There were a lot of cheers and even some tears as the FitzGerald family stood on stage and said their goodbyes to a packed room at their nightclub on March 4. Intermittent shouts of “I love you!” rang out from the faithful audience and some took turns filling in what Bill FitzGerald couldn’t say when he choking up at the microphone.
Even Bill’s mom, Margaret FitzGerald, one of the people who helped make this place possible, completed one of her son’s sentences from her seat on the stage.
FitzGerald’s night club, the iconic Berwyn music venue, started 2020 celebrating its 40th anniversary. Now it is celebrating its sale as owners Bill and Kate FitzGerald hand the reins to Will Duncan, who comes from the Chicago music, bar and restaurant scene.
The location from 6611 to 6619 Roosevelt Road includes the night club, SideBar and Capri Restaurant. All parcels are included in the sale. The properties and business were listed at $2.25 million and sold for an undisclosed amount.
Fitzgerald’s has been up for sale since August 2017 when Bill FitzGerald expressed his desire to retire. Discussions began with Duncan in August 2018.
“It turns out this is a tricky thing to sell, all this property and the legacy,” FitzGerald said. “People are intimidated taking on a family business. We had at a least one buyer who was ready to do it and then thought better of it, had all the money in the world, but thought ‘I don’t want to screw up FitzGerald’s’
“When Will came along … the more he came around here, the more he observed, thought about it, talked to people, the more he wanted to do it.”
Duncan, the new owner/operator of FitzGerald’s, first came to the night club 15 years ago when a friend brought him to see rockabilly artist Deke Dickerson. The Waco Brothers also played that night.
“What attracted me to the project is the legacy,” said Duncan. “What’s not to love? It’s right up my alley … the look and feel of the place, the authenticity. It’s so unique and an extension of the proprietor’s personality. My favorite restaurants and bars are the little offbeat, homespun places.”
Duncan is no stranger to the Chicago music, bar and restaurant scene. He is a partner in several ventures, including Thalia Hall, the music venue in Pilsen, as well as Dusek’s, and Punch House. He previously lived in Chicago, but moved to Elmhurst two years ago.
“Since I’ve moved to the western ‘burbs, I’ve been hanging out [at FitzGerald’s], soaking up the scene,” Duncan said. “It felt right. It felt like a place I could live in for some time.”
The hint of the sale came last week when an event at FitzGerald’s billed as a March Forth Open House was described as “a great fit for a party celebrating everything we’ve enjoyed over the years and a tip of the hat to the future.”
Offering a 1,000-photo trip down memory lane, the party featured music from Expo ’76 & the Total Pro Horns followed by Blackfoot Gypsies in the club, and jazz group Bill Overton’s Kettle Brothers playing in the SideBar. News broke just hours before the party that the sale was complete.
Duncan, who celebrated his 40th birthday the day before the closing, plans to “retain and honor the history,” keeping FitzGerald’s much as it is now, including the venue name and retaining its 25 employees.
“It’s like sitting in the middle of your dream coming true,” he said.
The calendar will feel familiar and the FitzGerald’s style of music will remain the focus, according to Duncan. Music booker Donnie Biggins will continue in his role.
Through its four decades the club has attracted a wide range of music genres, but it is best known as a place where Americana — jazz, blues, zydeco, country and rockabilly – is celebrated.
Fitzgerald’s is famous for its annual American Music Festival held annually around July 4. The 39th festival was announced last month, continuing the tradition of American roots music on three stages. FitzGerald’s also holds events such as a Door County Fish Boil, Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day nights, and an “It’s Wonderful Life” pop-up during the holiday season, with a movie showing and themed cocktails. There are also classic cocktails by mixologist Isaac Lyons, in the Sidebar.
Duncan wants to experiment with indie rock, indie music and more contemporary jazz, but be in tune with audience feedback. Existing events will continue, while new programming may include smaller festivals and family-focused events, perfect given Duncan is the father of two young children.
On stage, talking to fans, Bill FitzGerald highlighted how his family, who were gathered around him on stage, came together to purchase the Deer Lodge in March 1980 and rehab it themselves.
This came after former WXRT-FM staffer, Oak Park resident and longtime FitzGerald’s music fan Patty Reilly-Murphy read a proclamation from the 101st General Assembly of the state of Illinois, written by Senate President Don Harmon. It thanked Bill and Kate FitzGerald and their family for their achievements and contributions to the community. Harmon has played in his rock band annually at the club for a fundraiser.
Brothers Brian Fitzgerald, of Switchback, who got his musical start at FitzGerald’s (and slated to play the club on April 4), and Chris FitzGerald, Bill’s original partner, also both spoke to the crowd.
Kate FitzGerald, Bill’s wife, told the audiences to congratulate themselves. She thanked everyone for helping them buy their house, put their kids through school and said they are responsible for the family owning a Subaru. The levity was much appreciated by the crowd.
“There’s no vibe without you guys,” she said. “As much as you think you owe to us, we owe to you and want to say thank you.”
At some point the FitzGeralds will be packing up that Subaru and hitting the road. Bill said they are planning to sell their Oak Park home. Along the Mississippi in Wisconsin, Bill and Kate have a small refurbished bank building, The Linksville State Bank, in Linksville, where they sleep in the vault.
They recently purchased a 10-room frame house in Ferryville from the 1800s, that Bill had his eye on, which he is planning to rehab in his newfound free time.
“It needs everything, kind of like the old Deer Lodge when we bought this place,” he said. “It will be a good way to get back into the physical nature and discipline of working on a building. … I don’t think it’s been touched with a paintbrush in over 50 years and yet the bones are good.”
Of passing the baton on the place he has worked so hard at, FitzGerald said, “It’s a dream come true – the 40 years here, and the way it’s wrapped up.”