Hyde Park residents raised their glasses to a new era when the Woodlawn Tap re-opened under new owners after a yearlong legal battle with the city.
Across the country in his California studio, another former regular and one of the bar’s earliest patrons also toasted the bar, recalling another era when the bar known as “Jimmy’s” first opened in 1948.
“I’m very glad,” said seven time Emmy award winning actor Ed Asner. “So many fantastic people went there – and I’m not referring to myself.”
Asner frequented Jimmy’s as a University of Chicago student, when he was a member of the campus dramatic group “Tonight at Eight Thirty” directed by a young Mike Nichols. The group eventually left the south side campus to form the Playwright’s Theatre Club on the North Side.
At that time, the closure of a local watering hole wouldn’t have aroused the intense emotions that surrounded the battle to re-open Jimmy’s. Before Urban Renewal changed the face of Hyde Park forever, thirty-eight taverns lined 55th street, a thriving neighborhood shopping strip and home to many blues and jazz clubs.
“You’d go to the Beehive to hear Dixie land. I ate most of my meals at the Tropical Hut,” Asner recalls. “The street was rougher back then.”
A Kansas City native, Asner came to Chicago in 1947 where he attended the University of Chicago. After a two-year stint in the Korean War, he returned in 1953 and joined young talents such as Mike Nichols, Paul Sills and David Shephard at the Playwright’s Theater, which eventually led to the founding of the Second City improvisational group. Asner left for the New York stage in 1955.
Asner returned to Chicago in the 80s, taking his family on a tour of his college day haunts. “They were singularly unimpressed,” he admits, while adding that the once familiar strip was almost unrecognizable. “I drove down 55th street, and it was almost surreal, this glow to it. Everything was dark except for a street light. The haphazardness of 55th street was gone.
“It was different – it was not as non-chalant as it used to be.”
In Asner’s time, storefronts and five story walkups lined a much narrower 55th street. The small strip which houses Jimmy’s is what is left of a bygone era, when the “Green Hornet” streetcars raced down the middle, and local drug stores had soda fountains where people caught up on neighborhood gossip
The Woodlawn Tap is, in fact, one of the few buildings and the only bar that weathered urban renewal. Jimmy Wilson, the bar’s former owner, opened the Woodlawn Tap in 1948 and was much loved and respected by locals.
Asner moved to Hollywood in 1961 where he made a name for himself as an accomplished film and television actor. But the mention of Jimmy’s brought up memories of leaner days in Chicago.
“One of the jobs I had was working in a boiler room where I had to sell over the phone. I was a terrible salesman. I was broke, and I’d go to Jimmy’s and bum a beer and a dollar so I could get to work on the subway and maybe buy a donut and a cup of coffee.
“So Jimmy’s was very important to me, not only for meeting up with all my compadres at the school, but as a source of funds,” Asner laughs.
“I used to run contests with myself when I worked at the auto factory. I’d clean up, go to Jimmy’s, stay there all night carousing and see how little sleep I could deal with, and how long I could last on the assembly line on 3 or 4 hours of sleep the next day.”
The Woodlawn Tap has been closed for more than a year following Wilson’s death. The bar’s new owners have been involved in a legal battle to re-open the bar after the city denied them a liquor license because the bar was located within 100 feet of a school.
Dozens of residents attended the appeals hearing last month, including the school’s principle and Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, and testified in favor of the bar’s re-opening. The city dropped the fight last month, saying they were satisfied that the unusual situation wouldn’t set a precedent for other bars locating near a school.
The days of “drinking champale and glixtite” as remembered by Ed Asner are gone forever, and Jimmy’s will most certainly be different without Jimmy Wilson. But whether it’s Budweiser or glixtite, that first beer promises to go down well.