I like a good story, but I love a good storyteller even more. When I started researching taverns and their histories, it was ultimately the tales that drew me in and left me wanting to dig deeper. But when you combine a great story with a great story teller, well that’s when an experience can become magical. That’s my friend, Paul. Paul is a knowledgeable and highly trained historian. He knows his stuff and I am always learning from him. But unlike most historians, Paul and I share the belief that history can, and more importantly, should be fun. While I use taverns and beer to get people excited about history, Paul uses tours and historic re-enactments to bring out the kid in us all. His company, Pocket Guide To Hell, allows folks to immerse themselves into the past. How cool is that? And lucky for me, Paul likes taverns too. So here’s Paul’s take on his favorite Chicago saloon, The Skylark.
By Paul Durica
I’ve experienced the Skylark in the two ways most Chicagoans experience bars, as a destination and as a place in the neighborhood. When I moved to Chicago, I settled in Hyde Park, far south of the Skylark’s location on the eastern edge of Pilsen. Hyde Park has few bars. A university neighborhood, it can feel at times isolated from the larger life of the city. The Skylark offered a little bit of excitement and a little bit of escape; it was a place one planned to visit, in large groups, usually on a Friday or Saturday, when the bar filled to capacity with outsiders like me. My Hyde Park friends and I liked the ample selection of beers on tap, the reasonable prices, and the burgers topped with an onion ring, cheddar cheese, and coleslaw and served with a side of tater tots or, on Fridays, an amazing fish fry. We speculated on the origin of the masonic banners hanging behind the bar and the headless light-up altar boys who would appear, perched atop the photo booth, around Christmastime. We surveyed the crowd, young and self-consciously hip and, like us, from other parts of the city.
And then I moved to Pilsen. The Skylark became my neighborhood bar. I started to learn the names of the bartenders and servers, all of whom were gracious but also no-nonsense, much like the owner, Bob McHale. I started looking forward to talking with John, a musician and writer who manned the door and who was always reading Proust or something else classic and interesting, or Sam, who’d always ask me for a business card because he knew people interested in my walking tours. One of the servers, Ken, was originally from Cleveland like me. Another, Sierra, shared her radio work as well as mutual friends. Bartenders Nick and Dan-O have bought me a drink when it was obvious I needed one, as did the many friends from the neighborhood who frequented the place. There’s a real range of people who come to the Skylark during the week or toward the early part of the evening. Many of them having been coming there for years, and they all have a story to tell.
Like a story told in a bar, the story of a bar requires a careful shifting of fact from fiction. Unless the place is a high-end saloon set in the heart of the Loop or associated with a famous personage, an artist or writer or in the case of this city a criminal or politician, a bar is unlikely to make an appearance in any official history. The Skylark has certain stories attached to it that are difficult to verify. For example, are the urinals in the men’s room, palatial porcelain objects from the early 1900s, really the oldest in the city? Was the original concept of the bar to have a toaster on each table and serve bread, nothing else, before the tots became the trademark fare? (McHale has dispelled this rumor; it was just a joke that’s continued to circulate and was made in reference to outsider-artist champion Clay Morrison’s whimsical dream of opening a “House of Toast” restaurant). This much is known about the bar called the Skylark at the corner of Halsted and Cermak. The building dates to the early 1900s. It has always been a bar. A “B” carved into the side suggests, according to my friends at Forgotten Chicago, that it was originally a Birk Brothers tied house—that is, it served exclusively that brewery’s product, including its flagship beers, Superb and Goldeck. The neighborhood at the time would have been primarily Czech, with a smattering of Polish, German, and Irish, and distinctly working class. Laborers at nearby factories could have their checks cashed at the bar. By the late 1940s, it had been taken over by Edward and Alma Kaufman and rechristened Kaufman’s Tavern. The Kaufmans lived in an apartment above the bar and continued to cash the checks of their working class clientele. By the 1970s, the bar had passed into the hands of Adolph Cozzie, who rechristened it Cozzie’s Corner and served Hungarian food along with the beer. Then the historical record gets a little spotty. One longtime local claims that the Skylark was known for a time as the International Club or Club International, but others have insisted that that particular institution was located across the street. Prior to becoming the Skylark, it was known as La Inca and served, if one believes the stories again, a community of Mexican transvestites. In May 12, 2003, McHale, along with co-owners Dee Taira and Jime Garbe, who had been running the popular Rainbo Club on the north side since the 1980s, opened the Skylark, a bar that fit the current residents of Pilsen as much as the Birk Brothers tied house had a century before. The name came not from the bird or Shelley’s poem but from the model of Garbe’s car.
When the bar did turn up in the newspapers, the reasons weren’t usually good ones. On at least two occasions Kaufman was robbed. In December 1950 two gunmen made off with almost $800 and shot a patron who, during the robbery, had tried to slip out a side door. The two gunmen, Edward Hamersbach and James Daly, along with the driver of their getaway car, Lucy Conslik, a former junior high English teacher from Kentucky, were later arrested after holding up a bank in Cairo, IL. The following May, Kaufman and his wife were again in the news after they were assaulted in their upstairs apartment. This time the thieves made off with approximately $15,000, the same amount that would be stolen from Adoph Cozzie in March of 1971. The next person who tried to hold up Cozzie’s Corner would be shot dead by the owner himself. The bar no longer cashes checks. Crime has diminished. The Skylark turns up in articles about the art scene in Pilsen. It is the natural terminus for the second Friday gallery walks.
I tend to avoid the bar on those nights. But I do often visit during the week or on Sundays. The Skylark has become the place where I’ll ask friends to gather for my birthday or just to gather when a large group of people are involved. The booths are comfortable. The bar is incredibly spacious. It also has to be vying with the California Clipper for the title of “Darkest Bar in Chicago.” Its space and lack of illumination have made it an appealing set for various films and television shows, including the Chicago Code, Chicago Fire, and Boss. On the days prior to filming, the Skylark’s interior is altered to match the fictional world in which it plays a part. For the short-lived Chicago Code, the bar served as the headquarters of the Irish mafia—lots of rugby jerseys inexplicably had appeared on the walls. The Irish along with a powerful black alderman from the north side controlled the city, making the Chicago Code perhaps the most fictional representation of the city I’ve seen. The movie and TV versions of the bar are always fun, but I prefer the real thing.
As I’ve said, the beer selection is great—McHale has an extensive knowledge of craft beer; there’s always something new on tap—but also cheap. Lagunitas and Three Floyds selections are just four bucks, and Pabst is two. Despite being a destination for outsiders on the weekends, the Skylark respects the pocketbooks of its weekday regulars. And it’s this commitment to the regulars and the neighborhood, as well as all the wonderful people I’m likely to encounter there, that makes it feel so comfortable, the home away from home.