Photo for the Tribune by Charles Osgood
May 17, 2009
It is easy to feel, walking down many busy city streets, that the world has become a dull and homogenized place. Yes, there is a Starbucks on the southwest corner of Belmont Avenue and Clark Street. And on the blocks heading west from there are such ubiquitous urban oases as Jamba Juice and Potbelly. And the Quiet Knight, the legendary music club on the second floor of a building hard by the "L" has long been gone, replaced by a hair salon and tanning parlor. And the street life, and the parking-lot-of-the-Dunkin'-Donuts life, is not as wild and weird and wonderful as it once was.
But you can still get a tattoo or a piercing on this Belmont strip (roughly from Halsted Street to Sheffield Avenue). You can stop into the J. Toguri Mercantile store for gifts you're unlikely to find anywhere else, visit the venerable Alley, 40,000 square feet of "the biggest and the best selections in rock, biker, punk, mod, emo, rockabilly and gothic shoes and clothing," and a great deal more. You can drop into a nice bookstore, stay in a hotel, eat cinnamon rolls at Ann Sather, and sample other restaurants and clothing stores.And you can still go to Berlin.
It has been 25 years since this club opened at 954 W. Belmont Ave. and, in its way, helped change the way the city partied. At the time, there were few places hospitable to both gay and straight crowds, but here they mingled comfortably, creating a mix lively almost beyond words.
The place started as a video bar, taking advantage of the wares of the recently launched MTV. It became home to all manner of clever and crazy art installations and events. I have some vague memories of being there for a Tammy Faye Bakker look-alike contest and one, perhaps two, spaghetti wrestling matches. I never did make it to the club's anti-New Year's Eve party and, since my late nights of music and dancing have become ruefully infrequent, hadn't been there in a while.
Osgood had never been there until recently, shooting photos of Shania Van Selus watching a performance by Bunny Rabbit, a.k.a Mother Miracle, late one late night. Or was it early morning?
"It's amazing. Why hadn't I been there?" he says. "Two a.m. is when the real action seems to start. That's not exactly my liveliest hour, but I am so glad I was there. I expected it to be dark and weird, but it was wild and fun and silly, with people dressed in various outlandish attire. I had a blast."
Many, many years ago, a patron of the original Billy Goat Tavern, across the street from the old Chicago Stadium, referred to it as "a perpetual Halloween." That's also true of Berlin. Though not enough clubs followed its pioneering path, it remains a vital, colorful and important institution on a street that still sizzles in a world growing ever gray.