By Raymond Rehayem
I am even less qualified to build a stage, rig lighting, or put up drywall than I am to put on some pasties and do burlesque. Actually I might look strangely alluring in the aforementioned nipple patches installing one of the Uptown Underground’s lovely chandeliers, but my point is when I recently toured the venue I couldn’t visualize how wonderful it will look for its nearly sold-out New Year’s Eve opening night. It was still under construction. Luckily Kiss Kiss Cabaret’s Chris O. Biddle and Jenn A. Kincaid, the pair behind this new 7,000-square-foot theater, were there to fill in the gaps in my imagination.
In the basement of architect Walter W. Ahlschlager’s 1926 Uptown Broadway Building, the cabaret arts mecca that the Kiss Kiss founders envision will occupy a space which—per neighborhood lore—once housed a speakeasy. The building’s ornate exterior immediately evokes the era.
While scouting locations, Biddle couldn’t believe the fortuitous availability of this historic edifice. “I knew the address,” he explains, “and I thought ‘surely it isn’t that big caramel wedding cake.’ And it is. It’s this beautiful baroque style.”
Like many cakes, the lowest level is the widest. There are columns on either side of what Biddle describes as the “grand promenade,” the western side actually extending under Broadway’s sidewalk. Passage between these columns will take you beyond the elevated main stage, past a wall of retro amusements such as vertical pinball machines, art deco claw machines, and a fortune-telling machine, to a more intimate secondary performance space. With the main stage seating 150, the secondary stage seating fifty to sixty, and multiple dressing rooms to facilitate the overlapping of performers, the entertainment need never stall. In what’s being dubbed the Moon Room of the Starlight Lounge, a gal will sip martinis perched on a six-foot-high crescent moon acquired from a Twin Cities production of “Mame.”
The diverse, largely vintage provenance of the materials acquired for this effort speaks to the focus on creating the perfect setting for the Underground’s classic style of cabaret. “The whole thing should feel immersive and retro as soon as you come down the stairs, so you won’t see a flat-screen TV anywhere in the joint,” says Biddle. The one nod to our contemporary technology fixation is a convenience for patrons and an attempt to keep the scene free of their handheld anachronisms. At the coat-check, there will be a cell-phone recharging station. Kincaid acknowledges the thematic advantage of such a setup: “It’s a good way to rid people of their phones, ’cause there were no cell phones in the 1920s.”
The booze also keeps with the period style. While Uptown Underground will provide a selection of wine and beer, Kincaid details their more distinct offerings. “Our key thing that will set us apart is our signature cocktails. They are classic and of the style, but using local craft spirits. We’re dealing with folks like Few Spirits, Next Star Vodka… regional craft spirits for the majority of specialty cocktails. We’re also doing moonshine, absinthe, classic drinks.”
An ongoing explosion in interest in burlesque helped fuel Kiss Kiss Cabaret’s success since it debuted in 2010 at the Greenhouse on Lincoln. In 2004, Biddle began working at Belmont Burlesque. “There were three troupes in town; now there are over sixteen. This is a timely thing that locals and tourists want to experience.”
The pair also believe Chicago’s strong ties to cabaret’s past makes the city ideal for their new enterprise. “We are completely rooted in the history of burlesque,” notes Kincaid. “Every theater downtown that is part of Broadway In Chicago used to be a burlesque hall at one point. These were built as vaudeville houses.”
“I think once this location opens, that connection to the history of burlesque is going to really strengthen,” continues Biddle. “I want us to be known on a national and possibly an international level. Once word gets out, people in our art form are going to flock from all over the country.”
With Kiss Kiss as its resident troupe, Uptown Underground is devoted to showcasing cabaret. Kincaid: “If it was a style of entertainment that was popular between the 1920s and 1940s, then it’s something that can be seen on our stage. Our business model is based on having other companies coming in and performing, and we’ve got a pretty full slot. Monday is our industry night, Tuesday is our jazz pianist, Wednesday is swing night. And Thursday, Friday, Saturday, we roll into full production mode.”
Biddle: “Stylistically, we want to be as accessible as possible, so you take something away from the evening. Either you’ll love the girls and the dancing, or you’ll like the variety performers, the juggler, the magician, the mentalist, the jazz singers, the acrobats, the funny host.”
Uptown Underground seeks to preserve a certain flavor of cabaret’s past, presented by contemporary artists, while contributing to Uptown’s future. “As this neighborhood continues to grow and expand and embrace the arts, we’ll be part of that process. We’re one or two steps away from the thought process of anyone in the world who thinks about Chicago,” Biddle opines. “Dancing girls, the Jazz Age… we’re gonna have it condensed down in that basement.”
Uptown Underground launches with Kiss Kiss Cabaret’s Annual New Year’s Eve Hullabaloo, 4707 North Broadway, (773)867-1946, uptownunderground.net. $100.