Sunday, February 18, 2024

Berlin, a club that was a cornerstone of gay nightlife in Chicago, has closed after four decades.

The bar’s owners announced that they were closing it last week after months of boycotts by workers and performers in support of a fledging union’s demands for higher wages, health insurance and improved security.

“The magic that happened at 954 W. Belmont will never be recreated,” the bar said in a statement on its website. “It couldn’t be. It was a remarkable tornado of talented performers and staff, inspired friends and customers, a crazy location and a lot of dreams.”

Patrons and former bartenders responded by flooding social media pages dedicated to the eccentric space with pictures and memories. “The early 90s at Berlin was a blur and an absolute blast!” one customer wrote on Facebook.

The bar opened in 1983, as Chicago’s gay rights movement was coalescing around demands for more resources to address the AIDS epidemic.

Named in homage to the cabaret clubs of the Weimar Republic, Berlin became a staging ground for political rallies, and the place to party after. The club’s D.J.s largely eschewed the pop music that was played at other gay bars, preferring dark wave and post-punk.

Yet Berlin attracted celebrities to its dance floor, including John Waters, Elton John and Donna Karan. And famous performers, such as Lizzo and the drag star JoJo Baby, graced its stage.

“It was like an island of misfit toys,” St. Sukie de la Croix, who photographed Chicago’s gay nightlife in the 1990s, said in an interview. “Everybody who didn’t fit into other gay bars went to Berlin because everybody went to Berlin.”

The club stood out in a neighborhood — dominated by L.G.B.T.Q. bars, sex shops and record stores — where revelers danced into the early morning hours and drag queens and kings performed at Sunday brunch. And it survived even as other countercultural mainstays closed because of rising costs and lost revenue during the pandemic.

“Berlin offered a space for you to not do a Top 40 song, not wear the trendiest wig, just be a weirdo and a freak, and the audience would embrace you,” DiDa Ritz, a contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and a regular performer at Berlin, said in an interview.

Ms. Ritz said that the club’s welcoming atmosphere made it a bridge between Wrigleyville, the sports-bar-heavy area around Wrigley Field, and Boystown, Chicago’s gay enclave, which is also known as Northalsted.

“What made it really magical was there would be straight people from Wrigleyville with their Cubs jerseys on, trans people, just a whole array of people,” Ms. Ritz said. “Literally ’til the last day it closed, it welcomed everybody.”

Berlin was originally owned by Shirley Mooney and Tim Sullivan. Jim Schuman and Jo Webster took over after Mr. Sullivan died of complications from AIDS in 1994, according to the club. Berlin had been at the center of Mr. Schuman and Mr. Webster’s origins as a couple and it continued to be throughout their marriage, they said in a statement.

The bar always had a political bent, said Owen Keehnen, an L.G.B.T.Q. historian who came of age as a young gay man at Berlin. After activists involved with the Chicago chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or Act UP, clashed with the police at a demonstration in 1990, they celebrated at Berlin, swaying shoulder to shoulder to “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. Terence Smith, who in the early 1990s ran for mayor of Chicago and then for president as Joan Jett Blakk, his drag persona, held campaign events at Berlin.

More recently, the nightclub was again a center of agitation as drag performers rallied for better pay and protections.

In 2020, Ms. Ritz helped lead a march from Berlin up Halsted Avenue, the commercial heart of Boystown, demanding better working conditions for performers.

And this year, workers at the bar went on a two-day strike in early August, calling for raises as well as health care and pension benefits. In an open letter on the bar’s website, Berlin’s managers said the demands were not financially viable for a business that operated on razor-thin margins, much less one still recovering from the strains of the pandemic.

The letter said that Mr. Schuman was being treated for Stage 4 cancer, and that Mr. Webster — his husband as well as his business partner — was his primary caretaker.

The bar could not afford the rising costs of “security, insurance and licensing, equipment, rent and more,” the owners said last week in the statement announcing the closure.

Neither Mr. Schuman nor Mr. Webster responded to an interview request.

In a statement on Instagram, Berlin’s workers said that they were “heartbroken” about the decision to close the club, but that they had no regrets about their struggle for better conditions.

“As workers, as queer and trans people, as artists, we must continue to fight for what we deserve in this world that too often undervalues and diminishes us,” they said.

Cecilia Dillon, a box office clerk at the Vic Theater, a music venue near Berlin, said the nightclub had been a mainstay in her life since she arrived in Chicago 12 years ago.

“It’s an important place, especially for queer and drag communities,” she said. The themed nerd nights on Fridays — when drag queens would dress up like Pokémon or anime characters — always drew huge crowds, she said.

“It’s a very successful business, so I’m surprised they wouldn’t have funds to pay their workers a living wage,” Ms. Dillon said.

Berlin was being mourned even by its competitors, said Jamie Reyes, a bartender at Sidetrack, an L.G.B.T.Q. bar a few blocks away.

“It was a different kind of bar,” he said, “where people who might not feel comfortable at a typical gay bar would feel more at home.”

Jesus Jiménez contributed reporting.

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