Mark Wagner’s Got Stories

Ask the 27-year veteran of Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse about Elizabeth Taylor’s Champagne-fueled monologue. Or Billy Joel’s impromptu piano set. Or the guy on a date with a doll.

Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse may be a sprawling Rush Street icon, with all that entails, but veteran bartender Mark Wagner makes sure that, even within the city’s upscale restaurant hub, the Chicago institution feels like a neighborhood bar.

He knows his regulars well enough to refer to them by nicknames: There’s Nine-Finger Kenny, John the Anarchist, Jerry the Golfer and Gerry With a “G.” But there’s room for celebrities at Gibson’s as well, and Wagner has served his share, from Jack Nicholson to Eddie Vedder to Billy Joel, who sat behind the bar’s grand piano for an hour one night. “He asked me later how I liked the music,” recalls Wagner, who stands a lofty 6’5” and looks 10 years younger than his 61 years. “I told him I was too busy to listen. He went back to his hotel and came back with four tickets to his concert at Wrigley Field. Who does that?”

That night was a musical change of pace for an old punk rocker like Wagner, who put in time at Chicago’s renowned punk bar Exit, as well as the legendary, short-lived cabaret Gold Star Sardine Bar. Chicago-born, Wagner lives a few blocks from the steakhouse and walks to work each day, saying hello to the various doormen along the way. A loyal employee, he’s rarely worked at a bar for fewer than 10 years. He’s been at Gibson’s for 27, and when I ask him if he’s got any young bartenders on staff, he replies, “Young-ish. My partner’s been here for 17 years. People don’t leave here.”

How did you find your way behind the bar?
“When I was young, all I wanted to do was get drunk and meet girls. (Now, all I want is good insurance and weekends off.) What happened was I was going to this bar called O’Banion’s. They had an O’Banion’s staff t-shirt. I said, ‘Gosh, I’d like to have a T-shirt like that.’ My friend said, ‘Mark, get a job, get the T-shirt and quit.’ I was very skinny at the time. I put on three sweatshirts, put on work boots, lowered my voice an octave, and said, ‘Hey. Need help at the door?’ The guy turned around, looked at me, said ‘Saturday, eight o’clock.’ That was my interview. I’m working the door. I’m making 20 dollars a night. We had a lot of fights. But one night this motorcycle gang came in and they knew how to fight and they knew how to fight drunk. The guy who hired me got stabbed. I got punched. My nose looked like chopped liver. The next day was payday. I was going to come in, get paid and quit. It wasn’t worth it. The bartender showed up an hour and a half late, completely drunk. The owner came to the door and said, ‘Any of you MF-ers know how to bartend?’ I jumped up and said, ‘Me! Me! Me!’”

What do you think makes for a good bartender?
“I love people and I think that comes across. You have to like people. You have to have personality.”

What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
“You have to care about the customer service, not about the money. Don’t ever work for the money. Don’t just take care of the people you know are going to tip you. Take care of everybody. And make it a family. I’m very good at introducing people to each other.”

What’s an unusual drink order you’ve gotten?
“You get a lot of mixing Cognac with things, like pineapple juice. At the end of the day, I’m not drinking it. Drink what you like.”

Have you served many celebrities?
“I was working at the Gold Star Sardine Bar. It was a jazz cabaret. Elizabeth Taylor was there one night. She was hanging around with these four guys. All they had for food there was frozen, microwavable White Castle cheeseburgers, because they didn’t have a kitchen. So she’s double-fisting cheeseburgers and drinking Dom Perignon Champagne all night long. At the end of it, she said ‘What’s my bill?’ The owner says to tell her its complimentary. She gets up and waddles to the stage and she’s wasted. She gets up to the microphone and says, ‘I gotta sing for my supper.’ She flips a switch and does a monologue from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that would make you cry.”

What’s an unusual encounter you’ve had at a bar?
“This guy walks in and sits on a bar stool and puts next to him a doll. Not a blow-up doll, not an American Girl doll, this lifelike three-quarter-size doll. I look at him and say, ‘What’s with the doll?’ He says, ‘She’s with me.’ I say, ‘I don’t care what you do with her, but she can’t sit there.’ He picks up the doll and puts it on his lap. He says, ‘Can we see a menu?’ He starts talking to the doll, asking, ‘What do you think? What do you want?’ This couple walks in. They were in their 90s. They came in every Sunday. Very cute couple and they sit next to him. The guy with the doll says, ‘Oh, look how cute they are. May we buy them a drink?’ The Monahans was their name. I say, ‘Mr. Monahan, would you like a drink on this couple here?’ He says, “Mark! I’ve been drinking in bars for 70 years and I ain’t never turned down a free drink. I can’t start now. Give us two drinks on the doll!’”

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