The experience of listening to live music has evolved considerably over the years.
This has never been truer than during the COVID-19 pandemic when live performance was seriously curtailed and has only now begun to return to a new normal as venues of all sizes struggle to find a way to keep patrons and performers safe.
Narrated by Bill Kurtis (whose voice non-Chicagoans may recognize from NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!), Ted Bogosian’s "Live at Mister Kelly’s" (Kino Lorber/Virgil Films) documentary is an audio/visual celebration of the iconic Chicago nightclub Mister Kelly’s and the way it transformed entertainment for more than 20 years, in the years between World War II and Watergate. Featuring an abundance of vintage performance footage, as well as interviews with performers and staff, the doc provides an intimate look at the storied venue.
Founded by brothers Oscar and George Marienthal, who also owned and operated the nearby London House jazz supper club, Mister Kelly’s was a launching pad for numerous new performers in addition to being a favorite spot for established artists looking to perform in a more intimate spot. Located on Rush Street, which at the time was considered to be a Chicago version of Las Vegas, Mister Kelly’s was a place to see and be seen.
Known for its eclectic booking, presided over by the Marienthals as well as Arlyne Rothberg, Mister Kelly’s also came to be known as a place where the mix of the atmosphere and the audience made for great live recordings. Among the musical performers who graced the stage are a 20-year-old Barbra Streisand, Lainie Kazan, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Anita O’Day, Bonnie Koloc, Judy Roberts, Maya Angelou, Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis, Eartha Kitt, Trini Lopez, and Cass Elliot (who recorded a live album there), to mention a few.
Many comedians, including Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, Dick Gregory, David Steinberg, Robert Klein, Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller, Steve Martin, George Carlin, Shecky Green, Shelley Berman, Smothers Brothers, Freddie Prinze, Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, and Woody Allen, among others also played there.
The location also attracted queer folks. Lily Tomlin performed there. Bette Midler, and her gay accompanist Barry Manilow, did as well. Gay comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, who is interviewed in the doc, also wrote material for Midler.
The location was somewhat cursed having been damaged by fires (and rebuilt) more than once. As with most documentaries, "Live at Mister Kelly’s" is full of fascinating inside stories. The one Streisand tells about the photo shoot she did at Chicago’s Oak Street Beach with Don Bronstein (from which the cover of 1964’s "People" album resulted) definitely stands out among the rest.
While "Live at Mister Kelly’s" is undeniably engaging, almost as much as the roster of artists who performed there, it feels lightweight, and forgettable.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.