Chicago’s best non-gay gay bar, Berlin, celebrates 30 years as the epicenter of pansexual nightclub parties with a week of events that resurrects some of the most popular themes from the club’s iconic history.
In a rare interview with the owners of Berlin—who are partners in life and in business—Jo Webster and Jim Schuman take us behind the blackened windows of the club to reveal why nothing is ever too outré for Berlin.
“Tim [Sullivan] and Shirley [Mooney]—a gay man and a straight woman who are two very close friends of ours—opened Berlin in 1983 because they wanted somewhere to go where everyone was welcome. In gay society [at that time], there were men’s bars and women’s bars and straight bars—and you didn’t feel comfortable walking into someone else’s territory,” Schuman said. “The goal of Berlin was to make it as diverse as possible—it’s really about diversity. Our group of friends was all so varied … no one cared who anyone else slept with. We were fun, we were smart, and we weren’t bigoted.”
“It was about creating a safe space for those who just didn’t fit in a mold,” added Webster, who said Shirley was looking for nightlife options other than leather bars or what she termed “sweater bars.”
Nearly 20 years ago, Schuman and Webster took over Berlin with Mooney’s blessing after co-owner Tim Sullivan passed away. Mooney’s singular request to the new owners? Don’t hang ferns in the windows—a memory that prompts a hearty, good-natured laugh from Schuman and Webster.
“Berlin is something we’re really proud of because it comes out of our family of friends,” Schuman said. “When Berlin started, half of us were gay and half of us were straight—but we were all friends, we all hung out together, and [Berlin] is really an outgrowth of that mentality.”
The club’s moniker is a nod to that diverse spirit.
“Tim loved [the city of] Berlin. Think of the Weimar Republic, which was pre-Hitler, and characterized by innovations in art and culture that were later dubbed degenerate and socially disruptive by fascists,” Webster said.
“Think of ‘Cabaret,’ ” added Schuman, referring to the musical and film set in Berlin during the Weimar Republic.
Chicago’s nightclub scene is littered with the flotsam and jetsam of clubs and bars that have burned out due to the fickle nature of the business, but not Berlin, which has always successfully mixed tattoos and transvestites, pinafores and platforms, dada and go-go and everything in between. Even bold-faced names in the arts and entertainment community are devotees of the Boystown nightclub—Elton John, John Waters, Bob Mackie, Andy Bell of Erasure, Donna Karan, Oliver Stone, Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters, and others have been spotted on Berlin’s dance floor at one time or another.
“Everyone is there is to find a safe place. When they walk in we try to guarantee them anonymity,” Webster said. “We don’t have a VIP lounge, and we don’t have a prayer mat where you get on your hands and knees and pay homage. Celebrities are treated like everyone else.”
“Our most important VIPS are our regulars who come in night after night,” Schuman said. “They are the ones that make it a great space.”
One such Berlin regular is multi-hyphenate Jojo Baby— artist, nightlife icon and host of the long-running Boom Boom Room (formerly at the Green Dolphin, now at evilOlive).
“A lot of clubs try to censor you, but Jo [Webster] and Jim [Schuman] are true patrons of the arts, and they have never had a problem giving me free reign to do what I want. And it’s paid off—we’ve had some great parties,” Baby said. “This year for [Gay] Pride we turned the float into a Keith Haring-inspired dress that was over 40 feet in diameter—and that’s never been done before!”
The parachute and body suit dress—an ode to Haring and his influence on public awareness of gay culture and the AIDS epidemic—kicked off Berlin’s “30 Years: The Art of Celebration” this summer. Other installations have included “Blue Boy! A 3-D Pop Art Explosion,” which places Sir Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” into the landscapes and pulp-fiction storyboards of Roy Lichtenstein.
Webster and Schuman also added “Art Bar” to Berlin’s existing tag line “neighborhood dance bar of the future” to underscore Berlin’s past—and future—commitment to the visual arts.
“Art Bar refers to our roots,” Webster said. “We’re home to artists and appreciators of visual art, and people who want to get their hands dirty making art.”
That level of creativity takes a certain fearlessness. Take, for example, one of Schuman and Webster’s all-time favorite memories of Berlin.
“We had two of our long-time employees [Tony and Boa-Boa] lip synching to ‘Carmina Burana,’ which is quite majestic music, as a pair of Siamese twin piglets fighting over a set of luggage during a Belmont street fair,” Schuman said. “I think that is the thing that has made me laugh the hardest in 30 years—in my entire life.”
“The people [at Berlin] run the gamut of Chicago weirdoes,” Jojo Baby said matter-of-factly. “I’ve seen little old grannies, I’ve seen someone with a bull-whip sticking out of their ass, and I’ve seen complete Chicago freakadoodles. It has never failed anyone. Everyone feels safe there.”
It’s been said that some straight customers think Berlin is too gay, and some gay customers think it’s too straight—which is just fine with Schuman and Webster.
“We don’t fight that. It’s fine with us, because Berlin is about blurring boundaries,” Schulman said. “It’s always been a Wookie bar.”
“He means the bar in ‘Star Wars’—the Cantina,” Webster explained. “It’s full of everything. And people that get it have a sense of humor about it and leave their attitude at the door.”
“You can put that in all caps,” he said with a laugh.
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