For some three decades, thousands of Chicago area regulars, tourists from around the world and far too many celebrities to count have frequented the famous Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse at the corner of Rush and Bellevue, where the neon sign greets visitors for a night of martinis and wine, pieces of steak and seafood so huge they wheel ’em out on a cart, carrot cake bigger than an NFL football and often the sounds of live music wafting from the piano bar.
What some of the younger patrons or the out-of-towners might not know is that each time they step into Gibsons, they’re walking on hallowed ground — because from 1953 until 1975, this was the address of the iconic Mister Kelly’s nightclub, home to a plethora of legendary singers and comedians, many of whom recorded live performance albums in the intimate, acoustically friendly atmosphere.
Now, in the documentary “Live at Mister Kelly’s,” we get new interviews with many of the entertainment greats who played the club back in the day (as well as archival footage of singers and comics no longer with us) and a treasure trove of historic photos. Via the steady direction by Theodore Bogosian and the golden-throat narration from the one and only Bill Kurtis, we learn the full and amazing story of the joint one newspaper wag dubbed a “supernova in the local and national nightlife firmament.”
The brothers George and Oscar Marienthal owned and operated Mister Kelly’s and had an inclusive policy at a time in the mid-20th century when Black entertainers weren’t always welcomed in the downtown and North Side clubs — but as the documentary explains, before there was a Mister Kelly’s, the Marienthals bought the nondescript Fort Dearborn Grill on the corner of Michigan and Wacker in 1946 and transformed it into the more upscale London House, with the slogan, “Make a Date With a Steak Tonight!” Soon the London House was hosting jazz artists such as Oscar Peterson, Dinah Washington and Ramsey Lewis — and then the Marienthals expanded their reach in 1953 by opening Mister Kelly’s (named after the manager, who was fired shortly after the grand opening).
After a fire gutted the place in 1955, Mister Kelly’s was rebuilt with a new sound system, and over the years song stylists such as Sarah Vaughn, Della Reese, Ella Fitzgerald and Cass Elliot and comics such as Woody Allen, Flip Wilson and the Smothers Brothers recorded albums there. (Freddie Prinze did his only live album, 1975’s “Looking Good,” at Mister Kelly’s.) Comedy legend Mort Sahl notes, “Chicago shone brighter for me than New York,” while Robert Klein calls Mister Kelly’s “an important place in the history of stand-up comedy in this country” and Fred Willard says going from “The Ed Sullivan Show” to Mister Kelly’s “was like going from Double A to the big leagues.” (Also providing invaluable insights: George Marienthal’s son, David, who also serves as executive producer on the project.)
The documentary also does a fine job of placing things in context, from illustrating how London House and Mister Kelly’s made Chicago the center of “two quintessential art forms, jazz and comedy” from the 1950s through the 1970s, and how Mister Kelly’s was center stage at the revolution of comedy starting in 1960, when comics such as Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, the Smothers Brothers, George Carlin and Richard Pryor were reflecting the tenor of the times with increasingly topical, political and social material.
We also learn about George and Oscar persuading Bette Midler to come to Chicago just before she became a huge national star, and Barbra Streisand tells the story of how she came to Chicago at the age of 21 to play Mister Kelly’s, and did a magazine photo shoot on Oak Street: “I loved the mood and the memory of that early morning photo shoot so much that about a year later when I was looking for the cover for my ‘People’ album, I chose one of the pictures from that beach shoot. … So I like to think Chicago has always brought me good luck. I think there’s a song about that, isn’t there?”
We’re told most of the footage shot inside the club has been lost, so more than most docs in this genre, “Live at Mister Kelly’s” depends on the lively interviews, the great still photos and a sprinkling of old TV clips, with editor Scott Dummler (also one of the producers) expertly weaving the various elements into a well-paced, consistently entertaining and insightful story.
By the mid-1970s, even as Mister Kelly’s was still drawing top stars such as Steve Martin and Curtis Mayfield, the business model for small clubs featuring live acts was becoming obsolete, with bigger venues dominating the entertainment scene and offering far larger paychecks. In 1975, the London House and Mister Kelly’s closed their doors forever, but through the recordings and the memories and now this wonderful documentary, the legend lives on.
An additional screening, featuring live music, will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday at City Winery Chicago.