Bruce Elliott, holding onto the bar with one hand and a railing with the other, confidently teetered on the back legs of his chair while a young couple on a date chatted away just a few seats away. Throughout the early evening, patrons would walk in and acknowledge Bruce with a nod, or offer a handshake, as he balanced upon his modest throne. He told stories of his younger days, when he played rounds with a law professor named Barack Obama at the anything-goes Jackson Park Golf Course; and of later days, when he threw back beers in his painting studio with a former cook named Anthony Bourdain.
He pointed to portraits hung up on the wall -- which he had painted -- colorfully recounting their origins, as I and a bartender hung onto his words. But the young couple hadn’t noticed; they were too preoccupied with each other’s good looks. And eventually, unaffected by their environs, they picked their phones up off the bar and departed into the crisp winter’s night.
It’s comforting to think otherwise, but time absolutely does not stand still at the Old Town Ale House, which the late Roger Ebert called “The best bar in the world that I know about." A dive for the ages, the Old Town Ale House has spent the past 45 years in its "temporary" location, where comedians, musicians, artists, and hardcore drinkers alike have swapped stories. Sure, the actual bar has pretty much looked the same all these years, but things change: the owners, the neighborhood. Longtime regulars stop frequenting, or get banned (more on that later), or pass away. Of course, the clientele is never really what it used to be.
I basically proved to people that if you drink in a bar long enough, they give it to you.
The story goes that the original Old Town Ale House opened in 1958 to coincide with the neighborhood’s Christmas Walk, but caught fire on February 9th, 1971, and had to relocate across North Ave to its current location. Since then, it has been the preferred watering hole of a staggering number of local celebrities. Recently, a book was published about the goings on of the Ale House, and the joint will also get the star treatment on an upcoming episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. But what's the real, booze-soaked story behind this bar? That’s what we aimed to find out.
Bruce Elliott, owner: [I first started hanging out here] in 1961. In those days, it was quite different. You had a blue-collar after-work crowd, but it was a fascinating place. You had all these artists and musicians hanging out. For a 21-year-old kid hanging out at a much older bar, it was unusual. I moved to California for nine years, and while I was gone, the bar caught fire. The new owners couldn’t break down this bar (he knocks on bar), so they just carried it across North Ave, right into here. Didn’t even lose a day. It was Pete’s Butcher Shop, and they just converted it into this bar.
I moved around after that, but I always came back here. I basically proved to people that if you drink in a bar long enough, they give it to you. The owners, who were good friends of mine, they were getting up in age. So, I started helping them out, and my ex-wife started helping them out. Then they both died unexpectedly about 12 years ago, within months of each other. So that’s when we took over the bar. I’ve been in and out of this bar since 1961.
Patrick “Clown” Flanigan; longtime regular (currently banned): The owners since the early ‘60s were Bea and Arthur Klug, and they died in 2007, I think, and left the bar to one of the regulars: Tobin. Bruce [Elliot], who is there now, is her husband. So, basically, he married into it. Bruce is a complete egomaniac. He is a con man, he is a golf hustler. He has never really had a job in his life. He hustled his way into the ownership of a bar, basically. It seemed like she was going to be getting the bar, and he started to date her. It was one of those things. He calls himself "The Genius."
Bruce: [Back in the day], there were some other interesting bars on the street, part of what the guys called the Bermuda Triangle. They’d start out at either Billy Goat or the old Ricardo’s, down by the newspapers. Then they’d go to O’Rourke’s, and the ones that were still standing would finish here -- guys like Mike Royko and Roger Ebert -- because this was the four o’clock place. That was the Golden Age of newspapers in Chicago, back in the ‘60s.
Clown: All the Second City people used to hang out there. George Wendt used to hang out there a lot. One guy who used to hang out there a lot was John Cusack, in the ‘90s. Chris Farley used to hang out there a lot, and he actually used to hang out at Burton’s a lot too. Aykroyd used to go in there a lot. They’ve all got their pictures up on the wall, Bruce painted them.
Bruce: It still has the hipster thing going on; it still has the Second City crowd. Late at night, the jazz musicians still come in. But there was a stretch in the ‘70s and ‘80s where it got rough. It was a lot rougher, but you still had the actors and comedians and musicians. As the neighborhood became more and more gentrified, especially over the last 10 years, it has really changed, because a lot of the old regulars just simply can’t afford to live down here anymore.
We still get a lot of celebrity action. Michael Shannon is a regular here. He lives in Brooklyn, but he has a condo here. He was here most of the summer. Dan Aykroyd still comes in, because he loves the jukebox. Bill Murray was in last year. All of a sudden you get Nicolas Cage sitting at the bar. Ron Howard was doing a movie and was here every Friday. I probably don’t know who the celebrities will be in the future. In the old days I did.
Clown: The cool thing about the Ale House, is you could be day-drinking there and you’d suddenly meet someone who was excessively talented. I became close friends with Sam Richardson (Spy, Veep, Detroiters). He was hanging out at the Ale House during the day, just drinking whiskey. We started talking about the history of comedy; he was a real student of comedy. So, we got along great. I started doing this thing at the time that I called the Tsunami shot. Basically, it’s just a glass of water and you throw it in someone’s face and yell "Tsunami!" We started doing that back and forth. The key is you had to surprise the other guy.
Bruce: On the other hand, we’ve gotten a lot of publicity with the Bourdain show and newspaper articles. As a result of that, we get a lot of tourist action. It’s changed, but it’s still the Ale House. Old timers still come in here. It has kept its character.
Clown: Over the past six or seven years, the crowd has changed. It’s been more young kids, and their energy is so high because they’ve been in improv classes. They’re always "on." They tend to be loud a lot, so it’s kind of annoying. They’re performing for each other and improv continues into the bar. But that’s why [Bruce] keeps the jukebox the way it is. A lot of jazz, some classical, because they don’t want to throw in music that makes people even rowdier.
If you get some assholes in here, and you want to get them out, just put the opera on. The jukebox is big as far as affecting our clientele.
Bruce: One of the bartenders, Tim, he’s the jukebox czar. He has an eclectic taste: lots of blues and jazz, almost no rock ‘n’ roll. That controls your crowd. You don’t get the kids with the baseball hats turned backwards coming in. I always make sure we have some opera in there. It still works. If you get some assholes in here, and you want to get them out, just put the opera on. The jukebox is big as far as affecting our clientele. Also: the fact that we only have one TV.
Clown: A lot of the older crowd can’t stand the fact that there are paintings on the wall. What used to be there was this big mural of all the old regulars, in like ’73 or ’74, and one of the people that hung out there painted it. That was the only thing up there. And then Bruce came in, and put up portraits of all the regulars and completely covered the walls. So it’s basically his gift shop.
Bruce: Putin, right next to the Kim Jong-un is my most-recent portrait. My very favorite painting is my Einstein, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich painting. The great, big one all the way back there. The most famous one, obviously, is the Sarah Palin.
Clown: There are quite a few people banned from the Ale House, because if you don’t get along with Bruce, you end up getting banned. When you get banned, he takes your picture down. I told him -- because everyone who ends up getting banned goes to Burton Place -- "You ought to put them up at Burton Place."
Bruce: Yeah there’s a whole pile in the basement. Clown’s in there, but if he pulls through on his heart surgery, I’ll dig him out. But there’s a bunch of new regulars that should go up on the wall, and some that should be taken down because they don’t come in here anymore. That’s something I’m working on right now.
... Bruce has a "No Shot" list. Instead of getting kicked out at first, he just puts you on the list.
Clown: One funny thing about the Ale House is that Bruce has a "No Shot" list. Instead of getting kicked out at first, he just puts you on the list [and you can’t order shots]. One day, someone from Burton Place came over to the Ale House late afternoon, and there are eight regulars in there. And she’s like, "You know, I never come in here. While I’m here, I want to buy everybody shots!" Every single person in there was on the "No Shot" list.
Bruce: A lot them [on the "No Shot" list] have died. Reuben is no longer with us. Clown is about to have heart surgery. He’s from Champaign along with this guy, Brian the Piano Player. Brian said that Clown was banned from every bar in Champaign. He said there was a series of guys like Clown who were banned from every single place, and whenever a new bar would open in Champaign, this whole crew would converge on this new bar, before they were all banned again.
Anya, the bartender: We probably have only five people who are allowed to come into the bar who are still on the "No Shot" list.
Bruce: Chief. Reuben’s dead. Jose is definitely on the "No Shot" list. Fox is dead. Clown doesn’t come in anymore.
Anya: Mrs. Clown. She was never on the "No Shot" list, just on the "No Drinking at All" list.
Bruce: Jimmy Pruitt is the only one who got taken off the "No Shot" list. Bourdain wanted me to send him a release so he could be in the show.
Clown: [Comedian John Fox] was on the "No Shot" list. He lived down the street. He actually started living in the Zanies condo. Clubs always set a condo aside for comics when they visit. It’s through the back, on Wieland. They let him live there, and he used to keep a bottle of tequila in the mailbox. He always said, "I’m going to check the mail," [while at the bar] because he couldn’t order shots. So he’d go "check the mail," but everyone found out he was doing the tequila because one day he got mad and told everybody that the mail lady was stealing his tequila.
Clown: Bruce has a blog. Two people that are prominent in the blog, that do work for him, are Street Jimmy, a homeless guy and total crackhead. Basically he tries to get $10 a day so he can get crack. Bruce lets him sweep the floor for a couple of bucks in the morning, and gives him breakfast. The other guy is nicknamed Danny Fancypants because he’s real effeminate. But the story behind him is that he wasn’t always effeminate, and everyone thought that he was acting to get this notoriety. It worked, but I think Bruce just fired him. He was coming in really, really far gone. Bruce would keep the liquor in the back overnight, and he would sneak back there and start drinking while he was cleaning up, and Bruce had a camera there.
Bruce: The blog started five or six years ago. I was very tight with Roger Ebert. He had a blog that millions of people used to read every day. I didn’t. He would write stuff about me on his blog, and he would tell my daughter, "Tell your dad to read this." He kept saying, "You should really write a blog." I tried it, but he said, "Do it every day. You’ll be surprised; you’ll want to keep doing it. You’re a natural storyteller." He kept bugging me, and all of a sudden it became addictive.
Clown: Bruce is a great storyteller. He’s a great writer.
Bruce: So what happened was, Ebert would plug me on his blog, and Anthony Bourdain discovered me through Roger. One day my daughter is bartending, I’m sitting here, and she picks up the phone and starts going crazy about Anthony Bourdain. I didn’t know who he was. He said, "I’d really love to take your blog and make it into a book. Just check all these people out. You’re gonna need an agent to handle the dough, I recommend my agent. She’s the best agent in New York. I’ll have her call you tomorrow." I was just doing this for fun and all of a sudden, this guy’s famous and has a TV show, and all that. It was fascinating.
Clown: One time after the show [a variety show held annually the week before the Super Bowl] in 2009, I took off my makeup and sat down at the bar, and Bill Murray was in the bar. I was like, "It’s fucking Bill Murray, man. I got to meet him." There’s a lot of famous people that go in there, and Bruce is always like, "You can’t hassle the famous people, that’s why they come in here." I’m like, "I’m not going to hassle him, I just have to say hi." So I walked up to him and I said, "Hey, how’s it going?" He says, "Hey, pretty good." I say, "I just wanted to meet ya, I don’t want to bother you. You really missed a great show here earlier tonight." And Bill Murray said, "Yeah, I heard you were funny, Clown." He then shook my hand. Talk about acknowledgement.
Have you ever seen The Razor’s Edge? He did a movie, I think it was in ’83, that was a serious movie about a guy who grows up in a rich suburb here and ends up to go find himself. He goes to India and Paris, and it was a beautiful movie. Not a comedy at all. So he did this movie early on in his career, and it got panned by the critics, because they wanted a comedy movie. He had actually quit comedy for five years, and he went to Paris to study philosophy. I knew quite a bit about it, because he was kind of a hero of mine.
So when he was leaving the Ale House, I stopped him, and I said, "I want to let you know that movie, The Razor’s Edge, was one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen in my life. It changed my life; it made me search for something bigger than just being... what people do." And he’s looking at me, in amazement, and says, "You actually saw it?" "Yeah, it’s one of my favorites." So he’s looking at me, smiling, and he shakes my hand and says, "Thanks, Clown!" So that’s the Ale House, you know.
Bruce: [Anthony Bourdain] told me, if he could pick any bar to hang out in -- he lives in New York, on the Upper East Side -- this would be the place. He just loves the characters.
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Old Town Ale House is an iconic Chicago dive bar whose crowd varies between comedians from nearby Second City, hipsters, tried-and-true regulars, and tourists (due in no small part to the bar's feature on Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. ) The jukebox, which is usually playing jazz, rules the show, but don't be surprised if one of the bartenders puts on some opera to water down the crowd. The wall is covered with funky paintings of everyone from longtime regulars to celebrities and politicians... case in point: a portrait of a naked Sarah Palin holding a rifle.