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Dead Poet's Society

Old bars don't die, they just move away.



By Jack Clark

Bruce Elliott remembers sitting in the Old Town Ale House one November afternoon, watching people turn the corner of Wells Street, a half block east, and head west on North Avenue. They were carrying huge photographs, blowups of renowned Irish writers: Sean O'Casey, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Brendan Behan. "We were all chuckling," Elliott says of the crowd inside the Ale House that day. "What a stupid idea. You can't move a bar."

But the people continued passing by, hour after hour, some on foot, others hanging off the back of an open truck. First they had the photographs and the wooden bar, then the plumbing fixtures and coolers, stools, lights, mirrors, and anything else that could be salvaged from the original O'Rourke's Pub on Wells.

They passed the Ale House and then North Park, crossing to the south side of North Avenue and heading into O'Rourke's new home on the southeast corner of Orleans, a space that had recently been vacated by a Mexican grocery store after a fire.

That was 1966. And to show you just how wrong Bruce Elliott was that day, a year or so later the Old Town Ale House picked up and moved too, just across the street to the opposite corner of Wieland and North, where it remains today.

In its new home O'Rourke's became one of the city's more legendary saloons, known as a literary joint. Large photos of Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, and Samuel Beckett joined the ranks on the wall. As on Wells, each writer got a small chalkboard with a few of his words written on it. The chalk would smudge, or someone would throw a drink or a punch and the words would have to be rewritten, sometimes from memory. Members of the James Joyce Society stopped by and always complained about the accuracy of the Joyce quote. Finally they supplied their own: "But I owe a duty to Ireland. I hold her honour in my hand, this lovely land that always sent her artists and writers to banishment and in a spirit of Irish fun, betrayed her own leaders one by one."

Nobody came around to defend the others, so their words may have changed slightly through the years. Yeats got punched by a drunk one night and now there's a huge crack running just under his nose, making his quote even sadder: "All life weighed in the scale of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens." There are tiny holes in Joyce and some of the others, one of the drawbacks of being helplessly stationary in a bar with darts (it leads to a terrible complexion). Originally the photographs were backed by hard foam. But smoke sank into the dart holes and began to eat the backing away. They were eventually remounted on sturdier material.

The North Avenue location closed in November 1989. But the following August the photographs went back up, this time at 1625 N. Halsted, just south of the Royal George Theatre. Even before Steppenwolf relocated across the street, the place was becoming known as a theater bar. The writers' words were now printed on poster board. There was no need to change the photos--most of them had also written plays.

Now a huge For Sale sign hangs over the place. Recently an Under Contract sticker was slapped on top, indicating that there's been an offer on the building. It seems likely that O'Rourke's will soon close for good. The lease was up at the end of last year. The bar's for sale too, but without a lease to go along with it there's not much to sell, just the name, those huge photographs with those wonderful words, some fixtures, and a lot of old memories.

Jay Kovar, the current owner, started as a bartender at the original place in 1966. He's been there ever since, and now it's time to retire. "Those were great years," he says. He has no interest in moving the bar again. If someone wants to buy, he's ready to deal. But he's had no serious offers yet.

Doris Oxford, who opened the first O'Rourke's with her husband, Bruce, in 1964, remembers the end of the bar on Wells Street in '66. "We had a funeral, poetry readings, and a really big-time three-night wake." Some of the customers built a coffin. "They put golden handles on it," Doris says. "They went to the cemetery and got all these dead bouquets. You know, 'Good-bye Grandpa' and stuff like that.

"One of our customers had a connection at the stable over on Orleans Street. So we had a horse-drawn carriage and we had bagpipes. It was almost like a New Orleans funeral, with everybody following behind the hearse. We went down Wells Street, turned around, and came back."

Jay Kovar recalls that one of the other neighborhood bars, a place called the First Quarter, put a sign on its door, "Closed due to death in family," and everybody there joined the funeral procession too.

After the funeral, the wake began. "We had the coffin in the back room," Doris Oxford says. "We had a big crowd. It was a wonderful time." She says the party was written up in a Dublin newspaper.

Bruce Oxford wrote a poem for the closing. Here's the final stanza of "O'Rourke's Wake":

A double for

the road, mine host,

& don't keep looking

like I'm a ghost!

The sun & the moon

forever shall curse

the head of the one

that lulls in the hearse

if I'm not O'Rourke

himself, in the pink,

come to his wake

for one last drink.

The place had only been in existence for two years, but it had already picked up a loyal and wordy clientele. O'Rourke's was always a writers' hangout. Bruce Oxford was a poet, so other poets came around. Nelson Algren and Mike Royko dropped in too. "Lots of newspaper people," Doris Oxford says. "Royko came fairly often. He went around the city testing chili and he gave our chili a five-star rating.

"Yeah, we had food," she says. "We had chili. We had spaghetti and salad. We had a special: spaghetti, salad, and garlic bread with a glass of wine for a dollar and a half. But after Royko wrote that column, old ladies would be coming in for our chili. Hell, the only reason we had food was to keep the drunks there."

Brendan Behan died in 1964, the year O'Rourke's opened. He wrote my favorite quote in the bar: "I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and old men and women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer."

"We thought Behan was a good representative of the place, so we had a Brendan Behan night," Doris Oxford says. "And we had five-cent beer from eight o'clock until ten." After ten, beer went up to its usual price--a quarter for a ten-ounce stein of domestic. They also had Guinness and Harp on tap. "Harp, that was rare back then."

"Old Town was swinging," says Jay Kovar. It was Chicago's answer to Greenwich Village. "We were right next to Last Chance and Big John's, or was it Second Chance? A banjo place was across the street. I think it was where the Treasure Island is now. There was a mob place. It was huge, and they had the best, cheapest whiskey on the street. They had Wild Turkey in their speed rack."

Bruce and Doris Oxford wanted O'Rourke's to be a writers' bar, Kovar says. "It took them a while to discover that writers had no money and they were drink cadgers too. But then we started to get the Art Institute kids in. That was our break. That's when we started to make some money. Timmy, the guy who worked the door, he went to the Art Institute. And then there were some Art Institute people living in the neighborhood, so they used to come in. That's when Bruce and Doris started to do decently. But by then it was already too late." O'Rourke's was standing in the way of progress--the building was about to be torn down.

"They were planning to put up a Holiday Inn," Doris Oxford says. "So we filled the coffin with empty bottles from the wake, and we put a note in there, nailed it shut, and hauled it downstairs to the basement. Way, way up front, underneath the sidewalk there was this little room." The room was under a vaulted sidewalk, built when the city was raised out of the marsh. The coffin was put in the room, and the door was nailed shut.

"After they tore the building down, when they were excavating, they came across the coffin and everything stopped," Doris Oxford says. "The police came, the fire department. The coroner was called. They came out with long gloves and everything, and they pried open the coffin, and inside they found the note that we'd written: 'FUCK YOU, HOLIDAY INN!' And then it never happened. The Holiday Inn never went up. Oh, it was really funny." She's still laughing 34 years later. A residential high-rise was later built on the site.

That was the end of O'Rourke's as far as Bruce and Doris Oxford were concerned. "O'Rourke's was dead," Doris says. "They killed it. Willie just bought the name and whatever atmosphere he could carry away."

Will Kilkeary, a bartender who'd worked at the Bulls jazz club before coming to O'Rourke's, was the man who moved the bar around the corner to North Avenue. In 1974 he sold the place to three of his bartenders, Jay Kovar, Jeannette Hori, and Jim Lundberg. Kovar later bought out his partners.

More newspaper people started frequenting the place after the move to North Avenue. Roger Ebert began to bring in well-known actors. He interviewed Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Gene Hackman, Stella Stevens, Cliff Robertson, and others in Booth Number One, which was what the regulars called whichever booth the stars happened to land in. Soon the TV newspeople joined the crowd.

According to a Reader Hot Type piece in 1984, Ebert and Daily News reporter John McHugh "built a cult around O'Rourke's by getting reporters they brought in to promise not to write about it." Jay Kovar says, "They wrote about us, but they never identified us by name. They had a pact. They'd just say a near north side bar or something. They wouldn't mention O'Rourke's."

Plenty of other writers did. Esquire called O'Rourke's one of the hundred best bars in America. It was mentioned in the New Republic. Even United Airlines' magazine got into the act: "O'Rourke's is known for brawls, aging journalists, and darts--in that order."

But many of those aging journalists not only stopped brawling--they also stopped drinking. McHugh and Ebert no longer showed up. In 1985 Kovar told Chicago magazine, "Journalists today are more into jogging than drinking."

By that time actors had started to pick up the slack on both sides of the bar. There were plenty of other drinkers too. Cops and lawyers, schoolteachers and advertising people, judges and construction workers. "The plumbers and ironworkers were fun," Kovar says. "We used to get some of the high-steel guys, Eddie Boyle and that crowd. They hung out at the Saddle Club, but they came here too. They were dangerous, but they were fun."

"I like knowing O'Rourke's is still there," Doris Oxford says from her home in Saint Augustine, Florida. "It's kind of a tie to Chicago. We always stop in when we get to town. But, you know, it's not our place anymore. I look at things and I say, 'Oh, I remember doing that. I remember getting that.' But it's just things. It's not the same. Nothing's the same. I mean, it's been a long time.

"I like looking back, but I don't really miss being in the business. It's too tough. It was so crazy."

The Oxfords started out in the 1950s with a beatnik coffeehouse, the Oxford House, on North Avenue. Later they added liquor and changed the name to Oxford's Dram Shop Coffee House. After the Dram Shop closed, they went to Australia for two years. They returned to Chicago in 1964 and opened O'Rourke's.

After walking away from Wells in '66, they bought a place at Clark and Wisconsin that they renamed the Oxford Pub. In the days leading up to the 1968 Democratic convention, antiwar protesters from all over the country attempted to camp overnight in Lincoln Park, just across from the bar. Every night the police would go into the park with tear gas and billy clubs and try to clear them out, enforcing the park's 11 PM closing time.

"We were the only place open," Doris Oxford says, "and people were running in, and then we'd have the police running in after them, storming the joint."

O'Rourke's, over on North Avenue, was blocks from the park, though it saw its share of the action. "We got some wounded," Jay Kovar remembers. "Some reporters and photojournalists and kids running in with blood on 'em. We'd put some ice on their head and hide them in the basement for a few minutes. During the Days of Rage that happened too. We got wounded kids. They were too young to drink, so we had to stick 'em in the basement for a few minutes, let their heads clear, and then send them on their way."

Doris Oxford describes her last visit to O'Rourke's. "We walked in. The place was packed, but we didn't know anybody but Jay. He was behind the bar. And there was a writer in there that we knew. Well, he knew us. I couldn't remember him real well, but he remembered us. My daughter and her friends came too, and we were sitting way in the back, and suddenly the front door opens and a voice booms, 'Jesus Christ, if it isn't the fucking Oxfords.' Broke the whole room up. It was Michaela, of course."

Michaela Tuohy, better known as Mike, was one of the last of the Wells Street customers still frequenting O'Rourke's. Once you met her, you weren't likely to forget her. She was big and loud and sharp, crude, irreverent, hilarious, and often very drunk. In other words, she was lovely, a true original. Until recently a large photograph, taken by Jack Lane, hung high above the jukebox. Michaela was suspended in midair with an angelic smile on her face. She was dressed in a fairy costume. In one hand she held a wand. With the other she was giving the world the finger. She died in December 1997, and the city hasn't been the same without her. She wrote for this paper occasionally, as does her husband, Jim, who still stops into O'Rourke's now and then.

Over the years the place has gotten smaller and more basic. The bars on Wells and North both had back rooms. On Halsted there's nothing but the barroom. The food never made the trip to North Avenue, where the high point of culinary excitement was that brief glorious time when there were a few hot-nut vending machines on the bar. The darts and the pinball and bowling machines never made it to Halsted, and neither did the Beer Nuts, pretzels, or potato chips. On busy nights you'll hear people crying out for food. But Jay only keeps some doggy snacks behind the bar for an occasional stray. When asked, he'll readily admit he generally likes dogs much better than people.

That may help explain Halsted's minimal touches. Not one ounce of neon hangs in the front window. No beer sign sways in the breeze. There were some letters in the window that spelled "O'Rourke's," but they were nearly unreadable from the street. You'd ask someone to meet you there and they'd never show. When you'd call, they'd say, "There's no bar there," and tell you they'd driven around the block three times looking for the place.

People on their way to or from the theaters would stop and try to peer in. You could almost read their lips from inside the bar. "Is that a tavern?" But the only sign most of them saw was just to the right of the front door. "Warning," it said. "These premises are protected by Sentry Security dogs. Enter at your own risk. Survivors will be prosecuted." Not surprisingly, few passersby wandered in.

A while back, Becky Marshall, a prop master at Steppenwolf, made a sign for over the front door. O'Rourke's Pub, it says, and there's a landscape of Ireland with a castle, or something like that. Then Dan Smith, a bartender, and one or two customers got together and fixed up the back of the warning sign. Now the attack dogs are only out when the place is closed. The rest of the time the sign says "Open," in Gaelic, Latin, and English.

Soon after these went up, that massive For Sale sign was mounted above the place, pretty much obscuring the new, welcoming touches. If anything, the sign looks even less inviting than the one warning of attack dogs.

Not that long ago, a local rag put O'Rourke's on its list of Chicago's most overrated bars. Few of the regulars disagreed. Even Jay Kovar is quick to concede: "It's just a saloon." If you're looking for excitement, you'd better head elsewhere. All you'll find on Halsted is a bar and a jukebox. There's a television, but it's well hidden, sitting on a stool behind the jukebox. In ten years I've probably seen it on no more than a handful of times, usually when the room is empty. There's no pinball machine or poker machine. No sports. Even the jukebox has gotten simpler through the years. With a few exceptions, it's all jazz. There's Dizzy, Miles, Sarah, Ella, Frank, Dinah, Jacques Brel, Coltrane and Hartman, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Monk, Nina Simone, Bobby Timmons, Hoagy Carmichael, Paul Desmond, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Jordan, Bud Powell, Billie Holiday, Cannonball Adderly, Abbey Lincoln, Coleman Hawkins, Ray Charles and Betty Carter, Glenn Miller, Julie Wilson, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown with Zoot Sims, Joe Williams, Fred Astaire, Sonny Criss, Art Blakey, Mingus, Quincy Jones, and Carole King. When you see someone at the jukebox with a confused look on his face, you can bet that Carole King will be playing before too long.

And that's it. It's just a bar. But sometimes late on a quiet night, in the lull between the songs, you can almost feel the past trying to speak. Maybe that's the mysterious allure of the place. The ghosts of all those drinkers--some for a single shot, some for 20 years--fusing with the booze and the music, the talk and laughter, old stories and new, until finally those larger-than-life figures come down from the wall. Some nights you can almost see them at the bar in that misty amber light. You feel their touch, as faint as a long lost kiss, as far away as that October night on Wells Street--a night of poetry, tears, laughter, and drinks--just before the lights went down for good.

But maybe it's just the booze.

In a poem written for the closing of the original O'Rourke's on October 28, 1966, Thane Gower Ritalin rails against real estate developers and cops, as well as the tourists and conventioneers who were busy turning Old Town into a carnival. The neighborhood's poets and artists shared the bill as part of the sideshow. He talks about a mayor who sounds strangely familiar.

We writers entertain certain

delusions of grandeur

That the pen is mightier than

the sword;

But what do we do when our

mayor has proved

That a mumble is mightier than

a roar?

Every Christian god I know

Would ridicule my prayers

for O'Rourke's,

But I have news for them.

Her coffin contains a bit of

each of us;

And from its rot may jungles sprout

With roots to strangle the poor

thin reeds

Of any souls who ever laughed at us.

Oh, sweet and simple darlings,

Did you think it was only booze?

When I ask Jay Kovar what he knows about the author, he gives me a typically terse reply: "I think he's dead."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell/Bruce Powell.

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