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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Big Chicks turns the big 3-0
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-12-07

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There was a flurry of activity the morning Windy City Times arrived at the Uptown bar Big Chicks.

The cozy, adjoining restaurant Tweet was filled with people enjoying brunch while taking in the insulated relaxation of bygone eras that, like the smell of freshly brewed coffee, saturate the walls and can be relived in selections of old magazines or the art celebrating a beauty that has become a stranger to the ugliness of what is increasingly trending as Trump's America.

Beyond the narrow entry to Big Chicks, a small army of people were hard at work hammering wood into place, painting and re-varnishing while preparing the bar for another night when it will be packed from end-to-end with customers across the age, racial and gender spectrum including representatives of each of the letters on the LGBTQIA umbrella.

It is the way Big Chicks has always remained because it is the tone owner Michelle Fire set from the very beginning. The bar was a 2016 Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame inductee, and Fire beamed from the stage at the Chicago History Museum during the induction ceremony last month.

Fire was varnishing a table when famed Chicago artist Zuleyka Benitez—who has been a part of the business since it opened on Dec. 11, 1986 at 7 a.m.—approached her with a selection of paint colors on some cardboard.

Benitez helped to create the durable, vintage look of each incarnation of the interior that has evolved around the restored 1940s Brunswick Company bar which came with the building, and decorated with an art collection spanning 40 years. She even installed the door buzzer.

Fire made her choice of color and Benitez said she would be back in double time from the hardware store with the paint.

Renovations will be either finished or put on pause before the bar opens for the evening.

For the past 30 years, Big Chicks has remained open every single day. It is a consistency that comes with one standing rule: there are no judgments to be made.

Everyone is welcome except those who pour hatred into glasses and allow it to intoxicate them.

"You have to be inclusive," Fire said. "Even from the beginning it was very clear who would be welcome and who wouldn't. People who don't operate on inclusion stand out very quickly. They don't want to be here and we don't want them here."

Fire has a larger than life personality that would make fools cautious.

However, those who have the fortune of stopping her for even a 30-minute conversation leave instantly energized by her virulent pizzazz.

Fire said she wanted her preferred gender pronouns to be "old."

It would have been both an inaccurate and complicated a story of a reluctant barkeep who created an LGBTQ home and so a community in the unlikeliest of places.

"I'm just being a bitch about myself," Fire said with a laugh. "You've got to have a sense of humor about yourself."

She paused to call over to her bartender who was stacking glasses.

"Bill? We're doing an interview here, can you clank at the other end of the bar please?"

Bill grumbled a response but acquiesced. It was an exchange which cemented the idea that everyone who works at Big Chicks is as much a family as those they serve.

Fire went on to describe herself as an "urban child" raised on the West Side of Chicago to a small, lower-working class family. She went to public school and attained a degree in art history from the University of Illinois

"I grew up without a television, without a car," she said. "I made art for about 10 years. I was in all kinds of shows and did all kinds of fun stuff."

Among that fun stuff was being a part of Artemisia—a women's collective gallery which was one of the heights of the city's cultural landscape for 30 years. Fire joined after selling her own nonprofit studio Untitled in Andersonville.

"The '70s was the era of collaborative, artist-run spaces," Fire said. "You did your own work and you curated work from outside bringing people in from all over. Chicago was a big hub of art activity. It was an exciting moment. That was before [Ronald] Raegan cut all the N.E.A. [National Endowment for the Arts] funding."

In 1979, Fire started working in gay bars.

"It was a moment when the world was not quite so accepting and embracing," she said. "So the gay community centered on bars and certain organizations because that's what there was. The bars and the printed newspapers were very much the way people communicated."

Like so many who were part of the community in the '80s, Fire lost an entire generation of friends to HIV/AIDS.

"By the time I opened up Big Chicks in '86, a whole bunch of friends were in hospice," she recalled. "It was just overwhelming. Illinois Masonic [hospital] had whole floors of people that I knew. It looked like the end of the world."

While Fire acknowledged that, in life, many people have a plan, when it came to starting Big Chicks she didn't have idea one.

"I was working at this huge bar called The Loading Dock," she said. "I was a saving my money but looking for an opportunity to move into a different moment. I knew a woman Anna Benedetto who owned The Swan Club and a little grill on Argyle right around the corner from where Big Chicks is right now. Every morning, I would get off work and go there and have breakfast and we'd talk. She told me that Charlie, who owned this little bar around the corner where my mother used to drink, was selling the bar."

"I really didn't want to go into the bar business," Fire added. "I knew how hard it was. It's kind of an outcast profession. It was interesting when these corporations you'd do business with, like liquor corporations, would have an event and I would go first as a woman, second as a gay bar owner. You were always kind of the odd woman out. So it's a profession that's not conducive to women or gay people. It's a very small subculture."

It wasn't the idea of a bar which appealed to Fire so much as it was the place once called The Sheridan Lounge which literally drew upon her imagination.

"It's a beautiful Art Deco, terracotta building, like the kind I used to make art with," she said. "I'd looked at it many times and thought 'I love it.'"

Then she went inside.

"Like Bette Davis said [in Beyond the Forest] 'what a dump!'" Fire recalled with an almost perfect imitation. "As happenstance would have it, the owner didn't want to sell it to anyone he knew. So he sold it to this lesbian who he thought would fuck all of his friends over."

For the next six years, Fire, alongside Benitez, set about renovating and evolving Bette Davis's 'dump' into a place deserving of the name with which Fire christened it.

Big Chicks took root after Fire made a trip to India and was singled out by a group of local men in Bandra who pointed at her and yelled, "Big Chick! Big Chick!"

"It was a moment in time that was so surreal, but I thought 'this has got some meaning,''' Fire said. "So when I bought the bar I had to use it."

While Fire changed the name, initially the bar's patronage remained the same—or so she thought until they decided to come clean with her.

"It was a daytime bar at first," she said. "The street was so rough, nobody was out after nine [p.m.]. So there were a lot of old timers doing shots with their Chihuahuas. It was fabulous. It turns out half the people in there were old queens who never told anybody they were gay. I inherited two bartenders who came with the business. They were gay. It was like, this totally, undercover subculture where everybody had these secret lives, but the minute I got here it was like 'Umm Michelle, I just want to let you know I'm gay.'"

The name Big Chicks was also a cause of confusion for the next 30 years.

"If I had a dollar for everyone who told me 'I remember when it was a lesbian bar,'" Fire said. "It's never been a lesbian bar. It was a growth experience for me too. I took every penny I had to make the business work, try to stay in business and mold it in into what I wanted it to be. It's been an all-consuming 30 years."

There is much that is synonymous with Big Chicks; the Sunday brunch in the back, the art on the walls which has attracted museum owners from all over the world, but most of all, the sense of family—customers and staff who have been integral to the business for three decades.

"I am very partial to the notion that the [LGBTQ] community is a very interesting community," Fire said. "Diverse, eclectic, educated and marvelous."

Big Chicks has mirrored the community it serves.

"The space has functioned as a stand-alone bar, as a dance venue on weekends," Fire said. "We've had performance art, lesbian speed dating, you name it. There's so many things that have been here over 30 years, I can't remember them all."

One moment Fire does remember was when a greedy developer tried to put an end to Big Chicks.

"Around 2002, they wanted this piece of land," she said. "They were trying to force me out so they created this kerfuffle with City Hall about me being close to a defunct synagogue. It was a pivotal moment. The city was going to close me down because someone had called and complained. I am sure it was the developer who wanted to force me out. It was two years of hell."

But it was a hell in which what Fire calls "the Big Chicks community" would be damned before they were going to let it consume their beloved bar.

"They rallied, they petitioned, they organized demonstrations, they went to court," Fire said. "Eventually Greg Harris and [then-state Rep.] Larry McKeon helped push through an exemption to the law. I had to go to every block club in the neighborhood to petition to stay here. I said 'what would you like from me?' They said 'We'd like you to open a restaurant.'"

Tweet was born in a closed Vietnamese restaurant next door.

"I had a stove and that was it," Fire said. "So I brought cooks in, worked on a menu and got the place up and running. I never wanted to own a gay bar. I never wanted to run a restaurant. Now we are in our 14th year at Tweet and our 30th here."

But, like Fire, her customers remain invested in Big Chicks heart and soul.

"People tell me, 'I met my lover there 20 years ago and we're still together,'" Fire said. "Staying in business, staying successful and being a part of the community has been a win for everybody."

For more information on Big Chicks, visit BigChicks.com .


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