When we think of what a comedy institution is, we think of Saturday Night Live, Second City, The Groundlings, and so forth. These are the things that have been installed into our head as becoming comedy institutions and we can’t imagine them going anywhere anytime in the near future.
But there’s a place that pre-dated all of these. A little supper club that was well-known to feature the hottest acts in both jazz and comedy. It was to Chicago what the Copacabana was to New York. Mister Kelly’s.
From 1953-1975, Mister Kelly’s was the place to go to see rising acts in the country. This was a venue that housed the comedians that went on to change the world of comedy as we now know it. Some of these comedians include Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Freddie Prinze, Redd Foxx, Robert Klein, Dick Gregory, Nichols and May, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Joan Rivers, Mort Sahl, Shecky Greene, Phylis Diller, David Steinberg, and Fred Willard, among many others too countless to mention. Five comedians (Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, and Freddie Prinze) even recorded their comedy album there.
This was one of the rare clubs that took an invested interest in the artists that came through. The owners, brothers George and Oscar Marienthal, are remembered so fondly for the way they sought out but also treated talent. And once you played there, the exposure basically all-but guaranteed you to be a star.
Mister Kelly’s is the subject of an upcoming documentary titled Mister Kelly’s Chicago, helmed by David Marienthal, son of George, writer/researcher Adam Carston, and director Ted Bogosian. The documentary includes new interviews with some of the biggest comedians to play the club, including Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, Robert Klein, The Smothers Brothers, Mort Sahl, Fred Willard, David Steinberg, and Shecky Greene, among many others.
It is very important to the history of comedy to make sure that memories and stories are preserved, so that’s a very positive thing that can come of this documentary, which is slated to be released sometime in 2020.
A new Kickstarter campaign to help fund the film can be found here, which also features a sizzle video for the film as well as additional information.