The Earl of Old Town was a saloon at 1615 N. Wells St. that closed more than three decades ago but, like a song that you can't get out of your head, it remains alive today.
Long after the Earl had become a pleasant bar named the Last Call (it is now Corcoran's Grill & Pub), folk singer Jim Post stood there and was taken back in time.
"There was a generation that passed through this room. People learned a lot about life and love and everything else here," he said. "There was something else too. It was a smell. In most places the combination of odors of cigarettes and old beer can stink. At the Earl it was the sweetest smell imaginable. It was a smell of people having a good time."
For those too young to remember or too jaded to any longer care, the Earl (which took its name from owner Earl J.J. Pionke) was one of the most famous and popular clubs in Chicago, arguably the most famous folk music venue in the country. It has remained in the city's consciousness through the years (like Riverview) because there are still thousands of people who will happily tell you stories about the night they saw Steve Goodman or John Prine or Bonnie Koloc play there and because it was the launching pad for a generation of great singer-songwriters.
"Earl gave you a place to hone your craft and have a job where you could make a living, which was really hard for young performers," says Koloc. "All of us could try out new material and learn how to work with an audience. And your name got around town."
It is happily impossible to imagine the stories and memories and songs that will fill the air June 24 when more than 20 performers gather at FitzGerald's, 6615 W. Roosevelt Road in Berwyn, to celebrate Pionke's 80th birthday with a reunion concert, and in so doing also celebrate his bygone club.
Post will be there, along with such other EOOT veterans as Ed Holstein, Michael Smith, Bryan Bowers, Barbara Barrow, Marty Peifer, Jan Burda, Al Day, Buddy Mondlock, Mick Scott, Andrew Calhoun, Chris Farrell, Johnny Burns, Michael Johnson, Claudia Schmidt, Ron Buffington, Saul Brody, Skip Haynes, Mike Dunbar, Larry Rand, Harry Waller and who knows who else.
It is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. and last four hours. Trust me: It will last much longer.
Koloc will be there too. She lives in her native Iowa now and, in marvelous serendipity, has just released her latest CD, "Rediscovered." It's a magnificent collection of 10 songs, five that she wrote and others by old pals such as Prine, Tom Rush and Jackson Browne. Her voice is as powerfully sweet as ever, maybe even more so, and the arrangements by Chris Siebold are so fresh that they will not only remind people what they loved about Koloc but attract new fans.
"The Earl ... wasn't fancy," said Koloc, who first set foot in the place in 1968. "It was down-home. The people who worked there worked hard. Some of the waitresses were teachers who worked weekends to make extra money.
"The guys who worked there -- Jim Johnson, Gus Johns, Pete Karish -- were all friends of Earl's, people that he could trust. He'd known these guys all his life. We all became like family. It was just a communal kind of environment."
Post for years has lived and worked in Galena, where he is performing his critically acclaimed and delightful one-man show "Mark Twain and the Laughing River" (jimpost.com).
"Earl was such a great character he could have stepped into any Hollywood movie and been a success," says Post. "But he never would have received all the love he got from helping to create the folk community of Chicago."
Pionke opened his club in 1962 with two pals, and for its first few years it was simply a bar and burger joint, featuring jazz and classical music from a record player. He knew the area, having been born in Old Town, the youngest of 10 kids. He spent some early years in foster homes before returning to his family in Old Town, graduating from what was then Waller High School (now Lincoln Park) and working for a decade at a liquor packaging house.
In 1964 he bought his partners out and by 1966, as such folk clubs as the Montmartre, Gate of Horn and Mother Blues closed, Pionke decided to try to fill the void.
Fred Holstein, a young fixture on the folk scene, began performing at the club regularly, and he helped attract crowds and other performers, and some in that latter group helped spread the word at folk festivals across the country.
"Earl was hiring newly minted folkies, people that no one knew, but with the support of WFMT's (radio program) 'The Midnight Special,' he immediately started packing the house for all of us," says Post. "This would eventually begin drawing the big names like Tom Paxton or Bob Gibson to be mixed in among the other lesser known acts. So, the flavor of the folk family married with the (older folkies) and WFMT created a great platform."
The place was nothing to look at, a long rectangular space packed with tables and chairs, its exposed brick walls covered with tattered posters. But it was filled with a lively mix of people, neighborhood folks mingling with conventioneers, business types, doctors, nurses and lawyers -- and the occasional celebrity. Ed Holstein (Fred's brother) tells a great story about the night movie star Vincent Price came in with a date.
Pionke was always there, a kind of father figure to many.
"One of his great lines was, 'They're my kids! I love 'em! I love 'em!' " says Koloc. "He was one of the most unique and important people in my life in Chicago. One of a kind. He could make me so mad I'd like to punch him in the nose, but instead I would end up with a bear hug."
"I am totally, absolutely thrilled about this party," says Pionke, who now lives in the Pullman neighborhood, by phone, sounding full of vim and vigor and memories -- some stretching back to his childhood when he "sold hot dogs from my own cart when I was 13. ... But back to the party. So many friends, so many memories and so much music. I don't know what it's gonna be, but I know it's gonna be beautiful."
While they celebrate Pionke on June 24 at FitzGerald's, folks will inevitably tell stories of friends no longer around, people like Fred Holstein, who died in 2004. And special memories will be reserved for the club's most famous son: Goodman, who was to the Earl what Ernie Banks is to the Cubs, died in 1984, about the time the Earl closed. Leukemia. He was 36.
When he was 24, he sat down for an interview with Win Stracke, the folk legend of a previous generation and the co-founder of the Old Town School of Folk Music.
This is some of what Stevie said: "There's a kind of warmth to the Earl. The place is home. That was the place I could go where no one would tell me that I couldn't be a folk singer. And nobody'd tell us we were gonna get rich and famous. All Earl said was, 'If you do it, do it good. I don't care what you do, do it good.' "
Listen to Ed Holstein, Jim Tullio and Bonnie Koloc talk about the Earl of Old Town and hear from authors Adam Mansbach and Suzanne Peck on "The Sunday Papers With Rick Kogan," 6:30-9 a.m. Sunday on WGN-AM 720.
"Chicago Live!" is hosted by Kogan and takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday at the UP Comedy Club, 230 W. North Ave., this week with, among many guests, Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and, as always, the comedy of The Second City. To see highlights and get tickets, go to chicagolive.com.