Tag: Civil-rights

Live at Mister Kelly’s








“Some of the most famous people in the world, just eight feet away”: The newly released documentary Live at Mister Kelly’s, now available on video on demand, takes us to the intimate stage where Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, Sarah Vaughan, Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, and all the greats performed in Chicago during the ’50s, ’60s, and into the ’70s.


Billie Holiday at Mister Kelly’s.

David Marienthal, whose father, George, and uncle Oscar started Mister Kelly’s, the London House, and the Happy Medium, and is executive producer of the documentary, said, “Mister Kelly’s was at the center of the important movements: civil rights, free speech, women’s rights. Of course you’d see movie stars and politicians, but all races, all walks of life came there. In the film, Dick Gregory said that there was no place else for Black comedians to perform. Richard Prior was entertainer the night Martin Luther King was killed. Mister Kelly’s was the center of the whole community. We premiered this film at the Gene Siskel Film Center recently, a very proud moment.”



Live footage, archival photos, interviews, and recorded music combine to show that Mister Kelly’s was the place to be for jazz and stand-up comedy and London House the destination for jazz and the best steaks in town.

“We interviewed not only stars who performed there, but the doorman, the businessman next door, patrons,” Marienthal said.  “My mother died eight years ago, and I thought it was time to do something about all the archival material and memories I have of 50 years ago. My father had unfortunately died when I was 21. At first I thought of a coffee table book, then the documentary just made sense. We will also be in a museum. The Newberry Library will house our collection and will do an exhibition in two years.”


Live at Mister Kelly’s.

The film begins with Barbara Streisand recalling that she first performed at Mr. Kelly’s as a 21-year-old. Following the show she went to Oak Street Beach for a photo shoot for her new album People: “I chose a shot with my back to the camera and everyone said it was a terrible choice. It won a Grammy for the best album cover. I have always thought Chicago was lucky for me. There’s a song about that, isn’t there?”

Narrator Bill Kurtis says simply that “Mister Kelly’s knew how to nurture talent and changed forever the future of show business around the world.”

Director Teddy Bogosian, whose 1988 An Armenian Journey about the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians in 1915 established his notable reputation and will be the subject of a follow-up film, shared, “Mister Kelly’s was an opportunity to have an intimate relationship with artists regardless of class, gender, and race at a affordable price. You could sit in the bleachers all night and nurse one $3 drink. There was no admission fee. You could enjoy private moments and get lost in your thoughts in a crowded room. Now people might be able to watch Adele perform on their phone, but they will likely never see her sing from 12 feet away.”


Mister Kelly’s interior with band, 1969.


Inside Mister Kelly’s.

Bogosian, who teaches iPhone filmmaking at Brown University, agreed that interest in long form documentary films is at an all-time high, but that it’s Marienthal’s passion for the subject that makes their film truly come alive: “It would have been more of a narrative type of film, but Marienthal gives it flavor and authenticity and his own personal commitment comes shining through.”


Ted Bogosian, Irene Michaels, Arny Granat, and David Marienthal in 2019.



Seeing interviews of the stars who performed there in their “salad days” delights. The late comedian Fred Willard related, “If you did well on The Ed Sullivan Show, then you were invited to perform at Mister Kelly’s. Sullivan was like the double A-team and Mister Kelly’s the major league.”

Jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis commented, “The London House was very elegant: the best place to hear topflight jazz artists and have the best steaks in town.”


Scott Dummler.

Dummler, a television director for shows with Rick Bayless and Roger Ebert, explained, “There were two shows a night, with weekdays mainly for tourists and the locals on the weekend. It was open until 3 a.m. Mister Kelly’s survived two fires. We have pictures of Lainie Kazan in the burned out shell.”

He added, “Mister Kelly’s was always cutting edge, as the country’s taste for comedy changed, so did the performers. They got away from the Henny Youngmans and presented Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Lenny Bruce. If you played Mister Kelly’s you were accepted as the highest caliber of comedian.”

As a child Marienthal’s dad took him to the club every Saturday: “At first I would play in his office, and my first job was cleaning gum off from under the tables. I worked odd jobs. We had a great bakery there and I helped the baker. I remember that the Smothers Brothers were particularly nice to me as a kid. Many performers came to dinner at our house at Wellington and Pine Grove. I remember Oscar Peterson at our piano.

“My father was a real entrepreneur who was able to change the business model as the times changed. I think the live music events in intimate venues are back. We are showcasing vintage Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler, and other music at the Chicago City Winery and will do another Mister Kelly’s type of evening at the City Winery in Atlanta this winter.”


Ella Fitzgerald performing at Mister Kelly’s in 1958.

Dummler feels that documentaries have really come into their own: “In the streaming world there is just so much material. We can find any subject we are interested in these days. For us, we were really grateful that so many people, the entertainers, patrons, and staff look back so fondly at these venues.”


Live At Mister Kelly’s is available On Demand.

Ida B. Wells

            A Towering Historic Figure


Ida B. Wells




By Megan McKinney


Rosa Parks.

More than seven decades before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, Ida B. Wells did the same in a “Whites Only” train car in Tennessee. It took three men to eject her from her seat and one received a painful hand bite in the process. But this was merely the beginning of the fearless civil rights pioneer’s “Crusade for Justice,” as aptly described in the title of her autobiography.

Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, the year of Ida Bell Wells’ birth on a nearby farm.     

She was born enslaved on the Bolling farm near Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862. Her father, James Wells, was a carpenter and handyman and her mother, Elizabeth Warrenton Wells, the Bolling’s cook.

General Ulysses S. Grant .

Although we are close to a time when Holly Springs may be celebrated as the 1862 birthplace of Ida B. Wells, for a century and a half it has been known as the site of a General Ulysses. S. Grant supply base, which was destroyed in December of that year by Confederate General Earl Van Dorn, who also managed to capture supplies worth $1.5 million to be used against Union forces.

General Earl Van Dorn.

After winning freedom, James and Elizabeth Wells stayed in their jobs for wages until the next election. When James voted Republican, the party of Abraham Lincoln, the family was thrown off the farm and James opened a carpentry business in town.

Mid-1860’s Mississippi farmhouse similar to the Bolling’s.

Ida, and the seven Wells children who came after her, learned to read in school with their mother, who attended just long enough to be able to read the Bible. Ida read weekly newspapers aloud to her father, who remained illiterate but politically active and well respected in the community.

Nineteenth century school similar to that attended by the Wellses.

When her parents and a sibling were swept away in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, sixteen-year-old Ida was left to care for five surviving younger children.

To support her family, Ida taught grammar school in rural Mississippi and later in Memphis; she also began writing a column for a succession of Black weekly newspapers. Her pieces were distributed to other papers in a rudimentary form of syndication, giving Ida a wide following and the nickname “Princess of the Press.” After buying a one-third interest in the Free Press of Memphis and becoming its editor, Ida wrote a blistering editorial criticizing the city’s education of Black children.

City school of the era.

Suddenly she found herself a full time newspaper editor without the support of a teaching job. With her press pass and time to spare, she traveled free by train to towns in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi selling subscriptions and reporting on local events. In less than a year, she nearly tripled the circulation of the Free Press and boosted her earnings.

Meanwhile lynching had become endemic in the South. When three Black Memphis shopkeepers were murdered simply because customers were patronizing their grocery rather than that of a nearby white-owned store, Ida wrote editorials urging her Memphis readers to leave the city and move to Kansas or Oklahoma.

She promoted not only a mass exodus of Memphis Blacks but also the boycott of white businesses by those who stayed. Her editorials so infuriated whites that she had to keep a pistol in her desk for protection against possible violence. Finally, she further enraged white Memphis by printing an editorial stating that some “rapes” of white women by Black men were consensual and that romance was actually possible between people of different races. When the piece was printed–causing angry vandals break into her office, smash her printing press and destroy other property–she was fortunately in the East. Because there was now a price on her head and she knew her return could incite race riots, Ida would never go back to Memphis–or even travel in the South (although she did once many years later, incognito). She settled in New York and hired detectives from the Pinkerton Agency to investigate lynchings on her behalf; she then described them in articles in the influential New York Age (1887-1960) for which she was then writing. At the same time, she was also speaking against lynching to groups around the country.

Ida had become a national figure, and soon would be an international one. She accepted an invitation to visit Great Britain on a lecture tour, giving 50 talks in England and Scotland over a six-week period. Her impassioned speeches against lynching were calculated to rouse public opinion in an important cotton markets and bring economic pressure to the American South.


Upon her return to America she went out to Chicago to protest the lack of a Black presence at the Columbian Exposition. There she met Chicago lawyer Ferdinand Lee Barnett, a Northwestern University-educated widower with an avid interest in social justice.


Next in  Publisher Megan McKinney’s series on Ida B. Wells is Ida as Ida B. Wells-Barnett.


Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien

Author Photo by Robert F. Carl