Earl Pionke: The man, the pub
Earl Pionke goes to bed every night on the second floor of his four-story brick mansion in Pullman, the historic South Side district where the street lamps ride high. With the eye of a tiger and the heart of a lion, Earl focuses in on one glowing lamp near his bedroom window before he falls asleep.
“I say good night to that moon,” he says. “And it isn’t going anywhere.”
Earl “Jesse James” Pionke lassoed the moon on his own terms.
He is an essential figure in the history of Chicago popular music.
From 1962 until 1984, Pionke owned and operated the Earl of Old Town, 1615 N. Wells, across the street from Second City.
The Earl (now Corcoran’s Grill & Pub) was the launching pad for singer-songwriters Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc, John Prine and many others. In 1970, John Belushi perfected his act impersonating Marlon Brando in late-night sets there.
“Earl is like somebody you felt like you met before — but you hadn’t,” Prine recalls. “A Damon Runyon character. He is all that and more.”
A community will come to sing for Pionke, when his 80th birthday is celebrated June 24 at FitzGerald’s, 6615 W. Roosevelt in Berwyn. The event also serves as a 50th annniversary party for the Earl of Old Town, which opened on March 14, 1962. Pionke chose FitzGerald’s because the intimate vibe is the closest thing to the urban roadhouse feel of the Earl.
Scheduled performers include Koloc, Bryan Bowers, Chris Farrell, Andrew Calhoun, Buddy Mondlock, Larry Rand and special guests. Folk icon Ed Holstein will emcee with help from John Burns (son of country mandolinist Jethro Burns) and Harry Waller. Pionke’s four adult children will be there.
Pionke is a Chicago story.
His stringy goatee and bold forehead evoke the Bard on an old postage stamp. Pionke takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’.
The youngest of 10 children and orphaned at age 5, he took CYO boxing lessons from middleweight champ Tony Zale, and his alderman was the legendary Paddy Bauler. Folk legend Steve Goodman called Pionke “Yarns.” And “Disappearo.”
During a 1959 vacation to Havana, Pionke once invited Fidel Castro to dinner. He likes to recall how Rita Moreno “had an eye out for me” at the Earl, which still brings a watchful smile to the face of Sharon Biggerstaff, his companion of 30 years.
On a warm Friday afternoon Earl and Sharon sit on the front porch of their home, which dates back to 1884.
Pionke, in a black White Sox cap, has a cooler filled with water and beer. He doesn’t drink anymore, but ever the congenial host, he has beer ready for any visitor.
The old boxer is fighting health issues. All he will say is, “I’m rehabilitating under chemotherapy.” He then grips a visitor’s hand with the force of a vice.
Pionke hopes to attend the second half of the FitzGerald’s celebration. “Like my mother said, ‘Out of everything that is bad, there is going to be good. It might not be for you.
“ ‘But the world ain’t about you.’ ”
Pionke and Sharon have lived in Pullman for 20 years. The first floor of their building is a former Pullman bar, appropriately enough called the Landmark Inn.
It’s now a storage space for Pionke’s jukeboxes, record albums and Victrolas. You can see a cherry-wood/stained-glass back bar beyond boxes of memories. And there are mirrors.
Pionke once wanted to open an Earl of Pullman but that was many moons ago. This space does resemble the cozy Earl of Old Town, which sat 85, with a standing-room capacity of 125. A pair of antiquated fireplaces was surrounded by exposed brick walls. A crooked portrait of George Washington hung over the bar.
As part of the wave of Old Town burger-and-beer joints like Moody’s Pub that sprang up in the late ’50s, Pionke opened the Earl in a former antiques store. The Earl served hamburgers, bratwurst, steak and shrimp.
On Nov. 1, 1966, Pionke booked his first live show. The Yellow Unicorn folk-music room down the street had closed as Old Town was becoming Chicago’s answer to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. Despite the folk music vogue, folk guru Fred Holstein told Pionke that live folk music wouldn’t last more than two months at the Earl. He was wrong.
The first Earl of Old Town bill featured Fred Holstein and singer-songwriter Maxine Sellers. The cover was 50 cents. A beer was 35 cents. Holstein was paid $35 for the night.
The memories? Priceless.
Earl Pionke wasn’t the first Earl to ramble around Old Town.
“There was a big real estate guy named Earl Stark,” Pionke recalls. “He was gay. He’d come into the Earl with a cane, dressed to the max. He says, ‘You got your nerve. You’re calling yourself THE EARL OF OLD TOWN? You’re not entitled to that.’ I say, ‘I don’t know you, Mr. Stark, but you keep that title, and in the meantime, go f--- yourself.’ He goes into a huff and says, ‘I’ll be back at you maybe with a lawsuit!’
“So Earl Stark came back a week later and says, ‘I hope you are in a more gentlemanly mood.’ I said, ‘I sure am, Mr. Stark,’ and we shake hands. He says, ‘I admire you, and I want you to have this building because I am going to take what I get and buy a hotel on the Gold Coast.’ He said I would do well on Wells Street.”
The two Earls struck a deal to buy the three-story brick building for $75,000, which also included the two-story frame building behind the Earl of Old Town.
Pionke first rented the rear space to a restaurant called Mrs. O’Leary’s. It failed. Pionke’s nephew Sylvester Klish took over the space and opened another eatery called Sylvester’s Sneak Joint, a play on That Steak Joynt across the street.
“We were open until 4 o’clock. So the action at all the other joints is down. Comedians loved the Earl of Old Town. That Pat Paulsen guy who ran for president? He came every night and ate cheeseburgers. Then he’d do 15 minutes for us. I don’t care if the law knew it, we’d stay open until 5 o’clock. Because I was a good boy and I contributed to the political fund at the time.”
“So Belushi comes in and remember, they can do anything they want. They can swear. Belushi did impersonations. He didn’t sing. He brought people with him. Mork and Mindy [that would be Robin Williams]. Gordon Lightfoot would come in after hours. And Bette Midler” — on a New Year’s Eve after performing at Mister Kellly’s on Rush Street.
Singer-songwriter Bonnie Koloc recalled, “You always had an audience at the Earl. One night, Bryan Bowers was playing autoharp. He had big curly hair, beautiful muscle arms, and he’d wear cutoff T-shirts while playing this feminine instrument. One night, a stripper was up dancing and gyrating in front of Bryan. She was clothed, but Gus [Johns, the Earl’s late doorman] grabs her by the belt and pulls her out the door. And Bryan starts singing, ‘Gusss, I think you could have handled that better.’ ”
The Earl of Old Town was always busy. But Pionke always found time to scout new talent.
He was enchanted with Maywood-born singer-songwriter-mailman John Prine. In the summer of 1970, Prine was appearing at the Fifth Peg on West Armitage. “Earl tried to hire me from Day 1 at the Fifth Peg,” Prine says in a phone call from his Nashville home. “I was real comfortable there. I wasn’t even thinking of a future at one club, let alone two clubs.”
Like all the performers in Pionke’s regular rotation, Prine hated playing the all-ages Sunday matinee at the Earl of Old Town. “They would dump charter buses at the front door,” Prine says. “It was like when people come in and shake the snow off. They’d stand right at the door, which was in front of the stage. They’d be in a circle and going, ‘Should we look at the menu?’ This is while you were doing your show. You had to work with your head turned to look the audience in the eye. At Sunday matinees, people didn’t care if there was music or not. You’d just be one more thing standing by the door.
“It was actually a great way to cut your chops.”
One afternoon, Prine began singing “Hello in There,” his poignant ballad about loneliness. “And I got to the part where ‘John and Linda live in Omaha.’ And this group of people go, ‘YAAAAY OMAHA!’ So then I get to the part about ‘We lost Davy in the Korean War,’ so I go, ‘How about it, let’s hear it for the KOREAN WAR!’
“You would always have a rapport with the audience at the Earl of Old Town.”
One of the most memorable patrons was “Blind Al,” a disheveled, free-lance public relations agent. “I don’t know his last name but he had Coke-bottle glasses. He comes into Earl’s one night, and there’s a sailor at the bar,” Prine says. “The sailor orders a cheeseburger. Gus serves it up. It’s sitting in front of the guy. The guy is on the stool, head down, sleeping with his uniform on. Blind Al is sitting next to him. He waits 15 minutes. Then 20 minutes. He says, ‘This burger is getting cold.’ So he eats the guy’s cheeseburger. Then he wipes his mouth with a napkin, puts it on the plate and puts the plate back in front of the guy and tells Gus how the guy has been passed out for a while. Gus pokes the guy, and the guy is dead.”
“For years, whenever we saw Blind Al, we told him how he ate the dead man’s cheeseburger.”
Earl Pionke, a father figure to generations of musicians, artists and actors, was orphaned at the age of 5.
Albert, his father, was a successful insurance man and a “rogue,” according to Pionke. His mother, Katherine Agnes, was a crafty cook..
In 1937, Pionke, his late brother Albert and his sister Patsy (now 84, living in Valparaiso, Ind.) were adopted by a family in Downers Grove. “It was like Iowa!” Pionke crows. “Couldn’t have been better. But our family was so poor, we couldn’t pay the electric bill.”
The Pionke kids spent a year in Downers Grove before moving to Brighton Park with Lillian and Charles Pouliot, who already had six children of their own. “I went to heaven.”
At the age of 18, he began boxing under Zale’s tutelage. “There were 10 in the class, half of the class left,” he says. “I had seven fights. Not professional. I won the first six. The seventh one I thought I was fighting Sugar Ray Robinson. This kid laced my eyes. I didn’t go down, but it was over in three rounds. I’m tough. But I move slow.”
Pionke then jabs a left fist into the Pullman sky.
Back on his porch, he asks Sharon for a cassette with the ballad “Blue Dress,” written by Dave Maloney, who based the song on information he had gathered from Pionke. Backed by loping John Prine-type guitar picking, Maloney sings of learning “to stand your ground in the city, tough as the red brick and mortar.”
Pionke smiles. “That’s the first song anyone has ever written about me.”
With a twinkle in his eye, the old boxer almost lets his guard drop. Soon he will know of all his songs that people have played in their hearts.
For more on Pionke, including the story of Paul Anka and Kris Kristofferson discovering John Prine at the Earl of Old Town, vintage video, Earl’s trip to Cuba and other outtakes, visit blogs.suntimes.com/hoekstra.