The Earl Is Just Folks

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Singers come and go, but the cozy little nightclub on Wells Street (Earl J.J. Pionke, prop.) Keeps on twangin'.

Chicago Tribune Article, April 29, 1973
By Les Bridges
Earl was eying his "reets" which is to say the ratty-looking Christmas wreaths hung on the chandeliers and stuck on the wall of his bar and folk music emporium in Old Town.

"We hung them in '63" Earl said, "they're very functional things -- and that's a true fact. The one behind the bar helps me get in the TV real good. You lay the rabbit ears against the gold bulb and the UHF snaps in outstanding."

It was late afternoon. Earl was tending bar. He is tall, with a good bar-fighter's build. Hell's Angels-hip hair, a scruffy goatee and the beginning of the gut that comes when you get up around 40.

As is often the case in the afternoon, a couple of folk singers were there, just hanging out. One was Jim Post, a pint-sized package of energy formerly from Chicago and now living in San Francisco. Post had been down in Memphis to cut a new album and had drifted up to check out the current scene at the Earl.

As Chicago's reputation for fostering a folk renaissance grows, more and more singers amble in to town to see what's happening at Richard Harding's Quiet Knight or Danny Johnston's Orphans and most certainly, they look at Earl J. J. Pionke's Earl of Old Town.

Jim Post wasn't interested in hearing Earl talk about Christmas wreaths. "Tell about the time you hit the guy in the back of the head with the bottle." he urged Earl.

"Hey Jim -- how would you like I should throw you thru a wall?"

But Post plunged in with the story. "This guy at the bar was giving Earl a hard time so earl told him him to leave. as the guy got to the door, he made the sad mistake of saying something about Earl's mother. Earl was hit with instant anger. He threw a bottle and cold-cocked this guy from thirty feet."

"I don't remember none of that, Post." Earl said. Then he added modestly:"I don't think it was 30 feet."

Indeed, the Earl it not the kind of place where much warring goes on. Occasionally some girl-hunting conventioneers wander in by mistake. By and large tho, the audience at the Earl of Old Town comes to hear the music, live on stage, seven nights a week.

The person responsible for first attracting these listeners in large numbers was Bonnie Koloc. She returned recently and the place filled early with her fans. It was a crowd to test Earl's new method of running the place. "I'm on this new efficiency kick," Earl explained. "Everybody's got a place to do their number." Earl had established a series of stations for his troops. 'A' was where Pete, the bartender, minded the cash register. Station 'B' was the other bartender washing the glasses and drawing beer. Station 'C' was Jimmy Johnson at the grill. ("Ptomaine Jim" is how singer Fred Holstein usually introduces him to the audience) Station 'Z' was the door guarded by manger Gus Johns. "That 'Z' stands for zoo," says Earl.

Koloc wandered in wearing a funky old dress and a somber mood. She is a singer of extraordinary ability and a melancholy view of life who has been close to national fame for the last couple of years. Always she returns to the Earl, sometimes because she is broke. But mostly because it's the Earl. She looked beautiful but where the hell did she get that dress? It was like something from a second-hand store.

"What do you think of my dress?" Koloc asked. "Got it at a second-hand store."

Earl grinned and said nothing. As he worked behind the bar he mulled over the problem of Steve Goodman. Goodman was sulking out back in the Sneak Joynt, the little bar back of the Earl where singers hang out between sets playing the puck bowling game. It's in a frame house 30 feet away and luck as if General Grant might have slept -- or drunk -- there, or both.

Goodman and Earl had had it out earlier in the evening. Goodman had been moping around the place for a week. When Earl finally pressed him, Goodman snarled a curse. That kicked off a roaring, name-calling argument. Earl figured it would eventually lead to the root of Goodman's depression. It had.

"In addition you blankity blank," Goodman shouted, " I'm not happy with my new album. And I'm overexposed here in Chicago."

"Listen you S.O.B.," Earl snarled, "It happens to be a good album, but that doesn't make any difference. an album is nothing. If you never cut another album, you could stay up there for years because you know hundred of songs. You're an entertainer.

Goodman muttered more curses and stalked back to the Sneak Joynt and his beloved pinball game, where he would likely invest ten bucks before 1 a.m.

It was shortly after that when Koloc finished her second set to ecstatic applause from the full house. she did two encores. The audience was whistling and stomping for more.

Earl moved thru the standing room regulars at the far end of the bar and headed for his office in the back room. The office is an old closet. Somehow, Earl has wedged in a desk between the cliffs of liquor cases, the old signs announcing long-ago acts, and the musicians' guitar cases. Here he does his booking and haggling with suppliers.

Earl got Goodman on the phone. "Listen you bleep. Its too bad you don't want to work anymore -- especially in Chicago where you're overexposed -- 'cause i got an audience out there tonight that won't quit.

In five minutes Goodman was on, aided by Koloc's band. Goodman is an accomplished writer. His song "City Of New Orleans" received considerable air play last year. This year his ode to Ross Cascio's Lincoln park Towing Company created a stir on FM radio. But as a performer, Goodman is best when doing hillbilly songs.

Midway thru a Hank Williams tune, a conventioner from Tulsa weaved his way to the phone and called the boys back at the Drake [Hotel] "I told you we would find the jumpingest place in town." he shouted and then held out the receiver so they could hear what they were missing.

Back at the bar, Earl was grinning. "Out of State." he shouted generally delighted.

"The thing about this place," says Ed Holstein, another of the regular folkies, "is that from 9 until 2 a.m. it's a bar with a listening audience. After 2 a.m. it's a party."

When the Earl decided to open a pub a dozen years ago, he wasn't looking for a party. But he did aim to have some fun. Earl has always had fun, even when he was one of fifteen kids in a foster home on the South Side. "I learned how to hustle early. Started earning my living when I was seven."

"that's a true fact," Earl claims. "delivered more newspapers in my time than any fifty guys. On my route I used to sell five cent tickets to drawings and keep half the take. When you sold 100 tickets you got a free pass to the Crane Theater. Always had three cowboy features. Didn't care if it was a thousand below, I always sold my hundred tickets."

By the time he was 12, Earl had moved to the North Side and was ready to be saved. "I went to St. Mike's Catholic grammar school, but this boys club had Cokes and sandwiches along with their religious numbers. The other guys said 'lets go shoot pool' and I told them screw the pool game. You can shoot pool anytime, but free pops and eats!"

"When the preacher asked 'Who is ready to be save?' I raised my hand. I was the only one so I ate six sandwiches. Afterwards, the minister came over and I could see he was real serious about so I had to tell him: 'I'm a good Catholic and I don't believe in that saving stuff but I wanted to eat.

When he was 13 Earl launched another business to support his mother and sisters. "I got this buggy, cut it off, and turned it into a rolling hot dog stand. It was 1945. they were getting 20 cents for a hot dog in those days. I sold for 15 cents and gave three slices of tomato instead of one.

At Waller High, Earl was on the basketball team. The team used to get free tickets to the games of the old Chicago Stags pro basketball club. Earl and a friend would collect the $3 tickets the players weren't using and sell them for a buck apiece in front of the stadium. "We would always make five or six bucks that way."

After getting out of high school in 1950, Earl worked at a lot of things including some "horrible jobs in a factory." He ended up tending bar in a saloon at North and Halsted. "It was a Pier Nine bar. You always had to be ready to knock somebody out."

Earl ran the joint for several years. After work he would stop in the Old Towne Ale House for a beer. The Ale House was on North near Wells and then owned by a guy named Van Gelder who enjoyed classical music and played it in his bar. That attracted artists and writers from the as-yet undiscovered Old Town. "This guy had a great concept. He was doing everything he liked to do at home -- and he was making money at it. I wanted to get into something like that."

Earl began hunting around for a place. He settled on his current location -- then an antique store on Wells near North -- and along with a pair of partners, leased the place. But not before flashing some real estate genius that would serve him well in the future. "the Landlord was asking $150 a month which was twice what the antique guy was paying. I figured that if we had a good year he would come back with a heavy rent increase so I told him: 'I'll give you $300 a month start but I want a two year lease with two and three year options -- at no increase in rent' The land lord said, 'Sure, I can't lose!' "

Thru the winter of '61 earl and his partners worked converting the store into a bar. "Finally we opened -- and nothing happened. People would come in here only if they couldn't get into Chances R. I was bartender, porter, cook, and waiter. People would ask me why I didn't hire a waitress. After all it would only cost me a buck and a half an hour. I told them we couldn't afford one. What they didn't see was we needed the tips to pay the rent.

Earl experimented with different kinds of entertainment. "we even had opera singers. I'd feed everybody brat and beer and tell them if they could convince me what entertainment would sell, we would try it.

Eventually Earl bought his partners out. When Mother Blues, a club down the street abandoned its folk music policy, Earl decided to try that. Most people, including Fred Holstein who worked his opening night show, predicted disaster.

Jim Post remembers that the room had an awful sound system when the folkies first began performing.

Earl recalls it differently, "It was a very good sound system."

"A tin can and a string" sneers Post.

A Post's urging, Earl replaced the old system with an updated version. Still there were other problems you could run into in those days. Back then Post and his former wife, Cathy, sang as a duo called Friend and Lover. "We were doing our second song on an opening night when this french fried potato came flying thru the air and hit Cathy in the forehead. That wouldn't have been so bad, except it had catsup on it and it stuck."

The villain responsible for catapulting the french fry was discovered, and Gus Johns, the club manager, hustled him out to the street. Normally Gus endures a steady barrage of insults from the performers. Everything from his Detroit crew cut to his politics (which are considered to be far right) comes under assault. But he runs the the place with a tight rein, hustling rowdy drunks out early. For that kind of decisive action at the door, Will Leonard, the Tribune's night club writer, recently awarded Johns the title of I.D. Checker of the Year." Performers find that the Earl is a tough club to work. The beamed ceiling and bare brick tend to throw the softened conversation from patrons out where it fights a singer's efforts. when he started there after several months of success at the Fifth Peg, John Prine was surprised at just how difficult the noise made things.

Prine hung on, tho -- both because the club was good experience and because of a fondness for Earl. "Earl doesn't try to kid you that he's doing this just for the love of music. But the way he does business is so open, you don't mind that he's doing business."

When Prine had the opportunity to work New York, Earl released him from a ten week contract. "That was when Earl was launching a second club on Harlem Avenue and he was going to feature me there. You just don't find club owners like that." says Prine, who has seen a lot of them since his first two records generated booking around the country.

The business with Prine was not exceptional. Earl takes a paternal interest in his singers. "they're my kids, my pals. I love 'em." goes the quote on the album called "Gathering at the Earl of Old Town", featuring the work of several regulars.

They in turn are unswerving in their loyalty to him and the bar.

Steve Goodman calls it "a very human place."

Ed Holstein says "you may have a little cash register noise, but you get a whole lot of warmth.

Perhaps the performer closest to Earl is Ed Holstein older brother, Fred. He's worked regularly at the Wells Street place since 1967. Fred Holstein admires Earl's enthusiasm and quick-firing humor.

Holstein recalled one night when Earl was tending bar and a drunk asked him his name.

Earl told him.

"What's your last name?" the drunk asked.

"Town", Earl responded without hesitation.

Often earl will pick up the tab for a group of regulars he's taking on a sweep thru Lincoln Avenue taverns. "If you're a bar owner and you see him walk thru the door you gotta be excited." Ed Holstein says.

On several occasions Earl has treated a group of singers to out-of-town trip to see compatriots perform. When Koloc worked the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, Earl flew out with a six person entourage for the opening. "He spent $500 in this one place in a couple of hours and it was only a little corner tavern." marvels Al Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld is a former musician's agent who ended up doing public relations after Earl threw a hundred bucks on the table one night and said "Give me an Idea, kid."

When he travels, Earl maintains the same kind of free-wheeling enthusiasm evident in his club. Last summer, Earl and Fred Holstein flew up to Toronto to take in the Mariposh Folk Festival. Outside the gate, a young girl had spread out a batch of colored shirts supposedly made in India.

"Earl is a sucker for that sort of stuff." opines Fred Holstein.

The girl did her selling pitch to Earl. She led up to a final bit where she displayed her top priced item. "You must have this orange one -- orange is the sacred color of India", the girl announced.

"Holy Cow!" said Earl.

It's hard to find any singers who will knock Earl. After all he is always good for a couple of days work when you're stone broke or a loan when the rent is due. If you do good business, there's apt to be a bonus in your pay envelope.

Still, at least one singer wishes he would act a little less like big brother. The performer suggests that it would be better for a singer's ego, and perhaps wallet, if the money out front rather than dependent on Earl's impulsive generosity.

It's doubtful Earl will change. John Prine says its impossible to separate the businessman-folk enthusiast-friend qualities in Earl. It would seem that friendship is a key to his business dealings. Earl himself professes little love for agents.

"I know the reason for that" said Jim Post.

"Why is that, Post?" asked Earl.

"Because the entertainers are easier to rook than the agents" Post answered with a cackle.

"You may be right, Post." Earl said thoughtfully. "On the other hand you may be crazy."

It was getting on into the evening. The first show was an hour away. Earl came out from behind the bar with a sign that read, "Michael Johnson Wed.-Sun." He put it behind the stage over another announcing John Prine's latest visit. "a little higher, Earl," Post instructed. The staple gun went "thunk, thunk, thunk."

The sign ended up crooked, of course, but Earl stood back and shouted his favorite expletive, "Out of state."

A photographer came in to talk about a publicity shot for an upcoming act. The two performers would be outside on the front stoop and... "I don't like to see nobody outside the Earl of Old Town, no matter who they are," Earl shouted. They all ought to be inside spending their money." Then he cracked the bar with his hand and began to laugh.