Dave ‘Medusa’ Shelton was a fairy godmother to Chicago’s club scene | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Dave ‘Medusa’ Shelton was a fairy godmother to Chicago’s club scene 

He didn’t just found the legendary Medusa’s—he also helped everyone in his orbit shine like a star.

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Dave "Medusa" Shelton with the famous perm that earned him his nickname in the 1970s - COURTESY MIGUEL ORTUNO
  • Dave "Medusa" Shelton with the famous perm that earned him his nickname in the 1970s
  • Courtesy Miguel Ortuno

With his open friendliness and his mane of curly hair—which earned him the nickname "Medusa"—Dave Shelton was a magnetic presence on Chicago's nightlife scene in the mid-1970s. DJ Teri Bristol recalls first spotting him at a Lakeview gay club called Broadway Limited. "His hair was past his shoulders—it was in ringlet curls," she says. "He stuck out to me. It was almost like he was illuminated. I was instantly drawn to him. He was so interesting looking, and I could not stop staring at him."

The name "Medusa" became Shelton's calling card as he began hosting his own parties. His career as a promoter began auspiciously: on March 17, 1979, he put together a night at the legendary Warehouse. Shelton booked Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music, to DJ at the space that gave house its name.

Four and a half years later, in October 1983, Shelton opened his own club in Lakeview. The original Medusa's was open for just nine years, but it's influenced generations of alternative culture. Medusa's became a north-side hub for house music and a hangout for the industrial fanatics who ate up everything Wax Trax! Records put out—Belgian EBM pioneers Front 242 made their U.S. debut at Medusa's in 1984, the year before Wax Trax! released their album No Comment in the States. The club hosted performances by crucial local and national bands—Ministry, Smashing Pumpkins, Fugazi, White Zombie—but dance nights remained its biggest draw. Shelton had a stable of DJs who mixed subterranean sounds to suit the eclectic tastes of crowds from all walks of life: Black house heads, preppy white suburban teens, Latinx punks, skinheads, queer runaways, even sailors.

Shelton cared about inclusivity and loved outrageousness, and because Medusa's reflected both, it didn't go over well with everyone in the neighborhood: the club drew the ire of Alderman Bernie Hansen, who oversaw its section of Lakeview. When Shelton's lease on the building at Sheffield and School ran out in 1992, he closed Medusa's and left, but he kept throwing irreverent parties, beginning at the Congress Theater. In 1997 he opened a new Medusa's in his native Elgin, which he ran until last week, when he died at age 63. The club's general manager, Miguel Ortuno, says Shelton died of natural causes related to a chronic heart condition. "Dave had a huge heart in terms of taking care of people and loving people," Ortuno says. "He had a weak heart in terms of functionality."

You could try to measure Shelton's influence on underground culture by listing the famous songs Medusa's DJs broke or the canonized bands that performed there. But his greatest legacy is the generosity he extended, particularly to the young people who flocked to his original Sheffield club. Howard Bailey began working as a doorman at Medusa's in the late 80s, when he was 16, and he says his time there changed his life. Bailey went on to open Wicker Park record store Beat Parlor in the early 90s and Goose Island nightclub Slick's Lounge in 2000; he also had a son with a woman he met at Medusa's. Bailey threw his first party at Medusa's in the early 90s, and Shelton encouraged him. "He's my mentor," Bailey says. "He's my fairy godmother. He's my teacher."

  • Lil Louis's 1992 video for "Club Lonely" was filmed in part at Medusa's, and inspired Howard Bailey to start throwing his own parties.

Greg "Blue" Pittsley met Shelton in 1975 at a mutual friend's apartment. "My friend was really drunk—he sat in the corner and was smoking a cigar, and Dave and I put on a drag show using towels for wigs," Pittsley says. Shelton worked for United Airlines and aspired to be a kindergarten teacher, and Pittsley had trained to be a secondary education teacher but could only find work at a construction management company. They were young and had ample free time at night. If they weren't partying at Shelton's Lakeview apartment, they'd work the room at any number of favorite clubs—River North gay disco Dugan's Bistro, Lincoln Park punk hangout La Mere Vipere, Old Town gay dive Carol's Speakeasy. After the Warehouse opened in 1976, Pittsley and Shelton made their way there too.

Warehouse founder Robert Williams took a liking to Shelton. "He was silly, just like me," Williams says. "So we got along marvelously." Williams recalls one Halloween when he, Shelton, and Frankie Knuckles had dressed in drag to go to a party at South Shore gay bar the Jeffery Pub when the car they were riding in broke down at a gas station on 67th Street. "We had to get out in these various costumes—we were posing on top of the car," Williams says. "The people were looking at us like we had really lost our mind. It was hilarious."

Williams became an advisor to Shelton as he began throwing his own parties, and pitched in when Shelton opened his first club, 161 West, in 1980. "We loaned equipment from the Warehouse, and Frankie played," Williams says. Pittsley helped set up the club too, and remembers that the invitation for its opening night bore an architectural drawing of the club—each one was rolled up like a blueprint.

Shelton gained a reputation for playful, borderline vulgar spectacle. In the 2019 book Do You Remember House?, Micah E. Salkind writes about a party called "Medusa Pigs Out at the Bistro" that Shelton hosted at Dugan's Bistro in 1979: he served a thousand free White Castle sliders on silver platters and laid out a soiled mattress on the dance floor. Shelton continued in this vein at 161 West; Williams remembers Shelton bringing in coffins for a Halloween party. "Dave's effect was very avant-garde-ish," he says.

Pittsley says 161 West stayed open maybe six or eight months. After it closed, Shelton happened to walk past a four-story building on Sheffield near School with a handwritten "For Rent" sign on the door. "There was nothing fancy about it," Pittsley says. "The bathrooms were about as primitive as you get, and they were in pretty bad shape because the building had been there since the 1920s." Shelton took the place and turned the first three floors into Medusa's.

Williams advised Shelton to find a different space. "The only time I disagreed with him was when he went to Sheffield," Williams says. "I told him it was gonna be a problem. But he overlooked that because the space was so fantastic. He loved it. I couldn't blame him, but it caused a lot of problems."

In 1983, Joe Michelli was attending the School of the Art Institute by day and working as a video jockey at Berlin at night, and he got a tip about a new club opening nearby. He first went to Medusa's while Shelton and Pittsley were still building it out; Shelton showed Michelli the third floor, which became the video room. "I asked him about some of their gear, and they needed a few more pieces," Michelli says. "I told him what they needed to get to make it really run well. Dave was like, 'Yep, sure, whatever we need, let's get it.'" Michelli became the club's first VJ, and helped open Medusa's in October of that year.

  • In 1985 Joe Michelli edited together this video to accompany Time Zone's "World Destruction" at Medusa's.

Medusa's operated as a juice bar—it couldn't sell alcohol, but it could stay open after bars were legally required to close. Shelton had always intended it to be an after-hours club, and at least at first, a Medusa's party could run well into the next day. "We had to play until the last person stopped dancing," Bristol says. "Sometimes that could go until ten in the morning."

Bristol got her start at Medusa's in the mid-80s, after one of the club's innovative early DJs, Mark Stephens, asked her to step up to the turntable when he needed a bathroom break. "He never came back until the end of the night," Bristol says. "He was like, 'That was your trial by fire.' And Medusa loved it—he was like, 'All right, do you want to be in the rotation on Fridays?'"

Shelton seemed to find a way to throw his support behind everyone he worked with. Designer Tom Hemingway met Shelton in 1984 while at Medusa's to help fix up the interior of the women's bathroom. "It felt a little daunting, and he put me at ease," Hemingway says. He decided to go for a brothel look—he put in loud, colorful 1970s wallpaper and a hanging chandelier. "Dave didn't put any reins on me at all," Hemingway says. "The crazier the idea, the more he loved it."

Hemingway oversaw the club's gaudy interior, which he'd change every month. Typically it took most of a week for Hemingway and a crew of art students to design and build a new theme for the dance floor. Once he outfitted the space with Dali's surreal melting clocks; another time he and Shelton brought in gigantic statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary to preside over altars around the dance floor. One night an air-conditioning duct fell from the ceiling right into the arms of Jesus. "We're like, 'Oh my God, Jesus saved all these kids,'" Hemingway says.

Medusa's regularly featured performance art, and Hemingway collaborated with those performers too. He once created a theme based on the kitschy 1988 horror comedy Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and its performance-art component involved an oversize papier-mache clown head so large that it wasn't yet completely dry when the performer had to put it on. "What we didn't know was that cockroaches had gotten into the papier-mache," Hemingway says. "They kept being like, 'Things are crawling on my head!'"

In the mid-80s, Shelton partnered with Loyola University's radio station, WLUW. "Medusa's was helping provide some DJs for WLUW, who would do 30-minute mixes at lunchtime and in the evening," says Jennifer Prietz Marszalek, who worked at WLUW at the time. The partnership helped promote the club to a younger crowd, boosting the Saturday teen nights that Medusa's began hosting for under-18 clubgoers in 1986.

"Dave was really creative, and he went a mile a minute," Marszalek says. "He had a ton of ideas." When she quit WLUW in 1988, she called Shelton and he offered her a job at Medusa's—she handled the club's promotions, managed its membership program, and ran lights from the DJ booth.

"I became one of Dave's kids when I started working for him," Marszalek says. "Every kid that went to the club felt like a Medusa's kid and had some connection to Dave, or to someone that worked there that helped them feel like they belonged. And that was really the greatest thing that Dave ever did, was make anybody that he ever met feel like they belonged to something."

  • Crowd footage shot at Medusa's in 1989

Howard Bailey was a teen from the west side working at a Lincoln Park burger joint when he was offered a job as a Medusa's doorman. "At that point, I was definitely not a socialite," he says. "I really just thought it was a job—it was an opportunity to make some money on the weekends and not smell like hot dogs and hamburgers."

He didn't meet Shelton for his first four months, because Shelton was hanging out in Hawaii, a favorite destination of his. When Shelton first walked up to the door during one of Bailey's shifts, the teen was suspicious. "My first words to him were, 'Sir, I don't think this is age appropriate for you,'" Bailey says.

Bailey took a liking to Shelton. "I've never met somebody so dark, twisted, and morbid, but at the same time so full of love and life," Bailey says. They developed an easy rapport, and Shelton liked to tease him. "He always offered me an obscene—or at least what I thought at the time was an obscene amount of money—to go in drag as Whitney Houston," Bailey says. He never took Shelton up on it.

Lorri Francis, who worked as an office manager for Medusa's, likens the club's inner circle to a family. Shelton was the father figure, Pittsley the mother. "If you needed something, they would be more than happy to help you get it," she says.

In the mid-1980s, when Francis needed a place to live, Shelton offered her a room in the Medusa's building. "We lived there for free. We didn't have to pay any bills—no utilities," she says. "If someone didn't have somewhere to live for a while, they could just stay there in some little room or something." Medusa's DJs, including Stephens, Bristol, and Val "Psycho-Bitch" Scheinpflug, lived there periodically, and so did a couple skinheads who worked security. "The people who knew Dave are very, very loyal to him," Francis says. "The people that lived there and worked for Dave would have done anything for him—anything at all."

Shelton's generosity also extended beyond his club family. Among the many people Shelton supported was Sean Duffy of punk production company Last Rites, who began booking shows at Medusa's in 1987. "There were a couple of shows where I took a beating, and he would give me a huge break—I think maybe one time he even dropped the whole room rental," Duffy says. "Nobody in the city back then would have done that. They would have made me owe it forever."

Such kindness in turn benefitted Chicago's punk scene—when Last Rites wore out its welcome at Metro and the Cubby Bear, Duffy could work with Medusa's until he found a new venue, instead of giving up on booking punk shows. "There were no places to go," he says. "There were gaps when I would get told to leave a place—if he wasn't there, there would have been no shows."

In 1986, 44th Ward alderman Bernie Hansen cosponsored a proposal to force juice bars to follow regular bar hours, apparently motivated largely by noise complaints about Shelton's club. The ordinance went into effect the following year. The Medusa's teen nights, begun before the new regulation, helped keep the club afloat—ordinarily you had to be 18 to get in, but until 10:30 PM on those Saturdays, everybody was welcome. And Marszalek's promotion work gave the club's popularity a bump too: she cold-called MTV to pitch the 120 Minutes crew the idea of filming a spot at Medusa's, and in 1989 they did, shooting while Rights of the Accused played in the rock room.

"The way they filmed it and the way they presented it, they made it look like it was the rockin' place in the world for kids to be," Pittsley says. "We never had anything but packed Saturdays from that point on."

  • Rights of the Accused, Jennifer Prietz Marszalek, and Danielle Dax all appear in MTV's 1989 segment on Medusa's.

The popularity of Medusa's benefited Wax Trax! Records, whose symbiotic relationship with the club extended beyond it playing the label's music and booking its bands—Julia Nash, daughter of Wax Trax! cofounder Jim Nash, started working at Medusa's in 1989. (Jim died in 1995, and Julia revived the label in 2014.) "Dave was hugely responsible for the label doing as well as it did," Nash says. "By playing those records, his DJs would report to Billboard magazine and give us super-high marks. That relationship was really an important part of the growth of Wax Trax! Records."

The relationship helped the Wax Trax! store too. Jonathan "Scrappy" Gilbert bought a test pressing of Front 242's 1986 single "Quite Unusual" there, after a resident DJ at Medusa's played it. By the end of the decade, Gilbert had become a resident too. On his watch an influx of preppy suburban teens flocked to the club, but he loved how eclectic the crowd remained. "Medusa's, it didn't matter what you'd play—I could play a record backwards, in a different language, it wouldn't even matter because the energy was so amazing," Gilbert says. "It didn't take much to be successful there—you just had to know to play good music for people."

Leroy Fields, who replaced Joe Michelli as Medusa's main VJ in the mid-80s, thinks Medusa's succeeded because of Shelton. "He was probably the greatest club impresario I'd ever encountered, ever met, ever seen—the entire place reflected his values of openness, creativity, and acceptance," Fields says. "I would never want to work for anybody else in a club except for Dave. I did work for other people, but Dave set a standard that no one will ever be able to meet."

The dance floor at the original Medusa's location on Sheffield - COURTESY MIGUEL ORTUNO
  • The dance floor at the original Medusa's location on Sheffield
  • Courtesy Miguel Ortuno

Medusa's hosted the last party at its original Lakeview location in June 1992. Shelton soldiered on at the Congress Theater, and though Marszalek worked with him for a couple more years, not everyone in the Medusa's family stuck around. Pittsley and Hemingway opened a bar called Foxy's near Belmont and Halsted; Bailey rented a Wicker Park storefront owned by Nash's family to open Beat Parlor. The debut of Medusa's at the Congress had a "Kennedy '63" theme, and Shelton brought in a convertible similar to the one in which JFK had been shot. As Shelton told Reader critic Bill Wyman in 1992, "A lot of the younger kids don't know anything about the assassination. It'll be educational."

"He was like a John Waters movie," Marszalek says.

In 1997, Miguel Ortuno was working at Tower Records in Bloomingdale when Shelton came in to browse the store's collectibles. They hit it off, and when Shelton opened a new Medusa's in Elgin later that year, Ortuno was on the payroll. He started out working wherever he was needed and eventually became the general manager.

Ortuno and Shelton also shopped at HomeGoods together and frequently sent each other Internet memes. Shelton was fond of his friend's dog, though he loved animals of all kinds. "He always liked to take care of animals," Ortuno says. "He would put all this food outside of the house, and you would see a possum eating some food from one of the bowls and then a skunk at the next bowl, and then cats in the next one. They were all just getting along eating the food and then they would all go to sleep—it's just the weirdest thing."

Medusa's runs two nights a week, catering to teens on Saturdays. In fall 2019, an Elgin LGBTQ+ bar called Phoenix closed, and Shelton and Ortuno decided to do something about it. "Me and Dave were like, 'Well, now the gay community has nowhere to party. Let's bring them to Medusa's,'" Ortuno says. They promptly launched the club's Pride Fridays. "We've always welcomed the gay community, so it was kind of like a no-brainer."

Shelton had been in talks with Nash about hosting a two-day extravaganza at Medusa's celebrating the 40th birthday of Wax Trax! Records. They'd planned to do it in April—but then COVID-19 hit.

Medusa's remains in business, insofar as any nightclub can remain in business during the pandemic. "We can keep it going," Ortuno says. "But if we close the club, it wouldn't be because of Dave's passing. It would be because of coronavirus."

In January 2020, Bristol was hospitalized for kidney failure. Shelton reached out, and sent her a three-disc mix of religious songs he'd made in tribute to his aunt Sally. "It had a whole story about his childhood, his aunt Sally, and what these songs meant to him," Bristol says.

As it turns out, Shelton sent that mix to a lot of the people in his Medusa's family. When Bailey posted on social media about the aunt Sally CDs he'd gotten, a crowd of Medusa's friends told him they'd received copies too. "He knew his time was coming," Bailey says. "This was him saying goodbye in a way that we never, ever, ever would have seen coming."

After 5 Magazine broke the news of Shelton's death last Friday night, old Medusa's regulars began to congregate outside the original club's address, 3257 N. Sheffield, which is now a condo. Those who came left bouquets of flowers, candles, cards, and at least one sculpture of the gorgon Medusa from Greek mythology. They left messages in chalk along the sidewalk and on the brick walls. One visitor wrote down the words that Shelton had often used to describe the people who made the Medusa's community so special: "They were already stars, I just gave them a place to shine."

Pittsley went to the site to meet some of his old Medusa's family, including Bailey. "Howie came up to me and just threw his arms around me, and I lost it," he says. "We had very tight bonds, all the people that worked there together. If we haven't seen each other for years, when we run into each other we always dissolve into tears."  v


Miguel Ortuno is planning a memorial service for Dave "Medusa" Shelton at the Medusa's in Elgin (209 E. Chicago) on Saturday, August 22, beginning at 7 PM. More details are forthcoming, including procedures and requirements for COVID-19 safety. He's also creating a foundation in Shelton's name.

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