In Reviews

October 15th, 2021




The history radiating through the city of Chicago can be forgotten at times. Today it’s New York, or Los Angeles, or Boston, or anywhere else, really, with Chicago becoming the whipping city. It’s the place where people only like to obsess over the stats of how many people have been shot on a weekend, rather than figuring out a way to stop the shooting, or they will move to a far suburb and complain on the outside instead of actually experiencing the reality. That’s what Chicago is to people today, a gorgeous city, with a cacophony of ways to entertain oneself in the night, with hard working people at nearly every avenue, from the north side to the far south side; Yet all we hear is the negativity. It’s important for people to never forget the history, including myself, and although the Chicago of the past is long gone, it’s nice to relive it in the documentary Live at Mister Kelly’s. During the 1960’s and 70’s, there was a romantic place for people to go, a place where the people of Chicago could see the biggest and brightest in music or stand-up comedy. That was Mister Kelly’s- located a half a block south on Rush and Division- a bright place to go and shine. In the new documentary Live at Mister Kelly’s, it’s a stroll down memory lane, to a time where music was an intimate experience, and a night out for mom & dad might have meant seeing Ella Fitzgerald sing the blues. Live at Mister Kelly’s is a documentary that longs for the past and I hope we can play it all again someday.

The structure of this documentary is standard, with a well balanced background study and talking head interviews with current people that still remember the classy joint. Director Ted Bogosian has done his homework, introducing us to the owners George and Oscar Marienthal, how they made a dining experience unlike any other, and finding a delightful collection of celebrities to shed light on what made this club rock. The story opens with the kind words spoken by Barbra Streisand, who made big moves playing at Mister Kelly’s, and reminisces about how her first studio album cover came to be after her first night in Chicago. From then on it is a who’s who of talented names, from comedian Dick Gregory, musician Lainie Kazan, Bob Newhart, and many more, chatting about how Mister Kelly’s rose to be the “it” location for comedy, the place where numerous albums captured the pure sound of Chicago jazz, and how an institution such as it wasn’t able to sustain itself forever.

As soon as I finished watching Live at Mister Kelly’s I did two things: 1) I went onto Spotify and found all the albums recorded live, including Ella Fitzgerald, Muddy Waters, Sarah Vaughan, and the Oscar Peterson Trio. Each album is a trip back in time, with a sound that is unmatchable today. And 2) I asked my mother if my grandpa and grandma had ever been to Mister Kelly’s, and of course the answer is yes, which always reminds me that the rich Chicago history is ingrained in my family. From my uncle working as Richard Daley Sr. press secretary, my mother and aunt teaching at numerous schools in this city, or my father playing the piano at Second City for a young Steve Carell. To grow up in this city is to be this city, so for me learning about Mister Kelly’s was a breath of fresh nostalgia. I found myself longing for a place like it today, learning a new avenue of the city I had not known about, but also shocked to know that it is now a Gibson’s restaurant, which means they still serve good food, but they lack in the music.

When discussing the style of the documentary, Live at Mister Kelly’s runs a bit thin by the end, often repeating itself before the final credits run, but still displaying a bright and delightful appreciation for what Chicago nightlife once was. The narration is conducted by legendary Chicago journalist Bill Kurtis, who has a voice perfectly fit for telling Mister Kelly’s story. By the end, what’s most impressive is the long list of talent that stepped foot in the doors, from Richard Pryor, Bette Midler, Joan Rivers, to Lily Tomlin, and how they all became more than anyone might have ever imagined.

The bittersweet ending of Mister Kelly’s is a combination of things that happen to anything good in Chicago, where multiple fires took a toll on the cost of keeping the establishment alive, the music and comedy acts were too expensive too have for even one night, and by the end it was not an establishment not pulling enough money in with rising costs. By the time Mister Kelly’s had closed it was a thing of the past. This is why Ted Bogosian has done a great service with a great documentary like Live at Mister Kelly’s, which is keeping the idea, what Mister Kelly’s represents for live entertainment, and what it means to gather with a great community. This is the Chicago that still exists. We just need to work hard and bring it all back.



Written by: Leo Brady

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