Speakeasy to me
Eighty years after bathtub gin was the drink of choice, the Green Mill is still rip-roaring.
Mon Jul 7 2008
Not even the specter of Prohibition could silence the Roaring ’20s at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge (4802 N Broadway, 773-878-5552) in Uptown. Back then, vivacious hostess Betty Hutton greeted men and women dressed in their best suits, gloves and hats who came to listen to singer-comedian Joe E. Lewis and maybe catch a glimpse of one Alphonse Capone in his usual booth at the end of the bar.
Canadian whiskey, gin and other spirits were served in coffee mugs, for “medicinal” purposes, thanks largely to a “gentleman’s agreement” between Green Mill management and the Chicago police. This was the very definition of speakeasy.
Today, the piano (on a riser behind the bar) is a reminder of the era, and the room—from the green-velvet booths to the long, curved oak bar and columns in front of the stage—pulls patrons into a 1920s time warp. On any given night, customers mingle while respectfully keeping their conversations to low whispers as jazz musicians play and waitresses and bartenders hustle cocktails with the efficiency of a mob hit.
“The Green Mill started out as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse in 1907,” says owner Dave Jemilo, who purchased the bar in 1986. “Mourners would stop in to have a drink and celebrate the passing of a loved one on the way to Lakeview’s St. Boniface Cemetery.”
Businessman Tom Chamales (who later built the nearby Riviera Theater) bought the bar in 1910 and, inspired by Paris’s Moulin Rouge, added a sunken garden and dance floor outside, a rumba room upstairs and a green windmill on the roof. Fittingly, he renamed it the Green Mill.
Rather than close the bar at the onset of Prohibition, Chamales and his brothers offered a 25 percent stake in the lounge to mobsters Danny Cohen and Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, long believed to have planned the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The star attractions were Capone and Lewis, who became solely a comedian after an unfortunate accident.
“Lewis took a better-paying offer to sing downtown,” Jemilo explains. “So McGurn sent some of his boys to Lewis’s place, slit his throat and cut out part of his tongue.” Today, portraits of Capone and McGurn hang behind the bar. Such nods to history make it one of jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson’s favorite places to perform.