Archive for the 'THIS DATE IN CHICAGO HISTORY' Category

A Different St. Valentine’s Day Story (2-14-1936)

If you’re from Chicago, you probably know about the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.  On February 14, 1929, seven men were gunned down in the SMC Cartage garage at 2122 North Clark Street.  Most of the dead men were members of the Bugs Moran bootlegging gang.  The killings were likely ordered by rival ganglord Al Capone.


After 90 years, there’s not much new to be said about the massacre itself.  So I’m going to be talking about a neglected postscript.

The original “Scarface” was one of the movie hits of 1932.  As the name suggests, it’s a thinly-disguised biography of Capone.  Paul Muni is the star.

About halfway through the story, Muni decides to eliminate rival mobster Boris Karloff.  Karloff learns about the plot and disappears.  But he can’t stay put.  One night he goes bowling.

Meanwhile, Scarface Muni is at the opera when word comes that Karloff has been spotted.  So Muni and a few henchmen head for the bowling alley.  And they don’t take their bowling equipment with them.

Out on the lanes, Karloff is happily spilling pins.  “Now watch this one,” he tells the guy next to him.  He grabs his ball and trots to the line.

Boris Karloff goes bowling

Just as Karloff lets go of the ball, gunshots ring out, and he crumples to the floor.  But the camera follows the ball down the lane.  The ball hits the pins and they scatter–all except the 10-pin, which spins crazily in circles a few times before finally falling over.

Film critics loved the bowling scene.  They praised director Howard Hawks and his use of a slowly toppling pin as a symbol of Karloff dying off-screen.  In fact, the whole idea of killing a character in a bowling alley was brilliantly original.  That had never been done.

Gangland applauded the film, too.  Members of the Capone mob were tickled to see their exploits portrayed on the giant screen in glorious black-and-white.  Among those members was Machine Gun Jack McGurn.  McGurn is often credited as the planner of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Some writers claim he was the lead gunman.

McGurn was a sportsman.  He was a scratch golfer and an expert bowler.  Disdaining the wicked city where he made his livelihood, he owned a bungalow in sedate, suburban Oak Park.

Machine Gun Jack in court

On Saint Valentine’s Evening 1936, McGurn decided to go bowling.  Along with two friends, he drove into the city.  They arrived at Avenue Recreation, 805 North Milwaukee Avenue, about midnight.

McGurn and his pals removed their outer clothing and prepared to bowl.  Suddenly, three armed men rushed in, announcing a stickup.  During the confusion one of the intruders ran up to McGurn and pumped three slugs into him.

Machine Gun Jack died on alley two with a house ball in his hands.  One homey touch was the unsigned Valentine left on his body:

You’ve lost your job,

You’ve lost your dough,

Your car and your fine houses.

But things could be worse, you know–

You haven’t lost your trousers.

Machine Gun Jack goes bowling

The murder was never solved.  What’s unmistakable is the eerie echo of Karloff’s death in “Scarface.”  Someone had seen the movie, been impressed by the staging, and decided to copy it.  Once again, life imitates art.

Happy Saint Valentine’s Day.




Patio Theater

When I was growing up every Chicago neighborhood had its own local movie house.  Ours was the Patio Theater, at 6008 West Irving Park Road.

The Patio opened on January 29, 1927—92 years ago today.  My parents had grown up in the same Portage Park neighborhood where they raised me, so it had been their local movie house, too.  For some reason, they always called it the “PAY-shee-oh.”

The Patio was not a giant movie palace.  It had about 1500 seats and no second-floor balcony.  During the 1950s it was a third-run house.  Films first opened at one of the downtown theaters.  After that they moved out into the second-run houses—in our neck of the woods, either the Portage or the Gateway.  Eventually, many months after its Loop opening, the movie finally appeared at the Patio, usually part of a double bill.

My buddies and I went to the Patio nearly every week during the late 1950s and into the 1960s.  Until we discovered that girls had their charms, we took in mostly adventure films.  The earliest movie that I remember having seen at the Patio was Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, from 1957 when I was nine years old.

The photo above  is from 1975 (note the “Old Chicago Beer” sign on the Foremost Liquors Store).  Movie theaters were closing down all over by then, and rumor was that the Patio would soon be gone.  Happily, that’s not the case.  The Patio has still managed to hang on, with live entertainment instead of movies.  Here’s hoping it lasts another 92 years.


A Trip Down 31st Boulevard (1-23-1969)

A bit of local wisdom says that Chicago has two seasons—Winter and Road Construction.  Fifty years ago today, motorists on 31st Boulevard were hoping that winter would soon make way for that other season.  The problem was potholes.

A half-mile stretch of roadway between California and Western was pitted and scarred like the surface of the moon. Though the potholes didn’t have names like the lunar craters, daily commuters were all too familiar with the situation. Most of them knew the course, managing to safely navigate with judicious swerving. Every so often, though, the potholes would claim another victim. Then it was time to get the spare out of the trunk and change the blown tire, in typical single-digit January temperature. Drivers who merely lost a hubcap to a pothole didn’t even bother to stop.

A Sun-Times reporter sent to investigate the carnage measured the biggest hole as 3 feet wide, 4 feet long, and just under 2 feet deep. When informed of the situation on 31st Boulevard, the city’s streets and sanitation commissioner promised the paper that the road would be fixed by the next morning.

*****For 365 more stories like this—one for every day of the year—buy my book On This Day in Chicago History.  Available on Amazon.

Chicago Goes Dry (1-17-1920)

At midnight, as the calendar clicked over onto January 17, Prohibition became the law of the land.  Chicago’s reaction was a big yawn.

Okay, we all know about Chicago in the Roaring Twenties.  We know that the city became the bootlegging capital of America.  We’ve seen the gangster movies.

1-17--last call.jpg

But that was all in the future on that January evening in 1920.  The crowds at the taverns were no larger than on a typical Friday.  When the clock struck 12, the patrons downed their drinks and left, the bartender locked up . . . and that was that.

The Prohibition law said that the manufacture, sale, or distribution of intoxicating beverages was illegal.  However, people were allowed to have booze and beer in their own homes for their own use.  They could keep all the beverage they wanted, as long as they bought it before January 17.

So Chicagoans began stocking up.  Liquor stores had raised prices, but the public kept buying.  In the final days, autos and trucks were also in demand—for some people, the first time they drove a car was the day they hauled their liquor home.

1-17--booze cartoon.jpg

Major A.T. Dalrymple was the local head of Prohibition enforcement.  He announced that people would have ten days to report the exact quantities of beverage they held in their homes.  That was a matter of law.  There should be no fear that government agents would raid a private residence.

Dalrymple said his men were ready to deal with any businesses that tried to evade the law.  Enforcement would be strict.  The major had vaults ready for storage of illegal beverage seized in raids.  If the vaults weren’t large enough, more would be built.

There were some exceptions to the law.  Churches could use wine for religious services.  Druggists might sell up to one pint of liquor to someone with a doctor’s prescription.  Hospitals could use liquor as part of the “tapering off” treatment for alcoholism.

1-17--Mr. Prohibition.jpg

Meanwhile, the evening’s biggest party was at the Stevens Restaurant.  A dry group, the Chicago Sunday School Association, was celebrating the new era of sobriety.  They drank a series of toasts—with grape juice.

But eventually, those private stocks of liquor would run out.  And yes, we all know what happened after that.



Best Wishes from Leo (12-29-1923)

Today some 160 Chicagoans received New Year’s greetings from Leo Koretz.  The cards were inscribed with verse:  “If I could be transported/ This moment to your door/ I’d bring you smiles by dozens/ And good wishes by the score/ —Leo Koretz”

Leo Koretz

Those 160 people certainly knew Leo Koretz.  He’d convinced them to invest $10 million to develop oil land in Panama, then disappeared with the money.  His plan turned out to be a giant con.

So where was Leo now?  The cards had been mailed in Chicago.  As it turned out, he was in Nova Scotia, living it up with assorted women.

Koretz was extradited, convicted of his swindle, and sentenced to state prison.  He told reporters he’d never serve his time.

Before he could be transferred from the county lockup, one of his lady friends brought him a five-pound box of chocolate.  Koretz ate it in one sitting and keeled over dead, as he’d planned.  He was a diabetic.


The Evita From Chicago (12-19-1997)

On this date, a Chicago-born woman was sworn in as the president of a South American country.  The woman was Janet Jagan, the country was Guyana.

She had been born on the South Side as Janet Rosenberg in 1920.  While working as a student nurse at Cook County Hospital she met dentistry student Cheddi Jagan.  The couple married in 1943 and moved to Cheddi’s native land, then  a colony known as British Guiana.

Janet and Cheddi

The Jagans soon became active in the independence movement, and continued in politics after independence was achieved.  Cheddi was elected president in 1992, serving until his death early in 1997.  That December, Janet was elected president in her own right.

Janet Jagan resigned the presidency for health reasons in 1999. She died in Brazil while undergoing medical treatment in 2009.



What to Wear at the Beach (12-17-1931)

The Chicago City Council was holding hearings.  Unemployment was high.  The schools were a mess.  The city was going broke.  Crime was everywhere.

But today, the agenda before the aldermen was really important.  They were deciding what women could wear at Chicago beaches.

1903 Sears catalogue

The current dress code reflected the old-fashioned Victorian standards. When a woman went to the beach, she was expected to wear long black stockings, full bloomers, and a long-sleeve blouse. Anything less might earn her an arrest for public indecency.

Yet society was changing.  Now the council’s  special Committee on the Judiciary and State Legislation was trying to modernize the rules.  Alderman Thomas O’Grady of the 14th Ward chaired the committee.

O’Grady said that the aldermen wanted to adopt “modern specifications for proper swimming costumes.”  Health experts, athletes, and concerned citizens were being asked to give their opinions.  It seemed that two new styles of swimwear were causing controversy–the backless suit, and the brassiere-and-trunks (two piece) suit.

Chicago aldermen inspect a 1931 model bathing suit

Chicago aldermen inspect a 1931 model bathing suit

Interviewed by the Tribune, one prominent clubwoman was happy to present her views.  “The regulations should combine the maximum of comfort with decency,” she said.  “I do not like backless bathing suits.  And suits should extend two inches above the knee.”

Another woman declared that laws should be passed against white or flesh-colored suits.  As for the two-piece style, that was “unattractive and vulgar.”  It wasn’t proper to expose your stomach to the sun’s rays, no matter how healthy sunshine was.

If the skimpier bathing suits were allowed in Chicago, would nude bathing follow?  “I doubt if America will ever be that advanced,” one woman said.  “We’re probably more reserved, like the English, and I think that’s a fine thing.”

Of course, the fifty men on the council would ultimately decide the matter.  The Tribune wryly suggested that “several models appear wearing the newest suits at the aldermanic committee meeting.”  Four of the alderman thought that was a fine idea.  They were photographed with a woman wearing one of the backless suits.

When it was all over, the modern swimsuits were given official approval.  But nude bathing is still banned at Chicago’s public beaches.