LAKEVIEW — The Music Box Lounge and Garden is not officially a queer bar.
Most nights, the space attached to the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., is a first-date spot and a hangout for cinephiles whose social lives revolve around the theater.
But in recent years, manager Matt Kasin and bartender Sarah Hiatt have helped attract more queer staff and patrons to the space, not realizing they also were bringing Music Box Lounge back in touch with its roots as a lesbian bar with the same name.
As sapphic-oriented spaces come back after years of decline, manager Kasin now has made it a mission to unearth and honor Music Box’s history as a thriving spot with women singers, drag shows, its own softball team and a charismatic wrestler-turned-owner and bartender named Rhonda Renee.
Much of the story is still yet to be told, including what became of Renee herself, Kasin said. Hiatt has since moved on to a new role as chair of the Media Arts department at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, but comes by often to support Kasin.
“It’s comforting” to know that 45 years ago, queer community was being fostered in the same space where he now works, Kasin said.
“We got goosebumps when we read that Rhonda wanted it to feel like [her] living room. Because that’s what me and Sarah were saying — it’s like your living room … Any person can walk through and enjoy the lounge. I think it’s mostly about connection,” Kasin said.
Music Box Lounge opened on Dec. 28, 1977 in a location that had previously been a candy shop, a liquor store and another bar called the Music Box Tap.
The first ad for the bar, printed in the newspaper Gay Life (later Gay Chicago), proclaims, “Attention Ladies! A bar just for your lifestyle!”
Within a few months, the Music Box Lounge pivoted from a lesbian bar to a “mixed” model that welcomed both gay men and lesbians. That’s typical of lesbian spaces, Hiatt said.
“We feel like we have to be inclusive, and almost motherly. You open it up to everybody, right? So it’s like, ‘We’re a lesbian bar, but everybody’s welcome.’ You don’t see that as much with gay male bars,” Hiatt said.
The Music Box Lounge and Southport Avenue were just west of the “Newtown” area that was then the center of LGBTQ+ life in Chicago.
Ads for the bar touted multiple programs and attractions. A sandwich shop opened in the spring of 1978, and a profile of the bar published in the lesbian feminist newspaper Blazing Star from April of that year touts a “rowdy” pool tournament every other Tuesday night. The Music Box also sponsored a softball team, which played at Athletic Field Park and called itself the Music Boxettes.
Live entertainment catered to the bar’s diverse queer clientele. Michelle Faithe performed her song “Ode to Anita,” a satirical jab at anti-gay activist Anita Bryant: “Oh Anita! Don’t you pray for me, ‘cause I’m happy with my living in a gay society,” she sings in the chorus.
For the first few months of its existence, the Music Box Lounge’s stage hosted mostly women singer-songwriters. In August 1978, it expanded to drag shows as well. A personal collection recently donated to the Gerber/Hart Archive and Library in Rogers Park includes a flier for “Guys Are Dolls,” a “female impersonation” revue at the Music Box Lounge.
But the main attraction at the Music Box Lounge appears to have been Rhonda Renee herself, who had a blonde Farrah Fawcett flip and a feisty attitude.
A former Las Vegas showgirl and mortician who also competed in professional wrestling tournaments, Renee got into the bar business the same way she did wrestling, the Blazing Star reported at the time.
“Five years ago she was working as a bartender when a 210-pound man got too rowdy and offensive,” Blazing Star reporter Eileen Willenborg wrote. “There was no bouncer, so Rhonda took matters into her own hands, picked him up, and threw him over three tables.”
In the Blazing Star article, Renee also brags about fighting men twice her size, and describes a wrestling match where she threw a man out of the ring and he dragged her out with him, disqualifying them both.
The Music Box Lounge eventually fizzled out, but it’s not clear exactly when or why.
The late ‘70s and early ‘80s are ”a dead zone” in terms of the Music Box Theatre’s history, and documentation is spotty, assistant technical director Rebecca Lyon said.
By that time, the Music Box ran sporadically showed Arabic- and Spanish-language double features designed to appeal to immigrant families living in the pre-gentrification Southport corridor. The rest of the time, the theater was dark.
“We have, as far as I know, no photos of the interior” from those years, Lyon said.
Music Box Theatre reopened in 1983. Bob Chaney and Chris Carlo, a gay couple, ran it from 1983 to 2003, bringing in gay-themed films and clientele.
Former Chicago Reader publisher Tracy Baim wrote about the films showed at the theatre for Gay Life. She confirmed the lounge appears in Gay Life’s bar listings in 1982 and 1983, but from there the trail goes cold.
“I started at Gay Life in May of 1984, and by that, point I’m not sure that bar was still around,” Baim said.
‘We Were Pushing What We Like’
The current incarnation of the Music Box Lounge was created in 2014, when the arthouse theater bought the building next door, 3735 N. Southport Ave., and tore down an adjoining wall to make the two storefronts into one space.
During the pandemic, Kasin and Hiatt were part of a skeleton crew running the outdoor screenings and events that kept the theater going during COVID-19 shutdowns.
Often, the duo were the only employees in the building, cleaning out the bar and coming up with cocktail recipes based on movies. That’s when they would put on what Kasin calls a “very gay” playlist called “Club Boxxx,” which starts with Miley Cyrus’ “Bang My Box” and ends with Liza Minnelli singing “Cabaret.”
“We were pushing our agenda in the sense that we were pushing what we like,” Kasin said. “But it felt organic, like it fit the space.”
They also started playing their favorite queer movies while they worked, like “Basic Instinct” and “But I’m a Cheerleader.” And as crowds started coming back, Kasin and Hiatt, both of whom are gay, noticed a shift.
“It was like, ‘There’s a lesbian, there’s a lesbian, there’s a lesbian at every table,'” Kasin said.
“There’s been a lot of change over the few years that I’ve noticed,” Hiatt said. “The staff is more queer, and along with that comes more queer events. But like with a lot of places, it’s still underground.”
Then on Valentine’s Day 2023, general manager Ryan Oestreich emailed a few members of the staff, casually mentioning that a former resident of the neighborhood had told him that the Music Box Lounge had once been a lesbian bar.
An entry in Rick Karlin and St. Sukie de la Croix’s book “Last Call Chicago: A History of 1,001 LGBTQ-Friendly Taverns, Haunts & Hangouts” confirmed the info.
“I got the chills, because this is how we’d been [thinking about it] already. Just in our heads, you know?” Hiatt said.
That led Kasin on an ongoing quest to learn more about Music Box’s history.
“We felt like we were already unintentionally channeling, or reproducing, this [feeling] in a modern time,” Kasin said. “I was like, I have to uncover this. This is what I’m supposed to do. I’m in the right place at the right time.”
Bringing The Past Back Into The Present
On a research trip to Gerber/Hart, Kasin paged through boxes of newspapers, scouring nightlife columns and bar listings for any mention of the Music Box Lounge.
“There she is,” he said proudly, holding up an original copy of the “Blazing Star” article.
But there aren’t many threads to pull to find out more, particularly about Renee herself.
Roland Hansen, a volunteer at Gerber/Hart, suggests Rhonda Renee may have been a stage name. It was common for members of the community to use pseudonyms in media interviews in the ‘70s, out of fear of retaliation from homophobic landlords or bosses, Hansen said.
Without knowing Renee’s legal name, Kasin is left with a breadcrumb trail, a business and a community that survived mostly through newspaper ads. Like so much of LGBTQ+ history, the Music Box Lounge is a lost chapter in the story of a generation that was devastated by AIDS.
Although few regulars remain to share their memories of the old Music Box Lounge, Kasin is dedicated to honoring its legacy.
A staff photo featured in the Blazing Star article will soon be displayed on the wall of the new Music Box Lounge. Kasin and Hiatt have discussed making baseball jerseys printed with their vision of the Music Boxettes logo.
If he does locate Renee, Kasin said he “would just want to close my eyes and let her paint the picture of what it was like being there day to day, since I’ve spent so much of my time there, standing behind the bar and just staring out the windows.”
Asked what she would like to ask Renee, Hiatt said she would like to know “why they felt they wanted to make the space.
“I also want to know if the softball team was any good,” she said.
Did you hang out at Music Box Lounge or know more about its history? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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