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Checkerboard Lounge Struggles to Stay Afloat as 53rd Street Rises

By Sam Cholke | March 31, 2014 9:22am
 The Checkerboard Lounge, 5201 S. Harper Court, is holding on, hoping to be a part of 53rd Street's revival in Hyde Park.
Checkerboard Lounge Struggles
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HYDE PARK — The Checkerboard Lounge has quietly been sinking as 53rd Street has risen around it over the last year.

Managers of the legendary club started by bluesman Buddy Guy and L.C. Thurman said they have struggled to hang on during massive construction projects that have borne a new University of Chicago office tower and lots of new retail on 53rd Street.

"It really hurt us," said Maloid Jones, Thurman's brother and a manager of the club at 5201 S. Harper Court. "My brother stayed in it until it was done, and now we're trying to build it back up."

Jones said the travails of running the club during 53rd Street's revitalization took its toll on Thurman.

"It hurt him so bad he got sick," Jones said. "It really drained him."

Thurman was not available for comment, but Jones and other managers of the club said he has stepped back from his role in running the Checkerboard Lounge.

The club was packed with revelers Saturday night for a private party for True Elegance magazine, but it hasn't hosted a public show since Valentine's Day.

Jones said the club, which had been open four or five days a week, is down to being open a little more than a day-and-a-half each week now.

He said the decline got serious when the redevelopment of the Harper Court shopping center into a university office tower began in November 2012.

"There just wasn't parking anywhere; we couldn't get people in," Jones said.

The construction site was literally at the club's doorstep, forcing the club to flip its entrance and marquee to the opposite side of the building.

"When people saw that the doors were closed, that was another point people thought we were shut down," said Cyrius Estevez, a promoter at the club.

Checkerboard Lounge closed the doors at its old location on 43rd Street in 2003 and reopened in Hyde Park in 2005 after being coaxed by the university, whose students made up much of the club's clientele at the time.

Estevez said the club was less of a draw for students after moving to Hyde Park, and business has slowed ever since it moved south.

"When they moved, it killed things here because people thought the club had shut down," Estevez said.

She said the club made a lot of sacrifices to stay open.

"Just to pay the rent, there were a lot of things we had to cut back on," Estevez said. "The bands have got to get paid."

Jones came in to take a larger role and Thurman's wife, Carol, tended bar.

The club is now trying to rebuild, hoping to take advantage of the new Hyatt Place hotel less than a block away to get more people into the club that once hosted Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton and a legendary jam in 1981 with Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones.

Jones said the goal right now is to get shows at the club four days a week and reinstate the Monday night blues jam.

"Right now, we just need help from everyone," Jones said.