Prohibition club in Chicago

This is the first time I’ve seen actual footage of a “speakeasy”—an illegal alcohol-dispensing joint that operated during Prohibition in America (between 1920 and 1933). Sent by reader Michael, the video even has sound, and shows dancing girls, a band, and an oily top-hatted master of ceremonies. And, as Michael pointed out, the booze is clearly visible on the tables.

The YouTube notes say this,

Old film of Mack’s Club (12 East Pearson Street) in Chicago, Il on February 13, 1931. The troupe leader is Harry Glen. These scenes were taken with early Movietone sound cameras. 

This club was in downtown Chicago, and I can’t find any other information about it, nor any about Harry Glen. Perhaps ambitious readers may find other information.  I’m just showing this because movies of speakeasies during Prohibition, which were illegal, are rare, and those with sound even rarer.

I don’t know how America survived 13 years without alcohol, although, as you see, those with means really didn’t.

42 Comments

  1. JezGrove
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Amazing footage. Timothy Leary claimed he was conceived on the night prohibition came into force – but also claimed to have memories of the conception. Can’t imagine what he’d done to his brain that could explain such a belief…

  2. Steve Pollard
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Could it be the guy referred to here?

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stardusters

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    If you want to promote crime just pass a stupid law. Thanks to the religious side of America.

    • Posted January 29, 2019 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      Not only. “Ban X” is an easy solution and it is natural for many to rush to it when they see a problem. Jack London’s alcohol problem made him wish alcohol to be banned.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted January 29, 2019 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        But what prohibition should have told all of us is – you cannot legislate moral behavior. It was a total disaster.

        • Martin X
          Posted January 29, 2019 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

          Not so.

        • Posted January 30, 2019 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

          As a non-American, I have always regarded the Prohibition as motivated by pragmatism rather than morality (to reduce alcoholism and its disastrous consequences). However, it turned out that alcohol is too deeply ingrained in Western culture to be legislated away. I wonder how Christians could support the Prohibition, keeping in mind the “Drink this wine, it is my blood” in the Gospels. But religion is not known for consistency.

      • GBJames
        Posted January 29, 2019 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        Jack’s solution is the kind of thing a drunk person might think would work.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted January 29, 2019 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

          😎

          cr

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Looks like the kinda joint where you could run into Meyer Wolfsheim.

  5. E.A. Blair
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    It would be interesting if a speakeasy-themed bar would open up, and fortunate if it was popular enough to stay open.

    In Milwaukee, there is a movie-spy-themed bar called The Safe House. In order to be admitted, you either have to know the password or perform a humiliating stunt. I took my ex-nephew there on his 21st birthday, gave the password, and slipped through the hidden door, leaving him to perform the stunt. He and two other patrons had to put on fake grass skirts and perform a hula (a TV image of the stunts appears on a monitor over the bar).

    Anyway, I imagine a speakeasy would have a similar entry ritual with a password and other means of getting in.

  6. rustybrown
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I wish I were there.

  7. GBJames
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I think the not-so-well-to-do also had access to beverages during Prohibition but their’s was more likely to be of questionable quality.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      I think that’s when and how the phrase “bathtub gin” got its start.

  8. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Culled from: Drury, John. Dining in Chicago, New York: The John Day Company, 1931, pp. 243-244 SOURCE

    MACK’S CLUB, 12 East Pearson Street

    Bright spot of the near north side, a stone’s throw from Michigan Avenue and the Gold Coast. Where every night is New Year’s Eve. The famous Harry McKelvey is host and Harry Glyn, who knows how to entertain, is master of ceremonies. For feminine diversion there are Trudy Davidson and a collection of pretty faces and nimble dance feet. Keith Beecher and his Melody Makers provide the music — and what music. Intimate atmosphere. You’ll have plenty of fun. Cover charge, $1.00. Whitehall 6667″

    As you can see from the video the club literally has New Year’s Eve every night & it would be churlish to leave before the witching hour! Here is the bit I quoted above in context in the chapter on Sun Dodgers [read it to find out]

    CLICK TO BIGGENATE:
    SD1

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      “Chicago’s Genial Host” Harry McKelvey blew his brains out 13 months later with a .45 if the press are to be believed – money troubles & ill health according to the widow. I’m guessing someone helped him hold the pistol & nobody is too bothered to dig. An unhealthy time to go digging into who owned what etc.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      The piano player is probably Keith Beecher who was everywhere in the club/dance 30s scene – fronting various bands he put together. The most recent reference I have for him is 7 & a bit years later. He appears on a lot of radio listings from the era – half hour spots with his ‘orchestra’ as they called these little combos in those days. Oct 1938 DePaulia Lakeshore Dance

      “Keith Beecher to Play Keith Beecher’s Orchestra, which will provide the musical score for the evening of entertainment, has been popularly featured for three seasons at the Stevens Hotel, broadcasting over WGN, WENR and WMAQ. He has also had steady engagements at the Morrison Hotel, the Grand Hotel at Mackinac, the New Palm Beach in Florida and the Mount Royal in Montreal. In addition, Mr. Beecher has played for a number of university affairs. He haa recently played at the Villa Moderne, broadcasting over WBBM, CBS. In addition to arranging most of the orchestra numbers, this well known leader plays the piano in his band”

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      And here’s Trudy Davidson: vintage 8×10 photo from August 1935. Trudy was a popular Chicago area showgirl and exotic dancer during the 30s & early 40s. This promotional photo was used to advertise her appearance at Harry’s New York CaBARet. Sometimes her 1st name is spelled Trudye. Note the crude 30s ‘PhotoShop’ of her right side:

  9. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    There are lots of crazy laws all over this country even today regarding booze. Sometimes it is state, sometimes county and city. It must be in our genes, we smell liquor and the laws stream out. In Iowa the state still runs the liquor and wine business far as I know. They no longer have the state liquor stores but the buyers work for the state. For years in Kansas there was no liquor by the drink so you had to keep your bottle behind the counter in the bar. Even today, to protect the liquor stores there is no liquor in the grocery stores.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      I grew up in Iowa, and so I considered it normal to have to go to special liquor stores. Then off to grad school in neighboring Illinois, and got a very nice surprise to see quite a selection of EtOH in local supermarkets. Civil-i-zation!!

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted January 29, 2019 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        Yes, it’s kind of pathetic to have the state run your liquor and wine business but that was Iowa and still is to some degree. Those few buyers in Des Moines or wherever, controlled all the liquor and wine sold in the state. Do you think there might be some corruption there? Hell, we use to go to Omaha to buy wine because they didn’t have what we wanted in Iowa.

        • Teresa Carson
          Posted January 29, 2019 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

          Pennsylvania used to have “state” stores that were liquor stores. In fact, they still may exist. I think parts of Texas are still dry. Dallas used to be divided up into wet and dry sections, and as late as the 1990s, some areas in Texas still required you to pay $5 to join a “private club” in order to buy a drink in a restaurant. My grandfather owned a ranch on the central coast in California, and he used to get liquor from friends in San Francisco, so even people who weren’t wealthy were able to get alcohol. Silly laws.

          • Randall Schenck
            Posted January 29, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

            I spent many years in Texas, sorry to say and many of them around Dallas. The south end is called Oak Cliff and it was dry. You had to drive north across the trinity river to the wet part of down. It was like night and day the difference. Oak Cliff had nothing, no restaurants, no night life nothing. You had to go north for everything. I never saw any place like it. prohibition, which is what it was, just killed the entire part of town. That is what Southern Baptist did for Dallas.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted January 29, 2019 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

              New Zealand flirted with prohibition in the first half of the 20th century. It never quite had it but some local areas were able to impose a ban on alcohol outlets. These lingered on for quite a while, in the 80’s about half the boroughs in Auckland were ‘dry’. Coincidentally my borough (Mt Roskill) was known as the ‘Bible belt’. Fortunately the boundary was only a quarter mile away so our nearest block of shops actually included a bottle store.

              Other boroughs had their liquor supplied through ‘licensing trusts’ – nonprofits of some sort.

              Up until the 60’s we also had the ‘six o’clock swill’ – pubs had to shut at 6p.m. So come 5 o’clock the workers raced out of their workplaces across the road to guzzle as much as they could in the next hour. This did not make for civilised drinking. The 6 o’clock swill was the first (unlamented) casualty of liberalisation. It was extended to 10 p.m. and that stuck for a long while.

              Dry weekends lasted a lot longer – I think pubs were closed from mid-day Saturday on. You’d be driving in the country, spot a nice country pub and – oh, bloody Sunday!

              I also remember slightly insober expeditions on Saturday evenings / Sunday mornings to get a crate of ‘Ray’s’ – the local illicit home brew – when the booze at the party ran out. It tasted a bit like dishwater, to be honest.

              Of course, real remote country pubs were always open via the back door, for extended hours. I was staying at a pub in Kaikohe (resident guests could legally use the ‘house bar’ at any time) and some time after 10p.m. the barman asked me if I minded if all the locals who were busy still drinking could be my ‘guests’ as he’d been informed the local constable was about to visit. Of course I didn’t mind.

              cr

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted January 29, 2019 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

                Oh, and in dry areas, alongside every Parliamentary election (every 3 years here) there was a poll to ‘Remain’ (dry) or ‘Restore’ (booze). I guess it was quite cheap to run since the polling stations were already set up for the election. ‘Wet’ areas didn’t get the poll.

                Mt Roskill finally went ‘wet’ in 1999, one of the last areas to do so. By then all surrounding areas but one were ‘wet’, so the ‘desert’ was of limited extent anyway.

                cr

              • Randall Schenck
                Posted January 29, 2019 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

                It’s good to hear we are not the only place doing crazy things because of alcohol. Do they still have the 10 oclock shut down at night? I know when I was in England it was always 11 oclock. Pubs all closed at 11 pm. In London right at 11 all the cabs would disappear just as everyone was looking for a cab. Lots of us Americans went to Norwich to a club that locked the doors at 11 and kept right on going until 1 or 2 am. I think they had a deal with the cops.

              • phoffman56
                Posted January 29, 2019 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

                Between 1963 and 1966, my memory has it that central London was 11 closing, but elsewhere (at least Manchester) it was 10:30. But they were all open by 11 AM IIRC, and the best places around for liquid lunch, or lunch period.

                Crick (with Watson, and then later cronies), Stephen Hawking early on at least, and a few very good mathematical researchers I sort of knew, all probably got half their best ideas at noon in the pub.

                However I often wonder whether I half-ruined my brain with too much beer both then and earlier as an undergrad in Toronto. Ontario was very ‘Orangemen’ polluted, strict on booze sales (nothing on Sunday in those days) and government controlled sales even now. It was a big deal to go to Montreal and get 6.5% alcohol in Brador beer. Usually 5% in Ontario but less in both Britain and U.S.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted January 29, 2019 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

                @Randall
                “Do they still have the 10 oclock shut down at night?”

                No, that seemed to fade away a couple of decades ago. Since then the picture has fragmented, with (I think) individual licenses or areas being set – individually.

                I haven’t been following it. A quick Google suggests that some city pubs can open until the ‘small hours’ – 1a.m. or 3a.m.

                For example, from 2014:
                “Hot on the heels of new national 4am closing hours for bars, the Auckland Council wants to close Auckland pubs and clubs even earlier – at 3am in the city and Ponsonby, and 1am everywhere else.”
                “Local council policies can override the national hours but Wellington’s proposed 5am closing is being appealed by police and health authorities.”

                I haven’t been following developments since then.

                cr

              • Posted January 30, 2019 at 5:02 am | Permalink

                As a teenager in Glasgow in the sixties, pubs closed at 10pm, causing the 10 o’clock “swallie” (swallow). Later on it was extended to 11pm, and finally pretty much lifted altogether, I think. Sundays were a problem, in that only hotel bars were open, and then only for bona fide travellers, and with shorter hours. I think this was a result of the Presbyterian influence in Scotland. It was eventually recognised that the “traveller” requirement simply meant that everyone drove to the next nearest hotel, rather than walking to the nearest, thus encouraging drink-driving, and so that law was abandoned in the interests of road safety.

                We also had dry areas in Scotland, decided by local polls from time to time, and they’ve all died out now.

              • Posted January 30, 2019 at 5:05 am | Permalink

                PS, heading off tonight to New Zealand for a month, looking forward to trying your wines. Is tipping (waiters, taxis drivers, etc) still considered unnecessary or impolite? I prefer to tip, but don’t want to seem uncouth.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted January 30, 2019 at 5:12 am | Permalink

                @Colin

                Tipping is not generally practised in NZ. Most service people aren’t tipped and aren’t expecting it.

                Waiters and taxi drivers are probably the exception. That is to say, a waiter / taxi driver won’t be surprised if you tip them, but they’re unlikely to yell at you if you don’t.

                Anyone else would be quite surprised if you tip them. The general expectation is that peoples’ wages are (or should be) adequate and they shouldn’t need to rely on tips.

                cr

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted January 30, 2019 at 5:19 am | Permalink

                P.S. Unlike Chicago, we’re having a heatwave. A bit too warm for comfort (though we’re not Asutralia, our heatwaves would hardly be noticed in Oz). Temperatures are expected to ease off after the weekend.

                cr

              • Posted January 30, 2019 at 5:38 am | Permalink

                Thanks for the tip 🙂 Coming from Scotland, I fully expect the weather to break as soon as we land on Friday. We’ve packed lots of sunblock.

  10. yazikus
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been working my way through a fun book on Washington State legislative history (Rogues, Buffoons & Statesmen) that had an amusing tale of prohibition in WA. Apparently, the bootleggers wheeled barrels of whiskey into the senate and the house prior to their vote on ending prohibition, in order to get them drunk and to vote against ending it!

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

      What was the vote, for or against?

      • yazikus
        Posted January 29, 2019 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

        If I recall correctly, it was resoundingly for ending prohibition.

  11. James Walker
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    As I learned from my grandfather, who moved to Toronto from Ottawa in the 1930s and lived in West Toronto for the next 25 years, it was an officially “dry” region up until 2000, largely because of one anti-drinking politician: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Horace_Temple#Temperance_crusader

    When I lived there in the mid-1980s, I remember having to travel a few subway stops to find an LCBO (government liquor store).

  12. Posted January 30, 2019 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Chicago? Prohibition? Paging Mr. Al Capone!?

  13. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted January 30, 2019 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    What really struck me was how ‘amateurish’ these dancers were, compared to the really professional exploits of -even amateur- modern dancers.

    • GBJames
      Posted January 30, 2019 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      I suspect that dancing was not the main required skill.


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