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As memories of a Chicago nightclub echo, a Johnny Carson book arrives

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It can be argued that the corner of Rush and Bellevue Streets on the Near North Side is one of the busiest corners in the world, packed as it is with some of the most popular restaurants in town, places such as Hugo’s, Luxbar, Gibsons, Dublin’s and the relatively new The Bellevue, which replaced Phil Stefani’s Tavern on Rush.

It will be even busier soon, as two new neighbors join the culinary crowd. One will be Carmine’s, remade from the ground up where it once sat just north of The Bellevue and set to open later this year. Also coming is a new Stefani restaurant in the Thompson Hotel, replacing Nico Osteria and bringing Stefani back to the corner.

Change happens and memories hang heavy here, especially since Gibsons sits on the spot that was once the greatest nightclub in the world, a place called Mister Kelly’s, which is being celebrated a few blocks to the southwest inside the Newberry Library.

That is where you can find a wonderful new exhibition called “A Night at Mister Kelly’s”  that powerfully evokes a bygone era.

It does so with items, neatly displayed, such as photos of the many performers at the club from the 1950s into the 1970s (an astonishing list that includes Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Mort Sahl, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor). There are also menus, plates, a stunning Ellen Lanyon painting, an ashtray and copies of the albums recorded live there.

Much of this material — artfully organized and curated by the Newberry’s Alison Hinderliter — comes from David Marienthal, the son and nephew of the brothers George and Oscar Marienthal, who ran the club as well as the London House and Happy Medium.

“When I walked into the exhibition, tears came to my eyes,” David Marienthal told me.

Not surprising, because he has passionately and tirelessly been keeping the history alive. In addition to this current exhibit, he has made, with the estimable aid of young writer/producer/historian Adam Carston, a lively documentary titled “Live at Mister Kelly’s.” He is also exploring some television show opportunities and is busy screening his movie at libraries, universities and other venues across the country.

Film screenings are among a number of public programs embellishing the Newberry exhibition which runs through July 20. There is also a cabaret evening at Winter’s Jazz Club, and on May 16 there will be a conversation between Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen, veterans of the Mister Kelly’s stage, where they were the first (and sadly only since) Black and white comedy team.

David Marienthal stands near the site of the former Mister Kelly's in 2017. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune )
David Marienthal stands near the site of the former Mister Kelly’s in 2017. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune )

Whenever he is in Chicago, Dreesen hangs out at Gibsons. On a recent Friday night in a room upstairs, a few men, some old and some not so, sat over drinks and dinner and told stories about nightclubs and entertainers vanished and about a world that once contained Bill Zehme.

Zehme was a writer, among the greatest chroniclers of the show business world.

He died last March and was only 64 — and for the last decade of his life, he was fighting cancer and struggling to complete his hotly anticipated book about Johnny Carson, who had given Zehme his only interview after retiring as host of the “Tonight Show.”

"Carson the Magnificent," by Bill Zehme with Mike Thomas. (Simon & Schuster)
“Carson the Magnificent,” by Bill Zehme with Mike Thomas. (Simon & Schuster)

The resulting story, which appeared in Esquire magazine in May 2002, pleased Carson so much that he wrote Zehme a note thanking him. A book deal was inked and Zehme got to work. By 2013 the book, tentatively titled “Carson the Magnificent: An Intimate Portrait,” was yet to be finished, because, as Zehme said, “In Johnny world, one thing leads to another, one person to another.”

He kept at it, even as colorectal cancer began to beat him up and eventually take his life. So it was the most pleasant surprise when it was recently announced that the book was finished with the help of Zehme’s former assistant, collaborator and friend Mike Thomas. He had worked with Zehme decades ago but remained close as he went on to write for the Sun-Times, write a couple of good books (2009’s “The Second City Unscripted” and 2014’s “You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman”). He currently is a columnist for the Tribune-owned Chicago magazine.

Upstairs at Gibsons, he told us that the book, “Carson the Magnificent,” is scheduled for a Nov. 5 release by Simon & Schuster. The publisher touts it as a book that will “illuminate one of the most inscrutable figures in entertainment history” with details about his youth in Nebraska, his Navy service during World War II, his three marriages and his struggles with alcohol.

Thomas seemed pleased and a few days later told me, “Finishing what Bill started has been more than a bit daunting and kind of surreal. Daunting because he amassed mountains of Carson research that took me months to wade through and sort before any writing could begin. Also because he and Johnny were beloved in their respective realms and were masters of their domains. The surreal part has to do with my coming full-circle. I started out as Bill’s research assistant in the mid-’90s. We worked on three books together and I learned firsthand how the sausage is made. Now I’m wrapping up my bookmaking mentor’s final project — the one that was closest to his heart. It’s actually been a great way to stay in touch with him.”

And that’ll be a memory to cherish.

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