The 25 Year Story of Chicago’s Largest Nightclub

NOTE: One year ago marked the finale of the largest, longest running nightlife project I’ve been involved with.  This is my personal recap and remembrance from closing week, January 2015.  The thoughts are mine and do not necessarily represent the official views of ACE or its owners.

I’D LOVE TO HEAR YOUR STORIES OR MEMORIES OF OUR CLUB IN THE COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG OR AT MY FACEBOOK PAGE TIMTHEBARGUY, THANKS! — Tim

“To sustain longevity, you have to evolve.” – Aries Spears

In the last week of October 1989 (about 1 month after Avicii was born), Excalibur Nightclub opened in downtown Chicago. This past weekend was the finale of a 25 year run under the same ownership and management. The club owners sold the real estate to a major developer, so now it’s closing time for Ala Carte Entertainment at this unique and historic castle-like location. ACE will now proceed with developing 4 new locations set to open in the coming year, in addition to their 20+ established locations.

A handful of well-operated bars, restaurants and concert halls can last generations, but pure nightclubs (large dance oriented, sound system/DJ driven venues) are only as good as last week’s party. They tend to resemble a flame that burns hot and dies fast. Longevity is the hardest thing to achieve in the nightlife business.

The majority of nightclubs strike like a match, flaring up to light a cigarette or a couple of candles. Alive only a year or two, most clubs rapidly burn out, having contributed briefly to the nightlife pageant. A few of those matches start a fire that burns and warms the night for a while; five years is a good run for a nightclub. These clubs host the fuzzy party memories for each wave of 20 somethings. A select handful of nightclubs blaze for 10 years or more, providing a beacon to multiple generations of clubbers. These are the places people call “legendary.”
But the nightclub at 632 N. Dearborn was one of an elite group of clubs in the world, going strong for 25 years, providing jobs for thousands, entertainment for millions of people from Chicago and all around the world, and like any big fire, it burned a few of us now and then.

“Nobody goes there, it’s too crowded.” – Yogi Berra

Excalibur was never trendy, yet it evolved constantly through the years.  It opened in 1989 as half dance club and half “barcade” with 10,000 square feet of bar games including an indoor golf simulator. Funny that 25 years later in 2014 barcades are a hot trend once again.
Chicago’s hipsters and self-styled A-listers over the years chose to judge the multi-club complex solely by the first floor Cabaret, which was tourist and party oriented, playing mainstream dance music for a diverse group of average Joes and Janes out to celebrate birthdays, company events, conventions, marriages, end of the work week, and visits to the Big City. There was a piano bar for a while, that evolved into “comedy you can dance to,” with performing MCs involving the crowd in games and stunts. Yes, the first floor could be cheesy, but it was always fun and welcoming to all visitors. Not many clubs can say they successfully threw a wild party 7 days a week across 2 decades.
Beyond the first floor, hundreds of thousands of clubbers found radically different entertainment environments to explore inside this 40,000 sq ft complex. While the giant Excalibur sign was out front for most of the 25 year run, inside was a ever changing series of themed clubs within a club. In the 90s the most prominent “sub-club” was “The Dome Room,” home of bondage nights, cutting edge bands and hard core industrial music. From 2002-2012, EDM Nightclub “Vision” occupied the biggest 2 club rooms, more than half of the total space in the Excalibur building. Vision brought nearly every internationally known DJ to Chicago, and featured the Chicago debut of stars such as Calvin Harris and Armin Van Buuren, and superstar sets by Tiesto, Paul Oakenfold and Paul Van Dyk to name just a few. Nearly every respected DJ played the Vision space over 10 years, and the club was acclaimed internationally for its bookings, sound system and crowd.
Excalibur and all its “sub-clubs” definitely hosted the most diverse crowd in the history of Chicago nightlife. All ethnic groups had frequent theme events in the various club spaces, including Hispanic, Greek, Russian, African-American, Indian, Asian and many others. There were also frequent LGBT events.

In 2012, the building needed a major remodel after nearly 25 years of hard partying, and the decision was made to freshen things up with a new name and concept for the building, thus Excalibur was retired and The Castle opened March 1, 2013, focusing on expanding the EDM standard set by Vision, with the ever reliable Cabaret format continuing to bring the party on the first floor as it had from Excalibur’s opening day.

“The few who do are the envy of the many who only watch.” – Jim Rohn

Through all those parties and themes, there were a few consistent keys to the longevity and success of Excalibur and all its sub-clubs:

  • First and foremost, a welcoming atmosphere of friendly down to earth customer service, year in and year out, from an excellent staff.
  • The absolute best professional club management, operations and security, constantly perfecting systems to make the club safe and enjoyable for all. A unique strength of Excalibur management was the operational skill to avoid neighborhood and city problems. Incredibly, in 25 years there was never a major negative incident. Bad security and community relations are two of the biggest shortcomings that cause nightclubs to fail.
  • Developing multiple streams of business, including private events, quality casual dining, special interest promotions, live music, ethnic specialty entertainment, bachelorette parties, charity events, community/political events, and multiple entertainment theme events. For many years, Excalibur was the largest non-hotel private event space in Chicago, booking millions of dollars annually in social and corporate events.
  • Constantly changing and updating music formats and entertainment to appeal to a wide range of tastes from mainstream to cutting edge, and hiring the best DJs and MCs.
  • State of the art sound, lighting and video systems, upgraded on a regular basis.  Castle’s main room sound system technology was named Best in the World in 2014.
  • Frequent promotional events that were innovative, entertaining and tied in with current audience interests.
  • Regular redecorating and re-theming of the various clubs within the building.
  • A consistent corporate level management team over the years, very low turnover at the highest levels of ownership, operations supervisors, marketing and entertainment management.

What’s next for the historic building at 632 N Dearborn in Chicago? A major Las Vegas club in Chicago? A giant arcade bar that harkens back to 1989 and the opening of Excalibur? Another progressive EDM megaclub? Whatever comes next, 25 years as Chicago’s largest and most successful club will be a hard act to follow.

Cheers, with appreciation and gratitude to Fred and Mark Hoffmann, the owners, and everyone involved in this phenomenal success story!
— Tim Borden, “TimTheBarGuy” @tbchicago1

In 1989 I was the 20-something “head DJ” of the 5 unit bar group that bought the Limelight, which was larger in size than all of our bars combined at the time. After a year that almost killed everyone in the company, Excalibur opened, and luckily it worked! Then, as Ala Carte Entertainment expanded to over 20 locations, I served as Director of Marketing and Concept Development for all ACE locations through the 1990s until 2006. Since 2006 I have been a consultant to Ala Carte Entertainment, managing their beverage programs and special projects, including consulting on concept development of the Castle.

NOTE: I plan to add more posts with personal stories about the club and the 90s nightlife era.  Please subscribe to the blog to get notification on those posts.

— Tim

2 ex buildings
The building at 632 N Dearborn in the early 1900s and as “The Castle” in 2013.
Timeline of the Landmark Chicago Building that became
Chicago’s Most Successful Nightclub
1896 – 2015

1896 – The Chicago Historical Society building is completed and dedicated. The building is designed by renowned Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb and replaced the old Historical Society building destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
1931 – After 35 years, Chicago Historical Society moves to the Lincoln Park location it occupies today (renamed Chicago History Museum).
1931-1984 – The old building variously housed a magazine publisher, The Loyal Order Of Moose, Chicago Institute of Design and recording studios. It was vacant in later years.
1985-1988 – The Limelight nightclub operates for 3+ years in the building, the first Chicago megaclub. (Many Chicagoans say they remember “partying at the Limelight,” but you have to be at least 48 years old in 2015 to have been in there at age 21).
1989 – Fred Hoffmann purchases the Limelight and undertakes a breakneck 10 month, multi-million dollar remodeling that doubles the floor space in the building.
October 1989 – Excalibur opens to the public, featuring the Cabaret, “Club X” dance club, a restaurant, and large game rooms, capitalizing on the late 80s trend of high energy arcade nightclubs such as Baja Beach Club.
Early 1990s – Due to its unique space and exciting atmosphere, Excalibur rapidly develops a healthy private event business, becoming Chicago’s busiest non-hotel private event space, in addition to the booming nightclub business.
1990-1995 – The trend of megaclubs with multiple dance and party environments explodes after the opening of Excalibur, with Shelter, China Club, Crobar, Kaboom, Cairo and other megaclubs dominating the nightlife market. Excalibur becomes a favorite location for live radio broadcasts, TV coverage and celebrity appearances.
1991-1993 – Excalibur hosts official Chicago Bulls Championship parties hosted live by the Bulls players, with more than 5,000 attendance each year of the first Bulls Three-Peat.
1995-1998 – For the second Bulls Three-Peat, Excalibur again hosts the official Chicago Bulls Championship parties with more than 5,000 attendance each year.
1995-2000 – Megaclubs fall off in popularity, all closing other than Excalibur. Lounges and VIP oriented smaller club spaces start to dominate. Excalibur launches “The Dome Room” industrial alternative club, that is successful for several years. Later Excalibur subdivides into new variety of entertainment formats, including “Aura” in the Dome Room in cooperation with alternative radio station Q101. At first Aura features Q101 Alternative Rock music then gradually includes a mix of Trance and other early EDM as progressive dance music begins its rise.
July 1999 – Prince visits and falls in love with Excalibur, playing an unscheduled concert in the main club. He visits the club many more times over the next few years, and occasionally gives short performances.
2000-2002 – Excalibur is still profitable and popular on the first floor level and with private events, but after more than a decade, the larger dance club rooms start to fade. Raves in unlicensed spaces have their boom period, pulling business from dance clubs before being outlawed in 2003.
2002 – Vision Nightclub debuts in the building, featuring major International DJs and upcoming EDM artists. Opening night July 2002 features Paul Oakenfold.
2002-2012 – Vision occupies 2 out of the 3 main club spaces in the Excalibur building and becomes the dominant concept. Excalibur continues on the first floor and for private events and theme parties.
March 2013 – Entire building is remodeled with new world class sound system and re-launched as Castle. Excalibur name retired after 23 years.
2013 – Attracted by a booming downtown real estate marketing and the newly remodeled club, Castle owners receive an offer to buy the real estate and newly remodeled club for 12.5 million. Castle remains in the building for year 2014 and new owners opt to take possession of the building in January 2015.

Photo credits:  JenniferCatherinePhotography.com

Castle purple outside night

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9 thoughts on “The 25 Year Story of Chicago’s Largest Nightclub”

  1. Past 5 years the club was attracting trance fans only. There was no array in music choices. Previously they had techno pioneers, tech house, progressive, house, electronica dh’s and producers. It makes sense why it has closed since it was catering to only one group of people

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    1. Thanks for the comment – most of our Vision crowd would argue that it was not only trance, but true it was probably most experimental right when we launched Vision and even in the Aura days prior. Got more commercial along with EDM over the past 10 years.
      It is not correct that the club closed due to lack of business – it was an opportunistic real estate play. The club made money from opening day til closing and was never in any financial trouble.

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  2. This is misleading. The space was used as 5 different clubs. It should be titled “The 25 year story of Chicago’s largest nightclub space.”

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    1. Thanks for the comment – That’s true and it’s mentioned in my story that there were many themed clubs within the club. But it was always same ownership and management, particularly the operations staff, and same service staff for entire building. We did whole clubs like most would do theme nights.

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  3. It’s not technically correct that you had to be 48 to have “partied at the limelight” I’m not 48 and I went to several teen club events there and trust me… there was partying going on.

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  4. Oh lord do I remember Kaboom! Can’t believe it closed. Went there with my bestie in 1992 or so. We drove down from Minneapolis. She’s black and I’m white and people looked at us like we were crazy. I was shocked at how segregated Chicago was! Must link back to the stockyard strikes and union scabs. That still runs deep with Chicago families of both white (Irish, Slavic, Eastern European, etc) and Black (Dominican, African, etc) heritages.

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    1. One of the lesser known distinctions of Excalibur is the crowd was more ethnically diverse than any other club in Chicago. You’d see every ethnicity in there each weekend on the main floor, and literally every variety of ethnic promoter did specialty events in our space. I think the diversity was one of the hidden strengths that kept Excalibur going for 25 years!

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