It’s a Saturday night at Chicago’s Green Mill Lounge and “da joint” — as owner David Jemilo calls it — is jumpin’. A largely yuppie crowd is packed tightly inside the room. Alcohol (mostly beer and martinis) flows freely, the noise is deafening, and the air is thick with cigar and cigarette smoke. At the far end, heard long before they are visible through the smoky haze, the band plays what always plays at the Green Mill: jazz.
The people seated near the stage are listening intently to the music. Those sitting or standing near the bar are drinking and talking.
No one is eating. At the Green Mill, you will not encounter the menu of “buffalo wings” and other such fare found in most other bars. No popcorn, not even pretzels and nuts. Food would just be a hassle and a distraction from the jazz-booze-smoke-conversation aesthetic that makes the Green Mill the Green Mill.
David Jemilo calls the Green Mill a “jazz joint,” and that’s mostly what it has been since the doors opened in 1907. It’s quite possible, in fact, that the joint antedates jazz, which grew out of a melange of musical styles in turn-of-the century New Orleans. Now celebrating its 100th year, the Green Mill has the distinction of being the oldest continuously running jazz club in America.
Opened in 1907 as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse, the club in the Uptown area, about four miles north of Chicago’s Loop, was purchased in 1910 by the Chamales brothers, who named it the Green Mill Gardens.
The club operating today is only a small part of the original sprawling complex. Adjacent to the club was an elegant restaurant, which was joined to a ballroom. A second-story ballroom called the Rhumba Room offered Latin music. The first-floor ballroom opened onto elegant gardens, and in the early years, tuxedoed men and women in evening gowns danced the night away to the tunes of leading orchestras. (The oldest ad for the Green Mill is for Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra in 1915.)
It was also the heyday of ragtime and vaudeville, and the nightclub’s patrons listened to Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker belt out hits of the era. Chicago was then one of the main production centers for the new silent film industry, and the nearby Essanay Studios turned out a stream of Westerns filmed along the Chicago River. During breaks, “Bronco Billy” Anderson and other stars would mosey up to the Green Mill and tie their horses to a hitching post provided by the club while they knocked back a round or two.
In the early 1920s, Prohibition hit and the Green Mill became a wide-open “gin joint,” in the words of Steve Brand, who tended bar there from 1928 to 1960. In the early ‘20s,, the Chamales brothers leased the place to members of the Chicago mob including a 25 percent interest to “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, thought to be one of the leaders of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Mr. Brand says the Mill became the favorite hangout of Al Capone, who was frequently found in the center booth in front of the bar where he could keep an eye on the door. Capone owned a speak-easy in the basement of a building across the street, but he preferred the Green Mill because the police had been paid off, permitting “wide-open” action.
“People brought their booze in flasks or hollowed-out canes,” says Mr. Brand, and “waitresses brought coffee mugs for them to drink it out of.”
When Capone and company really wanted to swing, they opened a trap door behind the bar and descended into rooms in the basement where they could escape, if need be, through a series of tunnels.
But mostly, “Big Al” just liked to hang out quietly and listen to the music of his favorite performer, Joe E. Lewis, who was earning the phenomenal fee of $650 a week.
In 1927, however, Lewis got greedy and took a job at the New Rendezvous Club for $1,000 a week. It was a big mistake. A week later, an outraged McGurn dispatched three thugs to visit Lewis. The three smashed Lewis’ head, slit his throat, cut out part of his tongue and left him for dead.
Lewis survived, and a compassionate Capone gave him some money to get by on. Although it took him three years to learn to talk, Lewis made a comeback as a comic — at the Green Mill.
The story was made into a 1957 movie, “The Joker Is Wild,” with Frank Sinatra playing the part of Joe E. Lewis. Today in the Green Mill, the episode is immortalized by an unknown poet in doggerel framed behind the bar.
Big Al was ingesting spaghetti;
Machine Gun McGurn, surprisingly still
Said to Joe E, “You’ll look like confetti
If you try to leave the Green Mill.”
For two decades after the end of Prohibition , the Green Mill continued to flourish. Over a beer at “the joint,” David Jemilo talks about those years as his father had described them to him.
“He would go to the Aragon Ballroom when he was 18 years old with his buddy Duke and meet women or whatever and after that they would come over to the Green Mill after dancing at the Aragon, and they had drinks and dancing and lots of fun,” Mr. Jemilo says.
The Uptown Theater was built next door to the Green Mill and brought a new spate of celebrities to the bar. Now boarded up, the Uptown in those days was an opulent movie palace that featured live entertainment by the leading stars, such as Charlie Chaplain. After the show, stars and patrons would head over to the Green Mill.
The Green Mill “was a cabaret joint,” Mr. Jemilo says, “and a lot of famous people came here to hang out — you know like Charlie Chaplain, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman.”
The list of famous patrons includes Billie Holiday, Lillian Russell and Wallace Beery, and many of them — Holiday and Goodman included — joined in impromptu performances.
“You had to be dressed up at night in those days to come here,” says Mr. Jemilo. “Of course, in those days, everyone was dressed up.”
In the 1950s, things began to change. The Aragon Ballroom, and later the Uptown Theater, closed, the area deteriorated and many of the Green Mill patrons died or moved away. The owners struggled to keep the doors open, but by the 1980s their clientele was made up mostly of winos, homeless people and petty criminals. That was the situation when Mr. Jemilo and his wife visited the Green Mill for the first time.
“It was pretty rough,” he says. “You know, drug dealers, pimps, whores, bums and people sleeping on the floor. You had to step over them when you walked in. It was just a real tough crowd and you had to look over your shoulder all the time. It was one of the roughest bars in the city.”
Despite the deteriorated state of the Green Mill, “we immediately fell in love with the place,” Mr. Jemilo says.
“You could tell that it was beautiful at one time, but everything was falling apart,” he says. “I told my wife I’m going to buy this place — just talking — and six months later, I did buy it because the price was right and the owner was 70 and his wife walked with a walker and the place was in a shambles.”
Mr. Jemilo made basic repairs, cleaned up the “joint” and evicted the unsavory denizens.
Now the historic club with its nightly jazz is an “in” place for Chicago yuppies and a magnet for jazz fans nationwide, as well as the preferred hangout for a diverse group of longtime regulars — and not just a few celebrities.
Mr. Jemilo fondly recalls the night he and jazz singer Sarah Vaughn “got drunk together,” and “the Monday night I was working the door and Microsoft mogul Bill Gates came in with five guys after a Bears game.”
Told that there was a $3 cover charge, Mr. Gates “pulls out three singles and gives them to me. They were sitting around drinking and having a good time and I think he liked the fact that he had to pay the three dollars.”
Behind the bar is a photo of Capone with the inscription, “Dave, thanks for running my joint real good. Al.”
The inscription is bogus, of course, but hundreds of Green Mill regulars would enthusiastically endorse the sentiment.