The Montmartre Years: Secret Gambling, Benny Goodman, and Girls Who “Salute”


On July 14, 1923, the Chicago Daily News reported that a new nightclub was opening in Uptown. The cabaret formerly known as Green Mill Gardens would reopen on July 20 under a new name, the Montmartre Café.1 This may have come as a surprise to readers. When had Green Mill Gardens closed? It had apparently shut down sometime that spring, but that news wasn’t reported in the Daily News or the Chicago Daily Tribune.

The person in charge of the nightclub’s new incarnation had a familiar name: Henry Horn had been the manager at Green Mill Gardens before he’d left in 1922 to open the Rendezvous, a cabaret at Diversey Parkway and Broadway.2 Now, Horn was returning to run his old joint under its new name.

With the Montmartre moniker, the cabaret’s Parisian aspirations were even more obvious than they’d been before. The Green Mill Gardens name had been an allusion to the legendary Paris cabaret called the Moulin Rouge, which is French for “red mill.” Green Mill Gardens even had a windmill on its roof, similar to the Moulin Rouge. Now, it was adopting Montmartre as its name, referring to the hilly nightlife district in Paris’s 18th Arrondissement, where the Moulin Rouge was just one of many cabarets.

“A touch of Parisian night life will be introduced in Chicago when Henry Horn’s Montmartre Cafe has its formal opening on Friday night on the site of the old Green Mill Gardens,” the Daily News wrote. “Scenes of Paris as seen from the hill of Montmartre, center of the French capital’s night life, will be largely used in the decorative scheme, Mr. Horn is bringing the Parisian orchestra from New York to supply the music for dancing. He announces that high-class vaudeville from the big circuits will be furnished.”

Curiously, even though the cabaret’s garden area had just been sold off to make way for the new Uptown Theatre movie palace, the Daily News reported that the Montmartre Cafe was giving “special attention” to the outdoor gardens.3 An ad hyped the Montmartre’s “Cool Summer Garden,” while describing the venue as “The place with real Parisian atmosphere” and “A section of the night life of Paris transplanted in Chicago.”4

Another ad boasted: “The most unique and novel place in the country. Just what you have been waiting for. Come and be convinced. Why go to Europe when you can obtain a real cosmopolitan atmosphere by visiting the new MONTMARTRE CAFE? … A corps of the best chefs procurable has been engaged to furnish food that will please the most fastidious. No expense has been spared to make the Montmartre Cafe distinctive and unusual. Under the personal supervision of HENRY HORN.”5

Chicago Daily News, July 27, 1923.

As the Montmartre opened, some of the featured entertainers also had a French flair, such as the Parisian Orchestra from New York.6 One of the regular acts was Frank Lischeron,7 a singer and “character dancer”8 who often performed with “five talented girl musicians from the French capital” playing piano, cello, harp, and violin.9

New York Clipper, August 10, 1923.

In August, Horn took out an advertisement in the New York Clipper, a nationally distributed entertainment newspaper, addressing a letter to “my friends in the profession.” Horn suggested that America’s touring entertainers should visit his new nightclub: “When you’re playing Chicago, and seek real relaxation after the night’s work, come out to my new Montmartre Cafe. I have staked the reputation of a lifetime as cafe owner in this venture, and my many friends in the profession will find a cordial welcome. Good food, splendid entertainment, high-class clientele make the Montmartre the brightest spot in Chicago.”10

A few years later, Variety suggested that it had been a mistake for the venue to drop the name that made it famous, forsaking the Green Mill Gardens moniker as well as the garden itself. The construction of the Uptown Theatre would begin soon on the space where the garden had been, “leaving the Mill without a place to take wind,” Variety wrote. “The large green lighted prop windmill perched atop the building to make the place easier to identify was confiscated. That meant the passing of a landmark and the Green Mill.”11 It’s not clear why the windmill was removed from the building’s roof. Maybe the change was prompted by the fact that the venue no longer had “mill” in its name, but the mill would still have served as a symbol of Montmartre. Did the spinning, illuminated windmill have structural or mechanical problems? Or did the property owners see an opportunity to make money by replacing it with a billboard? We can only guess.

Around this time, the Up-Town Social Club was operating behind a door with a peephole inside the Green Mill Gardens building. The group’s activities included sponsoring dances at the Blue Moon Room,12 a second-floor space over at the nearby Rainbo Gardens.13 But this club wasn’t just for socializing. Known for its “big pay,” the club took wagers on sporting events, police officials told the Chicago Daily News.

People entered the Up-Town Social Club through an entrance at 4812 North Broadway, at the north end of the Green Mill building. That was the address where John Butterly’s saloon had been up until it shut down around 1919. Now it was occupied by the Broadway Thor Shop, which sold electric washing machines with a “swinging wringer” and a “revolving, reversing cylinder.”14

Chicago Daily Tribune, December 7, 1919.

Alongside these household appliances, a staircase led up the second floor, where club members went to a door with a peephole. As they waited to get in, they could “gaze over the balcony into the corridor of the entrance to the Montmartre, many of whose patrons are said to have spent part of their evenings at play about the many tables of the club,” the Daily News reported.

The Chicago police raided the Up-Town Social Club more than once. “We had information that lots of gambling was going on there, but we failed to get any evidence,” recalled captain Martin J. O’Malley, the Summerdale police station’s commander.15 Sergeant George O’Connor remembered firing a number of shots through the club’s ceiling during the first raid, as he tried to stop gamblers from rushing out. The cops arrested 30 gamblers, along with the man who was running the operation, Michael Crowe. But, according to O’Connor, all charges were dismissed in police court “because of legal technicalities.”16

Michael Crowe, Chicago Daily Tribune, January 6, 1930.

Crowe had a long history of involvement with gambling on the North Side. “Crowe has long been known to the police and the take-a-chance boys,” the Tribune said. He’d originally operated in the neighborhoods just north of the Chicago River, where he was a close friend of the local Democratic ward boss,17 “Hot Stove Jimmy” Quinn (people said a hot stove was the only thing Quinn wouldn’t steal).18 “Mike Crowe was a familiar figure in the poker life as it once obtained in the giddy district between Chicago avenue and the Clark street bridge,” the Tribune noted. “For a time he operated a place at Wells and Oak streets.”19

Michael Vincent Crowe Jr., who was born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1881, made headlines in 1909 for threatening to shoot someone.20 He did have a legitimate business—the Wells Cigar Shop at 933 North Wells Street21—but he allegedly ran a string of brothels in the Chicago Avenue police district with “a gal named Red Sadie,” according to the anonymous author of an early 1930s manuscript (published in 2020 under the title Bullets for Dead Hoods). The writer also noted: “Back in the good old days when the Revere House on North Clark street really was something, Mike ran a gambling joint there.”22

Dorsey Crowe, circa 1929. Wikimedia.

Crowe’s father allegedly ran a gambling establishment, too. So did his uncle Stephen Crowe, who owned a hotel. “That’s all political dope,” Stephen told the Tribune in 1919. “… I am not running any gambling places.”23 Stephen’s son Dorsey Crowe (Michael’s cousin) was elected that year as an alderman for the Near North Side. Dorsey, who reputedly had connections to organized crime, would end up serving 43 years on the Chicago City Council by the time he died in 1962.24

Another one of Michael Crowe’s uncles was the notorious Pat Crowe, who’d kidnapped Edward Cudahy Jr., the son of a meatpacking tycoon in Omaha, in 1900, releasing the teenager after receiving $25,000 in ransom. It was one of the era’s most famous criminal cases, ending with Pat Crowe being found not guilty and going on the lecture circuit.25 (Despite his connections to all of these people who shared his surname, Mike Crowe was apparently not related to the Cook County state’s attorney, Robert Crowe.)

It’s not clear whether Mike Crowe was a member of any particular mob organization, but it seems likely that he was at least allied with the North Side mob, given his long history of activities in that part of Chicago. The Tribune reported that he moved up to the Wilson Avenue District after “the police got too industrious along the near north side.”

He reportedly ran a gambling joint at Sheridan Road and Dakin Street (a block south of Irving Park Road) for a while.26 In January 1923, Crowe was living in that vicinity—at 811 West Sheridan Road—when two masked robbers beat him up in the hallway outside his apartment, taking $620. Crowe managed to save a $2,000 diamond ring by hiding it in his mouth.27

It’s unknown precisely when Crowe’s Up-Town Social Club set up shop in the Green Mill building, but it was probably sometime after the building was expanded in early 1922. During another police raid, Sergeant O’Connor found a heavy iron door securely bolted in place at the club’s entrance, with a peephole bored into it. He pushed a buzzer and demanded to be let in. According to the Daily News, “a signal was given and the patrons fled through specially contrived exits.”

O’Connor’s men broke through the door using sledge hammers. Inside, they found only one man—who happened to be the brother of a police sergeant. He pleaded with the cops not to break up the furniture, but they started smashing up tables and chairs anyway. Mike Crowe then appeared on the scene, begging the officers not to destroy his club. He told them he was worried that Tom Chamales, his landlord, would force the club to vacate the premises if this sort of trouble kept up.28

It’s unknown if that’s what ended up happening, but the Up-Town Social Club soon moved out. It’s possible that the move was prompted by the Uptown Theatre construction project, which demolished a 10-foot-wide slice at the Green Mill building’s north end. That may have cut off the club’s stairwell entrance.

In any case, at some point around early 1924, the club moved a block north, converting a five-room flat at 4866 North Broadway into what the Tribune called “a gambling headquarters for the sporting gentry of the middle north side.”29 The newspaper also said it was “a well known gambling house and ‘pay off’ headquarters.”30 (The building was where the Uptown post office’s parking lot is today.) Captain O’Malley said the police started watching Crowe’s new location “pretty closely,” as soon as the club moved.

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 20, 1924.

This secretive gambling spot came to the public’s attention when tragedy struck on July 19, 1924. Shortly after 5 p.m., a club member named Frank H. Zahour walked in, bringing his paycheck of $51.31 Zahour, a gray-haired, 58-year-old immigrant from Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), worked as a printer32 for the Magill-Weinsheimer Company in the South Loop’s Printers Row district.33 The divorced man was all set to get married a week later to Julia Kelly, the owner of the rooming house where he lived,34 at 3432 North Elaine Place in Lake View.35

Insensitive newspaper headlines called Zahour a “cripple.” His right arm was weakened by rheumatism, making it difficult for him to lift it36—a condition that proved fateful when two bandits burst into the Up-Town Social Club as Zahour was cashing his check.

“Just at that moment I heard footstep coming up the stairs,” said John Shaw, who worked as a clerk for the club. “I didn’t pay particular attention, however, because I thought it was just a couple of the boys arriving for the evening. Then I spied a young man in the office doorway. There was a gat in his hand. ‘Stick ‘em up and face the wall,’ he ordered.”

Shaw and another clerk quickly obeyed the robbers’ orders, but Zahour could raise only one of his hands, the one clutching his money. “The next minute there was a couple of quick shots that sounded like a cannon roaring,” Shaw said. “I heard the old man’s body hit the floor—then the noise of two men rushing down the stairs. One of them was saying to the other: ‘Well, I got one of those guys.’”37 Two bullets—fired at such close range that they left black powder burns—had crashed into Zahour’s face and forehead, instantly killing him.38

The robbers didn’t pause to grab any loot—not even the money in Zahour’s hand. Witnesses saw them rushing out of the building, crossing a vacant lot, and jumping into a maroon Marmon touring car that was parked in Magnolia Avenue.39

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 21, 1924.

Outraged by the crime, Chicago’s police superintendent, Morgan A. Collins, announced that he was taking “personal charge” of the investigation. He wondered how the bandits had entered the club, where people weren’t admitted without giving “proper signals” that identified them as club members. Had it been an inside job? Collins threatened to arrest the club’s officials as accessories to murder if they knew the names of the killers and withheld that information.40

But Crowe said he believed he’d been the true target of the robbers. It “was me they were after, not Zahour,” he said. “I use the social club to pay off my bets on the Hawthorne races and I sometimes have as much as $20,000 or $25,000 on me when I go there.”41

As Collins listened, O’Malley tried to explain why the Up-Town Social Club had a kind of “immunity,” the Tribune reported. Collins interrupted the police captain, curtly telling him: “Clean that district up and do it at once.”

The story prompted questions about how widespread gambling was in Chicago. “There is no gambling in Chicago unless you would call the spasmodic attempts of optimistic gamblers to open, widespread gambling,” said Chicago’s mayor, William Emmett Dever (who’d defeated incumbent mayor Big Bill Thompson for the job in 1923). “Conditions are nothing compared to the old days. The suggestion that the police are conniving with gamblers to tilt the lid is tommyrot. Gambling is dead in Chicago and I have that straight from men who know it.”

Collins echoed the mayor, saying: “I never knew the town to be closed tighter than it is now but of course, there are some places that are operating surreptitiously.” Even as he downplayed the problem, Collins ordered a citywide crackdown on gambling.42

As far as the mystery of who killed Frank Zahour, no one was ever charged.43 But the Up-Town Social Club closed its doors for the last time. According to the anonymous author of Bullets for Dead Hoods, “Mike was gambling dictator of the Wilson avenue district, until too many bombs under his Uptown Social Club, 4866 Broadway, caused the police to close it.”44

One year later, the same building surfaced again in the news. Police officers overheard someone mention 4866 Broadway while talking about oriental rugs. That prompted the police to raid the building, where Earl Gordon operated a transfer and storage business. They found $50,000 worth of rugs, which they believed were stolen. As with many such crime stories reported in the newspapers, it’s unclear what, if anything, happened as a result of these allegations.45

Henry Horn’s stint as the Montmartre’s manager lasted only six months. In January 1924, he relinquished his interest in the cabaret to one of his business partners, Isadore Bookshester,46  a 42-year-old Romanian Jewish immigrant (born in Romania, Austria, or Jerusalem, according to various documents), who’d worked previously as a cigar manufacturer.47

Isadore Bookshester. Find A Grave.

As Bookshester became the manager, he filed paperwork with the State of Illinois, forming Montmartre Café Inc. with Robert S. Strauss and real estate lawyer48 Nicholas J. Pritzker (great-great-grandfather of Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker49). Bookshester’s wife, Clara, and Strauss each held about half of the shares in the corporation’s $40,000 capital stock.50

Strauss was the president of Robert S. Strauss & Co.,51 a downtown investment firm that urged people to put their money in “Safe 6½% First Mortgage Gold Bonds.” In one advertisement, the company said: “Invest your money where you know it is safe and where it will earn the full 6½% you are entitled to receive. … Build your fortune solidly.”52 Several years later, the company would fall into bankruptcy and face accusations of defrauding investors with these worthless bonds. It looked like a pyramid scheme, ending with the company owing $2,500,000 but having only $56,000 in assets that could be recovered.53

Variety, May 28, 1924.

In May 1924, Variety reported on a dispute between the Montmartre Cafe and the Orpheum Circuit of vaudeville houses, including downtown Chicago’s Palace and State-Lake theaters. It had been routine for entertainers from those theaters to visit the Montmartre, but the Orpheum management was now telling them to stay away from the nightclub.

“The Montmartre Cafe has been taking advantage of performers who visited it, going so far as to use their names in the newspaper advertising,” Variety reported. “It has played upon the well-known performer and the less well-known, to fill its coffers and get free publicity. It has had them as guests and commercialized them.”54

The entertainment at the Montmartre in 1924 included James Buffano and His Singing Dance Orchestra;55 Jeff Sayre, “The Thoroughbred Hoofer,” who performed the “Scramblegs Dance” 56; and Paul Zimm and his Chicagoans,57 a jazz band.58

“This 10-piece organization is a decided novelty with each member an artist on his individual instrument,” the New York Clipper wrote about Zimm’s band. “In addition the boys are entertainers and are always on the go. … The program consists mostly of ‘hot’ stuff which seems to have a big demand here. The organisation has quite a following. The instruments employed are two saxes, two cornets, tuba, trombone, banjo, piano, violin and drums.”59

In August, Zimm gave Variety a list of “popular songs now in demand in Chicago,” offering a glimpse at the sort of music his band played at the Montmartre: “June Night,” “Doodle Doo Doo,” “Never Again,” “Ray and His Little Chevrolet,” “Why Did I Kiss That Girl,” “Mandalay,” “It Had to Be You,” and Irving Berlin’s “What Will I Do?”60

The Montmartre reopened in early October 1924, after closing down for two months of “what was supposed to be extensive alterations,” Variety reported. However, when the newspaper checked out the revamped Montmartre, the reporter was sorely disappointed: “The only changes visible were the entertainers and orchestra. The carpet may have seen a vacuum cleaner and the two curtains a duster.”

Variety, October 8, 1924.

The headline on Variety’s scathing review used a curious turn of phrase, calling the nightclub a “Palace of Hallucinations.” The newspaper did not mean that anything psychedelic was happening at the Montmartre. Rather, it seemed to be saying that the Montmartre was a phony imitation of glamorous or classy institutions—perhaps like those in the actual Montmartre district of Paris. Or the original Green Mill Gardens.

When this reporter visited on October 7, Chicago’s Montmartre Cafe felt like a depressing place to spend an evening:

The cafe last year under the present management lost approximately $35,000. The cafe misses that intimate feeling and its atmospheric conditions are dull and dreary. It never was a cafe since Tom Chamales stepped out, and under the present regime it will never be.

The entertainment shapes up pretty strong for a cafe floor show, but there is no audience to appreciate the talent. The attendance on one night last week was 10, minus.

Frank Libuse, one of the best cafe clowns in the west, heads the roster. Mirth Mack, a comely miss, sings popular melodies. She is energetic in her work, displaying a world of personality and a good conception of delivery. Helen Morgan is another of the entertainers who would register under normal conditions. The balance of the mirth-makers fill in adequately.

Arnold Johnson’s Melody Boys supply the music for the entertainers and the four couples that usually gather on the floor to recuperate from the strenuous tiresome evening spent in this palace of hallucinations.61

Elsewhere in the same issue, Variety noted: “Patronage at the Montmartre has been decidedly off since the opening, presumably due to the uncouth manner in which the place is conducted.” The newspaper praised Arnold Johnson’s Melody Boys, but suggested that the band would get more attention if it moved to “a suitable cafe or dance hall.” The review continued:

Under existing conditions there probably isn’t an overabundance of incentive for this orchestra. Although when heard the boys were crooning away nicely and seem capable of “stepping out” if the necessity arose. Placed on a high platform, their routine is confined to “hot stuff” as the clientele that patronise this cafe would not encourage any other brand of syncopation.62

One of the nine musicians in Arnold Johnson’s Melody Boys may have been clarinetist Benny Goodman, who was just 15 years old at the time.

The young Benny Goodman. Syncopated Times.

Goodman, who later became legendary as the “King of Swing,” recalled performing with Johnson’s band at the Green Mill, starting in the fall of 1923 and continuing through the spring of 1924. But the details of Goodman’s story—performing with Arnold Johnson at a time when Helen Morgan was one of the entertainers—match up with these reports from the fall of 1924. Perhaps Goodman forgot which year it was.

In any case, Goodman clearly misremembered the name of the venue, calling it the Green Mill rather than the Montmartre, as it was known in 1923 and 1924. That’s understandable. He was using the more famous name for the place. Even if it was called the Montmartre when he stepped onto its stage, it became the Green Mill in his memory.

“At the Green Mill, there was nobody of much account in the band, but among the ‘ponies’ in the floor show were two kids named Helen Morgan and Ruth Etting,” Goodman recalled in his 1939 autobiography, The Kingdom of Swing, which he cowrote with Irving Kolodin. “They probably won’t thank me for this, but nobody had heard about them then.”63 In a 1938 interview with the Chicago Daily Tribune, Goodman made a similar remark about his time at the Green Mill: “Helen Morgan and Ruth Etting were there then, too.”64

Helen Morgan in a 1935 photograph by Carl Van Vechten. Library of Congress.

Morgan, a torch singer who became a star of stage and screen, started performing in clubs around 1920 after coming to Chicago from her hometown of Danville, Illinois.65 Years later, the Tribune reported that her first professional performance had been at Green Mill Gardens.66 “Her singing is a composite of all the ruined women in the world,” painter James Montgomery Flagg once remarked.

Helen Morgan. Fort Worth Record, February 3, 1924.

She was famous for sitting on top of a piano as she sang. Why did she sing sitting down? “Because I had to stand up 12 hours a day for years, boxing crackers, gelatin, and crackerjack,” she said, recalling the factory jobs she’d held before becoming a professional singer. She said she’d promised herself “to sit down forever if I got the chance.”67 Morgan would star in the 1936 movie of Show Boat. Five years later, she died in a Chicago hospital at the age of 41, reportedly having spent all of the millions of dollars she’d made.68

Ruth Etting in a 1934 photo for her CBS radio program sponsored by Oldsmobile. Wikimedia.

I haven’t found any original sources confirming Goodman’s recollection about Ruth Etting performing at Green Mill Gardens or the Montmartre, but she was at least in the vicinity. Etting, who’d come from Nebraska to study at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, rose to fame at Marigold Garden. She started there as a costume designer, before becoming a chorus girl and then a star singer.69 And in 1923, she’d performed at another nearby venue, Rainbo Gardens. Years later, she was the subject of sensational news stories when her ex-husband, gangster Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder, shot and killed her boyfriend, pianist Myrl Alderman.70

Ruth Snyder (née Etting). Zanesville, Ohio, Times Recorder, January 8, 1928.

John Steiner, who chronicled Chicago’s 1920s music scene, said Benny Goodman was fired from his gig at the Green Mill “because he was too hot for the show atmosphere” at the venue.71 Goodman, however, did not say anything about getting fired.

“Playing with bands like that was all right in several ways, particularly in money and as far as getting ahead was concerned,” Goodman wrote. “Still I was only a kid before and after the job, not even old enough to shave. I couldn’t pal around much with the fellows in the band, because they were all a lot older than I was. But in most of the jobs where I worked for any length of time, I would have at least one friend with whom I spent the time between sets.”72

Chicago Daily Tribune, March 4, 1923.

Sometime late in the fall of 1924, Arnold Johnson talked with pianist Jule Styne, asking if he was available to perform with Johnson’s band in January at the Hollywood Golf and Country Club in Florida.

Jule Styne. Wikimedia.

According to Theodore Taylor’s 1979 biography, Jule: The Story of Composer Jule Styne, “The Johnson band had just finished at the Green Mill, a Capone place on Broadway near Wilson, playing dance tunes and backing the floor shows. Helen Morgan and Ruth Etting were among the innocents in the Green Mill show.”73

As I noted in Chapter 22, Taylor’s book was based largely on 1970s interviews with Styne. Did Styne tell him that the Green Mill was a “Capone place” in 1924? If so, did Styne know what he was talking about? At least one thing is obviously incorrect about the story: The Green Mill did not exist in 1924—not under that name, anyway. It was the Montmartre. Like Goodman, Styne may have been remembering the place by its more famous name.

Taylor’s book is correct about Arnold Johnson’s band playing at the Hollywood Golf and Country Club, which Variety reported on January 14, 1925.74 But Johnson’s band apparently returned to the Montmartre in Chicago by the end of January and continued performing there through March, according to Variety’s notices.75 That matches up with Benny Goodman’s recollection of playing with the band through the spring.

Sometime around 1925, Bee Palmer, the dancer known as the “queen of the shimmy,” performed at the Montmartre, according to Variety. The newspaper said this was an example of how Chicago nightclub owners belatedly realized that they needed to feature star performers rather than expecting crowds to show up for a more generic evening of entertainment.76

In the summer of 1925, undercover investigators for the Committee of Fifteen, a private Chicago organization trying to squelch alcohol and prostitution, visited the nightclub.77 One of the committee’s undercover men, Alexander Schwaren, entered the Montmartre Cafe at 1:15 a.m. on the morning of June 29, making observations. This was the second establishment he’d visited that night, following an earlier stop at Valentine’s Inn, 22 East Adams Street. At the Montmartre, Schwaren noted that the place was operating as a “disorderly cafe,” suggesting that he believed prostitution or other similar vice crimes were taking place there. He counted 50 patrons and four unescorted women.

“I entered and took seat along so. wall,” he wrote. “Head waiter sent a hostess to keep me company. She saluted me.” (At another café, Schwaren had recently noted: “We were saluted to indulge in prostitution by 2 women.”78)

Chicago Committee of Fifteen Records, University of Chicago Library.

Continuing his report about the Montmartre, Schwaren noted: “I saw liquor being drank by patrons and patrons drunk.” Schwaren also jotted down a note about the dancing by the cabaret’s patrons, writing a word that’s hard to decipher: It may have said “rotten” or “rather.” In some of the other cabarets he visited, Schwaren described the dancing as “very bad” or “indecent.”79

He continued: “Head waiter told me he was short of booze and to come back tomorrow.” Schwaren left the café at 3 a.m. and got home at 4:30 a.m.

On the evening of June 29, Schwaren met up with Leslie Lewis, another investigator for the Committee of Fifteen. Together, they went to the Montmartre at 11:30 p.m. Schwaren counted 50 patrons and one unescorted woman. This time, he noted that the place was “operating as a cabaret,” indicating that it featured live entertainment—or maybe that it seemed less “disorderly” than it had been on the previous night.

“Entered and took seats along so. wall,” he wrote. “Head waiter came over and asked what I’d have. I told him I want a pint of whisky. He took me out in the hall and told me the man standing there would hand it to me. I asked him how much and he said $7.00. He handed me a batch of Pebble Ford. Bottle submitted.” That seems to indicate that he kept the bottle as evidence. Once again, he observed the patrons dancing. And then he concluded: “I was saluted by the girls.”80

Chicago Committee of Fifteen Records, University of Chicago Library.

Lewis returned to the Montmartre around 4 a.m. on July 3—apparently without Schwaren—and ordered a pint of whiskey. An employee brought him a bottle, and Lewis paid $7 for it, according to his affidavit.81

In September—a couple of weeks after the Uptown Theatre opened with much fanfare on the same block—the U.S. government used Lewis’s statement as the basis of a new equity lawsuit against Montmartre Cafe Inc., seeking to shut it down. The government also named Otto Annoreno and Tom Chamales as defendants, noting that they owned the premises.82

An officer with the Montmartre corporation, Robert S. Straus, denied that any liquor was being sold there. So did Annoreno and Chamales. In spite of the fact that Annoreno and Chamales were not listed anywhere in the Montmartre’s corporation papers, the two men admitted they had “ownership and proprietorship of the business conducted on said premises.”83

Later in September, a federal judge in Wisconsin made a ruling with huge ramifications in Chicago and beyond. Judge Ferdinand Geiger shut down the Midway Inn on Bluemound Road on the outskirts of Milwaukee, ruling that the it was an illegal “nuisance” under the Volstead Act. This roadhouse allegedly allowed customers to bring in their own alcohol. The way Geiger read the law, this BYOB policy was an illegal act of “keeping” alcohol. “If this decision holds, every roadhouse in the United States can be padlocked,” a lawyer for the roadhouse remarked. Prosecutors said this was the first time a court had interpreted the law this way.84

E.C. Yellowley in a 1925 Chicago Daily News photo. DN-0079659, Chicago History Museum.

It remained to be seen whether other judges would agree, but the U.S. government’s top prohibition official in Chicago, E.C. Yellowley, took Judge Geiger’s decision as a signal to crack down on cabarets. “According to information at hand, Chicago cabarets are too popular with the drinking element,” he said. “If it becomes necessary, I will raid some of the big places every night and bring in patrons who are caught with liquor in their possession, either on their persons or under the table covers.”

The Tribune reported that most of the city’s popular night spots had “carefully refrained from selling drinks.” But that wouldn’t be enough to avoid getting caught in Yellowley’s new crackdown. According to the Tribune, Yellowley was targeting “supper clubs, glittering cabarets, exclusive dansants, semi-public hotel sipping centers, and all of the other rendezvous of those who have come to believe it’s all right to drink high voltage stuff if they bring it themselves.”

It was rumored that federal agents were planning to raid Rainbo Gardens, the Edgewater Beach Hotel, the College Inn, the Midnite Frolics, and the Friars Inn, which the Tribune described as “a gay spot of the subdued, moaning saxophone type,” noting: “No booze sold but folks have been seen there with flasks of their own.”85

Several weeks later, these rumored raids didn’t seem to be happening. Cabaret owners said they believed Yellowley had just been bluffing. But the Tribune reported that the feds were taking a new approach. Instead of making arrests and seizing drinks to be tested for alcoholic content, agents were quietly keeping an eye on what was happening inside these places. If they saw patrons buying alcohol or drinking their own booze, the government would file lawsuits based on the agents’ testimony, aiming to shut the places down.86

Danny Cohen had become a manager and part-owner of the Montmartre Cafe in April 1925.87 On the last day of the year, he gave his waiters a lecture during the roll call before New Year’s Eve festivities at the Montmartre Cafe. Chicago’s Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker, got word of what Cohen told his employees. He’d emphasized “the importance of waiters sticking together when one of them has an argument or is about to have any trouble with guests under the influence of liquor.”

Cohen told them to look out for patrons with their own liquor in “full view.” He told the waiters to refuse to serve customers unless their liquor “was put out of sight.” Cohen gave these instructions after meeting with federal prohibition officials.

The Daily Worker, January 13, 1926.

The Daily Worker sensed a class bias in the way these officials decided whom to arrest: “Mr. Cohen let drop that the prohibition director did not wish to make any arrests, as he could not always ascertain whom he was arresting. Does it not seem strange that he needs to know? Would he wait to be sure if entered a place patronized by men in overalls?”

The Daily Worker also suggested that the Montmartre’s waiters should take Cohen’s advice about “sticking together” a step further—by standing up for their rights as workers. The newspaper said the waiters needed “a wash basin in their toilet room so that the waiters can wash their hands before returning to serve guests.” They’d also been served “sour potatoes and sour soup” instead of “good food” during a meal break. And on at least one occasion, they’d been paid only $7.50 for a night’s work, rather than the $10 they’d been expecting, which was the going wage for waiters at some comparable venues.

The Daily Worker criticized the Chicago local branch of the waiters’ union for not taking a stronger stance on these issues: “Well, men, you’ll wake up some day. I talk to more men each day who are gradually seeing more light. Solidarity is the only solution. Get a little literature on the subject. Open your eyes and look about you. You all know what a joke your Chicago local is. It is up to all of us to get in there and put over a few changes that will enable it to function as a workers’ organization.”88

Chicago Night Life & Society Gossip, March and April 1926.

In the spring of 1926, the Montmartre advertised itself as “Chicago’s Joy Spot” where “Every Night Is Carnival Night,” promising: “Every Night at Twelve a Surprise.”89 Chorus girls in slinky costumes were one of the venue’s main attractions.

“The twelve gorgeous mannikins hold their own in more ways than one—looking ravishingly beautiful, dancing and singing to the heart’s desire, to say nothing of the superb way they carry their startling costumes,” a writer for Chicago Night Life & Society Gossip commented.90 A quip in the same monthly publication said that a Montmartre show was “a treat if you like feminine athletes and who don’t.”91

Chicago Night Life & Society Gossip, March 1926,
Chicago Night Life & Society Gossip, April 1926,

Broadway entertainer Hal Hixon presided over one of these revues. “What amazes me every time I visit the Montmartre is the untiring, seemingly indefatigable energy that Hal Hixon possesses,” remarked Bernie, a Chicago Night Life writer. “And with all he does and takes upon himself to do, how does he keep so surprisingly buoyant and pleasant? He seems to be a chap that recognizes no such vice as the vice of laying down on the job. He has everything that one could hope to possess in the way of personality, talents and friendly good nature.” 92

Bernie also praised a singer billed as the Bronze Melba. That had been the stage name of an African American singer at the turn of the 20th century; it’s not clear if this was the same entertainer, or another woman adopting the guise.93 Whoever this Melba really was, Bernie raved that she was “jes’ one irresistible large, round, fat Aunt Jemima.” (As it happened, a white singer had reportedly performed a few years earlier at Green Mill Gardens in the persona of Aunt Jemima, the Black character whose face appeared on boxes of pancake mix.) Bernie continued his description of the Bronze Melba: “That great, big honey, yaller, molasses voice of her’s jes’ gets you hard. You feel as though you’d suddenly become a baby again and she was rockin’ you ter sleep, singing ‘Sweetes’ li’l feller.’” He noted that the show also featured a duo known as Snowball and Half-pint. “Those two diminutive sticks of molasses!” he wrote. “What screams they are when they exhibit their amazing agility in the Charleston!”

If the hype-heavy articles in Chicago Night Life can be believed, the Montmartre was pulling in “enthusiastic crowds.”94 One column praised Montmartre owner Danny Cohen for his “great faculty of getting a hold of people who know how to make things go with a whizz.” Cohen was reportedly running the place in partnership with someone named Eddie Conne. “One will never suffer fatigue or disappointment at the Montmartre,” Chicago Night Life wrote. “Eddie Conne and Danny Cohen are capital hosts and the wisest of proprietors.”95

In May 1926, the Committee of Fifteen asked federal judge Adam C. Cliffe to issue an injunction shutting down the Montmartre Cafe. The judge didn’t think the evidence presented by the group was sufficient, so he sent his own personal investigator, Clarence L. Converse, to do some sleuthing.

Converse returned to the courtroom on June 4, testifying that he’d gone to the Montmartre on the night of May 27. As he watched, four couples came in. After they were served ginger ale, two of the men promptly produced hip flasks and spiked their drinks, Converse testified.

“What kind of containers were the hip flasks?” Judge Cliffe asked.

“The usual kind which contain whisky.”

“Are you satisfied the flasks contained whisky?”

“I am,” Converse said. He also testified that he’d seen another couple, sitting just 10 feet away from a Montmartre employee, drinking from a liquor bottle they were keeping on the floor by their feet. Converse gave no testimony about the café selling liquor to anyone. He was the only witness, and the Montmartre did not have any attorney present in the courtroom during his testimony.

The judge said he’d heard enough.96 Cliffe issued a permanent injunction, shutting down the Montmartre Cafe for violating the federal prohibition law. But he didn’t order the nightclub premises to remain vacant for a year, as prosecutors had requested. The words “one year” were crossed out in his decree. Instead, he ordered that the space would have to shut down for 60 days. And so, the judge’s permanent injunction didn’t turn out to be all that permanent.

“The Marshal shall see to it that said public and common nuisance is abated, and to that end shall lock and seal the said premises,” Cliffe’s decree explained. “The Marshal shall seize all intoxicating liquor on said premises, and shall take and destroy all intoxicating liquor so seized, heretofore seized, or now upon said premises.”97

The permanent injunction closing the Montmartre Cafe. (Click on the picture for a larger view.) Equity 5147, U.S. v. Montmartre Cafe Inc., Otto L. Annoreno and Thomas Chamales, U.S. District Court for the Eastern (Chicago) Division of the Northern District of Illinois, National Archives at Chicago.

This was the first time a judge in Chicago had closed an establishment since the feds began their new “no buy” strategy, using “observation evidence” against places where customers were bringing in their own alcohol. But the Tribune noted that the Montmartre had already closed down for renovations when Cliffe issued his injunction. His ruling forced that work to stop.98

A week after the court ruling shut down the Montmartre Cafe, federal prohibition agents and Chicago police uncovered a liquor redistilling and distribution center just up the street. Michael Crowe, the man who’d run the Up-Town Social Club gambling joint, was reportedly at the center of this booze business. Authorities said Crowe’s cigar stand at 1137 West Argyle Street was a front for the bootlegging operation, which also involved the Universal Art Company at 1135 West Argyle and a furniture repair shop just around the corner, at 4949 North Broadway.

The above Sanborn map shows the corner of Argyle and Broadway, where the alleged bootlegging operation was located. Chicago, Volume 17 (New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1905), updated through 1924, 68, Chicago History Museum.

Tapping a telephone, prohibition agents learned that the organization had four drivers delivering liquor to customers. When agents and cops raided these businesses clustered at the southeast corner of Argyle and Broadway, they found a redistilling plant capable of producing 4,500 gallons a day. They seized 400 pints of gin, 40 gallons of alcohol, 5,000 empty bottles, and a list of 1,000 customers.99 But just like the story about stolen oriental rugs, this booze bust quickly disappeared from newspaper reports. Did anything happen as a result of the raid? Who was on the list of 1,000 customers? What did authorities do with the list? We simply don’t know.

According to Bullets for Dead Hoods, Crowe gained control over alcohol distribution in the part of Chicago’s North Side north of Wilson Avenue at some point, though it’s not clear exactly when.100

Five months after the federal judge shut down the Montmartre Cafe, the nightclub reopened with a new name. Or rather, an old name. “The new Green Mill cafe … will blossom forth with a lavish production Wednesday evening, Nov. 17, featuring Joe Lewis, who reigns as the king of jesters, with a strong supporting cast,” the Daily News reported.101

Thanks to Tim Samuelson and Peter Regas for sharing articles and advertisements about the Montmartre from Chicago Night Life & Society Gossip.



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3 “Fun Spots Around Town,” Chicago Daily News, July 14, 1923, 11.

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10 Advertisement, New York Clipper, August 10, 1923, 23.——-en-20–1-byDA-img-txIN-%22montmartre+cafe%22———.

11 “Night Club Reviews: Green Mill (Chicago),” Variety, October 19, 1927, 58,

12 “Where the Funseekers Go,” Chicago Daily News, January 20, 1923, 10.

13 “Where the Funseekers Go,” Chicago Daily News, December 24, 1921, 12.

14 Advertisements, Chicago Daily Tribune, August 20, 1922, 20; February 23, 1923, 5.

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31 “Cripple Shot by Bandits in Gaming House.”

32 Illinois, U.S., Deaths and Stillbirths Index, 1916-1947,

33 1923 Chicago city directory, 1952,

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37 “Cripple Shot by Bandits in Gaming House.”

38 “Cripple Can’t ‘Put ‘Em Up’; Killed by Bandit,” Cook County Herald, July 18, 1924, 25.

39 “Cripple Shot by Bandits in Gaming House.”

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43 Case 7436, Homicide in Chicago 1870–1930,

44 Anonymous (John Corbett, ed.), Bullets for Dead Hoods: An Encyclopedia of Chicago Mobsters, c. 1933 (Chicago: Soberscove Press, 2020), 57–58.

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46 No headline, New York Clipper, January 11, 1924, .——-en-20–81-byDA-img-txIN-%22green+mill+gardens%22———.

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52 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 12, 1925, 39.

53 “Lawyer Reveals Brokers’ Woes in Three States,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 4, 1930, 18; “President of Defunct Bond House Quizzed,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 17, 1930, 18; “Criminal Action May Be Taken in Brokers’ Case,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 5, 1930, 5; “Recover $56,000 to Pay Creditors of Bond House,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 7, 1931, 12.

54 “Vaudeville Artists Informed to Keep Clear of Chicago Cafe,” Variety, May 28, 1924, 5,

55 Advertisement, New York Clipper, February 22, 1924, 69.——-en-20–1-byDA-img-txIN-%22montmartre+cafe%22———.

56 Advertisement, Variety, April 6, 1924, 36,

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58 “Zimm’s Chicagoans,” New York Clipper, February 8, 1924, 15,——-en-20–1–txt-txIN———-.

59 “Band and Orchestra Reviews,” New York Clipper, July 12, 1924, 21,——-en-20–1–txt-txIN———-.

60 “Popular Songs Now in Demand in Chicago,” Variety, August 6, 1924, 36,

61 “Montmartre, Chi., Reopens ‘Palace of Hallucinations,’” Variety, October 8, 1924, 39,

62 “Arnold Johnson’s Melody Boys,” Variety, October 8, 1924, 38,

63 Benny Goodman and Irving Kolodin, The Kingdom of Swing (New York: Stackpole, 1939), 42–43.

64 Ed Sullivan, “Locking at Hollywood: In Old Chicago,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 17, 1938, p. 13.

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73 Theodore Taylor, Jule: The Story of Composer Jule Styne (New York: Random House, 1979), 38.

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75 “Bands and Orchestras,” Variety, January 28, 1925, 39,; “Bands and Orchestras,” Variety, March 4, 1925, 42,

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81 Bill for injunction and affidavit of Leslie Lewis, September 8, 1925, Equity 5147, U.S. v. Montmartre Cafe.

82 Order for temporary injunction, September 8, 1925; summons, June 4, 1926, Equity 5147, U.S. v. Montmartre Cafe.

83 Answer of Montmartre Cafe and Robert S. Straus, October 2, 1925; answer of Otto L. Annoreno, October 6, 1925; answer of Tom Chamales, December 28, 1925, Equity 5147, U.S. v. Montmartre Cafe.

84 “‘Hippers’ Bring Roadhouse Ban,” Racine (WI) Journal-News, September 25, 1925, 1.

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89 Advertisement, Chicago Night Life & Society Gossip, March 1926, 4.

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91 “In Nite Life Circles,” Chicago Night Life & Society Gossip, April 1926, 26.

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95 “Bits From the Cafes: Montmartre,” Chicago Night Life & Society Gossip, April 1926, 25–27.

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99 “4,500 Gal. Still With Big Retail Trade Is Raided,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 13, 1926, 3.

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