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© The Chicago Bar Project   Written by Sean Parnell

31 E. Balbo Ave. (0E, 700S)
Chicago, IL 60605
R.I.P. July 2007

Editor's Note: with much sadness, I report to you that HotHouse closed in mid-July of this year thanks to the building owner chucking them out for condo development. There are rumors of another location, but nothing has yet been finalized. What a shame.

Your Cultural Orientation

What makes the HotHouse easily one of the best live music venues in the city is not the impressive variety of cutting-edge music from all over the world, or its being one of the coolest, most attractive and most comfortable places in which to see said music, or even the inexpensive cost of the shows as part of its not-for-profit operation – rather, it's all of the above combined with an atmosphere completely devoid of pretension. Think of it as a nuevo-Green Mill type of place. Add to that its regular hosting of art openings, films, and forums and the HotHouse is not just a "bar" or even a "performance arts venue" but rather one of the leading cultural institutions in the city, rivaling that of even the Chicago Cultural Center. After its genesis in Wicker Park, the HotHouse re-opened on May 7, 1998 downtown and since has arisen like a phoenix. Not even the recent setback of a temporary shutdown by the city because of arbitrary application of arcane licensing laws could prevent the HotHouse from going strong. As such, the HotHouse should be considered as a regular joint for local jazz and world music lovers, and a must see for anyone visiting our fair city. Personally, it has become one of those places that I am sure to bring any visitors when they're in town.

The Journey

HotHouse is located at the southwest corner of Wabash and Balbo, just east of the heteroclite South Loop Club. Considering the current state of bar activity in the area (read: minimal at best with the notable exceptions of Kitty O'Shea's in the Chicago Hilton and Towers, Buddy Guy's Legends a few blocks away and the Velvet Lounge further south), the HotHouse has become the crown jewel of the South Loop. A tasteful dark brown awning with the bar's fiery logo emblazoned upon it humbly extends out towards the street from a two-story, red-brick façade, which is rather modest compared to what you'll find inside. To get there, you can take the Red Line to Harrison, the Brown Line to Van Buren, the Blue Line to LaSalle, or the Orange Line to Adams. If you take the El, keep in mind that the South Loop is still fairly sketchy so try to make the trip with someone. If you're ambitious, you can drive down and try to find some parking on the street. If you can't find street parking, there is a pay lot called 7th Street Garage that is located at 710 S. Wabash that costs $8 with the purchase of a HotHouse ticket (you can get the coupon from the box office or from the staff). My recommendation: take the El down and grab a cab home. I usually try to avoid the El at night when it's after 10pm and I'm alone or in a small group. Once you have arrived, just step through the plate glass entryway and you're in... the HotHouse.


Upon entry, you'll find a foyer choc-a-bloc with fliers for upcoming bands at the Chicago Cultural Center and the Velvet Lounge, art displays, and students displaying their talents in a plethora of ways on bulletin boards and on a table. A wide staircase covered with linoleum, with a crystal chandelier above it and redish/orangish painted walls on either side upon which brightly colored sea-urchin/jellyfish-like things are painted, leads up to the 8,000 square foot space where all the action takes place. At the top of the stairs and on the left, you'll find a doorman sitting in front of a series of African tribal masks and sculptures recessed into white-painted square cutouts in the wall. There, you will be carded and given a wristband if over 21. Admission ranges from $7 to $25 but can usually be found in the more affordable $10 to $15 range. Whatever the amount, admission is paid to one of the nice people sitting being the wooden desk, located just inside the entrance to the performance space and across from a seating area filled with Myanmarese-like art and sculpture. Students are permitted entry at half-price and members can get in free. Membership levels start with "Spark" for $40, which entitles members to three pre-designated member concerts per month, and go up to "Inferno," which basically means you have free reign over the HotHouse (VIP invitations to everything, including the ability to meet the performers, and your name inscribed on the "Wall of Heroes"). More importantly, whichever level you choose, the HotHouse expressly states, "Everyone is welcomed to become a member of HotHouse."

"HotHouse is the most beautiful room in the city."

Chicago Magazine

The Hall of Music

As you step a little further into the "Red Room" at HotHouse, you'll find what feels like a gigantic loft. A huge, worn wooden floor stretches between the island bar area in front of you and over to the right, separating the stage from the seating area across from it. Even with a black drop ceiling, the hot-painted reddish-orange walls stretch about 20 feet high. While there are some seats at the bar, you'll want to grab a booth or table in front of the band. A smattering of low-slung wooden tables can be found on the main floor, the closest which comes about 10 feet from the stage so that there's room for dancing when the mood strikes (and it likely will). A brown-painted partition/retaining wall separates the tables from surrounding 1940's-style red velvet booths on a carpeted landing a few steps up. These enclaves stretch along the northern and eastern walls and lie up against large windows that soar all the way to the ceiling. Between the glass, you'll find a series of frameless paintings, and an intriguing variety of large, free-standing potted plants and table lamps. Candles and track lighting throughout the room also contribute to the HotHouse effect. While the booths are normally very comfortable, the windows are very drafty in colder times so make sure you bring a sweater or something heavy you can wear with your jacket off. The eastern set of booths is the designated refuge for non-smokers. Because the room is big and airy, both cigarette and cigar smoking are permitted, with some of the ashtrays in the northern booths so big that you could make a burnt offering, perhaps that of a squirrel, pigeon or other urban animal, if you like the performance well enough. In my opinion, the Best Seat in the House is the booth located directly to the right of the sound booth along the eastern wall. From here, you can you take in a fantastic view of the 311 S. Wacker building and the Sears Tower with the Orange Line El silently running past every 10 minutes in the foreground, with its sparks flying it's the type of view they always try to get into the movies. All in all, there is seating for up to 300 people. The holistic effect of the comfortable and relaxed atmosphere at HotHouse led me to once again make what turned out to be another unsuccessful attempt to get my girlfriend at the time to buy me a gong stand (because the gong itself was actually given to me be a previous girlfriend after "relieving" her office of it). But I digress...

"From European avant-garde jazz acts that don't even play in this hemisphere to performance art to world music to the city's more esoteric acts, [HotHouse] has consistently pulled in some of the planet's most provocative acts."

– Best of Chicago, NewCity

Class is Now in Session

Both tables and booths offer great sightlines to the slightly elevated, large wooden stage where the musicians take up their places. Above which hangs a giant mural that features a black man looking like a combination of Don King and Poseidon playing the trumpet – kind of like a God of World Music, the kind of which the Greeks and Romans could never have imagined. Performances at the HotHouse are a direct result of "progressive cultural programming" (read: an adventurous booking policy), and cover such eclectic musical styles as mambo, blues, acid jazz, flamenco, folk, samba, rock, fandango, big band jazz, cabaret, charanga, traditional jazz, and African dance. While the variety at HotHouse can't be beat, they tend to focus on such intriguing specialties as Afro-Caribbean beats, Latin dance, and Asian Jazz, thanks to some of the regular performers like Burhan Öçal and the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble, Kahil El Zabar, and Yoko Noge's Jazz Me Blues. Shows generally start between 6pm and 9pm. Every group featured at the HotHouse is part of their philosophy to "focus on local, national, and international artists whose work would otherwise remain under-recognized and isolated," which helps further the ultimate goal of widening of the cultural market place in Chicago. I personally saw the Damian Espinoza Quartet ($8) recently, which was quite good even though one of their songs sounded like a car in the process of running out of gas and dying – to me, it just goes to show that when you see shows like this, you've got to take what you like with what you don't in order to appreciate the whole experience (this does not apply, however, to Irish acid jazz). Top international performers spice things up to supplement regular acts, which is one reason patrons become members. In addition to "normal" bookings, the HotHouse participates in several noteworthy festivals, including: the Chicago Jazz Festival (held annually); the Women of The New Jazz Festivals (1991, 1994, 2000), which highlights the contributions of women composers and instrumentalists; the World Music Festival (1999-2002), which brings over 90 internationally renown artists to Chicago in a ten day festival located in venues throughout the city; the Chicago/South Africa Initiative (2000), which brought eight jazz musicians to Chicago from South Africa to perform in several settings with locally based jazz musicians; and Viva Flamenco 2002, consisting of a 15-day multimedia festival showcasing Spanish and Gypsy music and dance featuring artists invited from Spain. The HotHouse also plays host to a smattering of theatre, performance art, poetry, comedy, and the occasional talent show with jugglers and acrobats. On Tuesday nights, the Hot House is often rented out very cheaply for various events that frequently feature free wine and cheese; I once dated a girl who described to me how she lived for a year on free wine and cheese at events like these.

"I should have some [stories] especially from the HotHouse – other than the Latin Jazz musician who peed in a bucket in sight of people on stage and the Argentine singer who wanted us to score downers for her and was so nervous that she needed a container on stage to barf in. I am thinking that my stories usually are about good or rally bad tippers, cleaning up vomit, pasties falling off at burlesque shows, staff squabbles, run-ins with my ex-boss. Oops - I remember one about Jorge Ben Jor performing at the HotHouse. He had a just played in L.A. and didn't want the audience getting up on the stage. I said fine, one security guy one each end on the dance floor. Jorge was so happy to be playing with the audience so close in an intimate atmosphere (he's played on a high up platform in on the beach in Rio to millions) that at one point he said (in Portuguese, which of course none of us understood) that he wanted all the beautiful women to get up on the stage. Luckily his manager knew what was up and was able to signal security. Jorge said it was one of the best times he ever had a one of his shows. And, I'd say it is in my top 5 shows I saw there."

B.P. (June 23, 2007)

Catalysts for Music Appreciation

While you're taking in a sampling from the potpourri of entertainment offered at the HotHouse, service can be a little weak. Hey! It's a non-profit and you're legs aren't broken so head to the bar for your drinks if you haven't seen your waitress in awhile. There is a large island bar, described by some as, "understaffed and overpriced, but classy," located at the west end of the Red Room that is surrounded by a hodgepodge of barstools. Behind it, you'll find glasses hanging inside wooden shelving shaped like pillars and the following ales on tap: Rolling Rock ($3 thank you, Local Option), Goose Island ($4), Guinness and Stella Artois (both $5 not exactly cheap but don't worry about it). There is more in bottles including that fetid, frustratingly popular "beer" known as Heineken, which tastes like a the latter half of a skunk on a good day. After seeing someone make the mistake of ordering one, a friend of mine and I were given pause to reflect on our opinion that almost no beer that comes in a green bottle is worth passing your lips, including even Molsen (Golden), Dos Equis and Moretti – all of whom have fantastic alternate versions. Moosehead and Mickey's Big Mouths (especially with its novelty value) may be considered exceptions. Regardless, the HotHouse also has a full spirits bar. Contrary to popular belief, the house drink is not the mojito (made with light rum, fresh mint, sugar, and club soda), but rather a libation known to regulars as the "HotHouse Flower Martini," made with light rum, cranberry, splashes of pineapple and orange juice, and coconut milk. Drink specials are offered daily and are selected to coincide with the music at hand. Even though a sign at the downstairs box office proclaims: "The HotHouse reserves the right to enforce a two-drink minimum," I don't think this is even monitored unless you try not to order anything. For you cheapos out there, just buy a couple of Cokes and remember that all revenues go to bringing even better music to the HotHouse for you to see. After imbibing some or all of the above, the spacious bathrooms can be found at the very west end of the second floor, past the bar and through the gallery. One note about the men's bathroom at HotHouse: it is surprisingly pleasant and nicely decorated, especially with the huge sunflower sticking out of a purple vase. If all of this leaves you a little peckish, the HotHouse does not serve food but they openly recommend that you can bring food (Thai Spoon, Harold's Chicken, AP Deli, and the South Loop Club are all located close by).

"Even if one has simply stepped in for one of these libations, décor alone does not allow one to forget that HotHouse is first and foremost, a Mecca, if you will, of artistic and musical diversity. The bar has been an oasis of sorts where racial, financial and political tensions are relaxed."


A Respite in the Gallery

If you're on your way to the restrooms or simply need a break from the action, make sure you duck into the cool, yellowish/green-painted gallery at least for a few minutes. The gallery is another large room, though smaller than the Red Room, that features works from local artists – all of which is for sale. I once saw an interesting exhibition there in February 2003, called "An Exhibition Celebrating the El." These works featured paintings of the El and the room itself hosted weekly performances by El musicians. Such events in the gallery take place on a small stage at one end and can the room can easily accommodate a couple hundred folding chairs.

The Student Body

Patrons at the HotHouse consist of a crowd almost as diverse as the performers. Older members tend to come for the jazz and blues performances while the Latin community frequents shows by their brethren. Students in the area from Columbia, Loyola and the Art Institute can get in for half-price and come for all manner of concerts, as does the international hostelling crowd, many of whom stay at the nearby J. Ira & Nicki Harris Family Hostel on Congress Parkway and work at the HotHouse on a volunteer basis. There is no dress code at the HotHouse, but most people, "express themselves with a dramatic and stylish flair to be fashioned appropriately for an evening out at a nice place," as is recommended by the establishment. While people tend to dress nicely, you'll find a refreshing lack of pretension. Faux-jazz and blues connoisseurs, poseurs and the leather jacketed crowd tend to keep to their jazz clubs, blues tourist traps and piano bars of the River North and Gold Coast areas. People that love music, appreciate a relaxed-yet-refined atmosphere and are savvy enough to have heard about it come to the HotHouse. This is all part of the HotHouse's belief that such performances should be made available to all economic classes. The result is that the place is usually hoppin' and it's an ideal locale for a date or for entertaining guests, particularly after a meal at the nearby Italian Village Restaurant in the Loop or Won Kow in Chinatown (I once had an order of sweet and sour chicken there that was so good I almost cried).

The Economics Behind the World's Finest Music

As far as I understand, the HotHouse is the only non-profit bar in the city that I know of, with the possible exception of the Old Town School of Folk Music if you want to put both establishments in the same category. The HotHouse didn't start that way, however. In 1987, the HotHouse was founded as a for profit center for a broad range of multi-arts and community based activities, including those organized by The Center for International Performance and Exhibition (CIPEX). In 1995, the board of directors of CIPEX decided to formally become a wholly non-profit organization and change the name to Center for International Performance and Exhibition doing business as "HotHouse," and, thanks to a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation, relocated to its current Balbo location.


The HotHouse was initially located at 1569 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park in what used to be a welfare office. At that time, HotHouse was decorated with Weeds-like flea market chic and outrageous artwork. The music featured was a subset of HotHouse's current programme, consisting primarily of avant-garde jazz, salsa, African music and even poetry with musical accompaniment to patrons sitting on folding chairs. The Official Chicago Bar Guide in 1994 went on to note that HotHouse was a "hotbed of Cuban-American activism" back then as it frequently held benefits to "help the people of the embargoed island." After working through some financial difficulties, which led to the space being transformed from its earthy predecessor into the Blue Note (now just, "The Note" thanks to threats by Blue Note Records), the HotHouse moved to its present day locale. Even though it is more sophisticated, the HotHouse has stayed true to its roots by continuing to attract an impressive array of superb and eclectic artists from around the world for only a modest charge to the public. As a result of their successful rebirth, the HotHouse now hosts 800 events a year and reaches an audience in excess of 48,000 people annually. A total of 5,000+ cultural and socially relevant events have been held since the HotHouse began at its original location.

"The stream of international talent that graces this space is nothing short of astounding."

– Mark Loehrke, Centerstage Chicago

Mission and Obstacle

Even a non-profit organization, such as the HotHouse whose priority is to develop audiences for locally unknown musicians that may never have mass commercial appeal, can incur the wrath of His Holiness Richard M. Daley and the City of Chicago. On May 9, 2003, the HotHouse was stormed and shut down by undercover police after being cited for allegedly operating with the improper license by Chicago Department of Revenue. The sold-out Orquesta Aragon performance was cancelled and all 240 patrons were evacuated by the cops. The city claimed that the HotHouse's license was limited to "theatrical community events" with the sale of beverages only permitted prior to performances and at intermission. Why was the HotHouse shut down after being in business for 14 years? Why were they shut down instead of giving them a deadline to comply? Why was it shut down in the middle of a performance? Only The Shadow knows... Fortunately, cooler, more sensible heads ultimately prevailed and the HotHouse re-opened 20 days later when the charges were dismissed after the HotHouse voluntarily applied for several new licenses (including a Public Place of Amusement License and Tobacco License and Tavern License). Because of the financial hemorrhage this caused due to lost revenues (17 canceled shows) and lower attendance even after they reopened caused by public confusion regarding the current status of the place (estimated to be around $100,000 or one-tenth of their annual budget), the HotHouse is accepting online donations over their website. Perhaps the city would do better going after the explicit illegality of ticket scalpers and brokers in Wrigleyville or the numerous Lincoln Park bars that regularly exceed capacity restrictions, rather than focusing on shutting down some of the most influential performance venues in the country such as HotHouse and the dearly departed Lounge Ax.

Magna Cum Laude

While Pilsen and Ravenswood have supplanted Wicker Park and Bucktown as the new, trendiest scenes for live music, art galleries and hipness in general, the South Loop should not be forgotten thanks to the HotHouse. Other performance venues like the Old Town School of Folk Music, Metro, the Green Mill, and the Empty Bottle all excel in their musical offerings, but none of them even comes close to the variety, creativity, and intrigue of bookings the way HotHouse does every day. All of the above do, however, keep their prices down to very affordable levels and offer very comfortable environments in which to enjoy traditional and cutting-edge music. For more information on the grand and spacious HotHouse, upcoming concert listings there or to become a HotHouse member, be sure to check out the HotHouse website. Viva, HotHouse!

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