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Earl Pionke, legend of Chicago music scene who ran the Earl of Old Town, dead at 80


Updated: May 30, 2013 2:49PM

Earl Pionke’s nightclub birthed romances, record deals and enchantment.

The Earl of Old Town featured performers at the top of their game during the height of the folkie troubador era. Mr. Pionke’s ear for talent was so fine-tuned, it wasn’t unusual to look around the club and see patrons wipe away a tear, as singers Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc and John Prine broke hearts all around the room.

Mr. Pionke was the owner, host and impresario who presided over the club, which operated at 1615 N. Wells St. from 1962 to 1984, linking music from folkie to hippie to the singer-songwriter era. Back when tour buses visited Old Town for visitors to gape at hippies, “The Earl” was the capital of cool.

Thanks to its proximity to downtown and Second City, you never knew who would turn up. Drop-in visitors included folk demigod Bob Dylan, comic Robin Williams and singers Bette Midler, John Denver and Gordon Lightfoot.

John Belushi perfected his Marlon Brando imitation there in late-night sets.

Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka discovered Prine at the club.

Mr. Pionke, 80, died Friday of pancreatic cancer at his Pullman home.

He maintained his anti-establishment goatee and his long hair to the very end. He donated his body to science.

As a little boy, he’d spent time in an orphanage. The Earl of Old Town begat him a new family. With its two fireplaces, handmade bar and exposed brick walls — a new look at the time — it exuded warmth, said singer Ed Holstein.

Koloc remembered how Mr. Pionke supported his old German cook, Anton, keeping him on the payroll when he grew ill. “Anton loved the Earl. He said, ‘I want my ashes at the Earl.’ For a long time, Earl had his ashes at the office.”

At Christmas, employees cooked turkeys at home and carried them to the Earl to celebrate with the people they considered a second family.

“Earl had the best hamburgers in town, and every pretend folkie and down-on-his-luck person could always find a good burger with beer or coffee,” said singer Jim Post, another frequent performer at the club.

Mr. Pionke seasoned his stage just like he seasoned the burgers.

“The Earl was hiring newly minted folkies, people that no one knew, but with the support of WFMT radio’s ‘Midnight Special,’ he immediately started packing the house,” said Post. “This would eventually begin drawing the big names like Tom Paxton, Bob Gibson, to be mixed in among the other acts. So the flavor of the folk family — married with the Old Town School of Folk Music and WFMT — created a great platform for folk music.”

Mr. Pionke was protective of his talent. When Koloc began performing at the Earl, she was a 23-year-old newcomer from Iowa. Mr. Pionke noticed some rough characters eyeing her. “Earl comes walking up to me, and he said, ‘Hey, Bon, if anybody asks you if you have a manager, you tell them Earl’s your manager — and you don’t know nuttin.’ ’’

Another night, Mr. Pionke told Koloc the club was being visited by screen siren Jane Russell, a contemporary of Marilyn Monroe. Koloc didn’t believe him until she saw for herself: “Here’s a white ermine coat sitting there. . . . and she was sitting in the front row.”

Post, who wrote the flower-power anthem “Reach Out of the Darkness,” recalled Mr. Pionke’s stymied efforts at pacificism. “One time, he was bragging to me about becoming peace and love. He said, ‘Post, you’d be proud of me. This guy was sitting at the bar the other day, and he was really cussing, so I asked him to leave. When he got to the door, he turned back and said a very rude thing about my mother. Forget peace and love. As he turned to go out the door, I caught him with a bottle of Jack Daniels in the back of the head’ — which was a great 30-foot throw — ‘and he staggered out the door and fainted on the sidewalk. I went out to check on him, when the beat cop came along. He came from the old neighborhood he and I grew up in. He asked me what happened, and I told him the whole story. He could have arrested me, but he turned and kicked the unconscious guy and yelled at him, ‘You said that about Miss Pionke?’ ’’

The youngest of 10 kids, Mr. Pionke spent part of his childhood in an orphanage. Later, he, his late brother Albert and his sister Patsy were raised by Lillian and Charles Pouliot in a happy home in Brighton Park. He reunited with his mother at age 10 and attended Waller High School. At 18, he took CYO boxing lessons from middleweight great Tony Zale. His alderman was Paddy “Chicago Ain’t Ready for Reform” Bauler.

From 1960 to 1970, he also owned the Old Town Gate, a Dixieland club, at 1529 N. Wells St. Later, he co-owned Somebody Else’s Troubles, 2470 N. Lincoln. After “Troubles” closed, he turned it into Earl’s Pub.

Survivors include his companion of 30 years, Sharon Biggerstaff; his sister, Patsy; two children with his first wife, Anasta — Debbie Gallios and Joe Pionke; two children with his second wife, Cindy — Eddie and Katie Pionke; and one grandchild.

Mr. Pionke told his son that he already had his wake last June, at what he called the “folk reunion of the century,” when 800 people showed up at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn to celebrate his 80th birthday. Another 450 watched the entertainment on a big-screen TV outside.

But a memorial is being planned anyway at Fitzgerald’s on June 23, which would have been his 81st birthday.

“If I could step back in time,” Post said, “there is nowhere I would rather be than walking through the front door of The Earl of Old Town, and hear Earl yell out ‘Post!’ and hug me so hard that I thought he was going to break my ribs.”

Contributing: Dave Hoekstra

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