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Discover all that jazz at Chicago’s Green Mill

This weekend’s column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Discover all that jazz at Chicago’s Green Mill

The WISCH LIST

Jan. 29, 2010

Prohibition still lives in Chicago.

For example, at the legendary Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Uptown, they prohibit cell phone calls. And they prohibit videos. And they prohibit photos.

Heck, while live jazz is being played, they even prohibit talking.

But just like with Prohibition during the 1920s, few Chicagoans seem to pay much attention to that last one.

Ninety-one years ago, on January 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment went into effect banning the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol nationwide. And, two weeks ago, to commemorate the anniversary of Prohibition in the city that became notorious for ignoring it, just before midnight on Jan. 15 I dropped in for a drink at the Green Mill.

The onetime hangout of Al Capone & Co.

Having offered continuous entertainment since 1907, the Green Mill, located at 4802 N. Broadway St., is Chicago’s oldest nightclub. And today, the establishment – which formerly was managed by Al Capone’s No. 1 henchman, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn – stands as one of the city’s most well-known links to the famed mobster.

In 1907, the nightclub originally opened as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse and quickly established itself as a favorite hangout for the show business types who worked at the nearby Essanay Studios. Charlie Chaplin was among the silent film stars known to have visited the roadhouse on occasion.

Around 1910, new owners purchased the club, installed an enormous, green windmill on its roof and re-named the place Green Mill Gardens. By the time Prohibition rolled around a decade later, it had become the most jumpin’ joint on Chicago’s North Side. That didn’t change after alcohol was banned, as jazz fans continued to pack the place to tip back a few drinks while enjoying the new musical art form as performed by future legends such as Anita O’Day and Billie Holliday.

During the mid-1920s, Capone’s South Side mob became interested in the popular club and leased the Green Mill from the owners. Capone and his cronies were known to set up court in a booth at the club that allowed them to watch both the stage and entrances. All the while, McGurn – a ruthless hitman whose trademark was pressing a nickel into the palms of his dead victims – patrolled the club as manager.

Today, the Green Mill is known as one of Chicago’s premier jazz clubs and has been restored to its Prohibition-era splendor with dimly lit décor befitting a speakeasy. Inside you’ll find an ancient cash register, hardwood walls and an alabaster statue of Ceres, Roman Goddess of the Harvest, that’s been rechristened “Stella by Starlight”” by the house musicians. With the frequent shushing by management – and some crowd members – when a band begins playing, the club’s overall scene is a bit pretentious for my taste (I prefer Chicago’s blues clubs).

But, the Green Mill’s history is to die for – almost literally. Perhaps its most famous legend revolves around Capone’s favorite musician Joe E. Lewis, who was being paid handsomely to perform at the Green Mill. However, in 1927, Lewis took a job at a rival club – and promptly had his throat slashed by McGurn’s thugs for doing so.

Miraculously, Lewis survived and, with Capone’s support, eventually made a comeback as a comic – at the Green Mill. His story was made into a 1957 movie, “The Joker Is Wild,” with Frank Sinatra playing Lewis. Today, the episode is immortalized by a poem framed behind the bar at the Green Mill that reads:

Big Al was ingesting spaghetti;
Machine Gun McGurn, strangely still
Told Joe E, “You’ll look like confetti
if you try to quit the Green Mill.”