The Baton Show Lounge might be one of the few businesses on its stretch of North Clark Street—between Hubbard and Grand—that were there years ago. Surrounded by new developments, including upscale restaurants, boutiques and chain stores, the Baton and its owner/founder, Jim Flint ( photo by Samual Worley ) , are institutions of a gay life in Chicago intricately tied to the city's history.
Established in the era of Stonewall, a survivor of the 1980s HIV scourge and the immense pressures of gentrification, the Baton celebrates its fortieth anniversary this week with new shows and appearances by old performers who have used the space to hone the art of "female impersonation." Returning performers include Kelly Lauren, Chanel Dupree and Cezanne, representatives of each decade that the Baton—one of the oldest venues of its type nationwide—has been in business.
Flint is a native of Peoria, Ill. After a four-year stint in the Navy—during which he was a drum major and, yes, twirled a baton—he returned to Illinois. While working in an intensive care unit in a Waukegan hospital, Flint visited Chicago and, as he told Windy City Times, "fell in love" with the city.
Professing to a history of bartending experience he didn't have, Flint persuaded the owner of the Annex bar to give him a job. Flint also worked at the Normandy Bar on North Rush Street and at Sam's before opening the Baton. Located at 436 N. Clark, Flint said that is was a "very shady neighborhood" in which he established his business in March 1969.
But it was also, he said, a "gay mecca" of sorts, with a clustering of gay bars and gay life in high density. It was also the kind of neighborhood where one could get away with Flint's style of advertising: He recalled putting on a dress and a pair of roller skates, and twirling his baton to stop traffic on Clark Street, hoping to divert business into what was then called the Baton Club.
The concept that would eventually come to define the Baton—nightly performances of "female impersonation"—did not coincide with its founding. After an underwhelming opening, with only a few customers each night for the first few weeks, Flint had to devise something to set the bar apart from others. "I asked three of my friends to dress up" as women, he said. He did, too, and together they "packed the place."
It never went back to being simply a bar, though Flint did change the space to better accommodate performance—at first, performers stood on a stage cobbled together with beer cases and plywood. The Baton gained national attention—and continues to hold it, really; Flint's roster of celebrity visitors who constantly attend shows is impressive—when Chicago Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet brought Phil Donahue to a show in 1972. Donahue proceeded to feature the Baton—Flint as well as his performers—on his talk show at least a half-dozen times. The Baton has also been featured on shows by Oprah, Maury Povich and Sally Jesse Raphael, among many others.
Celebrity visitors to the Baton include Chris Farley ( who tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Jim Flint to dance with him ) , Janet Jackson and Madonna, who Flint said nobody recognized: At the time she was filming A League of Their Own and had black hair.
Though much of Chicago's gay nightlife has since moved north to Lakeview, the Baton retains its original address. The clientele, Flint said, is diverse: up to 70 percent straight on weekends and more gay customers on Sundays, by his count. Part of the pleasure of the business, he said, is in welcoming "a different clientele every night." The Baton hosts a lot of bachelorette parties, a "favorite tradition," according the its Web site, "to celebrate the bride's last night of freedom."
Flint described the clientele of the Baton as "everyday people from Chicago," and, with these everyday people, he has been recognized for his contributions to civic life: The Chicago City Council established a Jim Flint Day on July 25, 2001, by a vote of 15-0. Profiled at length in last year's Out and Proud documentary on WTTW, Flint is a longtime community activist who is involved in Democratic Party politics, various gay-rights issues and athletics. He is one of the founding members of the Windy City Athletic Association, an LGBT sports league.
At 68, Flint displays no interest in slowing down. "It's just too much fun," he said.
Perhaps Flint's most lasting contribution—as well as his most high-profile one—is his establishment of the Miss Continental pageantry system, a nationwide competitive circuit for "female impersonators." When Flint established Miss Continental in 1980, many high-profile drag circuits prohibited contestants from taking hormones or having surgery, creating a de facto prohibition for many transwomen. Miss Continental has no such ban.
The pageantry system has since expanded to include a Mr. Continental, Miss Continental Plus and Miss Continental Elite.
The Baton will celebrate its 40th anniversary with special events March 18-22; see www.thebatonshowlounge.com .