"I got 13 years in this business. That's enough," Dean Karabatsos explains over a beer in the front room of Gaspars, a lovely old nightclub at Southport and Belmont that pioneered the local new-wave music scene. The Karabatsos family has sold Gaspars (the asking price was a half million dollars), and Dean isn't sorry. "It's a rough business," he says. "The hours are real weird. People come by and say, 'Dean, you got it made.' But you're here at noon replacing a sink or fishing a Kotex out of the lady's-room john, or mopping up vomit off the floor, and you stay up till all hours. I never had stitches in my life until I worked in this business. A guy busted one of our picture windows on me, another guy pulled a gun on me--it turned out to be a toy, but still. People who are in the business--the first words out of their mouths are 'Dean, congratulations.' It's the others who say, 'What, are you crazy?' I'm lucky that after 13 years, I still have my health. I have seen guys get so wrapped up in the bar scene--the drugs, the women, whatever--that they've blown marriages, their stores, their whole life. You look at them, they look like balloons. Will I miss it? Sure--it's 13 years of my life. But there are other things that I'd like to do."
Dean Karabatsos's father bought the building many years ago, when Dean was a kid. "I'll never forget my first look at the place," Karabatsos says. "There were motorcycles lined up from Southport halfway down the block on Belmont. We were saying, 'Jeez, what are we getting into, a Hell's Angels bar?' But it was a national motorcycle club that had its local monthly meeting at the place, which was called the Old Bavarian Inn.
"Next we rented to Bill Schaeffer, the head of a country band called Big Bill Schaeffer and the Nashville Cats. When WJJD was a country station, they used to do remotes from here, and they had some pretty big-name talent. Bill rented the place from 1968 to '72. The next tenant was a Mexican social club, the Laredo Lonestar Club--a pretty wild place. They had two pool tables up front here and four more in the back. I can show you some of the bullet holes they left," he says, and laughs. "Just before we took possession to make it Gaspars, my brother and I would stop in here--ranchero music blasting, guys whooping and hollering, beers lined up across the table--in a pool game before you knew it. They had murals in here of Montezuma and Pancho Villa painted by a Korean guy who always made the heads disproportionately large to the bodies."
Karabatsos was a music major at Northeastern Illinois University who played guitar and upright bass. He and George started Gaspars as a one room jazz club. Their first band was a group right out of the University of Illinois who passed the hat for their pay: Kelly Sill on bass, John Campbell on piano, Jeff Kaye on trumpet, and Steve Eisen on sax. "We had some great sessions in the front here. The back wasn't done yet, and we needed some cash flow to do it," says Dean. "Howard Levy played here, Ross Traut, Ed Petersen, the Jazz Members Big Band, the late Gloria Morgan, and the group I was in, Street Sounds, which recorded its first album here. At the time, jazz wasn't that hot in Chicago. We were a little bit ahead of our time. I'm glad to see it happening now, but it's still hard to make money with jazz. I have all the respect in the world for people like Joe Segal [of Jazz Showcase]."
Gaspars--Karabatsos got the name from a composer whose guitar piece he was learning at the time--moved over to new wave with the help of talent booker Jim MacNamara, who had worked at the Quiet Knight concert club, and musician Jim Desmond, who had the handle on who was hot and who was not.
"At that time," says Karabatsos, waxing nostalgic, "there was our place, Jamie's Elsewhere on Lincoln, Tuts on Clark where the Metro is now, and the deejay clubs like La Mere Vipere. It was a nice scene: good energy, intelligence, and substance--not just a way to dress. I hope that some of the old crew will come in for the last weekend. I would like to state for the record that Dean will be buying some drinks."
Karabatsos had his favorite bands and his favorite new-wave outrageous band names. "Wazmo Nariz, Poison Squirrel--a band member had a niece who watched Bozo's circus; every morning Bozo would come out and say, 'Good morning, boys and girls.' But the niece thought he was saying, 'Good morning, poison squirrels'--Tutu and the Pirates, Price of Priesthood, Smoking Icons, Cunning Stunts (a girl band, of course), Righteous Hula Eels, Trip Shakespeare. There were people who didn't like the music who still read our ads just for the names of the bands."
The club stayed slightly eclectic, booking acoustic singers like Mimi Farina, Thom Bishop (whose revue "The Suburbs of Heaven" was staged at Gaspars), Jonathan Richman, Ron Crick, and my own jug band, the Blue Streaks. It was generally regarded by musicians as an excellent place to play.
Karabatsos, who says he's "veered off from playing to behind-the-scenes stuff," hasn't lost his fondness for the music scene. "I wouldn't mind booking some bands if the deal were right," he says, "but I'm 34 now, and I want to do some different things. I can't see myself doing this for another ten years. I've already lost out on some relationships that could have really gone somewhere if I hadn't been in the bar business. I have my real estate license now. My brother is a contractor--he wisely quit the bar scene when he got married--so we can do some developing together."
There seems to be no word on the street about the bar's next incarnation. "The new owners haven't been very specific about what they want to do with Gaspars," Karabatsos says, though he doubts that the current venue will continue. "I'm not worried about it. After all, we sold to them, it's theirs now, not ours."
This weekend Gaspars (1359 W. Belmont; 871-6680) will say farewell by presenting Hi-Fi and the Roadburners and Spies Who Surf on Friday, and the Bad Examples, the Eisenhowers, and Jim Desmond on Saturday. Karabatsos expects some jamming and has already prepared an epitaph: "Gaspars was a local club that did 'live' local bands with style for 13 years. Who else in town can say that?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lawrence Rand.