BRONZEVILLE — The only black-owned comedy club in Chicago is putting on its final show Saturday.
After 11 years in Bronzeville, owner Mary Lindsey, 60, said that she can’t do it anymore.
“The operating expenses just grew beyond me staying in existence,” she said. “I had to make a decision to stop the bleeding, if you will, because expenses continued to rise, but the support isn’t here.”
Andrea Watson on the closing of 'Jokes and Notes.'
Capacity is 150, but an average night would see only 70 patrons, sometimes fewer. Big headliners haven’t always helped, she said.
Lindsey said the venue, at 4641 S. King Drive, has been seeing a decline since year six, but she kept hoping for a change. Part of the problem was the bad reputation given to 47th Street, which Lindsey said is considered unsafe by some.
The other issue is the lack of businesses nearby. There aren’t enough to attract people from outside, including tourists, she explained. Though some have touted a Bronzeville renaissance, the neighborhood isn’t transforming quickly enough, Lindsey said.
“I’ve seen improvements, but I think that in order to maintain good business here you have to put that on a fast forward because there is no way that businesses can thrive if there is no foot traffic here or restaurants and things for people,” she said.
Jokes and Notes has operated as a platform for rising local talent who might not have been able to get a slot in another club. Over the years names like Deon Cole and Milton “Lil Rel” Howery have gotten their start right on the South Side. Howery appears in NBC’s “The Carmichael Show,” and Cole is known for roles in ABC’s “Blackish and “Angie Tribeca” on TBS. Comedian Hannibal Buress has also passed through the club.
Lindsey is a former co-owner of the “All Jokes Aside" comedy club in the '90s, which helped launch the career of comedians like Steve Harvey, DL Hughley, Cedric The Entertainer, and many more.
“The reason I came back is to provide a platform for the new generation, the up-and-coming, and I’ve seen a lot of them flourish,” Lindsey said.
She said her stage not only created opportunities for fresh talent, but it “bridged the gap between the North Side and South Side.”
Jokes and Notes “opened doors and created opportunities for them to get booked" while being themselves.
"I think the biggest fear — white comics and black comics have different experiences, and I think there was always this uncertainty, like ‘Where is this comic going? I don’t want my audience to be offended,’” Lindsey said, adding that she didn’t worry about that at her club.
Lindsey, an Austin resident who came to Bronzeville hoping the area would support her business, said she had high expectations that were never met.
“I think the sad part about it is that after 11 years I have to close when I thought I’d be here much longer,” she said. “I also thought that the areas around me would be developed more.”
Lindsey said that former Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd) persuaded her to open the comedy club in her ward. The iconic Second City was also supposed to open a club across the street. Between that and events happening at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, Lindsey said she thought she selected a great location.
“When that didn't happen, that was a huge disappointment, and then I felt kind of like I’m kind of stuck,” she said. “All these things that brought me here didn’t really happen, and so I’m just feeling like ‘OK, I did my best.’”
The summer months are the most challenging because it’s difficult to attract customers, Lindsey said. Once upon a time her name and legacy were enough to bring in the crowds, but these days, it’s hard to avoid the decline, she said.
The industry has become more welcoming to comedians of color, Lindsey said, so she’s not too concerned about them having a place to perform.
“I think those who have universal content in their acts will be able to flow north or south, or anywhere, as long as they can create a set that is attractive to all walks of life,” she said, adding that it’s also important that they learn the business side of things.
The next chapter hasn’t been written yet for her yet, but she said the first thing she’ll do is take a long vacation.
The last 11 years have been a journey, one that wasn’t always easy, she said, but it's also been a learning experience. She learned that being prepared helped her overcome the recession and other obstacles. She also had no problem working as hostess some nights for the last six to seven years. Though it didn't work out long term, she said opening the club near 47th Street meant something to her as a black woman in comedy.
"My grandparents, many decades ago, used to hang out on 47th Street, and here I am all these years later creating opportunities from an entertainment standpoint for minorities," she said. "It’s a good feeling because I accomplished what I set out to do and that was to make a difference and to have a well-operated business in the community."
There will be a final performance Saturday at the comedy club. For ticket information visit www.jokesandnotes.com.
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