got “a lot of emotional reward” from coaxing the sometimes introverted members of her audiences to perform. “I feel like I’m helping them bring to reality something they may have had a secret desire to do when they were younger–people who swore they’d never sing in public. . . . And now they’re just as temperamental as if they worked for MGM and I love it.”
Now she was resigned to “semiretirement.” She had no regrets. “I think the most lasting memories I’ll have,” said Tanyia, “is how these people took me into their lives and into their hearts.”
It was quite a party on closing night. The regulars brought in plates of pickled Swedish delicacies, and soon, over the music, everybody was swearing that they’ll all get together again. They made these promises even while they understood that a part of their lives was being taken away for good.
“I would never go into another tavern,” one woman said. “But here are people I know.”
Ray Knight started playing “Sentimental Journey” on his harmonica and A] Russell followed on the organ. It was almost like any other Saturday. Later, “Eddie Howard” Bill Secoro, “the singing bartender,” was at the microphone crooning “Jealous Heart” and “Mona Lisa.”
Finally Jerry Piercefield, the club’s lighting director, wrestled the mike from one of the singers and called for quiet. “I don’t know about the rest of you,” she told the audience, “but when it comes to talent, when it comes to showmanship, there’s only one name that comes to my mind–Tanyia M. Talley.
“Tanyia,” she said, “Wherever you go, whatever you do, you’ve got our love and support.”
The crowd applauded madly as Tanyia stepped up to the microphone. “May the good Lord keep his arms around each and every one of you,” Tanyia said, holding back tears. There were cries for one more song and Tanyia happily obliged. She did the old Sophie Tucker number. “Some of these days, you’re gonna miss me baby,” Tanyia sang. “You’re gonna miss my hugging, you’re gonna miss my kissing, you’re gonna miss my singing,” Tanyia sang, up on a table and kicking her feet. “Some of these days!”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.