Twenty-five years ago, the Chicago Bears had just won the Super Bowl, the stock market was coming back from a multi-year recession, and big hair rocked. It was 1985, and Limelight, a premier nightclub in Chicago with a solid celebrity following, just opened.
On Aug. 22, the former Limelight, now Excalibur/Vision, celebrates its 25th anniversary, a tremendous milestone in the nightclub industry, with a Limelight 25th Reunion party. OK, so it’s not technically 25 years — Excalibur opened right after Limelight’s span in 1989, making Excalibur 21. Still, that’s an impressive run for a club in Chicago, and any club really, around the globe.
“The Limelight brought a new level of clubbing that didn’t exist in Chicago prior to its opening,” says Mark Hoffmann, co-owner of Excalibur. “It was that London, New York, Hollywood, international club scene, and it was the first nightclub in Chicago that charged a cover. That was unheard of in Chicago at the time.”
Owners Freddy Hoffmann and son Mark saw Excalibur through its 25-year marathon. While most bars and clubs in Chicago open and close within just a few years, Excalibur has reigned among the longest-standing spots. It’s also housed in one of the oldest buildings in Chicago, formerly home to the Chicago Historical Society, which was built in 1892 by architect Henry Ives Cobb after the Chicago Fire — and it’s said to be haunted.
“Being in business over 20 years is unheard of in this industry,” says Mark Hoffmann, sounding almost surprised by the milestone himself. “We’re literally the only castle in Chicago, one of the oldest privately owned buildings, and the largest entertainment complex in the city.”
It’s true, Excalibur’s known for it’s castle-like exterior – built of grey stone with arched ceilings and solid like a rock. The Hoffmanns opened its more modern neighbor Vision nightclub in the late ’90s as a place to host more live events and serve as the center for an international DJ and celebrity performer scene. Just this year, Rihanna, Prince and P. Diddy’s Dirty Money group performed, and the club regularly hosts major DJs such as Tiesto, Armin Van Buuren, Paul Van Dyk and Paul Oakenfold. “We also started the international DJ circuit in Chicago – Spundae,” says Hoffmann, adding that this touring group played off the words “spun” and “Sunday,” for the event.
And speaking of events, this is precisely how Excalibur has remained in business so many years. With a capacity of more than 3,000 and spanning 60,000 square feet, Excalibur and Vision are host to a number of corporate events each year, including those hosted by giants including PepsiCo, Bank of America, Chase and Estee Lauder. The club also regularly has major Chicago sports teams, including the Chicago Bulls, as well as other celebrities looking to use the secretive side doors and exclusive VIP rooms. “We have a secluded VIP space, a VIPP space, and a VIPPP space,” says Hoffmann.
But as a small, family business at heart, Hoffmann says the other key to Excalibur/Vision’s success has been catering exclusively to its core group of regulars. That means skipping cover charges, not charging in the double-digits for basic drinks, and looking to music as a way to drive crowds, as well as the fun factor. “Let’s just say we try not to be ‘penny wise and dollar foolish,’” says Hoffmann. “But we’re also constantly changing the facility – in this business we have to constantly evolve. If you stay the same in this business, you perish. We’re constantly putting money back in our company, finding new and fun ways to party.”
That’s meant several facelifts including new paint jobs, seating upgrades, lighting enhancements, and a welcome embrace to new technologies when it comes to sound systems, visual elements and other special effects. And Excalibur/Vision certainly has seen music through the decades, from hosting Nine Inch Nails, Korn and Violent Femmes during the birth of alternative, to helping out the New Age era with shows by Michael Bolton.
These days, in addition to its major events, the clubs also capitalize on weeknight events, such as hosting a Rocky Horror Picture Show event once a month as well as Rat Pack-themed events every third Friday as well as other themed affairs.
“We care about our customer base and have a lot of fun doing it,” Hoffmann says. “We are always trying to develop loyal customers and try to let them know we appreciate their patronage by giving them as much value as we can.”
The point of the Limelight Reunion party is to bring together some of the founders of the original club. But really, it’s happy birthday to Excalibur, now an old and wise 21-year-old, just of age to drink.