in the old speakeasy  






spirits of the speakeasy...
ghosts of prohibition tread the boards of a ballroom-turned-theater

By Anne Keegan, Tribune Staff Writer | Published: Monday, January 6, 1997 | Section: TEMPO Page: 1

Are they still dancing when nobody's there? Rooting and tooting to a band nobody else hears? Swilling champagne and sipping bathtub gin when the place is empty and the doors are locked? Has the echo of long-ago laughter collected in the corners? Did those blithe spirits leave invisible fingerprints on the walls? Are there really any ghosts in the old place at all?

Or is it just Larry Bryan who feels the presence of those merrymakers who danced, and partied, and kicked up their heels many decades ago in this marble-floored old ballroom that once was a speakeasy?

"It's here! An energy! Do you feel it?" says Bryan, as he opens the industrial wire door that separates the storefront lobby from the backroom theater at 4139 N. Broadway. Bryan heads National Pastime Theater, and the lobby of the place is Chicago-style Bohemian, low budget with a few persevering plants, beautician chairs, old couches -- and hanging from the ceiling, all aglow, a maze of commercial neon signs of yesteryear including the "WASH 20 CENTS, DRY 10 CENTS" sign over the one small bathroom.

"I get excited every time I come into this room," says Bryan, who does not necessarily believe in ghosts but believes in the ghosts of this place. "I'd say this place is full of them. You walk into the room and you feel that there is a magic here. It has the smell of notorious about it. There is a life to this room that embraces you. The actors feel it. The audience feels it."

Bryan was looking for a home for the theater several years ago when he stopped into a storefront--now the lobby--called the Neon Shop. He was talking to the owner and saying he was looking for space--good space--for a theater.

"He said, `Looking for space, huh?' and he led me through a small door at the back into a huge, dusty ballroom," says Bryan. "For years no one knew it was there. I loved it immediately and the neon man was leaving so we leased the storefront and the ballroom."

Once Bryan moved in, he discovered 10 hidden doors leading out of the old ballroom, which had marble floors, terra cotta moldings, a four-foot marble clock over the bar and ornate drinking fountains set into the wall. [continued]