Friday is closing day at Bucket O'Sud's, the dusty little tavern on Cicero near Belmont that's better known simply as the Bucket. For 32 years it's been owned and run by Joe Danno, who always wears a frayed shirt, low-riding polyester pants, sneakers, and black-rimmed glasses and always takes his own sweet time cooking up whatever drinks his regulars order.
Danno's father, a bootlegger, early on taught him the rudiments of the booze-making art. Almost immediately following the repeal of prohibition in 1933, Danno got a license to brew his own liquor that's still in effect. No one knows precisely how Danno creates his stuff, and no one dares ask. He disappears into a back room and emerges with bottles of homemade hooch, including the hallucinatory licorice-flavored Elixer Lucifer, the schnappslike Apple Knocker, and the Jagermeister-like Meister Likker.
When Danno opened the Bucket in 1964 it was a combination tavern and family restaurant. He supplied homemade condiments, and his sister-in-law Fena whipped up Italian specials: thin pizzas, a hamburger that became known as the BOS burger, platters of ribs.
John Fuscone, a former jazz drummer, was a Bucket regular when it first opened. "Joe is an original cat. He's not interested in making money like most guys. If you want another drink you've gotta chase Joe for one, because he gets caught in conversation with somebody. He just runs the show his way."
In those days the Bucket looked and felt like a neighborhood bar, but then as now very few of the customers were from the neighborhood. Its prime was in the mid-80s, when DJs from WXRT began bringing in musicians such as Steve Earle, Chrissie Hynde, XTC, and the Replacements. Elvis Costello held a release party for his album Spike at the Bucket. Danno was profiled in numerous newspaper and radio stories, and two documentaries were made about him.
Danno never really knew what kind of music his new clientele played, and he cared even less. He prefers Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Art Tatum, Jackie McLean, and Dexter Gordon. In 1985 he hosted a jazz show on WNUR. After that he put in two years as host of a half-hour radio show called Jumpin' Joe the Jazz Philosopher that he broadcast live from the Bucket, running a wire from a phonograph to a telephone and attaching it with alligator clips. He would play two or three long tunes and fill the rest of the time with a running monologue that usually included a word of the day, bits of folk philosophy, and ads for his condiments.
He still talks about jazz constantly. Last Friday night he said, "Just south of Fullerton Avenue on the west side of the street there was a place called the New Deal Tavern. We're going back to the spring of 1933. There was a drummer there called Zutty Singleton. He was Louis Armstrong's drummer. They were born and raised together, and they were the best of friends. Through Zutty I got to know Louis Armstrong. Oh yeah! He put on a performance for me and my friends in his house on the south side. It was really something. I knew Billie Holiday too. Through Zutty I met all these people. I got a picture of him. You see him? Great drummer! I said to him one time, 'Zutty, whaddya doin' working for three bucks a night? You could be with Louis!' He says, 'That's the problem. As long as I'm with Louis I could never make a name for myself.' He showed me a picture of Louis Armstrong holding a trumpet on his knee, and it was a picture of the Louisiana state reformatory band! He was like 13 years old."
A few years ago thieves broke into the Bucket and took a large number of bottles from Danno's collection of exotic and precious liquors, including several 100-year-old cognacs and a priceless Napoleon-era brandy. Then Fena died of cancer, which saddened him greatly. His regulars could see the bar begin to decline. It was cleaned less and less often, and the kitchen got rusty.
In 1994 Urge Overkill touted the Bucket in a Rolling Stone article, and an even younger clientele began to show up. Danno couldn't keep up the pace required by cult popularity.
In the next two months Danno plans to pack up his many dusty bottles, his stuffed terrapin, his tiki dolls, the back bar, the wobbly stools, the photos of jazz musicians, politicians, racehorses, and celebrities and move them all to Las Vegas. He owns a bit of property in an industrial park, where he intends to open a bar museum as well as sell his mustards, barbecue and taco sauces, and homemade liqueurs. He says that when his grandchildren reach legal drinking age he might fly them to Nevada to restart the family business. "I've got the credentials to go to any hotel. They lease those spots out like they do department stores. It all depends on how I feel. Maybe we'll get a Bucket going again. It's very possible."
Bucket O'Sud's, 3123 N. Cicero (773-777-5569), will be open for the last time from 9 PM to 1 AM Friday, November 15.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joe Danno photo by Nathan Mandell.