The Newberry Library has acquired the archives of Mister Kelly’s, an iconic 20th-century Chicago nightclub, cultural hub, and launchpad for comedians and singers including Richard Pryor, Barbra Streisand, and many others.
Founded in 1953 by George and Oscar Marienthal, Mister Kelly’s became one of Chicago’s best-known jazz and comedy venues, operating until 1975. The club was located just a few blocks from the Newberry, on Rush Street in the spot where Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse sits today. During decades of social upheaval and segregation, the club was a rare gathering place for people of all races to enjoy performances from the likes of musicians Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Herbie Hancock and comedians Bob Newhart, Dick Cavett, and Lily Tomlin.
“We’re delighted to bring the Mister Kelly’s archive to the Newberry, where it will complement and extend our existing holdings in Chicago history, performing arts, and social action,” said Alison Hinderliter, Lloyd Lewis Curator of Modern Manuscripts and Archives at the Newberry. “Researchers, artists, and members of the public will have direct access to a range of fascinating ephemera, oral histories, photographs, and artifacts documenting the history of this storied venue.”
Consisting of both digital and physical materials, the collection includes more than 100 oral histories with singers, musicians, and comedians, as well as books, periodicals, posters, live recordings, photographs, and artifacts like menus, matchbooks, ashtrays, and dinner plates. One highlight among the ephemera is a bar tab run up by comedian Lenny Bruce.
“Mister Kelly’s was an American mecca for popular entertainment,” said Elliott Gorn, Joseph A. Gagliano Chair in American Urban History at Loyola University Chicago and a Scholar-in-Residence at the Newberry. “The Newberry has acquired a treasure trove that captures an important moment in Chicago history.”
The Mister Kelly’s archive also includes items associated with two other clubs operated by the Marienthals: London House (1946-1975) and The Happy Medium (1960-the late 1970s).
David Marienthal, son and nephew of the clubs’ founders, assembled the archive and donated it to the Newberry. He is also the executive producer of the documentary film Live at Mister Kelly’s, set to air on WTTW on May 27, 2021, and to be followed by a national public television broadcast.
“In compiling the archive, I wanted to create a record of a fascinating, fun, creative period in the history of Chicago and America,” said Marienthal. “My hope is that present and future generations will chronicle this history by engaging with an exciting body of original artistic work at one of Chicago’s premier institutions of learning. It’s gratifying to know that the legacy of Mister Kelly’s will be preserved a stone’s throw from where the club once stood.”
The Mister Kelly’s collection, which is currently being processed by Newberry archivists, will be available to researchers by the end of spring 2021. The Newberry is also planning to mount an exhibition celebrating this acquisition in the spring of 2024.
About Mister Kelly’s
Born and raised at the intersection of four crucial social movements—Civil Rights, Free Speech, Women’s Rights, and Anti-war—Mister Kelly’s came alive with the razor-sharp punchlines of Lenny Bruce, the smooth jazz of Oscar Peterson, and the heart-wrenching tunes of Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone.
Barbra Streisand, Dick Gregory, the Smothers Brothers, Sarah Vaughan, Joan Rivers, Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, Woody Allen, Dinah Washington, George Shearing, Redd Foxx, Brazil 66, Oscar Brown, Mort Sahl, Chick Corea, Oscar Brown, Bette Midler, Dick Cavett, Herbie Hancock, Lily Tomlin, and many more launched careers and grew to fame at a trio of night clubs on Chicago’s Gold Coast.
The intimate, smoky rooms of Mister Kelly’s, founded in 1953 by George and Oscar Marienthal, became one of Chicago’s best-known jazz and comedy nightclubs. By filling the rooms of Kelly’s, London House, and later The Happy Medium with beautiful people making beautiful music, the brothers Marienthal had the guts and savvy to uncover the raw talent that would change the entertainment world and make a nation take notice of the Third Coast.
Learn more at misterkellyschicago.com.