If you found yourself squeezing into Chet’s Last Call in the mid-1980s, you weren’t exactly looking for a comfortable night out. Situated a block or so from the old Boston Garden on Causeway Street, the grimy, no-frills club occupied the second floor above the Penalty Box, a dive bar reputedly frequented by wiseguys. Before it was Chet’s, the small room had served as a strip club and something called the Cosmic Disco.
To reach the place, you climbed a narrow staircase, often sharing the space with an offending customer making his hasty way down, involuntarily. Inside, the bands onstage sometimes played under a hailstorm of ceiling tiles.
Yet during its brief run — between 1983 and 1987 — Chet’s served as a home away from home for many of Boston’s rock ‘n’ roll bands, of which there were hundreds at the time.
“Chet never turned anyone down,” says Jerry Lehane of the Dogmatics. “Everyone played there. Obviously, there was a garage-punk feel, but there were also Grateful Dead cover bands.”
Lehane is one of dozens of seasoned Boston musicians who appear in “Chet’s Last Call: A Story of Rock & Redemption,” a documentary that screens in ONCE Ballroom’s “Virtual Venue” on Saturday. Earlier versions of the film have been shown over the past couple of years, including at the Woods Hole Film Festival, but the pandemic scotched plans to screen it more widely in theaters, says co-director Dan Vitale.
The film is dedicated to the memory of several veterans of Boston’s live-music scene who helped make it happen, including Vitale’s brother and co-director, Ted, a longtime stage performer and director based on Cape Cod who died last May at age 56, and C. Gail Hodges, better known by her alter ego, Tontileo Lipshitz, who died in early February at age 64.
It’s also a tribute to “Chet” himself. After abruptly closing the club, Richard Rooney, a short, stout man from the Charlestown projects, reverted to his given name and got himself clean and sober. He spent the last decades of his life working as an alcohol and substance abuse counselor.
Upon the news of Chet’s death in late 2015, Dan Vitale — frontman for the long-running ska band Bim Skala Bim — helped organize a two-night tribute at JJ Gonson’s ONCE Ballroom in Somerville.
“It was a big lovefest, a good Irish wake,” recalls Vitale, speaking on the phone from his home on the Panamanian island of Bastimentos. Footage from some of those performances and backstage interviews appear alongside archival clips and grainy photos to tell the sordid but sociable tale of Chet’s Last Call.
The club occasionally hosted touring bands, notable among them Hüsker Dü and the young Beastie Boys. But it was almost exclusively a playground for Boston’s fertile live performance scene of the time. Members of the Zulus, Classic Ruins, Pajama Slave Dancers, Dogzilla, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, among many others, check in to reminisce about how they misspent parts of their crazy youth at Chet’s. The Neighborhoods’ Dave Minehan relates a story about the time Chet saved his life from a group of street punks by brandishing a golf club.
“It’s probably the most Boston musicians ever in one film,” says Vitale. “Amazingly enough, after 35, 37 years, a lot of the bands are still playing out.”
Lehane, speaking on the phone on the way to a socially distanced rehearsal with the Dogmatics, recently released a solo EP he recorded almost 30 years ago, on Rum Bar Records. He recalls one night when he stopped by Chet’s after catching U2 at the Garden. The band onstage had an unprintable name.
“I’ll never forget,” he says. “They were awful.”
Like his nightclub, Chet himself “was a little rough around the edges,” Lehane recalls. “But he had a big heart.”
If you had a band, he’d find time to let you play.
“He just wanted to help people,” Lehane says. “I think it changed him for the better.”
“Chet’s Last Call: A Story of Rock & Redemption” screens at 8 p.m. Feb 20, followed by a talkback hosted by JJ Gonson. Tickets $5-$20. www.oncesomerville.com
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.