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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Now serving a 30-year mix of memories at Berlin
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2013-11-06

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Tim Sullivan and Shirley Mooney, a gay man and a straight woman, opened the Berlin Nightclub along West Belmont Avenue in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood in 1983. "They wanted Berlin as an alternative to having to hang at the only options out there at the time: either leather bars or what Shirley would call sweater bars," said current Berlin co-owner Jim Schuman.

"There wasn't anywhere [then] truly mixed where they could both socialize and not feel out of place," said Jo Webster. "That was what Berlin was created for: a place to escape those mutually-exclusive worlds into an inclusive one, which embraced everyone."

Berlin is still that, 30 years later—and Schuman and Webster are still front and center.

The two are real-life partners as well as business partners. They carry the "owner" title for Berlin, but say they "prefer to think of ourselves as its custodians," Webster said. In some sense, they said, they are the historic explorers of Berlin.

"It's amazing to reflect on just how many people have come to think of Berlin as family over the years," Webster said. "We've been lucky enough to make friends with so many folks of every kind, from all over the world. Many of them hadn't been able to be open about who they were in their regular lives, or be comfortable with being 'different' in one way or another. But, they'd come to Berlin and found a place where they could be accepted and make lasting friendships. Berlin became a home away from home for them, in fact, for all of us.

"It is so fantastic that, after 30 years, it's still a place which brings joy and happiness to such a rich variety of humanity."

Berlin has not changed much over the past 30 years, which is something the couple take great pride in. "It's still very mixed, and we still love to be original and quirky—we celebrate with art installations regularly, give a place for some very original talent to be showcased, use original videography and ahead-of-the-curve music to watch and dance to," said Webster. "We were very careful to be true to the original vision of Berlin when we took over from Shirley after Tim died. We even swore to Shirley that we wouldn't hang ferns in the windows. Why she thought that was a risk, we still don't know."

Schuman said he and Webster are each "over 21 and legally able to party," which they still enjoy. They have owned Berlin for nearly 20 years, though both tended bar as far back as 1984 and Webster was even a bar-back at the club.

"Our very first anniversary at Berlin, Shirley shackled a bowling ball-sized glitter ball to each of our wrists with handcuffs and told us to get on with it. It's quite a ride, and we've learned never to judge a book by its cover [because] under that wig may be your bank manager, and that cute guy over there may have been born a girl," Webster said. "The most unassuming people may turn out to be super talented; you might find the guy or girl next to you is working on some amazing invention for the government, or is a cartoon artist for a major comic book. We've watched two Berliners perform 'Carmina Burana' as Siamese twin piglets, hosted the Del Rubio Triplets in their golden years, complete with go-go boots and cowboy hats, danced with Lady Miss Kier and partied with The Scissor Sisters."

Celebrating 30 years is a week-long event, which kicks off in early November, culminating with the 30th Anniversary Party, dubbed, An All-Out Family Affair, on Sunday, Nov. 10, with doors opening to the public at 11 p.m.

The anniversary week is all about the art of celebration, Schuman said. "We've been leading up to it all summer really, with our Pride [Parade] Float and club installation as an ode to Keith Haring," he said. "The next install was a pop art mash-up of Gainsborough vs. Lichtenstein," Webster continued, "and right now we're celebrating Warhol in an installation of art he might have created if he was still around. So, against this backdrop, we're revisiting some of our favorites—from Ralphi Rosario spinning Testosterone Tuesday, complete with go-go boys, to Glam-Cam Friday, where we'll set up our photography studio tent and bring out the crazy props; this time it's taxidermy and found objects from nature. Wednesday, we'll bring back 'Women Obsession,' our girl-for-girl party, and on Thursday, Heather Doble and Zebo will spin us back to 'Thrive.' Of course after Saturday's Drag Matinee and Twisted Dance Party, Sunday's the big bang, so we're really looking forward to that. It's going to be an amazing week."

Webster said Berlin, circa 2013, remains "a neighborhood dance bar of the future," as it was called originally. This year, Berlin has added "Art Bar" to its moniker.

One of the club's biggest nights ever was its House of Harlot show. "One of our best friends from London is kinky clothing designer Robin Archer, who's designed fantastical outfits in colored and printed latex for movies like Tim Burton's 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' and the upcoming Wachowski siblings' 'Jupiter Rising,'" Webster said. "He's clothed every music star from Tina Turner to Lady Gaga, from Marilyn Manson to Beyonce.

"It was a huge undertaking. We put up a runway, built a big steel cage, flew Robin, his clothes, and his fabulous wife Michelle in from London and had a fashion performance like no other. We didn't have to twist too many arms to get around 20 of the most eager models you can imagine. Think 'Fifth Element' meets Russ Meyer and Jean Genet, quite the combination."

And what about Madonna-Rama?

"She's absolutely a star like no other—her influence is huge, as are the influences upon her," Webster said. "She's almost a collector of talent, and those collaborations have yielded some of the finest artistic expressions of our time. It's funny, I remember sitting in the car with Tim Sullivan back in the 1980s, listening to one of her albums, and Tim turned to me and told me how amazing he thought she was—the hard work, the message, the musical ear, the 'It Factor,' and that she deserved every bit of the success she'd had.

"Tim would have been so proud to know that Berlin has become the Chicago nucleus of appreciation for her talents."

In the early years, Berlin was half the size it is today and the DJ booth was a little cubicle somewhere above the women's bathroom. The long bar was pretty much the footprint it is now. The plumbing was terrible and, as a bar-back, Webster said he had the "gruesome task" of trying to free some of the worst obstructions possible—"It used to be toilet paper; now it's cell phones."

"As with any business, Berlin has had its good, and also its not-so-good, years," Schuman said. "There were maybe some early [years] when we put trust where we should not have. But you live and learn."

So what do the next 30 years hold for Berlin?

"More, more, more," Webster said. "We're really dedicated now to getting back to our roots in art. Art really can bring peace, love and understanding, especially in a world where different cultures are coming so close to each other, that they often seem set to collide. We've got some great ideas in production."

They were nonstop when asked about some personal memories of the past 30 years, including the time they both modeled in the first "Men in Skirts" fashion show. They also noted such memorable Berlin experiences as the Sunday afternoon petting zoo, Wig Night. Valentine's Day Mascara, Totally Enormously Extinct Dinosaurs, the House of Games mechanical decor, feathers, glitter, and more.

Schuman added: "We take the business side of things very seriously, as any business has to, but for us it's not so much about which drink is more popular than another or what each square-foot can generate in revenue. If we did, we might as well open a supermarket. [Instead], for us it's about putting on the best party we can and making people feel welcome."

Perhaps that's why both say Berlin does not have a demographics of patrons, and that's just how they want it.

"Many of our employees have been with us more than 10 years. Some of them have been with us as long as we've been around." Schuman said. "We think there must be a group portrait in an attic somewhere. But we also have plenty of family members who've only been with us for a short while. Either way, loyalty is a two-way street here—we're very lucky to have found the crew we have. Or maybe they found us, and will continue to do just that."

Schuman said they are regularly recognized worldwide, even at other clubs, when people ask them, 'Hey, do you remember me from Berlin?'

"It never ceases to amaze us how small the world can be, from Barcelona to Buenos Aires, there are people who treasure Berlin and the memories they have of it," Webster said. "The most amazing awards Berlin has won over the years have been out of the blue, like Best Dance Bar from Rolling Stone, or Best Dance Bar from the U.K. Time Out Travel Guide. It's really great to have everyone's hard work appreciated in the media, but ultimately it's our patrons who give us the best accolades."


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