Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Midget Club in Chicago

Bruce Spence as the Gyro Captain 

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the grass in a park on the northwest side of Chicago.  While I sat there, a guy came along and started to talk to me.  The guy looked interesting.  He looked like a cross between the Bruce Spence character Gyro Captain in the Road Warrior and Zeddicus in The Legend of the Seeker.  If you combine those characters, add a grey mullet and a pair of Kareem Abdul Jabbar goggles, that is what this guy looked like. 

He asked me if I knew of "The Midget Club."  He was talking about a bar on the south side of Chicago that was open for about 34 or 35 years, from 1948 until 1982.  I obviously don't like the name of a bar using the word midget, but I've always been a little bit curious about the club.  Once, long ago on public television, a documentary I was watching included a piece about "The Midget Club." The club was run by a husband and wife.  I remember the segment as a simple interview with the husband, Parnell St. Aubin who had been a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz.  Parnell talked about the bar and the documentary showed some b-roll of him serving customers and working the cash register.  Watching the segment, I think I was impressed because the bar didn't seem like a gimmick dwarf establishment.  Clearly, the name was somewhat of a gimmick, but it wasn't one of the bars with hooting fraternity boys cheering on a bunch of midget wrestlers, or one of those places in Las Vegas or Manilla where everything about the bar is actually miniature.  From what I understood, "The Midget Club" was just a regular bar that happened to be run by little people.  Of course, they had step stools and things, but those were more accommodations than gimmicks.  Even the name wasn't so much of a gimmick.  Back in those days, the word midget didn't carry nearly the same baggage it does today.  Probably, I thought, it was a name the owners used to give the place some character.

The guy in the park told me that he used to dance at "The Midget Club."  From what I had seen of the documentary, the club didn't seem like a place where any dancing happened.  It seemed like the kind of place where regulars just sat at the bar and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon or Old Style.  But what do I know.  I then tried to picture this Bruce Spence looking guy either as an employee of the bar who was paid to dance or as a customer who danced to songs played in the jukebox.  Either way, the encounter with the guy in the park encouraged me to learn a little bit more about the club.  Later on, I did a few internet searches, no deep research. 

At first, what I found told me that the club was a little more gimmicky than I assumed.  The bar stools were all small, the payphone was just a few inches off the ground, and there was a large Wizard of Oz Mural.  I was a little surprised to learn this.  The piece I found said that the bar was built with people of short stature in mind.  But the reality of the population of dwarfs in Chicago says that, if the bar stayed open for more than 30 years, there must have been a lot of regulars who were not dwarfs.  If you build low stools, and know that they will be used by average size people, that's kind of gimmicky.   Learning about the miniature bar stools, I started to picture hard working average statured residents of the southwest side of Chicago sitting on the small stools and drinking a beer after their shifts. 

But another site explained that not all of the bar stools were short.  Just a few were, just in case some other people of short stature came into the bar.  In terms of the phone, a tall person can use a small phone, but not vice versa.  So, if only one phone is installed, it makes sense to put in a phone lower to the ground. 

Whatever the case, it makes sense that the bar was somewhat gimmicky.  Both the husband and wife were veterans of the entertainment world.  And in the end, I still like to believe that, more than anything else, "The Midget Club" was just a regular bar that happened to be run by two people of short stature.   The name notwithstanding, it would have been cool to have a beer at the place when it was open, especially if it was a day that Bruce Spence was dancing.

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