FitzGeralds Nightclub: Keeping the Music Going
By: Tucker Doyle
When the Coronavirus pandemic swept through the nation, it was obvious there was one line of business that had the likelihood of being hit hard: music venues. However, one iconic music venue has been one of the most innovative as far as how it’s making do during these trying times: Fitzgerald’s Nightclub in Berwyn, Illinois.
FitzGerald’s has been a staple of the south suburb since the early 1900’s, though it went by a few different names (notably The Hunt Club and The Deer Lodge) before it settled on the name FitzGerald’s Nightclub in 1980. Fast forward to 2020 and upon the FitzGerald family retiring, Will Duncan swept in and bought the venue, becoming the official owner on March 5th.
FitzGerald’s has made its name playing iconic Americana styles of music such as blues, country, old rock n roll, folk music and, as Duncan puts it, “a lot of jazz.” FitzGerald’s is also one of the only music venues in the Chicagoland area known for playing zydeco and Cajun music. It is the classic feel of the place, coupled with the can’t-miss music, that makes it such a popular destination.
According to Duncan, “I wanted to bring in some fresh energy to the property, but continue a similar business operation with live music, drinks and a patio.” Unfortunately, as soon as he became the owner, Covid-19 was already swiftly making its way through the country.
“Having just acquired this property in March, and then almost immediately being required to close, it’s been tough,” said Duncan.
Music venues are certainly in a uniquely challenging position and Duncan acknowledged this.
“The very nature of what we do is the antithesis of social distancing. A lot of people are together in a space, very close to each other, maybe dancing, so, it’s not real conducive to all the health concerns out there right now…It’s such a cliché term at this point, but I think the word uncertainty is the common phrase about what can we expect in the music business.”
Duncan also expressed, just like other business owners, that, “one of the harder things has been being concerned for the hourly staff that makes their living here. That’s tough, just trying to work out ways to keep them happy.”
Duncan has attempted to solve this issue by creating a virtual tip jar where the public can donate to workers using Venmo or PayPal. But as is the case with all businesses that have been forced to close, he stated point blank that, “the impact (of the virus) has been tremendous.”
With everything so dire, especially for owners of music venues, it would be easy to lean towards pessimism. Music venues may have to wait even longer than a normal business to reopen and most owners of music venues are very passionate about what they do. However, Duncan was as optimistic as he could be given the circumstances.
“We have an expression around here that, sure the club is closed, but we’re still in business…In my experience, I’ve kind of enjoyed, oddly, grappling with the challenge of adapting, being creative and trying to figure out what we can do.”
During their temporary closure, Duncan has been selling merchandise online (he is selling shirts that read, “I stayed home from Fitzgerald’s Nightclub and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”), set up an employee relief fund and, like many other music venues, has gotten into the streaming of musical performances.
“It’s pretty exciting actually to be able to sit there at your computer and watch live music happen, even if it is on your little screen and even if you know that artist might be sitting in their living room. It’s just special in a different way.”
Fitzgerald’s has also created the unique idea of, “Pickup Truck Concerts.” They are almost exactly what they sound like. FitzGerald’s books a solo musician who rides in the back of a pickup truck and they perform their music around the neighborhood. They utilize an amplifier, a sound system and they “slowly just cruise down the strip and play a little set of live music for our neighbors,” Duncan stated.
“We’ve been doing it six weeks in a row now.” Fitzgerald’s even stream these concerts, as they have their head of music, Donnie Biggins, follow the truck on a bike and film it for Facebook live. These concerts have worked out incredibly well, even surprising Duncan a bit with how successful they’ve been.
“It’s nuts, these videos have been attracting 500 people at a time watching them and then, over time, upwards of 50,000 views on the videos. So, people are into it, and people are sending tips for the musicians and for the club.”
“It’s a little weird, we can’t have people in the club like we like to do, but we are kind of scraping by and just kind of feeling the energy and the enjoyment of being creative,” Duncan explained.
Duncan hopes that his positive attitude and fresh courses of action can be inspiring to not only other owners of music venues, but business owners in general.
“I’m an optimist to a fault, so I’m always trying to look on the bright side or see the way out. I don’t want to spend too much time dwelling. I just want to get to work, that’s kind of my mentality.”
About Fitzgerald’s Nightclub: FitzGerald’s has been a gathering spot since it was built in the early 1900’s. Up to 1925, the frame building at 6615 W. Roosevelt was a roadhouse used as a hunting lodge and sporting team headquarters.
As more buildings rose along Roosevelt Road, the club was home to several nightclubs, the best-known being The Hunt Club, which flourished through the 1950’s and early 60’s–acts included Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey and Lil Armstrong. After the Hunt Club closed, the space became the Deer Lodge, complete with pool tables and a fortune teller.
The FitzGerald famly bought the building in 1980, and since that time FitzGerald’s has gained a national reputation for excellent live music in a casual, comfortable atmosphere. Along the way, the family purchased the buldings on either side of the club; the corner building now houses a private party space and “get away’ bar, and the building to the east is currently occupied by Capri Ristorante, a popular Old World Italian restaurant. This is a separate business from FitzGerald’s — to make a reservation or for more info, call them at (708) 637-4085.
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