WOODLAWN — Probably the largest remnant of Woodlawn’s past as a jazz mecca is wedged between Mike Medina’s garage and fence.
Medina thinks the hulking 18 feet of steel is the sign from McKie's Disk Jockey Show Lounge, a storefront club in the Strand Hotel building that hosted John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and other titans of jazz in a space not much bigger than a modest Chicago apartment.
Since getting the sign off the Strand Hotel at 6315 S. Cottage Grove Ave. and into his backyard in Woodlawn three weeks ago, Medina has been carefully stripping off the paint.
“It’s been painted over six or seven times, but the actual sign is enamel, so paint comes off it really well,” said Medina, who is working on the sign in his backyard after his job as an airplane mechanic.
He said he’s starting to see black and red enamel that to him means it is the original sign from McKie’s Lounge.
WVON disk jockey McKie Fitzhugh opened the lounge in 1956 as a place to hang out with Herb Kent and other radio DJs who were filling the nearly 30 clubs up and down Cottage Grove with acts like Little Walter, Gene Ammons and Hyde Parker Mike Bloomfield, who would go on to back Bob Dylan during his first electric performance in 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival.
In 2013, David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash recounted to Mojo being high and being taken to McKie’s Lounge by a 4½-foot tall German hooker to see Coltrane.
“So I’m in the men’s room, I’m trying to come down just enough for me to stay on this planet, and I’ve got my face pressed against this tile. I can still remember the color of this filthy, light puke-green tile. I’m leaning against it because it’s cool. And — Blam! — someone kicks the door in and it’s ‘Trane,” Crosby told Mojo. “He doesn’t even know this little fake kid’s in there. He’s playing in there because it’s a good sound. And at that point my mind ran out of my nose in a puddle on the floor!”
In 1961, alto saxophone player Sonny Stitt recorded his live album on the raised stage behind the bar at the back of the long and narrow club.
Medina said that nearly all of the physical remnants of that culture are now crumbled and gone in Woodlawn.
“There’s just the Strand Hotel itself, everything else is gone,” Medina said.
He said when he heard the hotel was being rehabbed, he reached out to the developers to get the sign he suspected was from McKie’s Lounge.
Developers will break ground Monday on a $23 million project to renovate the 100-year-old Strand Hotel as 63 apartments.
Medina said the developers were happy to give him the sign for free and even helped him get it down.
He’s now in the process of restoring it in the hopes of getting it into a museum.
“If things like this aren’t brought back, you would never even know it had existed,” Medina said. “My plan is to get it at least back into operation with new neon and then try to get it into a museum.”
He said he wants it to be displayed somewhere where people from Woodlawn can easily see it.
Medina is trying to raise $8,500 to cover the cost of transporting the sign and getting the neon installed through Indiegogo.
He said whether he makes the goal or not, he’s happy the sign has a chance at a second life.
“I got it here, and at least it’s safe,” Medina said.
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