The Saga of Punkin Donuts
Original Article By Leor GalilI've always wanted to know more about the relationship between Punkin' Donuts and Chicago's alternative subcultures. In big scene retrospectives, it comes up rarely, and then usually as a curiosity. Punkin' Donuts didn't help incubate a scene with a distinctive sound, a recognizable fashion sense, or a cast of characters well-known to outsiders, unlike some of the city's clubs and record shops. Nobody owned it or organized the gatherings there. The closest thing it had to authority figures were the Dunkin' Donuts employees, who mostly tolerated the teens loitering outside—even the ones who never came in to buy anything.
Its nickname notwithstanding, Punkin' Donuts wasn't just a place for punks. While you could reliably find kids in leather jackets, punk T-shirts, and Mohawks there, the shop also attracted lots of other folks from outside the mainstream: house-music fanatics, antiracist skinheads, trans women, skaters, drag queens, industrial-music fans, goths, runaways. In the 1980s, the intersection of Clark and Belmont was one of the busiest in Lakeview, an easy walk from a constellation of music venues and clubs as well as from Boystown's booming Halsted Street scene. The Dunkin' Donuts operated 24/7 in those days, and because it admitted people under 21 (unlike most bars and clubs), anyone could hang out there, without regard to whether more conventional nightlife attractions were even open.
"Punkin' Donuts was kind of a landmark more than anything else," says punk lifer Marc Ruvolo. "You would get to that area and you'd be, like, 'Oh, we're gonna walk by Punkin' Donuts and see who's there.'"
Ruvolo formed local punk band No Empathy in 1983 and fronted it till it split up in 1997—a span that overlaps significantly with the heyday of Punkin' Donuts. In 1989, he cofounded the crucial Johann's Face Records label, which in the '90s would release music by the Smoking Popes and Alkaline Trio. In the 80s, Ruvolo says, most local punk shows were small—they might draw a hundred fans if they were lucky. Punks didn't have many places to congregate in large numbers. "Punkin' Donuts, I would say, became a beacon," Ruvolo says. "A place where you could go and find like-minded people. And really, in Chicago, it was difficult. It was difficult in the midwest."
Punkin' Donuts became a phenomenon because of the places it was near, and though those places have left a more traceable imprint on Chicago's culture, the scene at Punkin' Donuts supported them. At its peak in the late 1980s, Punkin' Donuts developed an almost symbiotic relationship with two Lakeview destinations: juice bar Medusa's, a hub for punk, house, and industrial music, and punk emporium the Alley.
Chicago promoter Dave "Medusa" Shelton threw his first party in 1979 at storied dance club the Warehouse, and he booked Warehouse regular Frankie Knuckles to DJ. "Frankie and I were best friends," Shelton says. The following year, Knuckles started spinning at parties Shelton threw at 161 West, a club named after its address on Harrison Street. Shelton is a white man, but in those early days he threw parties for primarily queer Black crowds.
While he was building up his name in the scene in the early 1980s, Shelton happened to walk past a former Independent Order of Vikings lodge at Sheffield and School. "This guy had put a handwritten note on the door, 'For rent,' and I walked in there and I rented it," he says. "That was it." Shelton turned three stories of the building into Medusa's, which opened in October 1983.
Veteran DJ Val Scheinpflug went to Medusa's its opening weekend and quickly became a member—she says her membership card, which got her in at a discount, is number 20. "I felt so at home," Scheinpflug says. "I instantly loved everything about it. The decor, the darkness of it, the music, the size of the dance floor, the fact that that's what it's about—the moment you walked through the two double doors, there was nothing else to do there but dance. It was just a giant dance floor."
In 1983, juice bars weren't required to close when bars did, because they couldn't sell alcohol. This freed Shelton to create the after-hours club of his dreams. "We would open at midnight and go to 10 AM," he says. That schedule drew wee-hours crowds from across the metropolitan area, who converged on Medusa's when other clubs closed. "All the partiers in Cicero, all the partiers in the 'burbs, all the partiers on Rush Street—they wanted to still hang out, so they would come to us after hours," Shelton explains. Sean Duffy, who'd founded production company Last Rites in '83 and started booking punk bands at Exit the following year, used to travel two miles north to Shelton's club after Exit packed it in for the night—and in 1987 he started bringing live music to Medusa's too.
Medusa's didn't just cater to dancers. Shelton invited local artists to build installations, and a team of video jockeys experimented with visuals on the venue's third floor. As Chicago scene historian Jacob Arnold wrote in a 2013 retrospective for Resident Advisor, the primary DJs during the early years of Medusa's, Mark Stephens and Neo regular Bud Sweet, introduced the club's patrons (and each other) to an eclectic variety of dance styles. Their sets featured house, industrial, new wave, Hi-NRG, funk, electro, and more, which helped draw a diverse crowd open to all sorts of subcultures. "Medusa's was the first place where everyone could be themselves," Shelton says. "It wasn't all about jocks and cheerleaders—freaks ruled the roost there."
In 1984, Medusa's began bringing in live music, hosting many of the same industrial acts that were the bread and butter of scene cornerstone Wax Trax! Records—including Belgian EBM pioneers Front 242, making their U.S. debut. Red Hot Chili Peppers played Medusa's in November of that year, and Ruvolo recalls seeing local art collective Family Plan open the show, performing experimental music behind a chicken-wire fence. "They were up there and they were chopping the heads off of live chickens and letting them run around behind the chicken wire," he says. "Standing beside me was Anthony Kiedis—he was shirtless, he had a leather jacket on, and the leather jacket had porcelain teacups in the shoulder straps, which made it all the more surreal. He looks at me and he goes, 'What the fuck is going on?'"
Admission was usually restricted to people 18 and up, but at the behest of promoter Jonas Lowrance, Shelton launched teen dance nights in 1986; kids under 18 could get the Medusa's experience, initially on Saturdays from 7 to 10 PM. Punkin' Donuts regular Fred Ingram was 15 when he first went to Medusa's in the mid-80s. "The fact that I was able to get into a nightclub was really exciting," he says. "It didn't matter who you are, or what you are, or what you wanted to be—it was allowed, accepted, and actually encouraged."
Scheinpflug had been a Medusa's regular from the start, and after she began to spin records herself in the mid-80s as DJ Psycho-Bitch, she played a couple of the club's teen nights. "Some of my DJ peers would give me a hard time: 'Oh, you're working for the kiddies,'" she says. "What they failed to realize is, that's our future. Those kids, when they turned 21, believe me, they looked for me and came where I was playing. That was my future, and that's what kept me going—that had a lot to do with why I'm still DJing now." The teen dance nights also helped Medusa's stay afloat after a City Council ordinance in 1987 forced juice bars to follow regular bar hours. Alderman Bernie Hansen, who from 1983 till 2002 oversaw the 44th Ward (where Medusa's was located), cosponsored the proposal. According to a 1986 Tribune story, Hansen had introduced the proposal because juice bars attracted boisterous crowds that upset residents; among those who addressed the City Council in opposition were Scheinpflug and Wax Trax! cofounder Jim Nash.
In October 1986, Tribune reporters Barbara Mahany and Steve Johnson visited Medusa's to document its burgeoning teen dance scene. At curfew, which their story says was at 10:30 PM that night, they followed a crowd of teens outside and took a five-minute walk southeast—and at its destination, they wrote, "The exodus turns the asphalt lot beneath an orange-and-pink Dunkin' Donuts sign into a playground of punk."
Before Punkin' Donuts, punks gathered about a mile away, in a sliver of a park owned by Aetna Bank at the intersection of Halsted, Fullerton, and Lincoln. The Wax Trax! record store, just northwest at 2449 N. Lincoln, was a big draw, so the few Chicago punks around in the early 80s reliably ended up at the Aetna park. "That was infamous for punks to meet," says Gustav Roman, a founding member of 1980s hardcore band Lost Cause. "That's where people met who were different—you'd see goth people, older rockers, and all sorts of other walks of life. That was somewhere that you can hang out and not get chased by the cops."
Sean Duffy's girlfriend at the time worked at Wax Trax!, so he was around to see the punks gathering in the Aetna park—and he noticed when they eventually moved on to Punkin' Donuts. "They used to drink all the time and left trash, and that was their downfall," he says. "A block away you had houses that were worth a ton of money—nowadays they're worth millions of dollars—and those people carried influence with the alderman and the cops. I think when they finally shut that down, I want to say a lot of those people started gravitating towards Belmont and Clark."
Punkin' Donuts didn't just attract folks from the Aetna park and Medusa's. Many regulars spilled out of other nearby venues: Tuts, a small rock club at 959 W. Belmont, had hosted an up-and-coming Bruce Springsteen in its previous incarnation as the Quiet Knight, and in 1987 it was replaced by the Avalon. Queer cabaret-inspired "video bar" Berlin opened in 1983 across the street from Tuts at 954 W. Belmont. Less than a mile north, you could see punk shows in the early 80s at Cubby Bear and Metro, some of them booked by Duffy. Punkin' Donuts pulled in characters from all those places, creating what Roman calls "a weird mix of family and fun."
Teenagers dominated the Punkin' Donuts parking lot because they had so few other places they could go at night besides Medusa's teen parties and the occasional all-ages show. Plus many of them couldn't have afforded to go club-hopping even if it'd been an option. "I had an off-again, on-again relationship with money in my teenage years—that was one of the driving forces of the decision-making as to what might happen on any given night," says Joliet tattoo artist Adam Leavitt, who hung out at Punkin' Donuts regularly in the late 80s. "There were nights where collectively we'd get enough money together between six or seven people to get a case or two of beer and walk straight up Belmont Avenue to the lake, and sit at the lake and drink until three in the morning."
Leavitt says he didn't have a steady group at Punkin' Donuts, but he spent a lot of time there with a few friends, including Fred Ingram and Adrian Padron. He'd known Padron (who he's pretty sure introduced him to Punkin' Donuts) since they were little, and his old buddy certainly looked the part. "I was really into punk rock at the time—I had a green Mohawk, piercings, wore a lot of leather," Padron says. "People used to call me Astroturf when my 'hawk was shorter, 'cause it was dyed fluorescent green."
Punkin' Donuts was a haven for Riverdale native Scary Larry, who's fronted psychobilly band the Gravetones since 1997. In the mid-80s, when he discovered Punkin' Donuts, he had a bright red Mohawk, and he'd already found the south suburbs inhospitable to his efforts to start a punk scene. "I would walk down the street, on my block, and people would grab their kids and bring them in the house," he says. He remembers townies chasing him in a pickup truck, screaming homophobic slurs. For Larry, Punkin' Donuts was home. The sheer size of the young crowd at Punkin' Donuts made it important even to older punks who didn't share a need for that social space. "Some nights we'd go by there to flyer on weekends," Duffy says. "I was thinking, 'Shit, if I can get all these kids to come to my shows'—there must've been 100, 150 people—'I would really do well.'" Some of the teens did show up for Duffy's gigs, and a few even ended up behind the scenes—he'd hire them to work security or load in gear.
Medusa's video jockey Leroy Fields befriended some young regulars who also frequented Punkin' Donuts. "I'd go there and they'd be hanging out, and I'd sit there and talk to them," Fields says. "I got to know them pretty well—they all seemed to be pretty interesting young people. I enjoyed talking to them, listening to them, and seeing what was on their minds and what was going on with the youth of the day." He got to know Ingram well enough that he'd sometimes ask him to bring back coffee and doughnuts during the break between the club's teen night and its adult hours.
Fields had good reason to care what punk kids thought. He'd established connections with record label promotions people, who provided him with giveaways for Medusa's young attendees (music, concert tickets) and new videos to play for them. He'd gauge their tastes with new material, figuring out what they liked so he could better cater to them or challenge them. "We would play a lot of bands that kids liked—PiL, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Cure, New Order," he says. "Pixies, which is a band I made them like."
Teens looking for somewhere to go before or after Medusa's would spread out across the area between the club and Punkin' Donuts. The elevated CTA tracks a half block east of Medusa's, from School south to Belmont, provided some cover for underage drinking, though hanging out there wasn't as safe as sticking to the parking lot. "It put you in an actionable position because that was trespassing on CTA property, and a train would come through occasionally," Leavitt says. "That was a spot that frequently—especially right behind Medusa's, the skinheads would meet and drink. That was a point at which they had four different avenues of escape, if the cops were to come up."
Police weren't much of a deterrent, according to Dwayne Thomas, a Black antiracist skinhead who hung out in the Belmont corridor. "Friday night, at Dunkin' Donuts, that was the landmark," he says. "People would be skating around, or we'd go get 40s and stand in that parking lot and drink until we got kicked out of there or the cops came and said, 'You guys gotta go.'" No matter how many times they got cleared out, Dwayne and the Punkin' crowd always came back. "We didn't care," he says.
Scary Larry sometimes stayed out so late around Belmont and Clark that he'd just find an unoccupied building to sleep in, somewhere in the neighborhood. "Around that time, a lot of those houses were being redone, a lot of those three-flats—so sometimes we'd go to one of those places and hang out there," he says. "I crashed out in a few of them back in the day."
Punkin' Donuts attracted homeless teenagers too. In the late 1980s, Padron ran away from home and lived on the street for a year. "I spent most of my time around there," he says. "There was a broken-down van a little bit west of Sheffield and Belmont that kids would rotate sleeping in, so I knew a lot of people around there just from living in that area."
Ingram describes the group at Punkin' Donuts as a family. He grew up with a single mom who struggled to make ends meet, and his friends at Clark and Belmont helped him navigate his teenage years. "I fit right in," he says. "We looked out for each other. If you were hungry, you were fed. If you needed a place to crash, it was provided. If you needed protection, so to speak, from outsiders that were giving you a hard time, you could find it there. It was a place where we were able to learn certain values that otherwise might not have presented themselves in such a way that we had support, social support, around us."
The family would change in 1986 with the arrival of the Alley.
Back then the Alley sold poppers, but as authorities stepped up crackdowns on the recreational use of alkyl nitrites, Thomas shifted his inventory away from typical head-shop fare toward punk clothing lines and merchandise—he wanted to avoid anything that even looked like drug paraphernalia. A Michigan-based screen printer who'd been selling T-shirts to the Alley dissolved his business, liquidating a punk store he owned—and Thomas saw an opportunity. "He was selling Boy of London, Black Rose, and all these different brands that I knew nothing about," Thomas says. "So I bought the store, and that gave me all the sources. I started bringing all the merchandise into the Alley."
Thomas's shift toward punk occurred as AIDS ravaged Chicago's LGBTQ+ community, which affected the Alley too. "Gross sales had fallen 40 or 50 percent in six months," he says. In 1986, after closing the Woodfield Mall location, Thomas was forced to vacate the Alley's Broadway store. He'd had his eye on the Clark and Belmont intersection, and the teens who hung out at Punkin' Donuts were a big part of the draw. The space he found was a garage that opened onto a cobblestone alley, rumored to be a favorite spot for addicts looking to shoot up. In some ways, though, the location was perfect—it was off 858 W. Belmont, near Punkin' Donuts. "My gross sales quadrupled overnight," Thomas says. In the Alley's first year in an actual alley, it made close to $1 million.
Thomas worked with Punkin' Donuts teens to drum up business. "I would hire three or four of the wildest kids with the biggest purple, pink, yellow, green Mohawks," he says. "I would say, 'Hey, want to make ten bucks tonight? Stand right there at the head of the alley and hand out flyers.'"
Ingram became an employee at the Belmont location within a couple years of its opening. "Working at the Alley at the time, it was a good way to get chicks," he says. "It's like, 'That guy works at the Alley.' 'Oh really? Oh wow.' It was a big deal to other people." At Medusa's teen parties, Alley shopping bags became as ubiquitous as bags from the Wax Trax! store. Fields remembers teens at the club asking him to keep an eye on them while they danced.
Thomas began to cultivate the nickname "the Mayor of Belmont." He'd hang out at the Punkin' Donuts parking lot in the hearse he'd bought to haul merchandise for his shop. He took it upon himself to monitor the crowds in an effort to ensure that his potential clientele stayed out of trouble. "I was a 350-pound monster of a man, and if I walked up to you, grabbed you by the scruff of your neck, and said, 'You gotta go,' 'You're going to jail,' or 'I'm gonna beat your ass,' you did what I told you to do," he says. "I kept the lid on the corner of Belmont and Clark."
Alderman Hansen noticed, and asked Thomas to keep an eye on the neighborhood around the intersection. Thomas says they would meet early in the morning a few times per week to talk shop; Hansen would ask his aide, future congressman Mike Quigley, to get Thomas coffee and a bagel from Punkin' Donuts.
In 1988, Thomas began planting offshoot shops in empty storefronts nearby. Architectural Revolution, a furniture and decor shop for folks with tastes that ran toward punk and goth, opened at 3226 N. Clark; a lingerie and sex-toy store called Taboo Tabou opened at 854 W. Belmont. During its 90s peak, Thomas's Lakeview empire included six shops, counting the flagship Alley location. He also formalized his role as neighborhood caretaker in 1992, when he cofounded the Central Lakeview Merchants Association.
By the mid-90s, the Alley was a symbol of Lakeview's counterculture, though by then the grunge boom had mainstreamed punk to the point where it was only barely counterculture. As the neighborhood gentrified, so did punk.
When Punkin' Donuts was at its peak in the mid- to late 1980s, Lakeview had a rough reputation. "It was still kind of hairy," says Dwayne Thomas, a Cabrini-Green native. "People were like, 'Ooh, that area is kind of crazy.' It was, like, gangbangers, drug dealers, hookers, transgender people. It was a huge melting pot." In the punk crowd around Belmont and Clark, antiracist skinheads rolled deep. "That was our area—we felt normal in that area," Dwayne says. "People in my neighborhood didn't dress like that and didn't listen to that type of music. I saw people who dressed and believed in the same things I believed in—they had the same type of convictions. We fought the same kind of causes."