The Gold Star Sardine Bar: The Rise And Fall Of A Chicago Jazz Club
There’s a shuttered jazz bar on the ground floor of the historic 680 Lake Shore Drive building in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood. A sign on one side of the door lists the names of jazz greats like Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, and Lionel Hampton. On the other, a gold lettered sign reads: The Gold Star Sardine Bar.
Dion McGill started a new job in the building last year and would pass by the old club. He asked his co-workers about it and they told him it had been closed for decades, but the inside hadn’t been changed. They’d even had their office Christmas party there in the past. But nobody really knew much about the story behind the nightclub.
So he wrote in to Curious City asking:
What’s the history of the Gold Star Sardine Bar at 680 N. Lake Shore Drive?
Dion wanted to know what the club was like, if those famous artists listed on the sign outside had really played there, and why the club is now closed. The answers unearth a story about music, movie stars, and what happens when one man’s dream for bygone glamour is shattered by accusations of theft and fraud.
Dreaming of a bygone era
The Gold Star Sardine Bar was the brainchild of Bill Allen (born Vasilios Karamboles), a co-founder of Chicago’s now defunct Treasure Island Grocery Store chain. Started in 1963, the chain was the first to bring gourmet European groceries to the city on a large scale. With several locations around the city (including at 680 N. Lake Shore Drive), Treasure Island helped fuel Chicago’s early foodie craze.
But this grocery king also had a passion for music. For years, he’d dreamed of opening up a jazz club like the ones he’d visited in New York City, where he spent time before and after serving in the Navy during World War II, says his nephew John Malevitis.
“He wanted to recreate those New York clubs here in Chicago,” Malevitis says. “That was his dream: to have this [club] be like his living room.”
And the Gold Star was about as big as a living room — one that sat about 30 people, and could arguably hold another 30 standing up.
“It was the tiniest room I’d ever seen in my entire life,” says Chicago Tribune senior writer Rick Kogan. “But there was something undeniably magic about it.”
“I think in over 40 years of listening to music in Chicago I’ve never encountered another club remotely like it,” adds Tribune Arts Critic Howard Reich. “One reason was the size, thus the name. We, the audience, were the sardines. But it didn’t matter how crowded or packed it felt, you were in this little cocoon of elegance that had no peer anywhere in the city or country for sure.”
With a long bar in one corner and a mirror-lined stage in the other, the room featured wicker stools at the bar and high topped tables scattered around the room. And on each table (until smoking laws changed), the club provided jars of free cigarettes.
The club’s quirky menu offered — among other things — a flaming coffee drink, a famous chicken salad, sliders, and ice cubes made with Perrier water.
“Every day, we went and bought big bags of White Castle cheeseburgers and we would reheat them in the microwave,” Malevitis remembers. “So you’d have a table with Dom Perignon next to platters of double cheeseburgers. They were a big hit. ”
The Gold Star, which never charged a cover or enforced a drink minimum, attracted some of Chicago’s most powerful people, as well as celebrities.
“Everybody who was anybody in Chicago came to the Gold Star,” recalls long-time house performer Patricia Barber. “So you had socialites, business people, politicians, all the mayoral troops, musicians and lots of movie stars. I met Kurt Russell and Gene Hackman back then.”
The Gold Star-studded lineup
Although the Gold Star featured a regular lineup of talented local musicians, including Barber, it became world famous for hosting national jazz cabaret greats. These included Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, and Lionel Hampton, who would show up at the tiny club about every six weeks, says long-time Gold Star publicist Debbie Silverman Krolik.
Former Chicago Sun-Times jazz critic Lloyd Sachs recalls being amazed by the star-studded bookings.
“I remember one gig by the great Stan Getz who had his quartet there,” Sachs says. “And just the opportunity to see Stan Getz from 12 feet away with one of his greatest bands ever was like, ‘How did they do that?’”
Krolik says there was a method to Allen’s seeming madness in booking these expensive acts. He based it on a technique known as the “loss leader” in the grocery store business. That’s where the business attracts customers with a fancy item they sell at a loss. “But once you’ve got them in they’re hooked and they keep coming back over and over,” she says.
Other memorable shows included those by cabaret star Bobby Short, which attracted lines around the block and featured Illinois Governor James Thompson as emcee one night. Another night, singer Pia Zadora played the room backed by a 35-piece orchestra.
“There was maybe space for 10 customers but they had to stand behind the bar,” Kogan recalls.
The Sardine bar’s fishy ending
For years, jazz critics and even people who worked for Allen wondered how this little club could afford such big expensive acts without charging a cover or drink minimum — in fact, Allen wouldn’t even allow drinks to be sold during the performances, Malevitis says.
Some, like Kogan, say for Allen, the club was just a big expensive hobby.
“It’s like some people play golf, some people have affairs. This was Bill’s golf and this was Bill’s affair,” he says.
“I know personally that he paid for a lot of this out of his own pocket,” says Allen’s nephew Malevitis. “I mean, he was a successful business man and lived in Lake Forest.”
But the money questions only grew on September 30, 1997, when the Cook County sheriff’s office put locks on the Gold Star’s door, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Gold Star wasn’t doing well financially, says Malevitis, and the owners of 680 Lakeshore Drive claimed Allen owed them more than $20,000 in back rent. Malevitis, who served as Allen’s lawyer on the matter, says the owners were overcharging Allen, and the rent dispute led his uncle to throw in the towel.
The following year, in a separate case where both Allen and his Treasure Island partners accused one another of embezzlement, Allen pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the Internal Revenue Service. In his plea and testimony, the Tribune reported, Allen admitted submitting false bills to the Treasure Island book keeper and keeping the payments. They totaled more than $1.7 million, and some of the money, Allen said, was used to support the club.
Allen was sentenced to probation. He died in 2001.
For the last two decades, the interior and exterior of the shuttered club have remained mostly untouched. Lee Golub of Golub & Co, which owns the 680 Lake Shore Drive building, says his company repainted the place, changed the carpeting and updated the bathrooms so they could rent it out for private events. But why did they leave all the signage outside all these years?
“Because it just looks cool,” Golub says.
In late 2018, Northwestern University started talks to lease the room as a student entrepreneurship workspace to be opened this spring. University officials say if the agreement goes through, they plan to renovate the interior but leave all the exterior signage intact. Northwestern already operates one of these entrepreneurship offices on its Evanston campus called The Garage.
This new one will be called The Sardine Bar.
More about our questioner
Dion McGill was born and raised in Chicago and once worked as a history teacher in Chicago Public Schools. Today he is a communications and community outreach manager for Strengthening Chicago’s Youth, a program of Lurie Children’s Hospital addressing gun violence.
For fun he trains in jiu jitsu, bikes around the city, and listens to public radio.
As a jazz and history fan, Dion found the story of the Gold Star especially compelling. He was impressed to hear that all the people on that list by the door actually did perform there. But, as he learned by sitting in on an interview with Debbie Silverman Krolik, there was one exception. Frank Sinatra’s name on the list was originally written, “Frank Sinatra Jr.” but someone scratched off the “Jr” part, Silverman Krolik said. And Bill Allen didn’t seem to mind.
Dion says all these stories of the club left him longing for a bygone era himself.
“I wish it were around today,” he says. “How great would it be where I could sit 20 feet away from someone like Michael Buble or Harry Connick Jr., and hear this amazing music. But I’m so glad I know it and can tell other people now.”