Plugging into Chicago’s forgotten house venues | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Plugging into Chicago’s forgotten house venues 

For decades, house music has shaped pop worldwide—but many of the spaces that birthed it here disappeared so quickly they barely left a trace.

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“It was a time when people didn’t put as much emphasis on the DJs or the performer per se, and really danced and enjoyed themselves.” —DJ and producer Chip E. - ILLUSTRATION BY TAYLOR HAMMES
  • “It was a time when people didn’t put as much emphasis on the DJs or the performer per se, and really danced and enjoyed themselves.” —DJ and producer Chip E.
  • Illustration by Taylor Hammes

About nine years ago, Mario Luna got a call from his mother. She'd been doing some spring cleaning in her home in Pilsen—the same house where he'd grown up—and she'd found a shoebox that clearly belonged to him. It held a stack of "pluggers," which is what people in the local house-music scene called show flyers during the culture's infancy. She wanted to toss them. Luna thought better of it.

Luna, now 52, didn't even remember saving the flyers. But as soon he retrieved that box, he could see that his instinct to hold onto them was correct. "I said, 'Wow, these are cool. I'm gonna put them in plastic sheets—like baseball cards—in a three-ring binder, and just keep them for memories,'" he says. "People are going to look back at this time and say, 'Man, those days were fun.' DJs I know, my friends that were on these flyers, a lot of them don't have them."

Almighty & Insane Books, which is based in New York but focuses on Chicago, released a collection of Luna's old pluggers in September 2018 called Beyond Heaven: Chicago House Party Flyers From 1983-1989. The first-edition run of 1,000 copies sold out before the end of the year, and the publisher printed a second edition of 1,000 in December. Almighty & Insane founder Brandon Johnson especially wanted to document the eclectic aesthetic choices that promoters made as house began to cross over throughout the city. Many flyers used printed blocks of color as backgrounds for text and images—sometimes solid pink or red or blue, sometimes spanning a gradient (red to yellow to green, pink to white to blue). They occasionally included small headshots of the performers, which often looked like they could've come from driver's licenses or yearbooks—on one plugger promoting a battle of high school DJs, I'm almost certain they're literally yearbook pictures. Many of the most important figures in house history are on these flyers, including Ron Hardy, Steve "Silk" Hurley, and the original members of the Hot Mix 5.

As much as I liked seeing those familiar names on pluggers from before I was born, I found myself more drawn to the unfamiliar ones—not just the performers but also the venues. More than three dozen places are named in Beyond Heaven, and few of them are meaningfully documented anywhere—the main exceptions are the Muzic Box, which entrepreneur Robert Williams opened after he wound down the Warehouse, and the Aragon Ballroom. The VFW halls, churches, high schools, hotels, juice bars, and clubs that appear in Beyond Heaven helped house expand beyond the mostly queer, mostly Black spaces that incubated the culture in the late 70s and early 80s. In late 1981, when WBMX hired the Hot Mix 5 to spin on the air, the potential audience for house music grew exponentially almost overnight, and for new fans who wanted to experience the music in the flesh—particularly those who were too young to get into gay dance clubs, or who didn't know they existed—these lesser-known venues were vital.

  • A crowd recording of Ron Hardy DJing at the Muzic Box in 1985

DJ and historian Duane Powell recognizes the need to celebrate these spaces. For the past four years, he's been part of the team behind the Chicago Black Social Culture Map, which documents important venues and performance spaces from the early Great Migration era in the 1910s and '20s till the end of the 20th century. And the rise of house provides a distinct challenge. "When house was king, it existed ev-ery-where," Powell says. "I remember so many spaces that I was in that just wasn't even around long."

Powell knows that a venue's life span doesn't always reflect its importance. "Like, the nightclub the Reactor," he says. "It was only open technically one summer—summer of 1990. It was open probably spring till fall. I think the owners still tried to do parties there, but the pinnacle of it was only that one summer. And you wouldn't think just having a club just a summer would be as impactful. But it was the club that successfully handed the culture over to the next generation. It was the club that Ron Trent had his first residency, and DJ Rush. And these were the two main DJs that ushered in the house culture to the third or fourth generation of the house movement."

On Thursday, May 23, Powell moderates a panel called "The Anatomy of a Groove: House in Borrowed Spaces" as part of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events' Chicago House Music Conference and Festival. The five panelists include Silver Room owner Eric Williams and Warehouse and Muzic Box founder Robert Williams, and the talk will focus on how the physical landscape of the house scene changed after its 1980s boom. Beginning in the 90s, the number of spaces hosting the music declined sharply thanks to a series of restrictive City Council ordinances—including a 1991 measure that required all-ages juice bars to obtain zoning permits and close by midnight. And as Powell says, "It is spaces, still, where our culture thrives."


Chicago House Music Conference
Featuring five overlapping panel discussions and workshops, including “The Anatomy of a Groove: House in Borrowed Spaces” with DJ Duane Powell, Silver Room owner Eric Williams, Warehouse and Muzic Box founder Robert Williams, and others. Thu 5/23, 6 PM-9 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, free, all ages

Chicago House Music Festival
Featuring one stage of music on Friday and five stages on Saturday, with performances and workshops by Gene Hunt, Mark Grusane, the Era Footwork Crew, Gant-Man, Moodymann, Mr. A.L.I. & Carla Prather, Rae Chardonnay, Boogie McClarin, and many more. Fri 5/24, 6:30 PM-9 PM, and Sat 5/25, 2 PM-9 PM, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph, free, all ages


The Chicago House Music Conference and Festival is late to the party, given that house has been important not just in Chicago but around the world for more than 30 years. Though it does recognize the music as specifically Chicagoan, it leans hard on the boom years of the 80s—on Friday, May 24, for instance, DCASE presents pioneering 80s producer Chip E. with the Chicago House Music Award. Fortunately, many festival performers who started back then have never stopped producing new work, and the bill also includes several acts that have taken house in radically new directions since the 90s, such as juke producer Gant-Man and footwork crew the Era. The one part of the culture that's inarguably doing worse now than it was in the golden age is its infrastructure—actual physical rooms devoted to live house music. Because house was everywhere in the 80s, I wanted to learn more about some of the lesser-known places that helped build it into the cultural juggernaut it remains today. With Beyond Heaven, I saw a chance.

Luna caught the bug listening to the Hot Mix 5 on WBMX in the early 80s, and he bought crates of dance 12-inches from Importes Etc. and Loop Records. Around 1986, he cofounded a Pilsen collective called the Ultimate Party Crew, and he took his DJ name, "Liv It Up," from a 1981 track by Dutch synth-pop band the Time Bandits. The UPC threw its first show in 1988 in the common hall of Saints Peter and Paul Church at 3745 S. Paulina, where cofounding DJ Luis Aguilera worked after school. Luna held onto the flyer for that gig, as well as pluggers he'd pick up on weekly trips to Importes Etc.

Luna didn't make it to all the shows advertised in Beyond Heaven—it's doubtful any single human could have—but he did remember some of the venues. And in some cases, memories are all that remain: Grand Manor burned in 1994, and the Rainbo roller rink was torn down in 2003 to make room for condos. (Saints Peter and Paul Church still stands, and so do some of the other buildings—though they've changed hands and been put to other uses.) Because these shows happened at least 30 years ago, I didn't want to rely on Luna's memory exclusively in any case—I tracked down several other DJs and promoters who were active in the 80s to learn more about what made a few of these places special.


Cast of characters

Luis Aguilera
Producer, cofounder of the Ultimate Party Crew
Tony Bitoy
Rainbo roller rink promoter from 1983 until 1989
Chip E.
Producer of 1986's influential Time to Jack
Pablo "Punkout" Gonzalez
On-air personality for south-side station WCYC, north-side club DJ
Rick Lenoir
Rainbo roller rink resident DJ, member of production duo LNR
Mario "Liv It Up" Luna
Cofounder of the Ultimate Party Crew
Rich Martinez
WCYC DJ, Trax Records artist, member of party organizers Fusion Dance Promotions
Mickey "Mixin" Oliver
Original member of the Hot Mix 5
Frankie "Hollywood" Rodriguez
Member of the Hot Mix 5

GRAND MANOR
5436 S. Archer, burned down

Pluggers in Beyond Heaven advertise appearances here by the original Hot Mix 5, Steve "Silk" Hurley, Frankie "Hollywood" Rodriguez, and Trax Records artist Jesse Velez.

Frankie Rodriguez It was only a couple of places in Chicago that the kids could rent out that held more than 300 people, and that was one of them.

Rich Martinez It was a basic venue where people would rent out for private parties and what have you. It probably held close to 500 to maybe 800 people.

Mario Luna A lot of people, once they saw that the attendance was great—a lot of people used to flock to these places—they would hold dances there and hang onto these halls every weekend.

Rich Martinez The promotions that I was with, Fusion Dance Promotions, we started booking that hall as well to throw our own parties there.

Mickey Oliver Guys would rent that out—I think they'd, like, wrassle with each other to get that place rented out, because it always seemed to draw a good crowd based on where it was located.

Rich Martinez It was right on Archer and Cicero there. It was very accessible from the south side.

Frankie Rodriguez If we were all going to DJ at the Manor on a Friday or Saturday night, you had three, four, five hundred kids showing up.

Mario Luna It used to be packed. It was all hit-or-miss, some of these dance halls; Grand Manor, that was a hit.

Rich Martinez They had a mini stage—it wasn't an elevated stage. It was maybe a few feet off the ground.

Frankie Rodriguez When you get done working, you step down and you're in the middle of two, three hundred people talking to you. And if you suck, they let you know. That's another thing too; if you were a little off, or you played a song that didn't work out really well, they would let you know pretty quick. You can see that reaction there.

Mickey Oliver The crowd was always really responsive to the sound.

Frankie Rodriguez I remember the room being open, and it had a raw feel to it. It wasn't controlled by big production companies. It was more of a grassroots type of place, where you could—not meaning this in a bad way at all—where you could just get down and dirty and nobody was bugging you. You can just let loose.

Mario Luna Everybody used to go there every weekend, just because the names on the flyers, and maybe they have a performer that made a record that was there in concert.

Frankie Rodriguez Places like the Manor, you would see that artist on the flyer, and you'd pay five bucks, and they'd be there. Even if they weren't on the flyer to perform that night, they'd be hanging out. And I gotta tell you, several times the DJ would hand the microphone over to somebody in the crowd and they would sing along with a track, and the kids all got something extra out of it.

Rich Martinez One memorable party there was in '85, with Jesse Velez; he was a young Puerto Rican DJ from the north side who had this monster hit on Trax called "Girls Out on the Floor." He was the featured act. Me and Miguel Rodriguez played on four turntables. That was the first time two DJs got together to do that—to do one mix on four turntables. So while I was blending one thing in, he was coming in with another thing. It was something that we came up with, and a lot of DJ acts were doing after we did it.

Frankie Rodriguez Kids came from the suburbs, they came from Indiana, they came from Wisconsin, all of the surrounding areas. You would drive down and you would all be one—there was no race, color, or creed at those parties at the Manor. Everybody was there for one purpose, and that was just to party and have a good time.


AMERICAN LEGION POST #271
4416 S. Western, now a church

Pluggers in Beyond Heaven advertise appearances here by Jamie Principle, Kenny "Jammin" Jason, Julian "Jumpin" Perez, Carl Bias, and Rich Martinez.

Rich Martinez That was a huge, huge venue—that probably held, easy, a thousand people.

Luis Aguilera It was bare-bones, high ceilings. Fog lights would work really well in there. It was all very low-tech.

Rich Martinez I was part of Fusion Dance Promotions, which was made up of Miguel Rodriguez and his brother, Pedro Rodriguez. So they would rent that place out a lot, and we would be featured DJs.

Mario Luna The Grand Manor and American Legion hall, they were like competition, so to speak—one would try to outdo the other as far as the events for that weekend.

Luis Aguilera Lots of battles going on—like hip-hop type of battles, where these dancers used different types of footwork. Mostly footwork action, actually—it was a different type of dance.

Mario Luna They used to hold a lot of major, major concerts—the whole aura of it was just great, everything would just consume you soon as you walked in.

Luis Aguilera That is one of those examples where the hall parties brought together a variety of different party crews under one roof, and so there were a lot of shout-outs, and a lot of people competing.

  • Trax Records released this Rich Martinez 12-inch in 1988.

SAINTS PETER AND PAUL CHURCH HALL
3745 S. Paulina, still exists

Pluggers in Beyond Heaven advertise appearances here by Mario "Liv It Up" Luna and the rest of the Ultimate Party Crew.

Mario Luna I used to belong to this party crew called the Ultimate Party Crew, or UPC.

Luis Aguilera I offered that place to my crew. I made the proposal to my boss at the time, the priest, and told him we would be able to provide a donation to the church, as well as make sure that the place was safeguarded. He gave us the go-ahead to do so, because we had actually been using the church-hall basement—the rectory basement—for our meetings, which were taking place once a week. It was becoming a very well-structured organization. So that's how we ended up using that hall for two or three events.

Mario Luna We held our first dance there.

Luis Aguilera The actual events were in the church hall, which had a capacity of about 500 people at most. And we rammed it, we really basically got it up to 500, and were able to make enough of a tidy profit to feed into the UPC football team—because we had a football team, we had a basketball team. We also had a DJ group.

Mario Luna Lo and behold, it was a hit. After that, more dances were being held at that hall for a while. That was the birth of the party crew.

Luis Aguilera Very low ceilings, at most eight feet high, and a very subterranean feel to it—very dingy. But we turned off the lights, we set up the tables, and it really was all about the music at that time. People were just having a great time dancing, listening to the music, and pushing the frontiers of electronic music.

Mario Luna Once they did something at a church hall, if they saw that it was a success, they would keep doing it over and over, because they see that the kids will come back to it the next weekend.

Luis Aguilera We'd have these events on Saturday night, and we were very well understanding that there would be mass the next day. We would normally end our events at one or two in the morning; I would be out there at two in the morning, picking up, and I'd come back in the morning and do the rest of the cleanup before mass started. We actually had a police officer stationed at the front of the entrance, making sure that there was some level of security as well for us. So it was really well planned out.

Pluggers from Saints Peter and Paul Church (the first show by the Ultimate Party Crew), Rainbo roller rink, and the Grand Manor (where Rich Martinez and Miguel Rodriguez of Fusion Dance Promotions did a live mix with four turntables) - COURTESY OF ALMIGHTY & INSANE BOOKS
  • Pluggers from Saints Peter and Paul Church (the first show by the Ultimate Party Crew), Rainbo roller rink, and the Grand Manor (where Rich Martinez and Miguel Rodriguez of Fusion Dance Promotions did a live mix with four turntables)
  • Courtesy of Almighty & Insane Books

CENTRUM HALL
1309 N. Ashland, now condos

Pluggers in Beyond Heaven advertise appearances here by Julian "Jumpin" Perez, Kenny "Jammin" Jason, Ralphy "the Razz" Rosario, Carl Bias, Pablo "Punkout" Gonzalez, and Rich Martinez.

Mario Luna I grew up near Ashland and 18th Street, so I used to take Ashland all the way up north—a lot of the north-side DJs would hold their dances there, at Centrum Hall.

Pablo Gonzalez Places like Centrum Hall were the avenue for older teens to listen to house music and basically dance all night.

Mario Luna North-side DJs—the way they mixed, the way the dance performers used to perform—it was just a whole different crowd. It's hard to pinpoint exactly, but you knew you were on the north side, because they just had a different style of their own. The DJs, the dancers—everything, all in one nutshell, was different.

Rich Martinez I remember going into the foyer, and there were steps that went up into the hall—it was like about a five-step staircase. And it was huge.

Pablo Gonzalez It had a stage and a nice bar. We were able to fit, like, over 500 people in comfortably.

Mario Luna It was just a big, high-ceilinged hall. Spacious—a lot of room to dance. The sound—the speakers would grab you.

Pablo Gonzalez I would be there like every other month, almost, for about a year, almost two years.

  • Pablo Gonzalez's only formal release, a 12-inch from 1986

Mario Luna The lineup—you wanted to see who was there again. Sometimes they'd have these performers onstage singing their songs—you wanted to see them there too.

Pablo Gonzalez What killed Centrum was the birth of the Rainbo roller rink in the later 80s, because they took that concept up to a bigger level.


RAINBO ROLLER RINK
4836 N. Clark, torn down for condos

Pluggers in Beyond Heaven advertise appearances here by J.M. Silk, Kevin Irving, White Knight, Marshall Jefferson, Phuture, Armando, Mike Dunn, Farley "Jackmaster" Funk, Julian "Jumpin" Perez, and Rick Lenoir.

Rick Lenoir I was a resident there for a little while, when we first started doing dance parties there on Saturdays.

Tony Bitoy The groups that I initially hired, I was doing all of the hip-hop acts.

Rick Lenoir When we first started, we had to get people to adapt to "No, you're not skating, we're playing dance music." It wasn't all house music—it was still in its infancy. So we were playing a lot of New York breakbeat electro, Afrika Bambaataa, some of the early freestyle-type stuff, a lot of the Italian disco imports that were starting to come into the States.

Rainbo promoter Tony Bitoy says that a crowd of more than 4,000 overwhelmed the venue for this 1985 event. - COURTESY OF ALMIGHTY & INSANE BOOKS
  • Rainbo promoter Tony Bitoy says that a crowd of more than 4,000 overwhelmed the venue for this 1985 event.
  • Courtesy of Almighty & Insane Books

Mario Luna It was huge, so you weren't crunched up. You weren't shoulder to shoulder, you can't move or you can't dance, like the little small halls, where they can only fit in so many people. This place was enormous.

Tony Bitoy It was a big place. I had to do big numbers.

Rick Lenoir A room that big, we had to work really hard to get people in there. At first it was tough, but as time went on we would do a couple of big events and some concerts, and more and more people started to come.

Tony Bitoy What happened with the house-music thing is, I knew everybody because they were from here. They were all young. I did Jesse Saunders when nobody knew who Jesse Saunders was. They all came to me, talking about they wanted to do a show. Marshall Jefferson—I tease Marshall to this day, because when he first did a show there, and they had the record . . . The House Music Anthem was blowing up on the radio and everything, so when he did his show at the Rainbo, there was no template for how to perform. There was no house acts. So when they showed up, they had on these sequins-type jackets, and they had Temptations moves. People do what they know—they were doing the whole thing, but their moves were like the Temptations.

Rick Lenoir Ultimately it became one of the premier dance clubs in the city.

Tony Bitoy I was converting a skating rink into a party. An hour after their last skating session on Saturday, they would have to clean up real quick. I would cover up where they had the roller skates, the rentals—I would draw the curtain over there. We dim down the lights. It was a whole thing just to try to give it that whole club atmosphere.

Chip E. He had a great sound system and great lighting. When you walk into the place, you wouldn't have thought it was a roller rink—you'd think it was just a regular nightclub. He really got the decor just right.

Tony Bitoy It was a skating rink, you know, with very high ceilings, and the sound system—I would have to supplement stuff to come in there.

Mario Luna The sound system there, you used to feel it in your chest—the speakers, the bass. They had a light show there—the smoke, the lights, and the sound, it just brought you in.

Rick Lenoir The thing that was unique about Rainbo, it allowed adults 21 and older on the upper level, so they had an open bar with adults on the top level. Then the bottom level was all dancing, underage—18, 17 and up.

Tony Bitoy It was an all-ages party that went till five in the morning, if you believe it or not.

Rick Lenoir As kids, to be able to go to a place that was not a school gymnasium or a loft, to be able to go into an actual club, with lights and sounds in a room that big, was pretty exciting.

Chip E. Tony went a little bit above and beyond and to make sure that it was a first-class sound system, first-class lighting system. His flyers were always top-notch. The acts that were there—there were a lot of small clubs and juice bars, but they didn't really bring in a lot of live entertainment.

Tony Bitoy I did the New York-versus-Chicago battle of the DJs—that was the biggest crowd, we had to shut the doors down. We had over 4,000 people in there, and then we had so many outside that the city brought in horses and everything else.

Rick Lenoir By the time we got to '85, it was really running downhill—in a good way. It was just "Open the doors and folks are showing up."

  • J.M. Silk performs at Rainbo in 1987.

Tony Bitoy Rainbo was great for roller skating, and it was great for big parties and everything, but you had to have a thousand people to get any kind of ambience in a big open room like that. I got tired of that.

Chip E. What I really miss about the Rainbo and places like that is it was a time when people didn't put as much emphasis on the DJs or the performer per se, and really danced and enjoyed themselves. Sometimes when I'm playing big festivals now, all eyes are on me—I kind of wish it was back at the Rainbo, where people were looking at each other, dancing with each other, and I was kind of in the background. I like that.  v

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