CHICAGO — If you thought laundry just meant cleaning clothes, think again. Wash-and-dry is magical in Chicago and musical in Tennessee. The uber-hip bar scene is drinking it up. And from the streets of Manhattan to the peaks of Montana, it’s making quite a fashion statement.
The Laundromat is being embraced like never before. Not just by those needing to wash, but also savvy marketers looking to make a splash. This once unassuming neighborhood institution finds itself being branded in surprising ways.
A TRUE SPEAKEASY
Coin-op cool dates back to Phil Akin, who blazed a trail in the 1980s by catapulting laundry onto the social scene with his iconic Duds ’n Suds franchise. More recently, Peter Rose’s Sunshine Laundromat & Pinball in Brooklyn pushed all the right buttons by making some coin at both washers and games.
Unlike Akin, Rose took his entertainment behind the scenes, riding the wave of laundry-inspired speakeasy venues — some with running water, some not.
At the Chicago Magic Lounge on the city’s North Side, co-founder Joseph Cranford had something up his sleeve when he unveiled his club last year. Yep, the old coin-op trick.
“The original concept of our theater was to have a guest experience that included a little misdirection from the start. We went to Manhattan and studied the speakeasy trend and fell in love with the idea of a faux facade business on the outside,” he says. “Since our project is about resurrecting a lost history of Chicago entertainment, we decided to push all in and place our history project inside a facade that spoke to the history of the building.”
Above the sidewalk near the front door hangs what appears to be a coin laundry calling card: a sign depicting a modern commercial washer.
“A true speakeasy doesn’t let you know what it is from the outside,” Cranford explains. “Do we put the name in big letters or do we have more fun with the public by creating a place you just have to know what it is in order to find it? We opted for the latter.”
Step inside Chicago Magic Lounge’s checkerboard foyer and showtime is preceded by wash time. Clothes toss about in working stack machines and fill a wire cart. The detergent bottles and vent pipes — right down to the wall-mounted bag vender — have all the trappings of a storefront laundry.
Architects and interior designers fashioned the creative workspace as a tip of the hat to the previous occupant, TenderCare Laundry Systems, which operated a commercial linen service from the light industrial space. Adding coin-op gadgetry helped open the door to engineer the lounge’s secretive entry.
When it first debuted, the mock laundry was manned by an actor, but later replaced with surveillance cameras. Cranford admits some clubgoers approached the challenge to gain access with “a bit of an escape room mentality,” tugging at loading doors and pushing all manner of controls. One even triggered a response from the fire department after setting off an active alarm.
“People absolutely love it,” Cranford says of the laundry trickery. “We’ve stayed clear of having press show how to open it, or what it looks like when it opens, so the mystery is preserved for everyone who comes in.”
It’s best to leave your sack of dirty clothes at home. Patrons stop in for the entertainment, not the equipment. Chicago Magic Lounge delivers close-up magic, delectable small plates and old-school cocktails served up in plush surroundings.
You won’t find any classic Blackstone washers at work here, but rather illusionists who mesmerize audiences just like Harry Blackstone did decades ago.
It goes without saying that nightclubs have little in common with coin-ops. Yet a trio of venues is selling the soap without really selling any soap.
DON’T BE FOOLED
San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood is now home to Young’s Kung Fu Action Theatre & Laundry, a new haunt where action movie posters and infinity mirrors set the mood. Take it all in from the lounge’s rotating couch while a bartender reaches for your favorite bottle hung from a drycleaning conveyor.
Over on the East Coast at Hop Sing Laundromat in Philadelphia, you’ll need lots of quarters to sip a cocktail. Don’t expect to drop your drawers at this swanky speakeasy-style bar, just plenty of cash.
Be sure to leave a decent tip when paying the tab at this Laundromat. Online reports mention a growing list of banned individuals maintained by the owner and keeper of the gate who sets down the house rules at this ultra-exclusive Chinatown lounge.
And then there’s The Laundromat, two hours to the north in Morristown, New Jersey. From the bold lettering out front, you’ll be tempted to unload the trunk and head on in to tackle the chore. Don’t be fooled: The row of Gen 4 washers on your right and 32DG stacks to your left are merely window dressing at this popular speakeasy nightspot.
Pick the right machine and you’ll find the party in the cavernous lower level bar that packs ’em in four nights a week with spirits, tasty fare and live bands.
Check back Thursday for the conclusion!
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Bruce Beggs at [email protected].