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‘There’s nothing left’ of old Rush Street as two bars near end

Owners Nick Caruso left Frank Costanzo sit  bar. Jilly's Chicago piano bar Rush Street is scheduled close after an

Owners Nick Caruso, left, and Frank Costanzo sit at the bar. Jilly's Chicago, a piano bar on Rush Street is scheduled to close after an 18-year run. Photographed on Wednesday, September 5, 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 7, 2012 8:03AM

Like a double shot of botox, Jilly’s Bistro and the BackRoom represent the changing face of Rush Street.

The iconic piano bar and jazz club share the address of 1007 N. Rush. This week, a venture managed by Sergio & Banks Realty revealed a plan to raze the three-story building and replace it with a single, high-end retail tenant. The plan still needs city approval, but Jilly’s has tentatively slated Sept. 29 for its final day — and night. The BackRoom will close Sept. 22.

Their plight represents how much the Rush Street nightlife district has changed.

“I’m heartbroken,” said BackRoom owner Ann Spilotro through tears Wednesday. She has been at the front of the BackRoom almost since the beginning. “We are the oldest club on Rush Street. Everybody has come and gone. Everything is turning to retail. It’s like they’re coming down Oak and turning around on Rush. I guess for the [buildings’] owners, it’s the best way to go because the rent is going to be [higher]. But it killed the street.

“It is a shame the mom and pop places are going to be extinct.”

As upscale retailers spill over from Oak and Walton onto Rush, a site such as 1007 N. Rush could command at least $250 a square foot, compared to $50 a square foot for a nightclub, said Fred Lev, a broker of retail space. A density of luxury retailers attracts shoppers, and retailers have loosened up on their willingness to open new sites.

“Oak Street needed a break to re-create itself,” said Jacqueline C. Hayes of retail broker Jacqueline Hayes & Associates.

What’s out are the nightclubs that brought crowds and notoriety. On a good summer night in 1985, between 50,000 and 75,000 people hit Rush Street, according to the Chicago Police Department.

Jilly’s and the BackRoom are very different drinks on a long bar.

Opened in 1995, Jilly’s became a fertile seed in what became known as “The Viagra Triangle.” Over the years, the dimly lit, 80-seat piano bar attracted the likes of Billy Joel (who sang “One for My Baby”), Muhammad Ali, and Steve Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

The BackRoom opened in the mid-1960s and is one of the city’s oldest jazz clubs. Generations of locals and tourists would walk down the narrow entrance into a smoky club and sample all the hep noir that was Rush Street. The walls were dotted with stained-glass mosaics. It was wild and intoxicating, like something off Bourbon Street. The late piano player Eddie Higgins held elegant court after his long run at the London House, at Michigan and Wacker. In 1985, jazz guitarist George Benson stopped in, got onstage and played until the club closed.

The last old-school joint standing on Rush Street will be Gibsons, actually more of a steakhouse than a meat market. At its outset, Gibson’s made its mark with divorcees and singles, thanks to a killer martini that packed 4 to 6 ounces of liquor and made everyone look better. In the 1990s, Chicago Bull and nightlife hall of famer Dennis Rodman was one of the first athletes to put Gibsons on the map.

Gibsons opened in 1989 in the former Mister Kelly’s nightclub, where Gino Vannelli and the Captain and Tennille were the last acts. The Sweetwater nightclub followed in the space but went down in the early ’80s with Harry’s Cafe, Tony’s Cellar and the rest of the Rush Street nightclubs.

Iconic Rush Street disco Faces is now a Starbucks.

The latest musical chairs of retail can be traced back at least five years, when Barneys New York announced the move of its 17-year-old site at 25 E. Oak to the twice-as-big flagship at 15 E. Oak, which opened in 2009. The old Barneys site now houses chi-chi retailers Hermes of Paris, Bonpoint, Moncler and Loro Piana.

Tory Burch took advantage of the moves to open a larger space in the old Loro Piana site at 45 E. Oak St., and Escada left the corner of Michigan Avenue and Chestnut Street for the former Yves Saint Laurent site at 51 E. Oak. A new entry will be Christian Louboutin at the former Esquire Theater site, which also will house Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House.

Rush Street has taken on an edgier, younger mix with Brunello Cucinelli, Scoop, Intermix and Ted Baker, among others, said Paul Bryant, principal with Mid-America Real Estate Group. “It’s a more fashion-forward, younger designer” theme, he said.

Not all are happy about the changes.

“They’ve ruined Rush Street,” said Jim Rittenberg, longtime owner of Faces and former chairman of the Near North Entertainment Council. “They’ve turned it from Glitter Gulch to Restaurant Row. You walk out of Gibson’s after a steak dinner now, look up and down the street and what do you got? Restaurants, restaurants. We need a red-light district by South Michigan, somewhere where they don’t close you down when your music is too loud and where you can have a 4 o’clock license.

“Jilly’s and the BackRoom are really old Rush Street, and there’s nothing left of that.”

Jilly’s general manager Frank Costanzo has been around since the bistro opened. He said, “1995 was the heyday. Everybody was still in suits. You could still smoke. It was a true piano bar, a real joint. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme sang in the window with wireless mikes.

“When the economy went down in 2008, Rush Street turned into Las Vegas Boulevard, the shorts, flip-flops and tank tops. And they’re letting them in for dinner. If you enforced a dress code nowadays, you’d be out of business.”

Jilly’s is named for Jilly Rizzo, one of Frank Sinatra’s best pals. From 1981-83, the late Nick Caruso Sr. ran another Jilly’s at Rush and Delaware, a popular haunt for Sinatra. His son, Nick Caruso Jr., operates the current Jilly’s.

The stiff drinks and hipster intimacy of Jilly’s attracted all walks of life, but especially aging males who wanted to be all things Sinatra.

Longtime house piano player Nick Russo was known to play Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” up to eight times during a five-hour set. In the summer of ’95, a guy with granny sunglasses strolled into Jilly’s just after midnight. Metal rocker Ozzy Osbourne stood on the small dance floor and stared at Russo’s hands on the piano. He came back a week later and did the exact same thing.

Jilly’s also could come back, albeit in a different neighborhood.

“Hopefully by the end of the next year, we’ll have a new location,” Caruso said. “We’ve known about this for a year. We’ve looked around. We had a good niche here, but nothing lasts forever.”

Contributing: Sandra Guy

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