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I never stepped foot in Mister Kelly’s, but here’s the thing: I would have been welcomed

Dick Gregory cracked the place up. Richard Pryor brought the house down. Ella Fitzgerald’s scats hit the ceiling. Sarah Vaughan’s succulent notes made you swoon.

Sarah Vaughan kids around with Quincy Jones in the dressing room at Mr. Kelly’s.
Don Bronstein

I never stepped foot in Mister Kelly’s. But many a day, my parents, aunts and uncle took me there as they related dewy-eyed tales.

Dick Gregory cracked the place up, they said. Richard Pryor brought the house down. Ella Fitzgerald’s scats hit the ceiling. Sassy Sarah Vaughan’s succulent notes made you swoon.

Most of all, it was a place “we” could go. It was always happening at Mister Kelly’s on North Rush Street, and at the London House, at North Michigan and East Wacker Drive.

The brothers Oscar and George Marienthal presided over these nationally acclaimed entertainment venues from the 1950s to the 1970s. Mister Kelly’s discovered a new brand of cutting-edge jazz and comedy, showcasing new voices for new times.

Their story comes in a new documentary, narrated by Chicago’s own Bill Kurtis. Mister Kelly’s “nurtured talent, promoted diversity and forever changed the future of show business around the world,” Kurtis declares in the film.

In mid-century, segregated Chicago, Black entertainers and their kindred fans were shunned by most white-owned venues.

At Mister Kelly’s, Black talent mattered. The Marienthal brothers went looking for it. Their stages cultivated and showcased a brilliant constellation of Black stars: Sarah Vaughan, Maya Angelou, Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Godfrey Cambridge, Oscar Peterson, Dinah Washington, Della Reese, Dionne Warwick, Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne and even more boldface names than this space will allow.

At a time when racist policies and practices were de rigueur, Mr. Kelly’s “was one of the safe places we could go,” Gregory recalled in the documentary. Gregory died in 2017.

The 1960 Ebony Magazine Annual Vacation Guide for Black travelers recommended only two entertainment venues between California and New York State: Mister Kelly’s and London House.

“I guess, just from a personal point of view, you know, my father just you know, he had very simple ethics, you know, the golden rule,” David Marienthal told me. “And, you know, you should be fair and open to all people.”

David Marienthal, whose father George co-owned Mister Kelly’s, spent six years researching “Live at Mister Kelly’s,” which premieres May 27 on WTTW-TV.

“Obviously,” he said, “it made business sense as well.”

His film is packed with interviews from the club’s stars, employees and customers, and includes live footage, photos and music. Marienthal is working on plans for national distribution.

Mr. Kelly’s opened in 1953, just as the civil rights movement was burgeoning. There was much more activism, civil unrest and an anti-war movement to come.

The club’s comedians were kicking off a “new wave” of irreverent and political comedy.

Old chestnuts like “Take my wife — please!” were passe, replaced by the piercing satire of Gregory and Pryor.

In 1968, Pryor was booked to headline at Mister Kelly’s, just hours after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He later roamed the turbulent streets of Chicago, smoked weed and cried. The next day he was booked to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He refused to show.

In the early days, the club had no dressing room, so the great Sarah Vaughan sat on a potato sack as she prepared for her show.

The laughter and song of Mister Kelly’s diverse talent and audience opened hearts and minds.

“And really, you know, when you’re making jokes about the civil rights movement at that point, it is, you know, it’s bringing new ideas in,” Marienthal said. “Even though people can laugh. When they laugh, they open up. And of course, when they see a great performer like Sarah Vaughan, their hearts open up.”

For more information, go to: www.misterkellyschicago.com

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