PORTAGE PARK — When Michael Macdonald and his partner saw a listing for an old Northwest Side dive bar, they drove to see it right away.
The couple, who used to live in Humboldt Park, had been looking for a spot to explore their creative endeavors in Chicago without spending a fortune, they said.
The bar was hard to miss, with a sheet metal exterior that once housed the Bim Bom Lounge, a Polish punk and metal bar at 5226 W. Belmont Ave. Complete with a yard, a garage and an apartment in the back, the former bar proved to be perfect for the couple’s needs, they said. They bought it in October.
Bim Bom Lounge is now Bim Bom Studios, a music recording studio and arts movement space run by Macdonald and his partner, Amanda Maraist.
“It’s just a quirky spot; I feel like the facade itself is like an unofficial landmark because it’s so bizarre,” Maraist said. “We think that the previous owner’s husband was a metalworker or something.”
Bim Bom Lounge started as a bar in 1986, according to county records. In 1990, it changed ownership and was a bar until it closed when the pandemic started. That’s when the current owners found it for sale.
Macdonald and Maraist were allowed to keep the name in exchange for also keeping the bar equipment, which sounded like a good deal, Macdonald said. He sold the equipment and parts of the sheet metal online to make room for the space’s next journey: his studio and production room, which he had long dreamed of opening.
Macdonald, a music producer and mixer, spent several months renovating the bar into the studio and rental space, soundproofing and repainting the walls, upgrading the bathroom and adding windows.
“I thought buying a place would be a great way to be super sustainable and also offer really, really affordable recording time to people because our rent is extremely low,” Macdonald said. “The price of the house is really, really low. We bought it as-is.”
The studio offers sliding scale hourly rates in an accessible space with lots of natural light, gear and equipment and a basement for extra recording space. Since opening in January, the space has been busy: Maraist has booked about 25 artists, and Macdonald has produced eight records and mixed 15 music projects — all with the company of the couple’s friendly dog, Billie.
The two want Bim Bom Studios to serve as an affordable spot for artists to create and infuse more artwork into the Northwest Side.
“Everyone just seems to be really supportive of us on this strip,” Macdonald said. “This area is really pretty fascinating, and a lot of it is the mystery of it. I was sort of surprised by how much I enjoy walking around and guessing what is the history.”
‘It Was A Post-Solidarity Club’
The sheet metal exterior and interior of the bar are a permanent homage to the lounge’s rowdier days, when it hosted punk rock shows as part of the music scene in the late ’80s and ’90s.
The 2018 film “A Night On Milwaukee Ave.” documents this era. Filmmaker Adrian Prawica, who grew up in Belmont Cragin near Bim Bom Lounge, never hung out there but through his film learned it was more of a Polish “youth-oriented bar.”
“When that club came in, it was part of the new migration of the neighborhood,” Prawica said. “It was a post-Solidarity club and existed after the fall of communism” in Poland.
Prawica remembers the building’s unique exterior design and said it featured the “cutting-edge of modern punk music.”
The Bim Bim Lounge is believed to have had one of the last smoking rooms in Chicago, which is now Macdonald’s production space. It also had explicit bathroom wallpaper that has been left untouched.
Past patrons of the bar called it one of the best places in the city for punk and metal shows in Yelp reviews.
“Welcome to Polish heavy metal heaven,” one person wrote.
It was also known for its celebration of Polish culture — Polish TV shows, music and food were often part of the vibe — that made the place “one of the nicest dive bars” and an “undiscovered little gem,” reviewers said.
“I am tempted to give this place 1 star just so people won’t realize how cool it is, but alas I will be honest and give them the 4 stars they deserve,” another patron wrote in 2009.
Macdonald and Maraist feel lucky to have found the space and are using it pump fresh energy into the community.
“We have artists planning work-in-progress showings, so I think small is good, intimate is good,” Maraist said. “That’s mostly what we can handle right now. … But we are definitely interested in doing performances.”
The two are working on renovating the basement with the goal of making space for out-of-town artists to stay while working there. They also want to plant a garden on the roof.
“There’s all kinds of fun things we can do, but right now I’m focused on the thing I really love to do, which is making records and helping people make art,” Macdonald said.
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