FitzGerald's doesn't miss a beat

Artbeat

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

FitzGerald's Nightclub has a new owner, so their 40th anniversary turned into a celebration of the past and the future.

Music has deep roots at 6615 Roosevelt Road. In the 1950s and '60s, previous owners hosted jazz bands like the Original Salty Dogs, a group that began at Purdue, transplanted to Chicago after graduation, and then had a regular gig at The Hunt Club at this address.

Later owners Otto and Lou Kubik turned the early 1900s-era building into a bar and pool hall called The Deer Lodge. The original structure on this site is said to have been used as "a hunting lodge and sporting team headquarters" until 1925.

On New Year's Day in 1980, with LPs playing on a turntable, Bill FitzGerald was sitting around over brunch and said to those gathered, "Wouldn't it be fun to own a bar and have music and book this person and that person?" He was already a regular at the Deer Lodge.

On March 20, 1980 the purchase was made with the help of his Uncle Jerry, a lawyer, who made the inquiry. Bill's parents, Chris and Margaret, made the purchase possible.

"My mom and dad took a huge risk," Bill told the crowd gathered around the stage of the packed nightclub at the "March Forth" farewell party last Wednesday. "They put money up — it was only $60,000, but when you've got nine kids, it's a big deal. And you're investing in a bar [with] all the horrible things that could come out of a bar."

It was a FitzGerald family project — Bill and his brother Chris, who later moved to Australia where he is a special education teacher, and their dad began rehabbing the building. The Deer Lodge was transformed into FitzGerald's Nightclub, but they kept the deer lodge ambiance.

"We just set about doing the job of bringing about this old venue that had history," Bill recalled. "We knew it had a heyday." 

His father, Chris Sr., a magazine editor at the time, "was keen to do something [other than editing]. In his spare time, he rewired and did all the plumbing in the place and had never done it before." He also designed the lighting and the logo.

"My brother Chris and I were already into house painting and house restoration so that all worked here," Bill said. "We were ordering dumpsters, refinishing bars and tearing down junk — it was great. There was a lot of room for improvement and we felt we brought it back to a really nice renovation." FitzGerald's opened nine months later. 

Now the FitzGerald family has sold the business, so Bill and his wife Kate can retire. The two first got to know each other after Kate applied to FitzGerald's for a job. They now have four children, with grandchildren on the way. (It turns out Bill painted the Oak Park house Kate grew up in years earlier, so they had met before.)

In front of many faithful fans at the goodbye party, Bill reminisced about how his mom and dad danced together at the club on that opening night, Dec. 18, 1980.

They opened with a jazz band, including saxophonist Eric Schneider, and "very quickly we were into jazz, blues, country rock and folk music," he said.

The first national act, in March 1981, was Marcia Ball, who still plays at the club and annually at the American Music Festival in early July. She invited Bill to the Jazz Festival in New Orleans where he connected with other musicians, including "the king of zydeco" Clifton Chenier, whom Bill subsequently booked at FitzGerald's.

"It was his first performance in Chicago since the '50s," Bill recalled, "and I had people like Bruce Igluar (founder of the blues label Alligator Records) calling saying, 'How did you pull that off?'

"I met [Chenier] at Tipitina's and told him I was from Chicago," FitzGerald remembered. "He liked the idea of playing in the town where some of the blues greats played. He thought of himself as a zydeco man, but he was a bluesman too."

Asked name some of the most memorable musicians over the past 40 years, FitzGerald cited Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, Pat McLaughlin, and Ball, who first appeared at the club during a two-week residency.

"We became the home away from home for Texas musicians and Louisiana musicians for bookings of all kinds," FitzGerald said. "She was like our ambassador for the Gulf Coast. It really got us on the map." 

As FitzGerald's Nightclub became known, it became a location for movies — Adventures in Babysitting (1987), A League of Their Own (1992), Blink (1994), The Express (2008). "You've got to pinch yourself sometime to think about who's been here," Bill said. Tom Cruise and Paul Newman were on location for the taping of The Color of Money (1986).

"They were working late one night and it was Paul Newman's 60th birthday," FitzGerald said. "So I hired legendary Chicago pianist Art Hodes. He played Happy Birthday and a couple numbers. … I just called him and said, 'Art, he's a big jazz fan. Would you do this?'"

The future of FitzGerald's is in the hands of new owner/operator Will Duncan, who brings experience from an early start as a musician and sound engineer as well as more than a decade of involvement in the Chicago restaurant, bar and music-venue realm, from hands-on to managerial and partnership roles.

Duncan is ready to roll up his sleeves. This is his full-time job and he plans to be on site every day.

"Some tell me I'm less nervous than I should be," Duncan said. "I'm trying hard to appreciate how much work it is … but I've learned a lot throughout the process."

Upon meeting customers on March 4, Duncan said, "They were congratulatory with me, happy that I'm there — someone with fresh energy and from the next generation." But others kidded him. "Some also pulled me in close and said, 'Don't mess this up.'"

Duncan plans to keep FitzGerald's familiar, from staff to American Roots-focused music, and keeping audiences happy. "Over-delivering on quality is important to me," he said.

After 40 years, the FitzGerald family may have had their last dance at the nightclub, but the music on Roosevelt Road continues. 

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