Celebrating 15 years of cabaret in Chicago

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Davenport's

Davenport's owners left, Donna Kirchman, and right, Sue Berry inside their club, at 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave., in Chicago. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune / October 14, 2013)

Last summer, Chicago singer Joan Curto was preparing to take the stage at Davenport's – the city's leading cabaret – when a transformer blew, instantly darkening the tiny club.

"I was all dressed, ready to go, people were getting their drinks – it was one of those hot, sweltering nights," recalls Curto.

But cabaret people – who survive under duress in even the best of times – aren't about to let a mere power outage stop the show. So someone from Davenport's ran across Milwaukee Avenue to Walgreens for supplies, and Curto soon was delivering her homage to Cole Porter by candlelight.

"I sang for about 40 minutes, until I could see people were sweating a little too much," remembers Curto.

You've got to be tough to persevere in the world of cabaret, where conditions can be austere, rooms are intimate, audiences are small and profits are – well, not really applicable.

Yet the music plays on, with Curto and others convening at the Park West on Sunday for a concert celebrating two institutions that somehow have endured for 15 years: Davenport's and Chicago Cabaret Professionals, an organization that champions the art form.

Thanks to Davenport's, which presents performances Wednesdays through Mondays, and CCP, which is staging Sunday's marathon and organizes other events across the Chicago area, the art of cabaret flourishes in Chicago – even if no one is exactly getting rich in the process.

"We're so pleased we've been able to make it this long with our itty, bitty club," says Sue Berry, who opened the place on Veteran's Day of 1998 with business partners Donna Kirchman and Bill Davenport (Berry and Kirchman later bought out Davenport).

"Small businesses don't normally last so long," adds Kirchman. Especially when they're selling the fragile art of cabaret.

So why has Davenport's stayed open, while rooms such as the Gold Star Sardine Bar, on North Lake Shore Drive, and Toulouse Cognac Bar, on North Lincoln Park West, have long since faded into history?

"I think it's because it's a passionate business, rather than just a cash-register-ring kind of business," says Kirchman, who spends most evenings at the club, at 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave. "Everyone's doing this because they love it – it's got such a positive energy.

"I don't mean to paint a rosy picture. People have bad days."

Certainly the first couple of years were not easy for Davenport's, says Berry. But she and Kirchman enjoyed a key advantage over many clubowners: Both have good day jobs, so they were able to buy the Wicker Park building where they created Davenport's – in a former dollar store – and didn't have to panic when receipts were low (Kirchman is managing director for a media and communications agency and Berry is vice-president and treasurer of a staffing service).

And yet there's more to it than that. For starters, Davenport's stands as a unique venue in Chicago, in that it's two cabarets in one: a piano bar up front, where someone is always singing something, and a more formal concert space in back, behind double doors (which generally block out the sound from the front).

Step inside, and you feel you're leaving the gritty streets behind and walking into a playful, brightly decorated fantasy land where colors are vivid and the music never stops.

But unlike the Gold Star Sardine Bar or Toulouse Cognac Bar, which were located in the thick of Chicago nightlife, Davenport's sits at a somewhat remote location, on a commercial strip in Wicker Park.

At the beginning, Davenport's was "in the center of a dead zone where nothing was happening," says Berry, the club surrounded by furniture stores and other retail outlets. Nighttime foot traffic was practically non-existent. But the emergence of nearby restaurants and art galleries has lured more people to Davenport's, say the owners.

And a series of auditions designed to develop new talent – and draw new audiences – has upped attendance by more 200 visitors a month, says Kirchman. Not bad for a room that accommodates 50 people in front and 75 in back.

Through the years, Davenport's has presented some indelible performances, particularly Dan Stetzel's brilliantly staged revues of the songbooks of Tom Waits, Laura Nyro and Leonard Cohen. Cabaret queens such as Julie Wilson, Karen Mason and Andrea Marcovicci have attracted turn-away crowds, with Marcovicci and Mason presenting much-anticipated annual residencies.

Even so, booking national performers of their caliber into such a tiny room has been challenging, for economic rather than artistic reasons.

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