Friday, June 19, 2015

In Tunnels Below the Green Mill, a Maze of Prohibition-Era Mob History and Myth

Few people know it's there -- fewer know where it leads.

In the floor behind the bar at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, a century-old jazz club in Uptown, lies a door. Beneath it: a musty labyrinth of gangster and Uptown history.

The World Below -- a series of tunnels branching underground from the Green Mill to the bookstore Shake, Rattle & Read a few doors away -- mixes myth and fable, dusty boilers and blood-splattered urinals (more on this in a moment).

The Green MillIn the mid-1910s, the Green Mill was an exclusive hangout for Essanay Studio executives and early film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Wallace Beery. In recent decades, jazz musicians such as Clifford Jordan, Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. have graced its stage. But tales of Jazz Age Chicago, when gangsters such as "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and boss Alphonse Capone defied Prohibition, are most prominent down below.

"They could either come to the tunnels and hide, or escape. Of course, the booze was stashed down here," says Ric Addy, owner of Shake, Rattle & Read. The bookstore has been in his family since 1965, which makes Addy an armchair historian and raconteur of all things Uptown.

Below the Green Mill, Addy latches the heavy wooden door to the bar with a metal hook and carefully climbs down the steep stairs, ducking his head under the lip of the floor above.

These musty concrete hallways and storage rooms are remnants of a tunnel system used to haul coal in the first part of the 20th Century. The Green Mill end of the tunnel provides the nightclub with its storeroom and cellar. Boxes of beer bottles and mini-pretzels wait to be summoned. Electrical wires and various pipes slink around the ceiling. Side rooms -- cubbyholes said to be the sites of gangster poker games -- hold dust-caked bar stools.

Around the corner, heading north, through an ominous steel door and down a dark hallway, Addy shines a flashlight on a doorway that, a century ago, would have read "Men."

Before the massive Uptown Theatre changed the face of Broadway's 4800 block in 1925, the Green Mill hosted a vast beer garden and dance hall, complete with underground restrooms. The original stone facade entrance still stands outside, though obscured by a fiberglass sign for the restaurant Fiesta Mexicana.

Below, only the men's restroom survives, complete with the original, tiny octagonal tiles and porcelain urinals.

"It's not too hard to imagine Capone stepping up to do his business here," Addy jokes.

Unlike the brightly lighted Green Mill storeroom, darkness permeates everything and temperatures drop 20 degrees. It's quiet. The corpses of a half-dozen water bugs lie scattered near the doorway.

There is evidence of life, however. Inside one of the urinals, a violent red smear clings to the porcelain -- remnant of a fake mob hit shot for the 1993 movie "Excessive Force," starring Thomas Ian Griffith and James Earl Jones.

Jones and Griffith aren't the only celebrities to have visited the tunnels. Over the years, Addy has given private tours to bands such as the Beastie Boys and Suicidal Tendencies who were looking for their own pieces of gangster legacy. Years ago, one room held wooden bank vaults stacked with rotting bank documents, but they're long gone.

The only paper down here now belongs to Addy, in two gigantic rail car-size rooms filled with back issues of Rolling Stone, Playboy and Esquire. Addy's dusty library of pop culture doubles as his eBay store, where he packages and sends off rock posters, books and hard-to-find magazine back issues.

Without lights, it's still a tomb.

Heading toward the door to his own store, Addy says, "It really used to creep me out down here."

He adds: "It still feels haunted, kinda ghostly down here. Now it's not so creepy because of all the new construction -- new air conditioning units, new coolers. I just wish the tunnels would keep going, so that I could see what it was like way back when."

Despite the Green Mill's prominent place in Chicago film and jazz historyReturn to the Scene of the Crime: A Guide to Infamous Places in Chicago, its link to gangster king Al Capone still gets the most attention. But that may be exaggerated, says historian Richard Lindberg, author of "Return to the Scene of the Crime: A Guide to Infamous Places in Chicago."

"People are always calling me with Capone stories, someplace where Capone was known to be," Lindberg says. "Ninety-nine percent of it is urban legend, and I think it's especially true with the Green Mill."

The Green Mill started life in 1907 as Pop Morse's Roadhouse, a watering hole in developing Uptown. Three years later, new investors converted the spot into the Green Mill Gardens, a blocklong dance hall and beer garden, complete with a giant windmill perched atop the festivities -- a nod to Paris' own Moulin Rouge (or "Red Windmill").

Capone's shadow fell on the Mill during the late 1920s, when "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn -- Capone henchman and speculated triggerman of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre -- acquired part ownership.

Capone was said to frequent the club and even had a favorite booth that, owner Dave Jemilo says, still sits in the center of the room, facing away from the stage, in full view of the front and side doors, and a quick route to the trap door.

Famously, when singing comedian Joe E. Lewis attempted to get out of his Green Mill contract in 1927, McGurn's men visited Lewis in his hotel room where, Lindberg says, "he was sliced within an inch of his life." Fortunately, Lewis survived a slit throat, recovered and enjoyed a long career as a comedian, though he never fully recovered his crooner voice. His story was later adapted into the 1957 film "The Joker Is Wild," starring Frank Sinatra.

Beyond this, says Lindberg, Capone's ties to the Green Mill are "peripheral at best."

When Jemilo bought the Mill in 1986, all sorts of longtime customers told him personal stories about Capone's visits to the club.

But, he says, "we don't make a big deal about the Capone stuff. We're more about the music and the history of the joint, overall. I don't mind the gangster history, but I don't want to it to be the only thing it's known for."

As for the world underneath Broadway, Lindberg says, "The tunnels had more mundane purposes ... moving coal and eating materials." But, he adds: "Where there was illicit activity, you had tunnels," such as the dug-out tunnels in Capone's places in the Levee District.

Under the Green Mill, however, "I don't believe that they were created as escape routes. ... They were created long before Capone," Lindberg says. "But I think the main point here is: Capone has become such a larger-than-life character, it has created an Al Capone cottage industry, and bits of stories become legend. Separating the fact from the fiction has become the greatest challenge."

Thanks to Robert K. Elder

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