Will Duncan: The Legendary FitzGerald's

FitzGerald’s is much more than a legendary venue that, under the leadership of Bill FitzGerald and the watchful eye of Kate FitzGerald, was the first to present artists like Clifton Chenier, Marcia Ball, Pat McLaughlin.  It’s fans are legion, it’s concerts the stuff of legends, it’s wood walls and floors are equal parts roadhouse and roadside chapel. It is a sanctuary. 

Everyone has their FitzGerald’s story.  An encounter seared into the heart and mind.  A moment you refer back to time and time again, that reminds you of who you are, what you’re doing here on planet earth, and who you might become, falling in love with possibility in that raw moment of being alive.

Below, you’ll hear from Will Duncan.  Maybe you knew who he was before he bought FitzGeralds, from his work with Thalia Hall and other places, through his wife or kids, or just because you ran into him, a fellow fan, at one of your favorite shows.  He’s one of us.

FitzGerald’s went from being run by the FitzGerald’s family, to Will Duncan, literally hours before the C-19 pandemic changed life as we know it.   Where other businesses retreated, under his leadership, FitzGerald’s advanced.  Some presenters made a strategic business decision to only feature artists with big draws. FitzGerald’s doubled down on presenting our hometown heros.  Where others could not envision doing business in any way other than it had been done, FitzGerald’s flipped its successful, longstanding model on its head, moved to presenting outdoors, serving up gourmet roadhouse food and seasonal beverages equally suited for those who imbibe and those who do not.

Watching Will and his team that includes his wife Jessica King, a fellow visionary, talent buyer Donnie Biggins, PR maven Grace Jackson, and a crackerjack team of bartenders has been astonishing.  

With no further ado, Will Duncan.

"Do you recall Covid-19? I know it’s been 27 years since that pandemic poisoned the globe but I remember it like it was the day before yesterday. It was awful… and amazing. You may not wanna hear what a 67 year old club owner has to say about some dumb disease you don’t remember, but you picked up this magazine kid so read on why don’t you!? 

When I was a young (old?) new dad at the overripe age of 40, I pushed all my chips in and bought a club. The joint was pretty damn lived-in but DANG, you should have seen this place kid: in all it’s dusty corners and weathered walls, it was authentic beauty. FITZGERALDS had real character, an ethos y’know? And all around that magical property was this ring of people, a community of musicians, music lovers, artists, weirdos, shitheads, and geniuses. I found that first-sight kinda love. But like all types of love, mine here would be tested. 

I know you don’t remember the year 2020, but let me assure you that as of the third month of that crooked assed year, it was not a good time to be in the venue business. Still, I was the happiest I’d ever been and I wasn’t gonna let some quarantine-lockdown-stay-at-home order get between me and a good time, no sir. When I found out that the people of Chicagoland were gonna become sardines in their own cans, I figured I better figure out adaptation, and fast. So I turned to Donnie & Grace and said, let’s fuggin’ do this. And then I turned to my wife and said, how should we fuggin’ do this!? Have you met my wife? She’s real pretty and smart. What you really need to know though, is that we got right to it. 

eCommerce was a little newish back then so we had to figure that out, got some funny t-shirts on sale and online gift cards too. Remember that ring of people around the property I was talking about? Well dammit if they didn’t all hold hands and build us up. They bought our stuff and cheered us on. It felt like we meant to them what they meant to us. What’s better than that!? And that was just the beginning. 

Remember that smart wife I was talking about? Just a few days into this quarantine crap, she turned to me and said “what if you did like an ice cream truck kinda thing but with live music?” After a moment of quiet calculation, I said...well I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I couldn’t believe how cool the idea was and I felt I had the energy to pull it off. And I knew that Donnie and Grace, bless ‘em, were ready to make their mark as well. So we did that. And did it again. And kept doing it all damn summer, even after we got our patio open (the scientists said you could hang out together as long as you were outside) we kept doing it. 

And we had 200 shows in like 4 months, a bunch of these pick up truck concerts, some nice cocktails, and we made a whole mess of good memories. We wore masks all the damn time. And we couldn’t get close to each other. But we still had fun; there was live music everywhere. Oh, have I mentioned the staff!? 

Kid, we had the type of staff you dream about: good and caring people who love music and community and wanted to see the place thrive. I like to think they listened when I told ‘em: alls we gotta do is these three things and we’ll be ok: 

- over-deliver on quality. Everything we do has gotta be damn good, no shortcuts, no bullshit. 

- provide legendary hospitality: make our people feel welcome, 

- go the extra mile, surprise ‘em. Artists, customers, each other, everyone deserves great hospitality. 

- practice good finance. We gotta make money, and that’s ok. It feels a little funny when you say that kinda thing about art and community, but without an underlying financial stability we can’t have any of it. We just gotta keep these damn doors open so we can all keep coming here and feeling fulfilled. 

I think we mostly did that stuff and I think it mostly worked, and I KNOW we had such a wonderful summer on that patio. And that was weird, cause the world was real jacked up. But in our little mini world on FITZGERALDS patio, all seemed pretty alright. Of course, it couldn’t last forever… 

Winter came, in more ways than one. The damnedemic raged and the temperatures dropped and we retreated back to our sardine cans. At least it was the holiday buying season and we got all kinds of new merch and gift cards (again), and some really unique super exclusive experiences for sale. And once again, the ring of people all held hands around us and kept us afloat thru the cold season. And dammit kid: we made it. We fuggin’ made it. 

It’s been nothing but 27 years of pure success and joy ever since. If you haven’t ever considered buying a small music venue in the middle of a global pandemic, I’d recommend it. It’s right when you’re doomed to fail that you learn: with the help of your community, some genuine creativity and grit, you’ll be bursting at the seams with pride and joy. Just don’t forget to say thanks to all those people that helped, without which none of this story would be true." - Will Duncan

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