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Man About Town

How Eddie Berner put his damaging past behind him to become a favorite face in local nightclubs.

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The blues band is swinging at Buddy Guy's when Eddie Berner, a little man with a big belly, enters the room. As he makes his way to the front, a tall woman in high heels says hello, and the bartender slips him a soft drink. At the break the singer calls out hello.

The same thing happens almost every night at one club or another around town--Eddie Berner, universally known as Eddie, is his own sort of star. Most nights he comes in alone. But this night he has a small entourage, including his brother Gerry, who's in from California.

Many of the people at Buddy Guy's have known Eddie for nearly 30 years, but they're surprised to see that he has a brother. "There's a lot about Eddie that people don't know--there's a lot that even I don't know," says Gerry. "It's been a long, twisting tale."

According to Gerry, their parents, Adolph and Ethel, were Hungarian immigrants born around the turn of the century. "My father had a relative here, one of his grandfather's brothers, so that's why he settled in Chicago," says Gerry. "It was in 1920. They came to Ellis Island, got processed, and, as far as I know, went right on to Chicago. Right away he got a job in the stockyards."

Within a few years Adolph was making a living as a house painter. "There were three children," says Gerry. "Ronnie was born in 1928, Eddie was born in 1932, and I'm the baby--I was born in 1936. My father was big, tough, and imposing--a very strict disciplinarian. In a way he had to be the way he was. It was a different time. He was from a different generation. He was trying to build something from scratch."

In 1935 Eddie, just three years old, became seriously ill. "There are no records of what happened, as far as I know," says Gerry. "Eddie went to the hospital for some sort of operation--it might have been tonsils or a hernia. He developed a 106-degree fever. My father said the doctors told him that he had encephalitis with resulting brain damage."

As Eddie tells the story, he went into the hospital healthy and came out sick. The illness stunted his growth--he's much shorter than his brothers or his father--and left him with a speech impediment. Over the years he's developed a rhythmic style of speech, repeating phrases as if to emphasize his key point. "I had a high fever," he says. "Encephalitis. I had a high fever a long time ago. I could have died. But I didn't die. I'm feeling that they did something to my brain. I have a low IQ. But I didn't die."

In 1939, when he was seven, Eddie broke his hip, and for almost two years he was in the hospital in a chest-to-toes cast. Once he came home, he bounced from one school to the next, never fitting in, never making close friends. "For two years Eddie went to Senn [High School]," says Gerry. "Some of the other kids taunted him. They would get right up to Eddie and punch him. I did the best I could to defend him. But think of it this way--I was the younger brother. He didn't want to have to depend on me. I can only imagine how hard this was for Eddie."

But Eddie was resourceful and independent minded. He learned to read and write, and he cultivated an understanding and appreciation of music, even though he never had any formal training. "I always loved music--all music," he says. "I remember I used to listen to music on my parents' radio. I loved classical music and opera."

Unfortunately, he and his father argued a lot. "Everyone has faults," says Eddie. "I'm not saying it's all my fault. I'm not saying it's all his fault. Children are not supposed to correct their parents. What they were telling me was no good in my eyes. Once, me and my brother [Gerry], we got in trouble. I was the instigator--I stole matches from a store. My dad found out and gave us a whipping. I didn't go for that."

Everyone said things they regretted. "I loved my parents," says Eddie. "I once told my mom and dad I hated them. I was angry at them. I didn't mean that. It was just something I said. They meant well. There was no communication."

In 1950 Adolph and Ethel sent Eddie to a mental institution 50 miles southwest of Chicago. "It was bad with my parents--there was friction," says Eddie. "They couldn't handle me. They had a choice--to keep me at home or send me to a mental hospital. They sent me to Manteno."

According to Gerry, it wasn't so simple. "I've talked to my parents about this many times," he says. "I know that decision was very difficult. My mother cried about it all the time. It became necessary for Eddie to be in a controlled situation, where he could be safe and away from home."

Eddie was 18 years old. "Manteno was the second-largest institution in the United States," he says. "It was not good. Some of the employees had intimacy with the patients. Some of the employees were not good. It's a patronage system, a spoils system. Some of them got their jobs because they knew somebody. Some employees were decent and nice. Others, they treated us like savages. They were barbaric. I don't want to talk about Manteno."

Two years later he came back to Chicago to live with his parents. "I went back home for a half year," he says. "Then I chose to go back to Manteno." Asked why, he says, "We were not a tight-knit family. There was friction. My father was a big, strong man. He walked through the door and everything got quiet. So I went back to Manteno. In January 1953. I don't know the day. Maybe it was Thursday. But it was cold--you know how it can be in January."

By then, Gerry was 16 years old--tall, hardworking, athletic, and bright. He played on the Senn High School baseball and basketball teams and worked as a stock boy at a local store. "I wanted to be a baseball player, but my parents wanted me to be a doctor," he says. "My father said, 'When you're a doctor, you're your own boss. No one can fire you.' He was very practical like that."

After graduating from Senn in 1953, Gerry went to the old University of Illinois at Navy Pier. Within ten years he was married, the father of three, and a doctor. In 1964 he and his wife moved to California, where he began his career as an anesthesiologist. "It was nothing against Chicago--I love Chicago," says Gerry. "I just wanted a sunnier climate."

He didn't return until 1975. "When I was in high school and college I used to visit Eddie at Manteno," he says. "But in the 60s and 70s I lost touch with him."

In 1969 the state began closing many of its mental institutions, and Eddie was released from Manteno. Like many other former patients, he wound up living in Uptown on a meager monthly disability allowance. "When they emptied out the hospitals, it seemed as though half of the inmates ended up in our neighborhood," says Ross Harano, a longtime Uptown resident and political activist. "They would divide up the big apartment buildings and make them boardinghouses. In some ways it was a disaster for our neighborhood."

Eddie quickly made an impression. "I used to call him Uptown Eddie," says Bill Marovitz, who served as both state representative and state senator for the area. "He was one of the most recognizable characters in Uptown--and that's saying a lot, given all the characters on the street. I don't remember how I met him. He probably just came up to me on the street and started talking. I mean, he's not shy at all. He met a lot of people that way."

Not everyone appreciated him. "In the early days there were some hygiene issues," says Marovitz. "Eddie didn't take care of himself. He didn't bathe. He didn't change his shirt. I'd say, 'Eddie, you have to bathe. You have to change your clothes.' But he's a sweet, gentle soul. I always wondered how he could have come through [Manteno] with that disposition. He was always very loving."

For years Eddie lived in a series of apartments on Malden. "Everyone knew who he was, but no one knew the details of his life," says Harano. "He was like a lot of other guys you see around."

Then one day Harano bumped into Eddie at a blues club. "I think it was Rosa's," he says. "I said, 'What are you doing here?' He said, 'I always come here.'"

It turned out that Eddie had been quietly cultivating his lifelong love for music. "I would go to the clubs all the time after I got out of Manteno," says Eddie. "I love the blues, and I love jazz. I love all music."

Getting around town was no problem. "I got a bus pass," he says. "I take the bus and train. I know all the routes. I can go anywhere. Some of the musicians say, 'I wouldn't go where you're going by bus.' But I never have any problems."

In time, he became a familiar face at most of the major clubs. The owners let him in for free. He'd sing, dance, cavort with the other customers, share a drink with the musicians, stay until closing time, then catch the bus or train home. "I became friends with a lot of the musicians," he says. "I used to write Lionel Hampton. I saw him play in Chicago. I never met Duke Ellington. I have met his grandchildren. I know B.B. King. I know his daughter, Shirley King."

During the 70s and 80s, he kept in loose contact with his family. Through cards and letters and calls he learned that his brother Ronnie had died and that his parents had moved to California to be near Gerry. "I started coming back to Chicago on a regular basis in 1989," says Gerry. "I would always visit Eddie."

In 1995 Gerry returned with his father--by then his mother had died--who was in his early 90s. "We visited Eddie," says Gerry. "We took him to Ronnie's grave site. We took him to a restaurant. My father felt bad about Eddie. As he got older, he grew softer."

Both Eddie and Gerry find it painful to try to explain why their parents lost touch with Eddie. "My father was a good man, as honest as the day is long--he just couldn't cheat anybody," says Gerry. "But he didn't understand the psychology of things. He was a big, powerful man, and to have--and I don't mean this in a wrong way--a 'defective' son was hard for him to handle. He was kind of embarrassed. I just don't think he ever understood how to relate to Eddie." He pauses. "More than anything, I now wish that I had stayed in closer touch."

In the last few years Gerry and Eddie have become much closer. Gerry comes to town almost every other month, and they regularly talk on the phone. Gerry buys his brother clothes and food and has helped lead him through the bureaucratic thicket of welfare agencies. Yet only recently did he learn about Eddie's club world. "I often wondered why Eddie would be sleeping when I called at 11 or so in the morning," he says. "Then one day he showed me a small article in the paper about how he had been named the city's number one blues fan. That's how I learned about his other life. When I came back to Chicago he took me to a club. I couldn't believe what I saw. Not only did everyone know him, they loved him."

Last year Eddie learned he had cancer. In May, his friends in the music world organized a fund-raiser at HotHouse to help pay some of his hospital bills. "That's when it really hit home to me," says Gerry. "I mean, there was Bill Marovitz and Christie Hefner and Yoko Noge and Erwin Helfer and all these other musicians. He knew them all, and they knew him. They were hugging him, and they called him to the stage, and he sang with the band. I was so proud. I couldn't believe the life he had made for himself. I couldn't believe what he had created. I didn't know. He never told us. I would go around and he would introduce me--'My little brother, Gerry.'"

Eddie's cancer is now in remission, and he's back to his club-crawling routine. "I'm glad my little brother, Gerry, is with me," he says. "You need family. I love my parents. Once I told them I hated them. But I don't. It was just something I said. Ronnie's dead. Did you know Ronnie? Ronnie died. But Gerry's alive. I see Gerry. I love Gerry. Gerry's my younger brother, and he sees me all the time."

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

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