Mister Kelly's

Mister Kelly’s was a nightclub on Rush Street in Chicago which existed from 1953 to 1975. From around 1956 until its demise, it was a springboard to fame for many entertainers, especially jazz singers and comedians. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, "It was a supernova in the local and national nightlife firmament." Mr. Kelly’s was owned and operated by brothers Oscar and George Marienthal, whose Chicago empire included the London House, an upscale jazz supper club, and the theatrically oriented Happy Medium.[1]

The cover of Sarah Vaughn's 1957 live album At Mister Kelly's

Early daysEdit

Mister Kelly’s opened on November 24, 1953 on Rush Street in Chicago[2] as a restaurant featuring steaks and Green Goddess salad as a house special.[3] In 1954, entertainment was added with two singer-pianists, Buddy Charles and Audrey Morris, as the first entertainers.[4][5]

The nightclub was destroyed on December 8, 1955 when a fire started in a grease chute and spread through a ventilator into the club.2 Mister Kelly’s was rebuilt and reopened on August 29, 1956[6] with a new policy of standup singers. Previously the nightclub specialized in singers who played their own accompaniment.[7] Recording star Jeri Southern was one of the first standup singers to appear.[8] The club also had a completely new décor but retained an original Mister Kelly’s feature, stairways which went nowhere for casual enthusiasts who simply wanted to sit and watch the show.2 [9] Mr. Kelly’s became a springboard to fame for countless entertainers.[10]

In November, 1956, the Marienthal brothers’ nightclubs made their debut on WNBQ Channel 5 (NBC) in Chicago. The new color television show was entitled Here’s Music – At London House and Mister Kelly's. The set duplicated the décor and many of the appointments of Mister Kelly's as an authentic supper club setting for the show.[11] Entertainers appearing at Mr. Kelly's begin to record albums at the nightclub. By 1958, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy King, Della Reese, Buddy Greco, Anita O'Day, Sarah Vaughn and comedian Mort Sahl had recorded there.[12]

Middle yearsEdit

In 1959, Mister Kelly’s instituted a new entertainment policy, which combined a musical act with a comedy act. This combination remained the club's format for the next 16 years. New talent and established entertainers were featured. For example, in April, 1960 comedian Bob Newhart, and songstress Janice Halpern were featured.[13] In 1963, Oscar Marienthal discovered a young singer at a small New York nightclub and booked her several months before she was to appear. Oscar died suddenly at the age of 50 before that new talent, 20-year-old Barbra Streisand, made her debut at Mister Kelly’s on June 11, 1963.[14]

Other entertainers who played the club early in their careers included Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Shelley Berman, Nancy Wilson, Shecky Greene, Jackie Vernon, Jackie Mason, Eartha Kitt, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Barbra Streisand and Bob Newhart. Established stars, too, such as Ella Fitzgerald, the Kingston Trio and Billie Holiday headlined at the club.

On the night of February 8, 1966, about 200 patrons fled Mister Kelly's as fire engulfed an entire block on Rush Street in Chicago. It had begun in a drugstore, swept through the buildings and completely destroyed Mister Kelly’s.[15] The club reopened on May 15, 1967. It was rebuilt on its original site and redesigned to increase seating capacity at tables from 165 to 180 seats.[16] The old stairways now known as "bleachers" were reinstalled with cushions and additional seating space. The bleachers continued to be a no-minimum, no-cover area where a customer could see and hear the show for a price for a drink or two.[17] Among the stars who returned to perform were Woody Allen and Mort Sahl, for whom the initial appearance at Mister Kelly’s became a stepping stone to their star status.[18]


In 1969, Mister Kelly's was sold to Arts and Leisure Corp., entertainment division, and things began to change. In 1971, new policies were instituted that were more informal; the maître d' wore a casual suit instead of a tuxedo. Young entertainment was featured with a low-price package deal.[19] In July, 1974, Paul Wimmer, who had been employed by Arts and Leisure Corp., and a group of investors purchased the nightclub. Due to financial problems, the club closed on August 25, 1975. Its demise was not sudden. Security issues and late-night TV took its toll and top talent commanded top fees to appear there. This required a high volume of patrons, but Mister Kelly’s had fewer than 200 seats, including the "bleachers." [20]

Recordings at Mister Kelly’sEdit

Notable performersEdit

Among the notables who performed at Mister Kelly’s were Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Reddy, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ramsey Lewis, Barbra Streisand, Julie London, Anita O'Day, Abbey Lincoln, Lou Rawls, Eartha Kitt, Liza Minnelli, Dionne Warwick, Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae, Muddy Waters, Lainie Kazan, Carmen McRae, Rod McKuen, Buddy Greco, Bette Midler, B.B. King, Phoebe Snow, Cass Elliot, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway, Mel Torme, Oliver, Barry Manilow, Spanky and Our Gang, and Captain and Tennille. Comedians who also performed at Mister Kelly's included the likes of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, The Smothers Brothers, Freddie Prinze, Robert Klein, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Flip Wilson, Tim and Tom, Redd Foxx, Phyllis Diller, Bob Newhart, Jackie Mason, Fred Willard, Don Adams, Jack E. Leonard, Ace Trucking Co., Steve Martin, Dick Cavett, Marilyn Michaels, Morgana King, Godfrey Cambridge, and Lily Tomlin. Musical directors at the club included Dick Marx, Marty Rubenstein and Larry Novak.

External linksEdit

Coordinates: 41°54′05″N 87°37′41″W / 41.9014°N 87.6280°W / 41.9014; -87.6280


  1. ^ Chicago Sun-Times, August 21, 2005
  2. ^ Chicago Social Magazine, Klobuchar, January, 2000
  3. ^ Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1959
  4. ^ Chicago Tribune, October 17, 1954
  5. ^ Chicago Tribune, October 24, 1954
  6. ^ Chicago Tribune, Tower Ticker, August 29, 1956
  7. ^ Chicago Tribune, On the Town, August 26, 1956
  8. ^ Chicago Tribune, November 4, 1956
  9. ^ Chicago Tribune, August 19, 1956
  10. ^ Chicago Tribune, August 21, 2005
  11. ^ Chicago Tribune, November 18, 1956
  12. ^ Billboard, October 20, 1958 , p. 34
  13. ^ Chicago Tribune, On the Town, April 10, 1960
  14. ^ Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1963; Chicago Tribune, Tower Ticker, June 12, 1963
  15. ^ Chicago Tribune, February 9, 1966
  16. ^ Variety, Vaudeville, p. 58, 1968
  17. ^ Chicago Tribune, On the Town, May 14, 1967
  18. ^ Chicago Tribune, On the Town, May 14, 1967
  19. ^ Chicago Tribune, PB3, February 26, 1971
  20. ^ Chicago Sun Times, August 23, 2005
  21. ^ Happy Medium Ventures Archive Chicago, www.happymediumventures.com