Chapter 10 of
The Coolest Spot in Chicago:
A History of Green Mill Gardens and the Beginnings of Uptown
When Green Mill Gardens opened in 1914, the headline entertainer was “The Queen of the Cabaret, Miss Patricola.” At that point, Isabella Patricola had already been the biggest star for three years at the former venue that stood on the same spot, Morse’s Garden. In 1913, the Inter Ocean reported that she’d “packed the popular resort to capacity.”1 And for the next few years, she seemed to be the most popular performer at Green Mill Gardens2—the venue’s signature act—although she soon began spending more of her time touring around the country.
She was often billed as “Miss Patricola,” but advertisements and newspaper reports frequently referred to her by just one name: “Patricola.” By 1918, newspapers were calling her one of America’s most popular and highest-paid vaudeville artists.3
Audiences were wowed by Patricola’s skill at playing the violin even while she was singing. “She dances, plays the violin, and sings all at one time, and the audience was with her from the start to the finish,” the New York Clipper wrote.4 In another review, the same showbiz newspaper remarked: “This young woman is an exceptionally clever entertainer and has a charming personality. She has a resonant and sweet voice.”5
A 1929 Home Talkie Productions film—an early sound movie, featuring music recorded on a disc—captured Patricola performing the songs “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You” and “That’s How I Feel About You” with Abel Baer at the piano. A beautifully restored video can be seen in the University of California Santa Barbara Library’s YouTube channel, offering a glimpse of what her performances were like.
Unlike her shows at Green Mill Gardens, where she sang and played with a big band, this is an intimate duet. And it shows Patricola when she was a little older, some 15 years after she’d performed at Green Mill Gardens’ grand opening in her mid-20s.
After she sings the bluesy first song with Baer’s piano accompaniment, keeping a big smile on her face, Patricola remarks: “For those that don’t like that kind of a song, I have something a little bit different that I hope you will like.” She then picks up her violin and proceeds to play it throughout the second tune, accompanying herself as she sings and also taking a sweet solo while Baer continues to play piano in the background.
It’s a charming little recital, but rather low-key compared with the vivid descriptions of Patricola’s shows from early in her career, which made her sound like an energetic and sensuous figure onstage.
Critics praised Patricola’s knack for “putting it over”—performing songs in a way that captivated audiences.6 “Patricola has personal magnetism and loads of talent,” the Tacoma Daily Ledger observed.7 “She puts her whole heart and soul into her work,” the Houston Post raved, “and with that apparent lack of effort that is the greatest strain upon an artist, Patricola fairly radiates a brilliant, magnetic energy that sets your heart to dancing and your nerves to tingling with ecstasy. The very bodily expression of happiness and joy she will captivate you in spite of yourself.”
The same article also noted that she had “a wardrobe that would make the average moving picture star turn green with envy.”8 Newspapers often mentioned how attractive Patricola was in her glamorous outfits. “Patricola wears gorgeous gowns and has a gorgeous body to wear ’em on,” the Shreveport Journal wrote.9
Wherever Patricola went, crowds seemed to love her. The Houston newspaper described “packed houses that simply went wild.”10 After a performance in New York, the Clipper reported: “We counted up to four encores and then lost track, for the audience couldn’t get enough of her.”11 At various times, newspapers called her the “Queen of Song,”12 the “Empress of Song and Music,”13 and the “Scintillating Melodist.”14 Chicago Daily News critic Amy Leslie called Patricola the “imperishable pacemaker for the cabaret gloom dispeller.”15
She often performed “the popular melodies of the day,” and those included “coon songs.” Many of those songs, which were rooted in stereotypes about Black people, are considered offensive today, but they dominated American popular music at the time. The Clipper wrote that Patricola “sings ‘coon’ songs without being a ‘coon-shouter,’” suggesting that she performed these songs with a bit more subtlety than many artists did.16
Patricola’s repertoire also included “novelty songs,” ragtime, and tunes that played off various cultures, such as “Allah’s Holiday,”17 “Royal Arab,”18 and Irish and Italian melodies.19 She performed an “Irish Harem” number with “gestures,” as well as “a Hawaiian ‘yacki-hacki-hicki-do-la’ style of tropical ballad with appropriate music, words and movements, wiggles, etc.,” according to the Shreveport Journal’s description.20
Isabella Patricola was born in Palermo, Sicily. Several sources say she was born in 1885 or 1886, but a passport application filled out by her father—a musician named Louis Patricola—gave her birthday as June 19, 1888. (Her first name was sometimes spelled Isabelle or Isabel.) In any case, she was still a young girl when she sailed with her family to the United States in 1889. Her brother, Tommaso, was born in New Orleans in 1891.21
“The first thing that Patricola remembers about her career was singing with her father and her little brother in the hotel lobbies and public parks of New Orleans, and feeling immensely superior to the other little girls who walked with their nursemaids or stopped to put pennies in Father Patricola’s hat,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in a 1923 profile. “Her first toy was a violin, and somehow or other she managed to play it without any instruction whatever. Her little brother, Tom, … played the mandolin, and her father the accordion, and together the three wandered about the city, picking up a living and enjoying themselves immensely.” 22
The family ended up living in Great Falls, Montana.23 By 1894, she was playing violin at the opera house in Great Falls, where a local newspaper called her a “child wonder and musical prodigy.” Her father arranged the show, where the other acts included “Dudee, the dog with human intelligence.”24 In 1899, Louis and his daughter toured as “song and sketch artists,” performing in Calgary, Edmonton, and Crowsnest Pass, Alberta.25
As time went on, she “put in several years of study on the violin to improve her rather sketchy technique,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Isabella performed as part of a vaudeville act with her family until she was 18.26 That was the age on her marriage certificate in 1903, when she got married in Chicago to Ernest H. Allen,27 who worked as a mail carrier. They lived at 713 South Hermitage Avenue, in a part of the West Side filled with immigrants. In 1905, Isabella and Ernest had a son named William.28 Although audiences came to know her as “Miss Patricola” in the coming years, legally she was known as Mrs. Allen.
Isabelle Allen and her family in the 1910 U.S. census.
Isabella didn’t give up show business to become a housewife. In 1906, a violin player billed only as “Patricola” was one of the acts in “the curio hall” at the Clark Street Museum, a dime museum that combined circus-style sideshows with vaudeville entertainment. If this was indeed Isabella Patricola, she was performing alongside an “armless wonder,” a ventriloquist, Bohemian glass blowers, Mexican “feather workers,” a Punch and Judy show, poodles, cockatoos, and various wild animals performing tricks.29
Within five years, she made her way into the spotlight at Morse’s Café and Garden, where she became a local sensation.
In May 1914—a month before she sang at the grand opening of Green Mill Gardens—she made headlines in Detroit with a publicity stunt gone awry. Her “imaginative press agent” staged an incident at Detroit’s Edelweiss café, where Patricola was performing. He hired a young waiter to play a “masher,” who would rudely flirt with Patricola as she exited the café. Patricola would respond by smashing a violin over the masher’s head. The press agent hoped newspapers would run stories about Patricola wrecking her precious $250 instrument to protect her honor. In reality, her violin was safe—the publicist had given her a junky old one worth $2.50.
Everything went according to plan, until the club’s doorman saw her lifting the cheap violin to strike the young man. The doorman reached for her instrument, and it crashed down onto the sidewalk. “Patricola screamed loudly, clasping the battered violin to her heart,” the Detroit Free Press reported. “‘My pet,” she wailed. “I can never get another like you.’”
When the police arrived and questioned Patricola, she described the masher, who’d escaped. The venue’s management quickly figured out who she was talking about, realizing it was the waiter. And the whole plot was revealed. Patricola did get some news coverage, but it wasn’t the sort of story her press agent had wanted. (Is it cynical to wonder if the publicity-stunt-gone-awry may have been the actual story planted by the press agent?)30
Patricola organized her own band of 20 or 25 musicians—all of them apparently men—to perform behind her at Green Mill Gardens,31 where she attracted large and enthusiastic audiences.
“Isabelle Patricola, singer and violinist, is drawing crowds to the Green Mill Gardens on the north side,” the Chicago Daily News reported in July 1915. “Even during the chilly and damp weather this attractive garden has had its share of patronage, but now that summer weather has set in in earnest capacity rules nearly every evening. Patricola, as she is called, has new songs this season. She continues to head the list of entertainers, although others do their share to please patrons of the garden.”32
Later in 1915, when she performed at the Green Mill’s “Winter Gardens,” her act featured a chorus, including a woman who was billed as Patricola’s “Country Cousin.”33
Patricola caught the eye of the vaudeville impresario Alexander Pantages, who signed her in 1916 to tour his chain of theaters in the Western United States and Canada.34 She also performed frequently in New York City.
When she released a record in 1919 (featuring the songs “Ballyho Bay” and “Take Your Girlie to the Movies”), an advertisement declared: “Patricola is all the rage in New York—turning them away at every performance—and this Pathe record is Patricola true to life!”35
Her other records included 1922’s “Lovin’ Sam (The Sheik of Alabam’),” “Doodle Doo Doo,” and “Mama Loves Papa (Papa Loves Mama).”
The following video, posted on YouTube by Desdemona202, features 13 songs Patricola recorded between 1921 and 1924.
“The Italian-born vaudevillian vocalist sang in a style full of verve, blues, and pep, which made her perfect for phonograph recording, and perfect for the hot accompaniment from some of the best studio musicians in the business,” Desdemona202 comments. “In this set of 13 recordings, we hear some of her hottest sides made for the Pathe, Victor, and Vocalion labels. She is assisted instrumentally by the very capable Virginians, Ben Selvin Orchestra, Willie Creager’s Ambassadors, and the Pathe house band. She also gets a great vocal duet with Billy Murray on ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie Blues.’”
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Patricola loved to cook, and she brought along aprons when she toured. Whenever “a good-natured landlady” allowed Patricola to take over a kitchen, the star made a meal for her fellow musicians—“a feast of spaghetti and meat balls, cooked as only an Italian housewife knows how.”36
Isabella’s brother, Tom Patricola, became a vaudeville and Broadway star in his own right,37 known as “The Dancing Fool.”
As one newspaper explained, “He dances like a rooster fights—until he drops. … He is a master of ludicrous comedy and has no seconds in his line of eccentricities.”38 The Clipper said he “worked himself into a sweat with his ‘nut’ antics.”39
In 1920, Isabella Patricola was still living in Chicago with her husband, Ernest Allen, and their son, William, who was now 15 years old. Ernest was no longer working as a mailman; the U.S. census now identified him as the owner of a ranch.41 At some point in the next five years, Isabella divorced Ernest. When he died in 1925, he was farming in Idaho.42
In 1927, Isabella married W.A. Morris, a “prominent … insurance man” from Canton, Ohio.43 By then, her fame was fading, and she seemed to settle into a life outside of the public spotlight. She died in Manhasset, New York, in 1965.44
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Herb Graffis, who’d seen Patricola perform at Green Mill Gardens, remembered her as a “vigorous girl singer.” In 1973, when Graffis thought back on Patricola’s performance of one particular song, “My Little Turkish Opal from Constantinople,” he wrote: “My navel still waves in dance time as I remember that melody.”45
Photo at the top of this chapter: N.V.A. Souvenir 1923, by National Vaudeville Artists.
1 “Vaudeville Gossip,” Inter Ocean, May 18, 1913, 34.
2 “Summer Parks and Gardens,” Chicago Daily News, July 17, 1915, 16.
3 “Program for the Week at the Isis,” Houston Post, February 17, 1918, 37.
6 “Patricola’s Personality,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, May 18, 1918, section 3, 6.
7 “Patricola Favorite of Excellent Bill at Pantages Theater,” Tacoma (WA) Daily Ledger, April 3, 1917, 4.
8 “Program for the Week at the Isis,” Houston Post, February 17, 1918, 37.
9 “Crowded Houses Hear Patricola at Majestic,” Shreveport (LA) Journal, March 5, 1918, 8.
10 “Program for the Week at the Isis,” Houston Post, February 17, 1918, 37.
12 “Patricola Favorite of Excellent Bill at Pantages Theater,” Tacoma (WA) Daily Ledger, April 3, 1917, 4.
13 “Patricola, ‘Empress of Song’ Is Headliner at ‘Pan,’” (Spokane, WA) Spokesman-Review, June 24, 1918, 5.
15 Amy Leslie, “Tearful Obsequies of Cafe Cabarets,” Chicago Daily News, May 11, 1918, 10.
17 “Patricola, ‘Empress of Song’ Is Headliner at ‘Pan,’” (Spokane, WA) Spokesman-Review, June 24, 1918, 5.
20 “Crowded Houses Hear Patricola at Majestic,” Shreveport (LA) Journal, March 5, 1918, 8.
21 Louis Patricola, U.S. Passport Application, Emergency Passport Applications (Issued Abroad), 1877-1907, Volume 090: Italy, No. 457, October 28, 1899, Ancestry.com.
22 “Can Work as Well as Play,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 30, 1923, 27.
23 Louis Patricola, U.S. Passport Application.
24 “Coming Attractions,” Great Falls (MT) Tribune, October 11, 1894, 3.
25 “Spray of the Falls,” Great Falls (MT) Tribune, February 23, 1899, 3.
26 “Can Work as Well as Play.”
27 Cook County, Illinois, U.S., Marriages Index, 1871-1920, Ancestry.com.
28 PC/Sandy Family Tree, accessed July 18, 2023; 1910 U.S. Census, Illinois, Cook, Chicago Ward 20, District 890, Sheet 22A; 1920 U.S. Census, Illinois, Cook, Chicago Ward 19, District 1107, Sheet 7B, at Ancestry.com.
30 “Press Agent Overplays Hand and Patricola’s ‘Strad’ ($2.50) Is Smashed Up for Nothing,” Detroit Free Press, May 7, 1914, 5.
31 “Can Work as Well as Play,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 30, 1923, 27.
32 “Summer Parks and Gardens,” Chicago Daily News, July 17, 1915, 16.
33 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 17, 1915, Part 8, 2.
34 “Chicago Harmony Notes,” New York Clipper, April 29, 1916, 13; “Patricola’s Personality,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune; Charles A. Sengstock, That Toddlin’ Town: Chicago’s White Dance Bands and Orchestras, 1900–1950 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2004), 62; “Alexander Pantages,” Wikipedia, accessed May 20, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Pantages.
35 “Advertisement,” Pittsburgh Press, August 17, 1919, 21.
36 “Can Work as Well as Play,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 30, 1923, 27.
37 “Tom Patricola Began in Blackface,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 1, 1933, E4.
38 “Tom Patricola ‘The Dancing Fool,’ Orpheum, Thursday,” Calgary (Alberta) Herald, January 25, 1922, 6.
40 “Tom Patricola,” iMDB, accessed June 7, 2023, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0665938/bio/?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm.
41 1920 U.S. Census, Illinois, Cook, Chicago, Ward 19, Enumeration District: 1107, 7B, Ancestry.com.
42 Idaho, U.S., Death Records, 1890-1971; PC/Sandy Family Tree, Ancestry.com.
43 “Singing Violinist Takes Husband; Variety News,” (New York) Daily News, June 12, 1927, 30.
44 New York State, U.S., Death Index, 1957-1970; PC/Sandy Family Tree, Ancestry.com; “Deaths of Note,” Tampa Bay (FL) Times, May 26, 1965, 13.
45 Herb Graffis, “A Young Man’s Fancy When Chicago Was in Bloom,” Chicago Sun-Times, Midwest Magazine, Nov. 18, 1973, p. 49.