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Changing Times

Checking in With Butch McGuire

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Her voice, bright and sassy, cracks the air: "Butch, hey Butch. Heyyyyyyyyyy!"

The beefy, yet still elfin-looking Butch McGuire turns to acknowledge the commotion, but he doesn't see where it's coming from. He has to bend down and peer under that particular table, where the girl is hunkered down.

Owner of what was once the city's premier--and, he claims, nation's first--singles bar, McGuire is more than used to antics at the place that bears his name. Twenty years ago, guys lined up to get into this joint in the heart of the Rush Street district. This girl would never have made it in.

Today, here she is--about three years old but looking like a regular.

Butch McGuire's a mom-and-tot program? Say it isn't so!

"We've changed with the times," says McGuire, scanning the mid-afternoon crowd. A handful of business types are seated at the bar watching a ball game on TV; a couple of young women sipping diet sodas are seated near the front window; the little girl is now running through the bar, her mother glancing in our direction to see where she's headed.

"Instead of guys and girls coming here to meet, we're seeing parents bringing their kids in to see the sight of their old haunts, the scene of their original courtship," says McGuire. "The so-called 'singles scene' popularized by journalists doesn't exist.

"So many people go out in pairs now, I've had to convert the seating to deuces. They sit down and read the newspaper. He watches the television, she reads the paper. I've never been able to figure out why they're here. They don't even talk to each other. In the past, people would come in four, six, eight, ten to a group. Myself, I never go out unless there's four, five, eight in a group."

He shakes his head, disapprovingly. "We didn't have a TV set for years, but I put one in and hid it behind a door. Now we have ten television sets. And we need them. People want to sit and watch television when they go out. I can't figure that out, either. If they want to watch TV, why not stay home?"

Taking note that I've ordered something nonalcoholic, McGuire says, "And people aren't drinking as much. There's no drinking at noon whatsoever. They drink Diet Coke. And light beer. If someone had told you 20 years ago to fill a glass half up with water and the other half with beer and sell it as light beer, you would have called them crazy.

"We sell more light beer than regular beer, more diet cola than regular cola, more iced tea than wine.

"You know," he says philosophically, "I don't think people have an awful lot of fun these days when they go out, but maybe I'm wrong."

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Butch McGuire scoured Chicago for his brand of fun, the Near North Side was loaded with what he calls "26 joints"--these being "old, established, expensive nightclubs that featured 26 girls in a revue and expensive drinks. Unless you were well known to them, they weren't interested in seeing you around," he recalls.

"There was no place in the Rush Street area for young people to go. Neighborhoods had local taverns, but they catered to the guys who they'd known for years who'd sit around and drink dime beers."

McGuire took to throwing private parties for his buddies. "We'd have parties two, three nights a week. Bring-your-own-bottle parties, dinner parties. It got to be the parties were so big I thought I'd better open a saloon and relieve this pressure from my apartment."

In 1961, he opened Butch McGuire's. "You see articles all the time written by people who have never been in my kind of bar," he says. "It's a journalistic myth that these bars were scenes for indiscriminate sex. I stood at the door 12 hours a day, seven days a week and I didn't see it going on." I nod my head, but I must not be doing a good job of hiding my disbelief. I begin to remember all the terrible pickup lines I've heard in bars like McGuire's, friends who were propositioned even before they got the guy's name. I can tell McGuire is almost reading my mind.

He taps the table we're at to make a point: "What I saw was a large group of single kids out looking for a good time. I don't think looking for sex was foremost in their minds. If a member of the opposite sex happened to come along, that was a different thing. It was not their sole purpose for being out. A lot of them lived at home and they wanted to get out of the living room, you know? Or they lived with three or more roommates and they just wanted to get out of their place."

He met his own wife, Mary Jo, in a Chicago bar. She was an airline stewardess out with some friends; he says it was love at first sight.

"You have to remember," McGuire continues, "North Avenue to Walton and the lake to LaSalle was the smallest town in America to me. Everybody knew everybody. One of the things that contributed to 'the singles scene' in those days that doesn't exist anymore is that people went out in groups, two or three times a week, like they did in high school. There would be a party where the entire neighborhood was invited. You don't see any of that anymore.

"You might see some parties where 20 people show up, but you don't see where 200 people show up anymore."

Now his place caters to a lot of out-of-towners. "The suburbanites come in on the weekend, along with the people from Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, Kansas City, Saint Louis. You can't exist anymore as just a Chicago bar."

And unlike the good old days where customers went to one bar and stayed there, McGuire gets his share of cruisers. "They graze in looking for the free appetizers, which is something we've never offered. I found out a long time ago that every place that offered free booze and food went bankrupt. It's hard for me to give away a product that I sell.

"I tell them: 'The last time you bought a suit at 4:30 PM on Thursday, did they give you another one free when it turned five o'clock?'"

Some things don't change.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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