BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.