In this era of the virus, Chicago’s legendary drag club had to come up with something quick to keep the shows alive. Chicagoans continue to fear gathering indoors, so the Baton Show Lounge took the show outside.
Last week, the Baton Show Lounge, located at 4713 N. Broadway, opened a new patio, complete with a small, well-lit stage. The patio has allowed the renowned drag club to retain a few of its performers and earn some revenue, after months of being forced to shut down.
“It’s working out really well so far,” said owner Jim Flint. “The neighbors love it. We’re putting some excitement on the street.”
The patio, open Tuesday-Sunday, only seats 42 customers, due to social distancing mandates. On weekdays, the performances begin at 5:30 p.m. and rotate every 15 minutes, said Flint. On Saturdays and Sundays, the shows begin at 2 p.m.
The Baton serves drinks and a few food items such as desserts, as well as allowing its customers to order food from neighboring restaurants to enjoy on their patio. The arrangement appears to be working for the club as well as for the nearby restaurants that don’t have outdoor seating of their own.
“It’s adding a lot to the neighborhood,” Flint said.
The Baton Show Lounge, a Chicago Tradition
The Baton moved to its current Uptown location in spring 2019; previously, it had been a River North staple for nearly 50 years. where the groundbreaking drag club had been since its beginning in 1969. Flint said the club was forced to move due to the high cost of rent in River North.
“It was very upsetting to be forced to move. I was only 27 when I opened the Baton Lounge and at the time, River North was ‘Skid Row.’ I’ve seen it develop over the last 50 years,” Flint said. “There’s a lot of great memories, but a lot of bad memories being forced to move.”
“The rent has risen so much that I can’t keep up with the expenses,” Flint said. The Baton’s current location was once home to the burlesque venue, Uptown Underground.
Back in 1994, journalist and documentary filmmaker Mark Saxenmeyer visited the Baton Lounge; the artistry of the performers dazzled him. “I was absolutely mesmerized right from the start,” Saxenmeyer said. “It’s not just a drag show. It’s a choreographed art form. The performers are illusionists and there’s costumes, lights, and choreography.”
Saxenmeyer eventually made a documentary film about the Baton. “The Queens” covers the history of the Baton, following its performers, as well as documenting the Miss Continental Pageant that the club hosts every year. The documentary also covers how Flint had to pay off the police, as well as the mob, to keep his gay bar open.
The club’s uptown space allowed the addition of a disco and bar room, creating an additional 150 seats. The Baton’s uptown location has a seating capacity of 195 patrons. However, that has now been dramatically reduced.
The Virus Has Proven Deadly to the City’s Entertainment Venues
The move uptown was working out well for the drag club, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit, followed by a slew of city-mandated shutdowns. Entertainment venues have been among the hardest-hit by the shutdowns, as well as by the social distancing mandates. These restrictions have left many of the city’s performance venues shuttered, despite being allowed to reopen.
“It was never like this,” Flint said of the impact these mandated shutdowns have had on local businesses. “This is terrible.”
In July, Baton chose to reopen its indoor theater, after Chicago moved into Phase 4 of its reopening plan. However, indoor shows have not done as well as the outdoor performances.
“People are still scared to go inside,” Flint said. “With the patio, it’s helping us, but it’s very hard.”
If the city of Chicago could do one thing, Flint said it would be to eliminate the 11 p.m. curfew for businesses, as long as the reduced capacity limits are adhered to.
Despite the trying times, Flint said he’s happy to still be in business, providing his community with much-needed entertainment during these difficult times.
“We’re very happy to be Uptown,” Flint said. “If we all stay strong and stay happy, we can get through this.”
The Baton’s patio is open 4:30-11 p.m. Monday-Friday and noon-11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.