The clock was ticking late into the evening, the conversation at the table was laced with the past, with the names of nightclubs long gone – Gold Star Sardine BarPepper’s Lounge, Earl of Old Town, Byfield’s and… Does anyone remember the Raccoon Club?
“What about At Mr. Kelly’s?” said a woman.
“Horn’s Gate?” said a man.
“Hey, how about the fiery spear? said another.
This conversation was perhaps inevitable because the eight people gathered had just discovered the newest nightclub in town. It’s called The Alley and is in a small space at the back of Carnivale Restaurant, 702 W. Fulton St., which for nearly two decades has been a vibrant, acclaimed, and massive (35,000 square foot) culinary oasis. .
Former gastronomic critic of the Tribune Phil Vettel wrote that this “multi-level pan-Latin restaurant has the look of a hot nightclub and the price of a neighborhood eatery”, noting its menu “of Latin influences from South and Central America and the Caribbean … (in a restaurant) the size of a warehouse…, the space is divided into several small dining rooms (with) design touches – velvet curtains, bespoke ironwork – (which make it) colorful and energetic.
We now live in a time when restaurants are among the most vulnerable businesses. Over the past two years, there have been many closures and relatively few openings. It was even more difficult for this diversionary race called the nightclub, a species with ancient roots, which goes back to that exuberant first settler Mark Beaubien, who enlivened his Sauganash hotel with good fiddle-playing and vigorous ballads in the 1830s.
I’ve seen dozens of clubs come and go. It is a dangerously competitive business, which maims not only a bankroll but the heart. Most discoveries and experiences of club owners are not sweet dreams. Yet they’ve always been out there, trying to carve out a little piece of the nightly pie, giving artists a place to work and the rest of us a place to play.
Long ago, Phil Johnson, one of the owners of a then new and short-lived club called Boombala on Lincoln Avenue, told me, “You don’t just open the doors, reserve a few numbers and fight the crowds. I can’t imagine a tougher business.
There are plenty of tougher professions – cops, nurses – but running a nightclub is no easy task and Johnson’s sentiments were common and repeated over the decades.
So, who in their right mind, you might now ask, would open a nightclub?
The answer is Billy Marovitz.
He is a man of unlimited energy and big ideas. He is the son of fire Sydney Marovitz, who was a lawyer, longtime Democratic precinct captain, and Park District Commissioner, appointed by Richard J. Daley. He is the nephew of Abraham Lincoln Marovitzone of the most colorful characters in the city: a lawyer, member of the Illinois State Senate from 1939 to 1950 (its first Jewish member), then a judge of the state then of the federal court, known for swearing in new American citizens and electing officials, including the two Daleys as mayor.
He is a lawyer and was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives from 1974 to 1980, then a state senator from 1980 to 1993. Then he got into real estate development. He got into the restaurant business. In 1995, he married Christie Hefner, then CEO of Playboy, the charming and brilliant daughter of Hugh Hefner, and was married to her until 2013, during which time he lost money when he was accused of using inside information about the shares. He is a great personality, devoted to many charities and was among the creators of the musical “Miracle” who played the Royal George in 2019.
He seems to know everyone and many of these people filled the approximately 80 Alley stools and chairs.
They may have known Billy, but few had heard of the evening’s headliner, Sonny Luca, a singer-songwriter. And that’s how Marovitz wants it.
“I want it to be a place where young and unknown talent can shine,” he said. “There are so many artists who just need a chance and I want to give them that.”
He’s exercising what’s a newfound creative freedom, having recently bought out some of his original Carnivale partners and it’s just him and someone else running the place now.
And he has other projects in the works, like planning dance competitions on weekend nights, opening a Carnivale at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas and maybe other places, opening a rooftop bar and make further renovations to the existing location. .
The Alley is the first of its new ideas to surface, carved out of an existing area often used to manage crowds of diners when Carnivale is at capacity. “That’s what I think of when I think of a nightclub… Dark, sexy and intimate,” he says. “I was a huge Mister Kelly fan when I was young and have always loved piano bars.”
Alley’s first issue came to him from his best friend, the entertainment entrepreneur Arny Granatwho was in the opening night crowd with his wife, talented singer Irene Michaels.
“Irene took me to a concert at the Palais des Beaux-Arts and that’s where I saw Sonny for the first time and I was blown away,” Granat said. He struck a handshake deal to become Luca’s manager and hosted concerts last year featuring his wife, Luca and other artists. These “Our House” shows have played at venues such as The Piano on the North Side, Club Arcadia in St. Charles and Davenport, the venerable outpost of Wicker Park.
“I could tell from those sold-out shows that people had a burning need to get out there and see and hear music,” Granat said. “It was true tonight, and it was only Sonny’s eighth public show. I would say I’m one hundred percent satisfied.
Granat surely knows music, if not on the cozy scale of the Allée. For almost 50 years he ran Jam Productions with Jerry Mickelson, who left a few years ago to pursue other projects.
He was happy with Luca’s performance on the Alley’s debut and plans to act as something of a talent scout for Marovitz and the club.
Marovitz is happy with his collaboration with Granat, and he was delighted with the opening of the Allée. “I thought it went well,” he said. “People told me they would come back.”
An informal survey of this crowd revealed that most people praised the setting and the performance, with many praising the selection of craft cocktails such as ‘Old-Fashioned Carnivale’, mojitos and something called ‘caipirinha’, which is the Brazil’s national drink, made with sugar, lime and cachaça, a powerful liqueur.
The show lasted just over an hour, with Luca singing and playing, on guitar and piano, original songs as well as familiar tunes, distinctive renditions of “Imagine”, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and ” Blackbird” by John Lennon.
There was an excellent bassist and pianist providing solid accompaniment. Another member of the group was Michael Austin, a best-selling writer of fiction and non-fiction and once a wine columnist for the Tribune, who was also part of the “Our House” gang. He plays the bodhrán, a traditional Irish drum, and has done so in such an artfully dramatic way that he has surely gained a lot of new fans.
“From the moment I walked in, before the audience arrived, I felt good,” he said. “You know how certain rooms have a feel, whether it’s through the layout or the design, or the decor? There’s something nice about the room itself. It has a lot of energy, but it’s so soothing. Don’t ask me how they did it, but to me it was palpable.
“The most important thing about the club for me, and probably for any artist who follows, was the sound. Sonny brought a portable sound system, nothing fancy, and it sounded really good. Other artists will have some different sound systems, but the thing is, something about this room is conducive to good sound. It’s in the bones. So, a cozy, intimate room with great sound? Yeah, I’d go back – to play or to listen.
The next show is scheduled for May and some of those who finish their dinner at Carnivale have said they will return. A few other past club names resurfaced and when a woman said, “What about Acorn of Oak?” I remembered many nights there and also something the late piano master told me Boyfriend Charles, one of the most exuberant and talented performers in the city’s long nighttime history. He said: “There’s something primitive about being close to live music. What makes it work is that people are inherently hungry for intimacy.