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Ken Ellis Has Pulled a Lifetime of Leinenkugel

The bouncer-turned-bartender has held court at Chicago’s iconic Rainbo Club for nearly four decades.

The Rainbo Club, in the Chicago neighborhood of Wicker Park, was already legendary when Ken Ellis began bartending there in the mid-1980s. It had been a hangout for ur-Chicago novelist Nelson Algren, who used it as the model for the Tug and Maul tavern in his book The Man With the Golden Arm. After Dee Taira and Gavin Morrison bought the windowless saloon at Damen and Division from the old Polish couple who had run it for decades, in 1986 the Rainbo began its long, historic reign as a musicians’ mecca, serving as both stage and watering hole for acts such as Urge Overkill, Veruca Salt, Tortoise and Liz Phair. (The cover of her debut album, Exile in Guyville, was shot in the bar’s notorious photo booth.)

Though Wicker Park is now gentrified and has made room for posher drinking dens like the famed Violet Hour, the Rainbo Club still holds its own. The joint hasn’t changed much over the years. A row of red leather booths still sits opposite the zigzagging contours of the bar. A tiny clamshell stage behind the bar harks back to the days when polka bands entertained the crowds. And the iconic neon Rainbo (no “w”) sign still shines.

Ellis, a Chicago native who still lives just blocks from where he was born, has seen it all. He joined the bar on its second day in business under Taira (who still owns it) and still puts in “cameo” shifts in the age of COVID-19, all while cultivating a second career in hand-stitched quilt portraits. A former bouncer, he knows how to eject a drunk and has pulled a lifetime of $1 Leinie drafts. He can make you a Martini or Old-Fashioned, if you insist. “But don’t go asking for a Pink Lady,” he says.

How did you get into the bar business?
My first years in the business, I was a bouncer at La Mere Vipere. It was the country’s first punk rock bar. I was the punk rock sheriff. It had opened Mother’s Day in 1977. We had been going there almost since the beginning. That summer, me and some buddies were there on an off night and a bunch of jocks from DePaul [University] came by. There was only one security man on duty and they started harassing him. They were beating the shit out of him. My buddies and I, it was like a movie thing. We looked at each other and shook our heads. We jumped these guys. The owner of the place was so impressed he wanted to hire us as security. That’s how I started.

How did you get the job at the Rainbo Club?
In 1985, I ran into Gavin Morrison, who I worked with at the bar Neo. He and Dee Taira are the owners of this place. They bought it from this old Polish couple. I just happened to go into [punk bar] Lucky Number, where he was spinning. I talked to Gavin and he said, “Dude, you want to come and work for me.” I came over in 1986. I didn’t start on Day One. I started on Day Two. Been here ever since.

How did you start bartending at the Rainbo Club?
[Gavin] and Dee kind of broke up. She went her own way. We were going to do an intervention. The day before the intervention, Gavin checked himself into rehab. I took over his shift. That’s how I started bartending. This is a beer-and-a-shot joint. We don’t do nothing fancy. If you ask for something that goes in a blender, get out. That’s why it was easy for me to start bartending here.

What was it like here back in the beginning?
Back when we first opened, it was kind of dangerous at the time. It was guaranteed that there was going to be a car broken into at some point in the night. The gangbangers were heavy back in the day, but they got priced out of the neighborhood. The bros have chased out the gangbangers. I miss the gangbangers. If I see one more backwards baseball cap… Unless you’re Johnny Bench or some catcher in the major leagues, turn that cap around.

Who comes here these days?
We still get a lot of art students and artsy musicians. They don’t have no money. We’ve never been here to make a fortune.

What do you think it takes to be a good bartender?
To know your basic drinks. To be friendly. To not have attitude. I’ve gone through a lot of bartenders here. At a certain point, the people get on your nerves. It’s like, “Dude, this is like throwing a party every night, and you know they’re going to go home at a certain time. At 2 o’clock, they’re gone. You count your money, you laugh about whatever stupid shit the customers have done that night and call it a day.” I’ve often said it’s one continual night with breaks in between. But I still enjoy it. It cracks me up.

What do you like to drink?
Neither Dee or I drink. I’ll have a beer. I’ll have a Mudsling. But I’m not a big drinker. I grew up in the late ’60s, early ’70s, so I’m an old hippie kid. Now that herb’s legal…

Do famous people ever come to the Rainbo Club?
All the time. I felt bad one night when Jack Black was in here and everyone was like, “Dude, that’s Jack Black!” Leave him alone. There have been four or five films shot here. They shot scenes in High Fidelity here. When John Cusack meets Lisa Bonet, that’s here. And if you look closely at the art in the background, that’s my art.

How did you start making your quilts?
I’ve been doing my quilts for almost 40 years. My ex-wife, when we were first together, we did art fairs. Painted T-shirts, baby blankets, baby quilts. That’s how that started. I liked the looks of that. The first series of quilted paintings I did were a bunch of gangster portraits. Capone, Meyer Lansky, Dillinger, Luciano. The thought of soft gangsters sort of cracked me up. I sold most of them. I’ve been doing them since 1987. I do my show here every year. I’ve sold all over the country. People collect this stuff. I’ve just blasted through this series on bartenders.

How many quilts have you done?
I have done 500 to 600. I’ve done commissions. I have grandkids and three great-grandkids. They all have quilts.

That’s what I used to do in my downtime. I used to do them when I got home from work at night. You’re at the bar five, six hours, you just can’t go home. You have to wind down. I’d do a continual chain stitch. It used to lull me into sleep.

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Tagged: OGs, Rainbo Club, the OGs