Behind uninviting blacked out windows and a barred entrance, once upon a time, existed a tiny bar in Rogers Park which fostered relationships and memories to last a lifetime.
Charmers used to sit at 1502 W. Jarvis Ave. and was the neighborhood haunt for many who lived in Rogers Park.
The establishment, which was sandwiched between a bodega and a liquor store, was known as a gay bar, but it was also considered a neighborhood spot for people of all identities. The place closed in the early 2000s after the death of the bar’s last owner in 2004. 15 years later, the bar’s legacy is still strong.
Serving since the ’30s
Dan Sullivan, the owner of the building Charmers once sat in, said the property has been in his family since his great grandparents built it in 1915.
Sullivan said in the 1930s, his great grandfather rented the unit — which was just part of the building owned by Sullivan’s family — to a Greek family with the last name Chalmers. In the space, Pete Chalmers opened the bar and named it Chalmers.
“It became really kind of, underground famous because it was one of the only gay bars in the city of Chicago,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said when Pete Chalmers died, his wife managed it for a while, but after she died, they sold it to a man who opened up a bar called Peppers in the space.
“He put a huge, eight-foot high, neon colored champagne glass hanging off the building, and that was Peppers for years, all through the 70s,” Sullivan said. “I was a little kid then, and I remember it.”
In the 1980s, the space was sold again. The two women in charge of the place named it Charmers, the name being “a nod” to Chalmers, Sullivan said.
Chalmers, Peppers and Charmers have all had identities as gay bars, according to Sullivan.
A famous sculptor named Paul Manship — who’s known for his sculpture of Prometheus which sits in a fountain at the Rockefeller Center in New York City — created art deco figurines of mythical Greek characters for the original Chalmers, which sat in the space until Charmers closed more than 70 years later.
“A Gay Outpost”
The interior of Charmers was long and narrow, and had an old school record music box which usually blared obscure music from the 1970s. Manship’s art deco sculptures adorned the walls of the bar. The TV played old movies, Animal Planet and ’90s NBC Sitcom Will and Grace, setting itself apart from the typical sports games broadcasted in most bars.
Melissa Bradshaw, a professor in the English department at Loyola who’s been a resident of Rogers Park for 20 years, said she used to frequent Charmers in the 1990s and early 2000s until its closing.
“It was like our living room … you didn’t go there to get loaded,” Bradshaw said. “It was like a real community place where you just came to see people.”
Bradshaw said Charmers was the first bar she’d gone to after she had come out as lesbian.
“It was a place where I learned how to be a participant in gay culture instead of just a voyeuristic looker in,” she said.
Bradshaw said while gay bars have existed in Chicago for a long time in predominantly LGBT neighborhoods such as Boystown, Charmers was a “gay outpost” at the edge of the city.
“Boystown was a much younger crowd,” she said. “Boystown was where you go to be dumb and pick people up, and Charmers, you were not going to pick anybody up at Charmers. It was the place you would go to be gay and not have that be a big deal.”
John Xander, who now lives in Arizona but used to live in Rogers Park, frequented the bar in the 1990s and early 2000s. He said while it was a known as a gay bar, everyone was welcome there. Xander said families would sometimes bring their kids.
“I think the really wonderful thing about it is while it was extensively a gay bar, everybody went there … it was our corner bar,” Xander said.
From the Beach to The Bar
The two women who initially opened Charmers were named Anna and Sharon. They ran the bar for a few years, and then passed it on to a man named John Ellis, who was the last owner before his death at age 44, Sullivan said. Ellis had been a bartender at Charmers before owning it.
Neither Anna or Sharon could be reached for comment by the time of publication.
Dennis Roberts, who used to live in Rogers Park but now lives in Texas, was one of many people who said Ellis cultivated the community surrounding Charmers.
“John Ellis really is the heart of my memories,” Roberts, who went to the bar in the 1990s and early 2000s, said. “John was just a fixture of the neighborhood.”
Roberts said Ellis organized parties on the beach.
Dan Conlon, who used to live in Rogers Park but now lives in unincorporated McHenry County, said he was a part of the “beach crowd.” He went to Charmers in the 1990s and early 2000s and said the group of 20 or more people would go to the beach down the street and end up at Charmers on the weekends.
Conlon said Ellis wouldn’t accept his money at the bar.
“John never took a dime from us,” Conlon said. “Every time we were in there, we would try to pay, and he would always say ‘no, no,’ so we’d leave the money on the bar and we would leave. And the next day at the beach, we went home and emptied the cooler, and there was the 20 or 40 bucks just floating in the cooler water.”
Xander also mentioned how Ellis used to make t-shirts with nicknames on the back for the friend group.
Roberts and Xander recalled when they were both chosen to serve as the “Celebrity Guest Bartender” during a tradition started by Ellis, where Ellis would invite neighborhood residents to try their hand at running the bar for a night.
Conlon said he remembered when his wife was a guest bartender.
“She didn’t know anything about mixing drinks, but John had her behind the bar mixing drinks for people,” Conlon said. “That was the funniest night ever.”
Roberts also recalled a time when he had lost his job, and Ellis helped him out.
“It was obvious things were tight. John made up some story about how he needed bartender coverage and I could keep any tips,” Roberts said. “Out of kindness, he put me behind the bar. He did that sort of thing for a lot of people.”
Infectious smiles and ‘80s Pop
Bradshaw said there were typically around four bartenders at Charmers, but only one worked at a time. They all knew the patrons by name and she said in this way it was similar to the 1980s and 1990s sitcom “Cheers,” due to the bar’s cozy and inviting nature.
Many remember Rick “Ricky” Osborne, who worked behind the bar for several years. Osborne died at age 56 from a heart attack in 2003.
Conlon said he remembers how Osborne radiated positivity.
“Ricky was this bright, vibrant, you just knew he was a nice guy,” Conlon said. “This big, infectious smile and blond hair … just a great guy.”
Roberts echoed Conlon’s sentiment, calling Osborne a “hoot.” He said many of the community members attended Osborne’s funeral.
Bradshaw said her last memory of Osborne was one night when someone brought a piano keyboard into the bar.
“One of the last times I was there, it was right before Rick died,” Bradshaw said. “They were singing along to The Mamas and The Papas ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me.’ It makes me cry, because that was the last time I saw him.”
This kind of singing wasn’t unusual at Charmers.
“It was the kind of place where you would throw back your head and sing at the top of your lungs to Cher, or Donna Summer,” Bradshaw said.
People who frequented Charmers said they still maintain close friendships with people they met at the establishment.
Laurie Entringer, who was a regular at Charmers in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, said she’s been a resident of Rogers Park for 16 years. She said she met Bradshaw there and they have maintained a close relationship. Entringer said she’s now the godmother of Bradshaw’s child.
Bradshaw said she was influenced by friends at Charmers. While in graduate school, she said she wrote parts of her dissertation at the bar and, with the help of some of the regulars, designed a course on divas she still teaches today.
“My diva class was developed sitting at that bar on little tiny pieces of bar paper with all the guys telling me ‘well, do this movie, well do this movie’ and that became the basis of the class,” Bradshaw said.
She said some of the gay men at the bar influenced her writing and helped her understand things she was writing about.
Jarvis Square Today
Today, Poitin Still, an Irish pub-style bar, occupies the space where Charmers used to be.
Sullivan opened Charmers Cafe — which is located at 1500 W. Jarvis Ave. — in 2006 as a tribute to the bar. Sullivan said the cafe closed in 2013, but reopened in 2016. While the original art deco figurines were sold off to an artifact dealer after the cafe’s first closing, the cafe’s logo still represents Manship’s sculptures which once sat in the bar.
Chip Russell, a resident of Rogers Park who used to go to Charmers in the 1990s and early 2000s, said he’s lived in the neighborhood for more than 26 years.
Russell said while Charmers is gone, there is a still a lot of community surrounding that block. There are several businesses on the stretch, including a wine shop, two bars and a pet store, among others.
“I also look at what this corner represents now, and so much of that [community] is still here,” Russell said. “It’s just grown in different ways.”
Roberts said he misses the community surrounding Charmers, but everyone was younger and it was a different time.
“There’s a sense in which, when you get older, there’s always one or two connections or communities that you’ll never replace,” Roberts said. “Whether that’s in your 20s or your late 20s or your 30s … I think anyone who was there for [Charmers] that was one of the great times in their life.”
Roberts said he thinks the bar probably would’ve struggled in today’s world.
“Part of me is a little sad that Charmers is gone,” Roberts said. “Maybe there isn’t a place for a Charmers now, you have to be very financially successful and Charmers probably never made that much money.”
Conlon said he was glad to be a part of the Charmers crowd while it was still around.
“We got this great little snippet of a wonderful place … I don’t think Charmers would get the welcome [today] that it did, because it looked kind of seedy from the outside or the inside,” Conlon said. “A lot of people just walked by and never went in the door. But if you did, you were going back for sure.”