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PASSAGES Medusa's owner Dave Shelton passes away
by Matt Simonette
2020-08-19

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Dave Shelton, a.k.a. Dave "Medusa" Shelton—so named for his trademark frizzy locks— "just was different," recalled his good friend of 45 years, Richard Cooke.

Shelton was the proprietor of the iconic nightspot Medusa's on Sheffield in Lake View, where numerous Chicagoans came to dance during 1982-92, becoming one of Chicago's premier locations for house music and kicking off a "goth" movement that lasted for years in neighborhood. Shelton passed away at age 64 on Aug. 7.

Numerous locals paid tribute to Shelton on Facebook as news of his passing spread: "Dave Medusa, you touched more lives than you ever knew," wrote Jorge Heitz.

Heather Santowski posted, "Thank you Dave for creating such an amazing bond between so many strangers that made us all so happy all these years."

Cooke said that he and Shelton met when they first worked together in 1976, and that they were immediately drawn to one another because they "were a pair of oddballs."

Not only was Shelton cut from a different cloth, Cooke added, but his nightclubs were as well. "His clubs were different. He had good mix of people in there. He always thought he could do someplace that was more progressive."

Shelton had long dreamed of having his own nightspot, and spent a great deal of time saving money—he financed much of club through pop-up dance parties—and looking for just the right location. When he did, he settled on a three-story location at 3257 N. Sheffield Ave.

The club was located on the top two floors of the building, above an acupuncturist's office on the ground floor. "We were always cleaning up needles all over the place," Cooke recalled.

Shelton managed to book a great deal of then-unknown talent as they were on their way up the show-business ladder, he added. Among those Cooke recalled performing at Medusa's were Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins and Loleatta Holloway, as well as DJ Frankie Knuckles. Artist Keith Haring also showed up from time to time, Cooke said, leaving behind artwork he etched into the walls of the DJ's booth.

"We should have removed those when we closed," Cooke said. He further recalled Shelton's drag performances as Medusa L. Wallflower, which frequently left the crowd in stitches. "Dave wasn't really a drag queen—he just wanted to be a performer."

Cooke frequently worked at the front door. A 70-year-old woman, backed up by two larger security guards, worked as bouncers. "She was tiny," he recalled about the woman. "But nobody wanted to fuck with her, either."

Medusa's was a "juice bar," meaning no alcohol was served and underage patrons were welcome. But that meant panicked parents occasionally showed up looking for their children. "We just let them in," Cooke said, noting that Medusa's was patronized by several children of well-known Chicago elected officials.

One politician who never was impressed with Medusa's was Ald. Bernie Hansen, who steadily declared the nightclub was a public nuisance. Shelton attributed the closing of the Sheffield location to Hansen's strong-arming the building owner's into not renewing Shelton's lease; the Lake View Medusa's closed in 1992.

Shelton tried other Chicago locations but eventually returned to his hometown of Elgin, where a Medusa's location—which Clarke noted significantly resembled the original Medusa's—still remains.

Shelton went through a phase were he where he tinkered with old cars, especially a treasured 1957 Cadillac. Cooke noted that, after years of having a dog he doted upon, Shelton suddenly became a "cat person," adopting numerous cats. "He was feeding feral cats all the time too," he added.

Recalling the legacy of the first Medusa's, Cooke attributed its popularity to the club's openness to a diverse crowd, who was served with a minimum of attitude.

"We welcomed everyone," he said. "We welcomed gays. We welcomed straights. … At Medusa's, everyone was special."


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