Insider Tales from a Native Son of America’s Hottest ‘60’s “It” Factory
Date Night. Chicago, 1967. She says “Meet me at Mister Kelly’s” so you do. She’s never been here before. Smoky nightclub, with a ring of café tables around the piano that are just feet away from the entertainment, like they’re playing in your living room. Little spinet piano, and on either side of the stage are these staircases that don’t go anywhere. She’s shy about sitting there, but you tell her the staff call them the “ups” and they’ll be full soon because they’re the cheapest (if not the best) seats in the house. The club’s so popular people clamor for a seat in the phone booth. They just put their drink on the ledge for the change and enjoy the show.
Lucky lady-- you got a table for two. Impossible on short notice, but you know a few people. Steaks are prime, and every item on the menu, from the fried crab fingers to Green Goddess salad and the candy crunch cake is made from scratch She loves it. You tell her this place is well run but the atmosphere is kept loose, and if she’s lucky things could get out of hand.
Right on cue, who should come in for dinner but Jonathan Winters. Of course everyone’s sneaking a peek at him, so he stands up and goes into one of his character voices. Joe Castell the maître d doesn’t recognize him at all though, tries to get him to sit down. Winters has the time of his life resisting arrest, and it’s a bit of a commotion. Joe isn’t having any of this yahoo taking over his club, so after a few tries to be nice he finally says “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave!”Winters deadpans the whole thing beautifully—just says “Thank you very much” and makes a clean exit. We all start applauding, and the best part is, Joe thinks it’s for him! Who’s gonna tell him any different?
Check out this 1964 Performance by Jonathan Winters and leave a comment!
Mister Kelly’s team is overwhelmed by the incredibly talented and generous
people that we have met, while creating our archive of the Marienthal Brother’s
legendary nightlife empire. From colorful Rush St. regulars to famous
performers, and everyone in-between, it has been a thrill. One of the most exciting encounters has been
working with the renowned photographer, Art Shay. At the age of 95, Art is truly a legend in
his own time.
Shay began his career as a writer and journalist, but after showing a great eye for capturing images, soon transitioned into a career as a photographer. Based out of Chicago, he became one the nation premier photographers, working for major publications such as Life, Time, and Sport Illustrated. Art Shay photographed everything, from historic moments (1968 Democratic Convention) and iconic personalities (Muhammad Ali, The Rat Pack, President Kennedy), to street photography that captured the everyday life of average Americans. In the process he became one of the most celebrated artists of his medium and a Chicago legend.
In light of this, we were honored when Mr. Shay was kind enough to donate one of his brilliant works to our project recently. The print is a wonderful slice of Chicago’s Rush Street from the 1960s. The photo was taken outside of The Happy Medium and features actor Tom Williams dressed as a child, holding a toy boat.
Why is a grown man dressed as a child? Why a toy boat? Well, this can be explained. Tom Williams was part of was a comic review, produced by the Marienthal Brothers, called Put it In Writing . In the political satire, Williams plays America’s youngest president (an obvious nod to the newly elected JFK), who still has some childlike features. Put it in Writing would become the biggest play to originate at The Happy Medium and, after a long run in Chicago, it eventually made its way to New York for an off-Broadway production.
We are humbled to receive this generous gift from such a preeminent artist. The photo is a brilliant image of mid-century Chicago history, from one of the men who documented it best. The photo will be cherished and used in our mission to record this unique piece of Chicago and American history. We wish to give a heartfelt thank you to our friend Art Shay, who contributed this beautiful photo to the Mister Kelly’s archive.
Guest Blogger Sam Fazio is a popular Chicago vocalist. He writes about Chicago’s own Mel Tormé, who appeared at Mister Kelly’s many times over the years.
A Kid from the South Side
Born Melvin Howard Tormé in 1925 on the south side to Jewish Russian immigrants, he started singing at a very young age of four with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra, performing at Chicago's Blackhawk restaurant. He continued his early career on radio series, playing drums and writing songs—all before high school graduation.
Mister Kelly's is excited to welcome our newest young guest-blogger, Historian Adam Carston: Simply put, there is American comedy before Richard Pryor, and American comedy after Richard Pryor. With his combination of fearless honesty, provocative language, streetwise cool, and political savvy, he separated himself from other stand-ups. In the process, he also inspired a generation of comedians and cut a new path for them to travel. But Pryor’s famous, challenging persona was not born overnight. It took years of hard work and experience, and a good measure of pain and go-to-hell abandon to fully define it. While there are multiple chapters in Richard Pryor’s emergence as a cultural icon, some key moments that would help shape his career, worldview and revolutionary comedic style took place at none other than Chicago’s entertainment hot spot on the forefront of political change: Mister Kelly’s.
Chicago Heights, South Side. It’s the fourth time comedians Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen have gone on stage as a duo. How does it go? Well, they realize this isn’t going to be easy when a guy from the audience puts a lit cigarette out on Tim’s face after the show, then tries to beat the hell out of Tom, who’d boxed while he was in the service— but the guy outweighs him by 100 lbs. Later, at the University of Illinois in the winter, another member of the audience goes outside and packs and ice-ball, comes back in, throws it on stage, hitting Tom in the face.
It’s Sunday, August 10, 1958, and hot as blazes in Chicago, with temperatures reaching triple digits. The streets are scorching, but people are still turning out in the latest suits, dresses, and their Sunday finest.
Inside Kelly’s, patrons to cool off while eating the best steaks in town and sipping the finest wines. What makes today especially magical is that the featured act is being recorded live, and those in attendance will be part of something historic— a special moment of glamor in the club. Only a handful of select artists get to record here, and this one is a beloved household name: Ella Fitzgerald. And today’s audience is about to watch her claim another little piece of immortality.
THE MAIN SET
The opening act, Marty Rubenstein, has finished his set, and Ella and company are setting up. There’s Lou Levy on piano, Max Bennett on double bass, and Gus Johnson on drums. After a huge round of applause, they begin with her recent hit, “Your Red Wagon.”
Her voice is soulful and exquisite as she transitions into the much slower George and Ira Gershwin tune, “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” She’s off to a great start, as she hits every note harmoniously, with ease.
From there it’s the pretty jazz standard, “I’m Glad There Is You,” showing off her softer side. There’s a deafening hush over the audience and they sit in a trance-like state during this ballad; each listener hearing the runs in her melodies. “Thank you very much, music lovers,” she says, as the audience applauds.
Shortly thereafter, we start to hear the whimsical side of Ella’s personality. Becoming livelier, she laughs playfully while singing Duke Ellington’s “Perdido.” It is during this song that her trademark scat comes through in great harmony, to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Went to Town.”
Her rendition of “Summertime,” the aria from Porgy and Bess, is one of the best tracks on this recording. At times her voice is high and raspy, then breaks into a slew of low runs. She ad-libs the lyrics, most likely to the delight of George and Oscar. “…But you don’t mind it because it’s summertime and the livin’s easy. So you say, ‘let’s go down and dig the real cool sounds at Mister Kelly’s. You come in Mister Kelly’s and you taste awhile. Yes, daddy, you drink awhile. And you drink. What do you get? The check.” The crowd roars at her ability to crack jokes. Her jovial ribbing receives raucous reactions on more than one occasion.
From there, she sings the popular Frank Sinatra tune, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” She comments that it’s too early to play this, but she doesn’t mind. Neither does the audience. They would sit through anything just to hear that soft and quaint voice, getting lost in their fondest memories while listening to her. Her final run is all ad-libbed and impromptu. She jokingly asks the band if they’re in the right key, pays homage to Dinah Washington, and asks whether the audience knows what she’s singing, all in perfect beat and rhythm.
She finishes this set with the jazz standard, “How High the Moon,” an audience request she happily scats to.
THAT FINAL SET
Ella would do several recordings of “How High the Moon,” making it one of her signature tunes. Her greatest performance at Kelly’s was photographed for the cover of LIFE Magazine, and she was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002.
The Kelly’s recording includes Ella speaking from the heart, expressing her deep admiration for all those involved at Mister Kelly’s. She also said that the audiences here were the quietest and most appreciative she’d had the pleasure to perform for in a very long time. “And for Oscar [Marienthal], I want to say you’ve been one of the nicest bosses to work with, and it’s been a pleasure. And all the help who pushed me along in my show time… I’m gonna miss everybody. This has been like a real big happy family.”
At Kelly’s the Marienthal brothers always made sure to always treat their performers like family, and in this instance, we have proof that the feeling was mutual.
Ella’s final set was much smaller than the earlier one, but just as good. She swooned, scatted, and ad-libbed in “Exactly Like You,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Stardust,” “’S Wonderful,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and “Perdido” once again.
She performed three Frank Sinatra hits: “Witchcraft,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and “My Funny Valentine,” before transitioning into her final song, “Anything Goes.”
She received a long, standing ovation from all in attendance as she said her final goodbyes, and parting from stage.
EVERYBODY LOVES ELLA!
Ella has just recently recorded “Your Red Wagon” as a single and at Kelly’s she did the debut recordings of “Witchcraft,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and “Across the Alley from the Alamo.”
By the late 1950s, she was recording many live albums. Verve label head Norman Granz was involved in all of these, but the show at Kelly’s was different than the rest. With a smaller room capacity, she was able to have a more intimate connection with the audience, and the feeling of closeness made the recording more raw and real. At times the audience can be heard clinking their utensils on their plates, and in between songs, small talk and chatter were picked up, perfectly snapshotting the moment as it took place.
This would not be the last time she graced the Kelly’s stage. She would return early the next year, as documented in the Happy Medium Ventures archives, where there is a telegram sent to her from her dear friend, Duke Ellington. It reads: “Everybody loved you, but nobody loved you as much as I did because I had the best seat.” What a great piece of ephemera capturing Duke’s adoration for the First Lady of Song. We know how he feels!
Ella Fitzgerald is one of the top entertainers responsible for bringing America’s jazz heritage to the broader public. She won a total of fourteen Grammy Awards, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967. Her other awards and honors include the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and tributes in the form of music festivals and theater namesakes. She stood high on that pedestal for 60 years before tragically succumbing to diabetes at 79. Since then, she has been honored by all the greats from today and yesterday, and continues to influence new generations of artists stepping into the spotlight.
If you are familiar with my guest blog posts (check them out here, here and here !) you know I’ve been writing a lot about the most iconic jazz entertainers who graced the stage of Mister Kelly’s and the London House in Chicago. There’s nothing as fascinating to me as an intimate looks at a great performance; these instances of sheer bliss that stand out as some of the finest hours in the careers of the visionary entertainment entrepreneurs George and Oscar Marienthal. April 25, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of Ella’s birth, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate her talents than to listen to her music.
Perhaps you own a copy of that famous Kelly’s recording, re-released in 2007 to coincide with the 90th anniversary of her birth. If that’s the case, then you should dust off that CD cover and pop it into your player; relive that moment when Mister Kelly’s was the most happening place in the country, and when patrons lined up to witness one of the greatest jazz artists sing her wonderful songs in their backyard. Press play as we remember another timeless moment.
If you were there, and have fond memories of Ella’s performance, feel free to share. Let’s all take the time to honor the First Lady of Song the best way we know how.
Am I the only one to receive a Marienthal brothers’ college scholarship? Or did I kill their scholarship program?
Who knew that George & Oscar Marienthal established a scholarship fund for aspiring performers? Not George Marienthal’s son David. When I asked David, he knew nothing about it. I had to explain being the only known Marienthal scholar.
Fresh out of St. Ignatius College Prep in 1960 I held a college scholarship in theater to Loyola University.
In Iggy’s halls, I often gazed upon Bob Newhart’s 1945 class photo. Fourteen years later, Bob was getting
hot as a writer and nightclub comedian. I aspired to be just as hot as Bob, maybe hotter, even sooner.
Loyola U. was no incubator of theatrical talent. The university hid away its theater department in the old offices of a gym. The only standout in my acting class was JoAnn Henner, a classically beautiful, tall, busty ballerina. She left my unrequited heart longing and lusting. It was JoAnne’s sister, though, who had the flash and energy of a starburst. When Marylu Henner became a nationally recognized television star, Loyola took credit.
We're so excited that young people are becoming fans of Mister Kelly's and London House Jazz nostalgia! Loyola College student Nathan Ellstrand sent us this "1963 Critic's Review"!
THURSDAY, JUNE 20TH, 1963, CHICAGO EVENING ENTERPRISE
“Make a date with a steak tonight” is how the London House bills their restaurant and jazz club in the Loop. My wife and I emerged from the Grand “L” station to find out whether it's as good a date as they claim. After walking several blocks from the station, we turned onto Michigan Avenue and finally made it to London House, hard to miss from the outside as it looms over the Chicago River.
We walk in off the cold street and immediately my senses are hit from multiple angles – music and the savory smell of meat cooking – what more could you want! This place put itself on the map by serving up Jazz along with the steak seven nights a week, and I hear the sounds of the Herbie Mann Sextet on the stage getting louder and louder as we make our way farther into the venue. The piercing sounds of Mann’s flute accompanied by drums transport us to far corners of the world, wake us up and fill us with excitement and poignant emotion all at the same time. I read in our sister paper, the Chicago Daily Defender , that Mann incorporated African rhythms into his music, and I think I can hear them tonight. We're not actually here to write about the music though, despite the immense popularity of the venue for such entertainment. I'm a food man, and I made this trek for the steak.
In the main room of the supper club, the maître d’ locates our reservation and takes us to our table. The entertainment area and dining room share the same space so Mr. Mann’s music will accompany our meal. The room, now slowly filling up with patrons, is dark with warm wood walls, and just enough light where we knew that we could dine at ease and enjoy our meal. Our waitress is very kind, knows our names, and provided us with a menu filled with many options. Too many…which steaks would we order?
We start with a salad with the Green Goddess dressing of course. A plate of crispy, tangy, creamy delight the snaps our taste buds to attention in anticipation of the main event. Our waitress convinces me to choose the house favorite – the London House Sirloin. My wife goes for the “Steak by George” which, I would imagine, is named as a nod to the co-owner of this establishment, George Marienthal. I ask for medium rare and it comes out cooked to perfection. As I cut into it, the meat slides off of my knife like Moses parting the Red Sea. It's tender and juicy, maybe a little too salty, but I have a feeling that's part of this experience--almost too much flavor to handle, enticing you wash it down with another glass of wine. Why not? My wife’s steak is prepared in an unusual way compared to other plates we had before in the Loop, yet it was still delectable: sirloin topped with melted Roquefort cheese, and you could tell it went straight from the kitchen to our table, as the cheese is still bubbling when it arrives. My wife loves the contrast between the pungent, funky kick of the cheese and the familiar, savory consistency of the beef. Even as I dig into my own I make a note to order the Steak by George myself next time. Perhaps it is the owner's favorite as well?
Meeting "The Mayor Of Rush Street"
Speaking of George, right as the Candy Crunch Cake we ordered arrives, George Marienthal himself arrived at our table to see how we enjoyed the meal and the show. What luck! The Marienthal brothers, George and Oscar, who opened this place as the first in their restaurant empire in the 1950's, are an institution here in the Windy City. They own the London House, the Brief Encounter coffee shop, and two other night clubs – Mister Kelly’s and the Happy Medium. I give George a little preview of my review based on the steak I ordered and reassure him that we were enjoying our meal overall. He's very confident and amiable, and generously offers to foot the bill for my steak. Now, that’s service. After he leaves, we dig into the crunch cake with a vengeance, and oh, it is true to its name: a rich and fun taste sensation similar to the Steak by George. You break into the outer shell of the cake and inside you find a moist, airy piece of pastry.
As we leave this hub of warmth and delight and re-emerge into the summer night air of Michigan Avenue, we are bask in the full and satiated feeling of being completely spoiled. Anais Nin said that "we write to taste life twice," and these may be the flavors of the century. Will we be back? You betcha--we're already planning our next “date with a steak.”
It all starts because Jim Conkling, the President of Warner Brothers, won’t do Rock music—just stuff like Joanie Sommers and the Everly Brothers— and the record label is not doing well. So Conkling comes to town and stops in to see Dan Sorkin, who was one of the top DJ’s in the country, at WCFL in Chicago. Comedy albums are just taking off and Dan says he knows someone who’s really funny— who’d been sending him little sketch-recordings to play on the radio—maybe he could help.
So Dan calls you, the funny guy. He says he knows a studio that wants to record you at your next nightclub gig. You tell him that’s going to be a problem because you’re an accountant who’s never played a nightclub in your life.
Fall, 1968. For a second, try to forget about the massive events churning with uncertainty in Chicago: the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the riots after King’s assassination, the continued obstacles to Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation, and the clash between police and protesters outside the Democratic National Convention. You and your spouse have decided to step away from the constant news coverage and enjoy a nice anniversary night out. It’s a special occasion after all—the greatest American Jazz pianist, the Maharaja of the Keyboard Oscar Peterson and his band are performing tonight!
You reach Rush Street – hustle-bustle, honking as smartly-dressed people dashing across the street into doorways that lead to excitement.
Headlights gleam and blend with the street lamps, turning night into day. You glance up at the sky to make sure it’s still night.
You then London House. You glide through the revolving door. The mood is up, up up. You are greeted by people mingling at every table and bar. Ah, this is the life. THE place to be tonight. Smoke fills out the atmosphere in puffs of clouds that spiral ever so gracefully up from cigars and cigarettes.
You check in with the hostess: reservation for then stops on your name. She looks up and you check your coat with the pretty hat check girl.You follow her to an empty table near the stage.
As you pass by, laughter surrounds you, and a tipsy girl spills her drink on the floor in front of you.
“Oh, I’m sorry, mister,” she says, as she flirtatiously.
“That’s quite alright, miss,” you reply, continuing for your seat as her watchful date takes her under his wing.
You take a seat and glance around at the exquisite décor – elegant fabric draped over the walls near the bandstand, and the white tablecloths and candlelight that make the whole room adventurous. The young woman, Judy Roberts, at the piano is playing something light, a nice little jazz standard. She is opening for Peterson, and does a fine job setting the mood.
A waiter comes by, “What are you drinking, sir?” It is your anniversary so you order a bottle of wine – not too painful a price but still rich in taste. Just like your marriage! Moments later the man at the piano finishes his set to hearty applause.
Just then a big roar startles you as the entire place erupts in cheers. Oscar Peterson, the star attraction of the night, has made his way past the patrons, and his band is getting ready to begin their set. He sits at the piano and thanks the audience.
Peterson is a rare talent—from what you hear, he was a virtuoso practically from birth, who was taught to play by his family, his father and sister, and who grew up surrounded by Jazz culture in his Little Burgundy neighborhood in Quebec. He started on the trumpet, but couldn’t play anymore after surviving tuberculosis, and after he took up piano, his playing wowed professional musicians from the age of 9. Influenced by Nat “King” Cole, Teddy Wilson, James P. Johnson and Art Tatum, he joined their ranks and surpassed them. You’re in the presence of one of the greatest musicians in the world.
He’s not messing around when it comes to performance either. He opens by sweeping you off your feet with a swift jazz standard that merges the sheer joy of entertainment with his own genius innovation. Always fresh, energized and original. “Days of Wine and Roses” fills the room, gets people tapping their feet; Something in everyone listening is freed from its confines and the night is ON! Some have gotten up from their seats and are playfully dancing. He follows with a ten-minute rendition of Cole Porter’s “Confirmation,” then, Duke Ellington’s “Night Train.”
By now your steaks have arrived, juicy and delicious. The first bite makes your mouth water, and you take another sip of wine to savor the mixture of flavors that dance on your tongue.
The band then continues with a string of Peterson’s own songs: “Blues Estude,” “Bossa Beguine,” “Soulville Samba,” “The Smudge,” and “Samba Sensitive.” Along with your steak you’re drinking in all that prime talent with a little of the Delta, the Carribbean, Rio. After playing for over an hour. Peterson wipes the sweat from his brow then lights a cigar. He says they will be back after a short break.
It’s now 10 O’clock and the majority of the patrons have begun to empty out, continuing their party in the streets. They’re off to catch a jazz chanteuse or a comedian at Mister Kelly’s , or a revue at the Happy Medium. Not you, though. You came to hear Peterson play his ballads, the romantic and emotional tunes he leaves for the end, with no competition from a noisey crowd.
You put away the last bite of steak and signal the waiter to bring another bottle of wine – it is a splendid occasion, after all. Why not get carried away?
The Oscar Peterson Trio descend the stairs from a back stage dressing room, still hot, but so, so cool. Following close behind them is club owner, George Marienthal. What a fellow he is! He is a tall, enigmatic figure who is famous in Chicago and a city celebrity in his own right. He sees you and waves. Of course he does! It’s that much-beloved friendly Kelly’s style.
Peterson starts up again with Cole Porter’s “At Long Last Love,” before jumping into a medley of “Ill Wind,” and “Tiger Rag.” Once finished, he tells a story about hearing Art Tatum’s version of “Tiger Rag” as a teenager, which led him to quit the piano for two months. He could not play because he questioned his own ability in comparison with Tatum’s. The audience gets a rise from the story, and you end up chuckling a little. That story sure has a happy ending. Life’s funny in a good way sometimes.
Peterson transitions into his ballads, playing “L’ Impossible” and Errol Garner’s “Misty,” a wonderful tune that became widely popular after Johnny Mathis recorded it for his 1959 album “Heavenly.”
When Peterson finishes, he looks over at you and asks what you are celebrating.
“Our twentieth anniversary,” you say proudly.
“Twenty years together and still in love? Wow, that’s incredible. Give them a hand, would you,” and the place erupts in cheers and whistles.
“This next one is for you two,” he says, playing George and Ira Gershwin’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”
You look over at your spouse to see a tear in her eye. The whole room is happy for you, and this is one of your mutual favorites. The perfect anniversary gift. You might have a little something in your eye too.
He then transitions into “A Foggy Day,” before playing his biggest hit, “Hymn to Freedom.”
With the night almost complete, he closes with Benny Goodman’s “Goodbye,” a personal favorite of his. It is a perfect send-off to the evening.
Exiting London House,, there’s a brisk chill that makes you pull your coats, and each other a little tighter. You walk toward Rush St, and it is busy with merrymakers. You think to yourself, people don’t sleep around here, do they? It will still be like this in a couple hours, but you’ll be cozy at home.
You walk down the street arm in arm, taking a little of the glitz and glamor, and that lively world-class jazz music with you to keep forever.
Oscar Peterson was a London House favorite, recording five albums there and going on to have a 60 year career. He released over 200 recordings, won eight Grammys, and is considered one of the world’s greatest Jazz pianists.
Golf Course just outside Chicago, 1941. “Abe” approaches
the ninth hole with friend and sometimes business associate Maurice Fineman.
Both are dressed in the finest English-inspired golf-wear and carry expensive
Abe suggests a friendly wager on who will win on the next hole—to the tune of a generous $100. Maurice sets down his golf bag with trouble on his face. There’s something he’s been meaning to talk to Abe about…In short, he’d better to put a moratorium on the big spending for now. He hesitates as Abe tees up. He hadn’t been sure how to tell his friend before this moment, but the thing is, that real estate deal they’ve been working on, like the many Abe attempted before it, had failed.
Abe turns pale at the news, mid-swing. He teeters. Falls straight forward, landing face-first in the grass.
The golf ball goes wide and lands with a splash in a water hazard
The above is a dramatization from an early draft of the TV script inspired by Mister Kelly’s and the Marienthal family story. In this version, “Maurice” and “Abe” are fictionalized, but the circumstances of my grandfather’s death on the golf course does have some basis in history. He passed away suddenly, at a relatively young age, leaving the family with minimal means of support.
My grandmother and her sons George (my father) and Oscar (my uncle) ended up working their whole lives to support the family. The way I heard the story, she and the kids loved him but she never forgave her husband for leaving them so soon. From her perspective, a Jewish father’s duty in life is to provide for the family...and for the rest of her life, she rarely talked about him.
It was always financial pressure that brought out the best and the worst in our family, as in so many others. George and Oscar grew up working hard in tough jobs, and then finally they saw a way to better the lives of everyone in their family. With the backing of a business associate they started a restaurant that became much, much more: London House and later, Mister Kelly’s on Rush Street in Chicago.