Hideout’s not so hidden anymore

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on September 23, 2004.

How long does it take to find the Hideout? These days, many fans of indie rock and alt-country know exactly where the Chicago bar is. It may be located on a side street surrounded by warehouses and old factories, without any real sign out in front identifying itself, but it’s practically a beacon for people seeking out interesting live music in friendly confines.

It wasn’t so easy to find a decade ago. Just ask the nightclub’s current owners, Tim Tuten and Jim and Mike Hinchsliff, all of whom grew up in Glenview, and Tuten’s wife, Katie Nicholson, a Mount Prospect native.

They spent some seven years seeking the Hideout.

Nicholson had heard about it from her father, who sold stone for a living. He would talk about this little bar near some steel factories somewhere in Chicago, where’d he go to work out business deals.

“He would never tell us where it was located,” Nicholson says. “He used the name ‘the Hideout.'”

Nicholson, Tuten and their friends thought that was just her dad’s nickname for it. It became a quest for them to find this tavern where workers drank beer after their factory shifts. They couldn’t find it in the phone book, and no matter how many alleys and back streets they explored, they never seemed to come upon it.

Then one day, Nicholson saw an old frame house with a beer sign in a window on Wabansia Street, across the street from a U.S. Steel plant, a couple blocks west of Elston Avenue, a few blocks south of Armitage Avenue. She walked in and saw one of her father’s business acquaintances sitting at the bar.

“I threw the door open, and there was Mr. Shaugnessey,” she recalls. “And he said, ‘Oh no!’ I called up Dad and said, ‘You’ll never guess what I found.'”

The Tutens and the Hinchsliff brothers — who are identical twins — quickly fell in love with this hole-in-the-wall, and it wasn’t long before they were talking about buying the place.

Thus began the Hideout’s transformation from the most obscure of steelworker drinking spots into a hip musical venue where Billy Corgan and the members of Wilco have been known to hang out. The White Stripes played on the Hideout’s small stage before they were big stars. And, Nicholson says, “Rumor has it that Bono was here, but didn’t stay because the security was too lax.”

The Hideout has been mentioned in national publications, including Fortune, which cited it as one of three cool places in Chicago that business travelers should check out if their flights at O’Hare are delayed. Nicholson recalls saying, “We’re in Fortune Magazine? This dump?” Since then, the bartenders have noticed a few suit-wearing exec-types showing up.

This weekend, the Hideout hosts its eighth annual block party, an outdoor festival of music, which now stretches across three days. Raising money for charities, more than 25 bands will perform on a stage on Wabansia, right in front of a fueling station and maintenance facility for Chicago municipal vehicles.

You can expect to see Tuten (which rhymes with “button”) onstage, enthusiastically introducing bands like a Beat poet or throwing out a political spiel. The Hideout’s highly visible frontman, Tuten also turns up frequently at other Chicago nightclubs, emceeing anti-nuclear benefit shows or just enjoying the music.

He’s been demonstrating that showman’s flair ever since he was a kid. The Hinchsliff twins recall Tim’s first day at Lyon School in Glenview, when he showed up in fourth grade, transferring from Our Lady of Perpetual Help School. When the teacher called on Tim to read, he followed Catholic school protocol and stood up with his book in his hands.

The teacher warned him, “If you do that again, you’ll get kicked out,” Jim Hinchsliff recalls, but Tuten persisted with his habit of standing up. Tim, Jim and Mike remained pals as they attended Springman Junior High and Glenbrook South High School.

“I was the student council guy, and these guys were the athletes,” Tuten says. “I was horrible at football.”

Tuten’s early work experiences included bartending at Grandpa’s Place in Glenview. While some of the nearby North Shore suburbs were dry, “Glenview had great bars,” Tuten says.

That helps explain how these guys ended up in the bar business. They emphasize that these bars were gathering places for the community. “They were bars, but they were more than bars,” Nicholson says.

As much as they enjoyed working and hanging out in taverns, these four knew they needed other careers.

So Tuten studied education, and he has been teaching social studies in public schools for almost 20 years, mostly in Chicago, moving this year to a curriculum job. He says his philosophy about teaching in Chicago has always been: “These kids in the city, they deserve a Glenbrook South High School.”

Jim Hinchsliff works as a financial planner, and Mike Hinchsliff sells paper. Nicholson is currently devoting most of her time to working at the Hideout, but she has worked as a lobbyist for social-service agencies, including a position with Catholic Charities.

While working in those various jobs, the four enjoyed seeing live rock music at Chicago nightclubs. Tuten recalls dreaming about the idea of owning his own club.

After they finally discovered the Hideout’s address and began frequenting the joint, Tuten recalls saying, “God, wouldn’t it be great to have live music in the back?”

They learned the bar had been operating since 1934, in a house that appears to have been constructed in the 1890s.

“It was always ‘the Hideout,’ but never had a sign,” Nicholson says.

“Back in the day, this place was hopping,” Mike Hinchsliff says.

With a schedule built around the work weeks of the local laborers, the Hideout closed at 8 p.m. and wasn’t open on Saturdays or Sundays. As the nearby factories shut down one by one, the bar’s clientele thinned out, though it still had a community feeling to it.

Tuten, Nicholson and the Hinchsliff brothers talked with the couple that owned the Hideout, Phil Favia and his wife, Eleanor “Chuckie,” about buying it someday. Later, when Phil Favia died of cancer, his wife decided she was ready to retire. On Halloween 1996, the new team took ownership.

One of their first moves was to make sure the bar’s loyal customers from years before would still feel welcome.

“The regulars took one look at us and said, ‘Oh, great. Another yuppie bar,'” Nicholson says.

So they kept on a bartender who had been there 22 years, Sam Grazzafi (who has since died). They continued opening the bar early in the day for the old-time patrons.

After a time, the bar’s old regulars were mingling with the newcomers. Nicholson recalls marveling at watching a steelworker who had immigrated from Poland chatting for half an hour with a trendy Museum of Contemporary Art employee.

Meanwhile, they were building a stage in the back room for live music. As the bar was torn up for renovations, Tom Ray — a former member of the Bottle Rockets, who was then playing in Devil in a Woodpile, an old-timey blues-country combo — happened to wander in one day. Soon, Devil in a Woodpile was playing regularly at the Hideout.

One of the Hideout’s first musical shows featured country singer Robbie Fulks. A friend of the bar’s owners knew Fulks and asked him to play.

After that, other musicians who knew Fulks and Devil in a Woodpile began showing up. The Hideout built a reputation as a new home for Chicago’s growing alt-country scene, including bands such as the Waco Brothers. The club has become well-known even though it doesn’t advertise for any events except its annual block party.

“We never advertise,” Jim Hinchsliff says. “That was our marketing strategy — don’t tell anybody.”

Many of the local rock scene’s leading figures, including singers Kelly Hogan and Neko Case, have taken part-time work as Hideout bartenders. (We said they were leading figures, not rich rock stars.) So many musicians have been on the payroll that the Hideout’s music-playing employees teamed up for an album, “The Hideout Workers’ Comp CD,” released in November 2003 on Thrill Jockey.

Although the Hideout is inextricably linked with that region of music variously known as cowpunk, alt-country, Americana, roots rock, No Depression or insurgent country, its concert schedule is more wide-ranging than that.

The music room — where Christmas lights strung across the ceiling’s exposed wooden beams, candles on the tables and gold-colored curtains behind the stage create a warm glow — has been filled with the sounds of punk, folk, blues, rock, jazz and hip hop.

“Reggae — that’s the only kind of music we haven’t had here,” Nicholson says. “We’ve even had puppet shows.”

The secret of the Hideout’s musical success? “We stuck with the music we really loved,” Tuten says. “We don’t have just any band.”

“The room, acoustically, is dynamite,” Mike Hinchsliff says. “And it was built as a dining room.”

“It sounds good because it’s a reflection of the bands,” Tuten says. Referring to the sound equipment, he adds, “They told us what to get.”

The Hideout’s block party has grown bigger each year, drawing 4,500 fans last year. It’s designed to be family-friendly, with activities for children during the day on Saturday. “The bands get weirder as it gets later,” Tuten says.

After eight years of running the Hideout, the owners still look on the experience like a fun adventure from their childhood days in the suburbs.

“Kids used to make forts,” Tuten says. “We looked at this as a fort or a clubhouse.”