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Chicago club Berlin stays forever young

The dance floor Berlin.

The dance floor at Berlin.

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Updated: April 14, 2014 4:48PM

Berlin, one of Chicago’s reigning queens of nightclubs, is hitting the big 3-O.

The late-night Lakeview hotspot, where the party doesn’t really start until after 2 a.m., has come a long way since opening in 1983 while staying true to its everyone-is-welcome, anything-goes philosophy. Now a tourist destination, Berlin is known for attracting an audience as diverse as the music it plays. That melting-pot formula seems to have struck a global beat.

“People find us because they know they will feel welcome,” says Jo Webster, who owns the West Belmont Avenue club with his life partner Jim Schuman, adding that on any given night it’s not uncommon to see 20 passports. “It’s always been about putting different kinds of people together rather than having separate camps of gays, straights and lesbians.”

The club’s opening in ’83 was pivotal — Dugan’s Bistro, Chicago’s first glittery NY-style disco that drew a mixed, fashionable crowd (even visited by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy) had closed in 1982 after a nine-year run.

Berlin was a total game-changer from the onset; the club blurred all labels and boundaries with its mix of yuppies and transvestites, gays and straights.

Where Bistro vied for the reputation as a place where the beautiful people mingled, Berlin was a celebration of all walks of life — from the weird to the bizarre and everything in between. Original owners Tim Sullivan and Shirley Mooney, a gay man and a straight woman, fashioned the club as an alternative to the then-sexually segregated nightlife scene. Sullivan died in 1994.

Drag queens have always been a big part of the club’s culture, and Schuman says their importance cannot be downplayed. “Without the drag queens we wouldn’t have the voice, the gay liberation movement in the same way,” he says. “They were the people that stood up and said, ‘No, we’re not going to take this.’ So Berlin gave a home to everybody.”

The club is also known for its quirky art installations and fashion shows (not to mention extravagant, over-the-top Pride Parade floats) — the more outlandish, the better.

Highlights over the years, according to Webster, include the House of Harlot Latex Fashion show, featuring inflated and period costumes by famed designer Robin Archer, a complete lip-synched version of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and a performance by the campy 1950s act the Del Rubio Triplets. Webster recalls the Triplets show with a laugh. “We flew them in to do a performance in their Golden Years,” he says. “They came out in hot pants and cowboy hats. You’re talking quite senior ladies coming out and performing.”

For the 30th anniversary celebration on Sunday, expect a wild mash-up of three of the club’s most imaginative installations. In one, graffiti artist Keith Haring meets 18th century painter Thomas Gainsborough meets pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

The anniversary is also bittersweet for the Berlin family.

“It’s really emotional because there were about 20 of us in the beginning and we were all great friends. Many of these people were lost to AIDS,” Schuman says. “So looking through these old pictures has really brought back all kinds of emotions. Berlin was very much a part of that social life. This amalgamation of people — half of them who were straight, half gay and nobody cared who everyone slept with. We’re just a mindset of a group of people who were open and diverse and celebrated the diversity of people.”

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