Over the past fifty years, the Baton Show Lounge helped to set a new standard for female impersonation; heightening the polish, the professionalism, and the caliber of performance demanded of its cast members. The Baton took something once denigrated and demanded that it be given dignity. In the process, the Baton helped turn female impersonation into an art form and made it a viable career option for many.
"We are going out here with a bang! We are having the 50thanniversary show at the River North location on February 21st, a terrific show. Mimi Marks will even be coming back to the Baton for a performance. Then on March 1 we start at the new Uptown location at 4705 N. Broadway."
Flint's excitement about the move to Uptown is infectious. "I can't wait to be back in the center of my community. The new space is fantastic. The stage is wonderful. The sound and the lighting is top of the line. We are even revamping the shows a bit, with a return to big production numbers."
Although the future is exciting, for Flint the move is bittersweet. Closing the location at 436 N. Clark means saying goodbye to an important part of history. The world, and especially the River North area, was a very different place when the doors to the Baton opened in March of 1969. Gas was thirty-four cents a gallon, a postage stamp was six cents, and Nixon was still settling into the White House.
To understand the story of the Baton, it's helpful to understand Jim Flint. Born and raised in Peoria, Flint arrived in Chicago in 1965, fresh from a stint in the Navy. For the next few years, he worked as a bartender at several establishments including the Annex [2865 N. Clark] and the Chesterfield [2831 N. Clark].
When Flint was working at the Chesterfield, Roby Landers orchestrated one of her famous Turnabouts. On those evenings the entertainers would serve the drinks and check coats while the bartenders and the doorman did the drag show. On one of those occasions, Flint had his first taste of drag. He went on stage as Felicia with a flaming baton. Although his performance was somewhat of a fire hazard, he was a huge hit.
1965 was also the year Flint first heard the words, "This house is under arrest." During the '60s, being arrested was part and parcel for being employed at a gay bar. "Raids were terrible all through the 1960s," recalled Flint. "Sometimes the police would hit two or three bars a night. Overall I was arrested fifteen times, usually for being the keeper of a disorderly house or for soliciting for prostitution. All the charges were false, of course. If the police saw a man touching another man they would arrest both of them for public indecency. But in all those arrests, never once was I found guilty."
After the Chesterfield, Flint moved to Sam's [1205 N. Clark St.] where he became one of the most popular bartenders in the city. Shortly after the 1968 Democratic Convention, Sam's closed for good. The building was demolished to make way for the Sandburg Village development.
At the Normandy Inn [744 N. Rush St.] Flint started twirling his baton full time at the bar. "It was so much fun. Being behind the bar was my stage." Flint left the Normandy when he was denied a raise he felt he deserved. Instead, he decided to open his own bar. When the Baton officially opened in March of 1969, it was at 430 N. Clark St., just south of its current location at 436 N. Clark. Today, a Starbucks stands in the original location.
At the beginning the Baton was called Smitty's Show Lounge after partner Dwight Smith. Flint was unable to get the liquor license in his name following his string of arrests from bar raids. Flint recalled, "Nobody was coming down to Smitty's. Nobody knew who Smitty was. Dwight moved to California after a month or two." When that happened Smitty's Show Lounge became the Baton Show Lounge. "Once that happened, I started performing in the street, roller-skating down Clark Street with my baton to get people to notice. I had to let people know we were here. It was cheap advertising."
Flint also credits Roby Landers for helping get word out about the Baton. Landers had opened her nightclub, the House of Landers, beside the 'L' tracks at 936 W. Diversey Pkwy. "Every time the train would go by, Roby would say, 'There goes that bitch again on her roller-skates.' People started wondering what Roby was talking about. And people started coming south to see Felicia and her gang."
Opening a bar that featured female impersonation wasn't part of Flint's original plan. "I wasn't thinking about opening a drag bar. I figured I was just going to open a regular old tavern. It was so shady down here at the time that nobody would come down here. So I figured to get people to come down, we'd have a drag show." Flint got entertainers Lady Baronessa, Jodie Lee, and Samantha George together. Next he put down sixteen empty cases of beer, covered them with plywood, got a spotlight, hung a curtain, and he was ready for the show.
"Along with those three, I performed as Felicia. I was more comic drag. Mostly I was emcee. The first Saturday night we did it I was overwhelmed. It was our best night for business. We did it again the next Saturday and it went well again. From there it just took off." Eventually Sundays were added and soon the Baton featured shows five nights a week.
Over the years, the neighborhood has gone through enormous changes. "The first year down here almost every night there was a fistfight with the winos and the rough street people. Eventually the Gold Coast and the Bistro moved in, then the New Flight, and many others." In less than five years, and throughout the '70s, the River North area was the popular area for gay nightlife.
With the payoffs, bar upkeep, supplies, and staff wages Flint didn't always know if he was going to make payroll. But Jim Flint is tenacious and despite the hardships, he wasn't about to give up. At times the money was so tight he had to jump in a cab and go to the liquor store and get one bottle of bourbon and one bottle of gin because that's all he'd have the money for, but Flint made sure his people were taken care of.
In the early years the clientele was anyone and everyone. "We stayed open until 4:00AM and had pool tables. When we didn't have shows people could play pool. The music was good. We had a movie night. The bar still wasn't really profitable. I still lived in my room upstairs and showered in the basement because I couldn't afford to pay people, pay the rent, and rent an apartment."
By 1975, the Baton shows reflected the polish and appeal that has given the pioneering club its reputation for professionalism. Performers at the time included Dina Jacobs, Peaches, Jan Howard, China Nguyen, Jodie Lee, Leslie Rejeanne, and Audrey Bryant. The sparkling roster of talent is also indicative of another Baton trademark, Flint's knack for choosing performers that were each distinct and whose differences would combine to make a wonderful and varied show.
By the late '70s, the Baton had a solid reputation for top-notch productions that many claimed were the finest in the nation. Then, because of daytime talk shows, straight people started to find out about the Baton. "We'd been on Irv Kupcinet's show a few times when Irv said he was bringing a guest to the show. It was Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas. After the show Phil said he wanted us to go on his show. Not only did we go on his show, we went on five or six times. That got people talking and that's when I first met Oprah in 1982 in Baltimore, and then Sally Jessy Raphael, and then for a while we were just going from one talk show to another."
The publicity brought all sorts of people to the show. The Baton even became a destination for local luminaries as well as celebrities visiting Chicago. Notable audience members who sat in the footlights and enjoyed the show include Oprah, Madonna, Grace Jones, Kirk Douglas, Carol Channing, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joan Crawford, Ted Kennedy, Lauren Bacall, Paul Lynde, Liza Minnelli, Phyllis Diller, Goldie Hawn, Harold Washington, and countless others.
Regardless of who is in the audience, at the Baton the real stars are on the stage. The Baton has given dozens of female impersonators a platform to become legends. Cast members over the years have included Shante ( Alexandra Billings ), Mimi Marks, Chilli Pepper, Leslie Rejeanne, Wanda Lust, Sheri Payne, Peaches, Dina Jacobs, Kelly Lauren, Maya Douglas, Monica Munro, Tajma Hall, Cezanne, Sasha Colby, Victoria LePaige, Dana Douglas, Tasha Long, Audrey Bryant, the incomparable Ginger Grant, and many others.
Flint grew emotional discussing the closing of the current location. "So much has happened here. Fifty years is a long time. I think about all the people who performed on this stage and came through that door. I think about people who are no longer here. It's been difficult to think about leaving."
The talent, the costumes, the atmosphere, and the consistent dedication to quality have kept patrons coming for 50 years. Though the lights may be dimming on this magical place with its scarlet and mirrored decor, the impact and importance that the Baton has had locally, nationally, and internationally remains strong.
The Baton Show Lounge has been entertaining crowds for fifty years and in that time has become an essential part of Chicago LGBTQ history. Despite the change of address, audiences can rest assured that Jim Flint will remain firm in his commitment to presenting an entertaining show with top performers and impeccable production values. Some things are timeless.