When Will Duncan bought FitzGerald’s nightclub in 2019, he was unaware of the tumultuous set of circumstances he’d be greeted with – a pandemic that would force the temporary closure of in-person entertainment at his newly-acquired music venue.
Before buying FitzGerald’s, Duncan worked downtown but lived in the western suburbs. Involved in the local music scene, he would pay visits to the venue on his way home from work, eventually falling in love with the place.
Since the age of 19, he worked in the live music, restaurant and bar industry and knew that he’d eventually want to run the show himself. Five years ago, he learned that FitzGerald’s was for sale and decided to turn a dream into reality.
He found the property itself to be special and knew it was time to embark on his entrepreneurial journey.
“Just that campus feel of the three buildings next to each other with the large open area in between – like a courtyard – just made me fall in love with the property and realize the tremendous potential,” Duncan said.
He believed he could bring some fresh energy and use every inch of the property to the fullest extent.
It was his unwavering confidence in FitzGerald’s potential that led him to take the plunge and put his life savings into the project.
“I decided to throw my eggs in the basket,” Duncan said.
Initially, despite mandatory COVID-19-imposed shutdowns, Duncan said he wasn’t too nervous despite the odds being against him.
He spent about 18 months discussing the transfer of ownership with the FitzGerald’s family to ensure the seamless transition. Miraculously, the Berwyn club didn’t close a single night during the transition. With the deal going through just days before the pandemic struck, he said it caught him a bit off guard.
His creative instincts kicked in. In response to the COVID-19-imposed closure, he and his staff created a livestream format called “song for song,” which brought in two musicians – each in their own home – and sometimes hundreds of miles apart.
“We were able to present a split screen, where the musicians could interview each other, ask each other questions, take turns doing songs, have conversations about the songs they did and kind of go back and forth,” Duncan said.
Another initiative during the pandemic, which was conceived by Jessica King, owner/marketing manager at FitzGerald’s, was a pickup truck concert series. An artist would perform on the back of the truck while it was driven around the neighborhood to people who requested a visit from the traveling concert.
“It was almost like a mini block party,” Duncan said.
Duncan bought the establishment from Bill FitzGerald, the club’s founder, and immediately was presented with unforeseen circumstances, but with Duncan’s quick adaptability, it resulted in lasting changes for the better.
FitzGerald said he was happy with the changes he saw, adding he was impressed with the use of the outdoor stage.
Despite the challenges Duncan faced early on, FitzGerald said he was impressed with the initiative taken to make changes through the pandemic even with mounting uncertainties.
“Over these last couple of years, they expanded the courtyard, which was huge for them, as well as the outdoor stage and the opening of the restaurant,” FitzGerald said. “It was a tough thing to do, but they thought, ‘Let’s just go for it.’”
FitzGerald thought the expansion of the sidebar was a “gutsy move” as well.
One thing that’s remained the same since FitzGerald’s inception is the name.
“They told us that they were going to keep the name,” FitzGerald said. “We were pretty proud of that and maybe a little surprised, but why not?”
Focusing on the positives, Duncan said the pandemic wasn’t necessarily a negative experience for his business.
“We’ve become a little bit of a seasonal business in the sense that the outdoor concert experience that we sort of created as a response to COVID mitigations in 2020 really stuck,” Duncan said.
The new on-site restaurant – Babygold Barbecue – features an impressive menu, cocktails and other drinks, but is also known for its ambiance. Patrons can listen to free live music six nights a week on the outdoor patio stage.
So far, this summer has brought with it the return of the critically acclaimed American Music Festival, which drew large crowds over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
“I would say that it exceeded my expectations,” Duncan said. “There was a lot of pent-up demand and excitement and a lot of enthusiasm for the return of the festival after such a long time.”
One of the longest-running independent music festivals in the country, it attracted an array of talent, including Son Volt, Rebirth Brass Band, Alejandro Escovebo and the North Mississippi Allstars, to name a few.
Cody Diekhoff, also known as “Chicago Farmer,” has been performing at the festival for multiple years and said he noticed changes to the place under the new ownership. He thought the new patio and side stage were a nice touch adding there’s a completely remodeled sidebar as well.
With change, there also were plenty of nostalgic feelings of the past.
“Every time I’ve been there, even though it’s changed hands, there’s still been quite a few old-school faces hanging around,” Diekhoff said.
The first time he performed at FitzGerald’s he said he thought the sidebar was small, estimating that only up to about 40 people could fit in it comfortably. Now, he said it’s like a whole different venue.
Gary Cleland, a longtime patron of FitzGerald’s who now works there, said he was impressed with the entire space of the property being used under Duncan’s ownership. He also raved about Babygold Barbecue.
“If you start at the restaurant alone, they decided to add a barbecue place which is excellent,” Cleland said.
He added he thinks the patio is now used in an incredible way with three servers providing options for food and two bartenders, which has enticed many to come out and enjoy a nice day listening to music.
Cleland also was impressed with the renovation of the sidebar, especially with the added space.
“It’s an incredible performance space and a little bit more intimate for the musicians performance-wise,” Cleland said.
Another change brought along by Duncan was introducing a second music fest, Berwyn Blues Festival, which debuted in September 2021. This year’s festival will take place from Sept. 23-25.
“Our hope is to really just grow what we’re already doing,” Duncan said.
While times have obviously no doubt been tough, the revival of live music – and in-person dining – has helped catapult the establishment back into the bustling nightclub it once was.