Walter Klein Jr., 1950-2010: Former owner of Vic Theatre
By Trevor Jensen, Tribune reporter
February 1, 2010
The enduring image of Walter Klein Jr. may have been etched the night
Steppenwolf played the Vic Theatre, the Lakeview concert venue he owned
for almost 20 years.
As the band kicked into its signature tune, "Born to Be Wild," Mr. Klein
rolled out of the wings aboard his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Smiling
widely, he revved the massive machine's engine, filling the auditorium
with acrid blue smoke. The crowd went bananas.
"It was awesome," said Cher Woodman, who worked in the Vic's box office
for more than 20 years. "It was an opportunity for him to do something
cool. So he did it."
A good-natured hell-raiser since his days at Barnard Elementary School
in the city's Beverly neighborhood, Mr. Klein, 59, died of liver cancer
Thursday, Jan. 21, at his home in Tucson, Ariz., said his brother,
Thomas. He had long held business interests in Tucson and split time
between there and Chicago.
Mr. Klein got into the bar business in the early 1980s when he acquired
a stake in Tuts, a rock club on Belmont Avenue. He subsequently took an
interest in the West End on Armitage Avenue near Racine Avenue.
With his brother handling day-to-day details, Mr. Klein turned the West
End into a venue for punk bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the
"The night life, the partying, hanging out with celebrities, at that
point he's like, 'Hey, this is all right,' " said his brother, a
musician in groups including Spies Who Surf and Liquid Soul.
He set his sights on a dilapidated theater on Sheffield Avenue around
the corner from Tuts. A once-elegant theater and vaudeville house built
in 1912 with Italian marble and mahogany chairs, the Vic had fallen into
disrepair. It featured pornographic films for a time, then
Spanish-language and Indian movies.
There were several feet of water in the basement, and the owner was
"glad to get rid of it" when Mr. Klein and a group of partners acquired
it around 1983, his brother said.
Mr. Klein's vision was to make it a "rock 'n' roll mecca," said his
wife, Sharon. He enlisted a long list of contacts to make that happen.
"It was one of those 'Hey, I know a guy' deals," his brother said. "We
got our friends from the South Side to help paint. He'd know someone who
sold carpet. We'd take whatever he had extra."
The Vic reopened in October 1984 with a concert by Juice Newton. Roy
Orbison and Alvin Lee followed, and the Vic was soon firmly entrenched
on the city's music circuit.
On nights when no one was booked, the Vic was leased to a group that ran
Clubland for the dance crowd. Mr. Klein also started the popular Brew &
View series, combining cinema and cocktails.
"The Vic was his life," Woodman said. "He was so entertaining, always
Mr. Klein exhibited a passion for mischief from an early age. Thomas
Klein was five years behind his brother at Barnard.
"The principal looked at me and said, 'Oh, no, not another one,' "
Thomas Klein said with a chuckle.
After Morgan Park High School, Mr. Klein joined the Marines and was
shipped off to Vietnam. At the U.S. base in Da Nang, he reconnected with
a buddy from the Morgan Park neighborhood, Jimmy Smith. Even in a war
zone, Mr. Klein could create good times, Smith said.
"You knew if you went out with Walter, it was going to be a fun and
dangerous evening," Smith said.
Earlier in his life, he had been a raucous drinker. He once drove his
motorcycle into 1000 Liquors at Belmont and Sheffield, sending glass and
bottles flying. ("We knew the guy who owned the place. He thought it was
funny," his brother said.)
But Mr. Klein, who sold his interest in the Vic about nine years ago,
had been sober for many years and helped many others with their own
personal issues, Woodman said. He helped almost 200 children get
surgeries to repair cleft palates through contributions to the Smile
Train and was a soft touch for panhandlers on the street.
"Walter always just had the biggest heart," his wife said.
Mr. Klein's previous marriage ended in divorce.
He is also survived by a son, Walter III; a daughter, Bianca Ballard; a
sister, Shirley Ann Ennuso; and a grandson.
A memorial service is being planned.
Copyright ï¿½ 2010, Chicago Tribune