When Tony Acevedo was growing up in Humboldt Park in the late 1980s, he was a regular at Medusa’s.The nightclub at 3257 N. Sheffield Ave. was a place where people of all ages went to dance to industrial, punk, house music and more. It was a rare venue where teens from across the city could meet and hang out.
“It was really important when I was growing up … to be able to go to a club even though you weren’t 21 and just hang out and listen to great music and dance,” Tony said.
Even after he started college in Indiana, Tony would sometimes find himself bored at a college party and say to his friends, “Let’s take a drive from South Bend to Chicago. Let’s hang out at Medusa’s,” he remembers.
Medusa’s in Lakeview closed back in 1992. But a lot of people who used to hang out at the club in the 1980s and early ’90s still associate it with a particular time in their lives: when they were figuring out who they were and how they wanted to express themselves.
Like Tony, they see Medusa’s as a special place that gave young people a relatively safe place to go at night that was actually cool.
Medusa’s was opened in Lakeview in 1983 by a former airline worker and party promoter named Dave Shelton. He got the nickname Dave “Medusa” because of his mop of curly hair.
Shelton leased the building, a former Swedish social club, with the idea to open a juice bar. Unlike venues with a bar license, it was subject to fewer regulations by the city, explained longtime Medusa’s staffer Leroy Fields. Fields ran the club’s famous video room for nearly a decade.
At first, Medusa’s was just for adults over 18. But after a couple of years, Shelton kept getting requests from teens to offer an all-ages night, according to Fields.
So starting in 1986, Medusa’s started offering all-ages nights until 11 o’clock on Saturdays.
“It became just as popular as late night because people came to dance and had a great time,” Fields remembers.
At the time, admission was $5 and the coat-check fee was 75 cents.
Bob Davis was a regular at Medusa’s. As a teen in the ’80s he’d leave his home in Beverly most Saturdays to meet up with a friend on the North Side for a night at Medusa’s.“The doors [would open at] like at 6:30 or something,” Davis remembers. “We’d go on really early and get in that long line and it was just some of the best people-watching ever.”
“There’s a lot of punks … and then goths, and then there [were] just a lot of normal people,” Davis continued. “Anyone could be anything there, and that really drew a lot of different types of people.”
Fields manages a Facebook group about Medusa’s where people still post nostalgic memories decades later. He attributes its continued popularity to the special place it held for so many. “I think it was a time in their lives where they’re coming to grips with their own identities,” he explained of some of the teens that hung out at the club.
“They’re coming out into the world, like, ‘Well I’m a goth, I’m a punk. I’m gay but I like to dance.’ It’s a time in your life where it means a lot, and I think [that’s part of why] the club was so unique and so important to so many people.”
That’s a sentiment Davis echoes. “It was like a community center for weirdos and freaks and everybody else in between, and everybody was welcome,” he said.
To this day, Davis says he associates the overwhelming smell of clove cigarettes with the club. “You walked in and you’re like, okay, this is Medusa’s,” he said with a laugh.
“It’s loud and there’s wonderful lights, and there’s great decor, there’d be melted Salvador Dalí clocks … and you’d sort of find your spot.”
For a lot of young people, Medusa’s opened up a whole new world of music — stuff you couldn’t hear on commercial radio. It mixed house, industrial, punk, new wave and more.
“They knew they were going to hear everything from Joy Division to the Cocteau Twins to the Pixies and Throwing Muses to Echo & the Bunnymen to the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees to the Cramps to Bauhaus to Nirvana — whatever they were going to hear was really good, and they had good taste,” said Fields.If there’s one band he associates with Medusa’s more than any other, Davis said it’s Ministry. “‘Everyday is Halloween’ by Ministry was always sort of an anthem — and probably would still blow up the dance floor,” he said.
“‘True Faith’ by New Order was one that always got me excited,” Davis added. “‘Join in the Chant’ by Nitzer Ebb was a huge, huge, huge dance floor staple. Nowadays I [think it] would be very hard to go to a club and hear that range of music.”
Many of the DJs who played at Medusa’s became some of the most influential in Chicago and beyond, including Frankie Knuckles, DJ Scrappy, DJ Psycho-Bitch and DJ Teri Bristol.
The club also featured performance art, decor changes every month and live music — including performances by Smashing Pumpkins, Fugazi and Ministry.
But not everybody was happy about the throngs of teens hanging around the neighborhood. In 1987, 44th Ward Alderman Bernie Hansen started an offensive against Medusa’s. He believed the club was bad for the ward and pushed for a law that put the squeeze on the license.
The law passed, and it forced juice bars to close at 2 a.m. on Fridays and 3 a.m. on Saturdays. The days of dancing until dawn were over.
Shelton tried to keep the club open, but without local support, it was an uphill battle. So in the summer of 1992, exactly 30 years ago, Shelton closed Medusa’s on Sheffield for good.
“Nothing comes close to what Medusa’s once was. It was a unique time, a unique place and a unique experience,” said former staffer Fields.
Despite its closure, the legacy of Medusa’s would live on in the hearts of people who found connection, identity and creative outlets at crucial points in their lives at the Sheffield nightclub.
Monica Eng is a reporter for Axios Chicago. Follow her @monicaeng
Maggie Sivit is Curious City’s digital and engagement producer. Follow her @magisiv