"Three shots closed Texas Guinan's show at the Green Mill cafe, Lawrence avenue and Broadway, at 4 o'clock yesterday morning. The internationally known night club hostess was asking the suckers to give the little girl a big hand." —Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1930
It's not uncommon to walk into a bar in Chicago these days and feel like the present is the past: drinkers belly up to polished wood, sipping drinks concocted from small-batch whiskies and admiring each other in the soft glow of exposed Edison lightbulbs. We're living in a cocktail renaissance, a period when authenticity and history, even if the bar only opened last month, mean something. And that's a good thing.
But if real is what you're looking for, there's no better place to find it than at the corner of Broadway and Lawrence. For longtime Chicago residents the Green Mill is so well-known it's almost an afterthought. But the bar's story—its place in Prohibition lore, its importance to Uptown and the local music scene, and more dramatically, its own rebirth after decades of neglect—make it a singular piece of Chicago history.
Opened in 1907 as Pop Morse's Roadhouse, it was first a bar and beer garden for mourners spilling over from the nearby Graceland and Saint Boniface cemeteries, eager to quench their thirst and toast the dearly departed. The bar was purchased by Tom Chamales, a real estate developer and tavern owner, in 1910 and renamed the Green Mill Gardens. The new name referenced Paris's Moulin Rouge (Red Mill), but opted for a different hue so as to avoid association with a nearby red-light district. Chamales expanded the venue (the current bar is only a small portion of the original). Along with other nearby spots like the Uptown Theatre, which took the space occupied by the gardens themselves, the Green Mill Gardens helped the area become a nexus for entertainment and boozing right before Prohibition. Supposedly, Chamales was once offered $1 million for the bar and turned it down.
- SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
- The Uptown Theater, built in 1925, took the space occupied by the original Green Mill Gardens.
The Mill's Jazz Age pedigree has no equal in Chicago. Newspaper accounts of the era tell a lively tale of the locals' proclivities and personalities. Jack "Machine Gun" McGurn, a Capone associate, supposedly owned part of the club during Prohibition, when tunnels under the bar were used to smuggle in booze, and kept a table reserved for his boss (walk into the bar, past the booths on the north wall, and it's the first one you run into, positioned so you can see both entrances). A Tribune article from 1927 suggests McGurn threatened a cabaret singer, Joseph Lewis, who was considering a better offer at the rival Rendezvous Cafe, saying he would "take him for a ride." Lewis was later found, throat slashed and stabbed in the gut, in his dressing room. (He survived the attack.) In the spirit of journalistic integrity, the paper also advances the theory that Lewis "had the sort of face that women love and that the man who stabbed him may have done so to punish the singer for philandering with wives or sweethearts." (Lewis eventually returned to the Green Mill to perform comedy, inspiring the movie The Joker Is Wild, starring Frank Sinatra.)
Superstars of the era routinely performed at the Mill, including Billie Holiday and Al Jolson, along with cabaret icons like Texas Guinan. A onetime rodeo rider and vaudeville performer, Guinan reinvented herself during Prohibition, becoming a bawdy, breezy master of ceremonies for cabaret shows at spots like the 300 Club in New York before coming to Chicago for a brief period from 1928 to 1930. Tribune reporter James Doherty, in his remembrance of the nightlife icon he called the "Queen of Whoopee," wrote that "Guinan's New York was wetter than the Atlantic. When she brought her talents to Chicago, the humidity increased locally." For someone who didn't drink or smoke ("I have no minor vices"), she sure riled Prohibition agents, who supposedly tried unsuccessfully to indict her. Jason Cole, a longtime Green Mill bartender, remembers hearing a story that Guinan would always play the pity card when she was brought in front of a judge, a meek little woman in handcuffs. The police noticed this, and stopped handcuffing her. Guinan started bringing her own pair.
But after World War II, the Green Mill gradually faded. The Batsis brothers bought the place in 1940, then sold it in 1960 to Steve Brend, who had worked for McGurn as a kid and was called the "Mayor of Uptown" for his gregarious nature and proclivity for storytelling. During that period the Green Mill went from a nightlife hub to a place where day drinking and drug use were the norm. That might have been the end of the story if it weren't for Dave Jemilo, a south-sider and bar owner who purchased the Green Mill in 1986, when he was 30.
Here's the story of the Green Mill, as told by those who know it best: the owners, bartenders, and performers.
- SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
- Dave Jemilo in 1987
Dave Jemilo, owner: "I remember my dad used to tell me about going to the Green Mill in the 30s. He'd go to the Aragon Ballroom and pick up a girl and bring her back to the Green Mill for a nightcap."
- SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
- Brad Goode
Brad Goode, trumpet player: "Dave owned a bar called Deja Vu, on Lincoln just past Sheffield's. He started a Sunday-night jam session there. Think I got involved there shortly after I moved to Chicago and started grad school at DePaul, '84, '85. That's where I met Dave. He was also very interested in what was going on at a place called the Get Me High Jazz Lounge in Wicker Park. I was playing there a lot. He told me he was going to buy the Green Mill and open a jazz club."
Jemilo: "It was 1985. I was going out with a girl at the time and going to dive bars in Uptown, that was all there was at the time. So I said, 'You want to go to the Green Mill?' She was the only girl I could take there. We went in there, stepped over passed-out guys on the floor, you know, Indians—Uptown was a big American Indian neighborhood. The American Indian Center is still up there on Wilson. I remember the first night I go in there and there are two lesbians beating each other up in the bathroom. I said to the bartender, 'Do you want me to go in there and stop that?' He says, 'Oh no, let 'em go, who cares?' It was a real rough joint, falling apart. And I fell in love with it right away, because you could see it had all this beautiful stuff in it."
Patricia Barber, jazz singer: "I went to the bar once with a friend before Dave bought it. It was a club for daytime drunks, down-and-outers. During the 1920s it was a speakeasy, but not a jazz club. Dave turned it into a jazz club."
- Courtesy Jason Cole
- Jason Cole
Jason Cole, bartender: "There's a group of patrons who have been here since the 70s. I don't know where the name comes from, but it's called Slime Corner. It's old neighborhood booze hounds who would spend their time drinking by the window, watching the window of Uptown like it's a TV, because it can be that entertaining sometimes."
Goode: "The club had a reputation as a dangerous place where there were a lot of bar fights. The neighborhood was pretty rough, actually. There were a lot of mentally ill people roaming the streets after Reagan closed the mental hospitals, put them in buses, and dropped them off at the corner of Lawrence and Broadway."
Cole: "During the 80s, Uptown had the largest collection of halfway houses, the most concentrated collection in the country. They lost funding in the 80s, and they became just cheap housing. All the people were free to roam the streets. It just became this collection of crazy people, and I don't mean eccentric—literally insane, voices, the whole shebang. There was also for some reason a large collection of Native Americans and hillbillies. There was a bar on Lawrence called Sharon's Hillbilly Heaven. It was a pretty rough neighborhood."
Jemilo: "So I ask, 'Hey, who owns the joint?' They said Steve Brend. I kept coming back until I met him. Greatest guy in the world. Worked there since 1938, owned it since 1960, and now it's 1985. He had a bad leg from WWII, and his wife walked with a walker. So I was hanging out there a lot, got to know Steve. We got to be friends. It was time for him to sell, so we swung a deal. The owners let me buy it from him because they got the back rent when I paid my down payment."
Cole: "Steve Brend met 'Machine Gun' Jack McGurn. He was a busboy here. I met a guy who used to work for Steve Brend in the 70s; he said that wasn't Steve's first job. His first job was changing sheets in the brothel a few doors up. So Steve, he was a great source of history. Dave talked to him for hours. When Dave bought the place he didn't have as much money as some of the other people at the time, so maybe Steve liked the idea of what he wanted to make this place. Steve liked bringing jazz back into it. He passed away five or six years ago. His family spread his ashes at Lawrence and Broadway. "
Jemilo: "It was a little risky, because it was all dependent on if I got my liquor license. This was 1986. It wasn't easy, but back then it was easier. I didn't do nothing. I got it legit. So anyhow, yeah, got the license, but I was sweating; I maxed out all my credit cards, and all I left in the Deja Vu cash register was fives and ones. Took out all my savings and went to the lawyer's office for the closing with my lawyer—who's still my lawyer, married to my cousin. At the closing I have checks and cash, and I'm $300 short. Guy calls over to his secretary and tells her to come over here with a $300 check right now. She comes over with the $300, and we closed it and it all worked out. I paid him back. Just saw him this weekend."
Marc Smith, founder Uptown Poetry Slam: "When I first came over here and somebody told me it was pretty cool, I was like, 'What, this is a storefront?' But once you walk in, it's a surprise how cool it is."
Jemilo: "We're trying to clean up the paintings, and inside the frames we found 90 syringes. 'Cause all the jabbers would jab in the booth and hide the needles in the frames. I was cleaning out syringes. When you cleaned behind the booths you'd find pint bottles and half-pint bottles of Bacardi rum that were empty, because people would sneak in their own liquor and drink in the booths, and then it would slide out and fall between the seats."
Cole: "A lot of this stuff is authentic, like the paintings, and Stella, the statue. Musicians named her that, after the song 'Stella by Starlight.' But she's actually Ceres, the Greek god of the harvest. She's old. Nobody is quite sure where she came from. There's some thought she came from the original World's Fair."
Jemilo: "Me and Jimmy Moscarello had to shut off the water to fix the plumbing. We found there was a fire door behind a steel door, and all these tunnels. I get in there and find a room under there with WWII uniforms, lockers, steamer trunks. Found a store room from the owner of the building from 1915 to 1957. Found all this stuff down there, letters from his three sons who served in WWII, bank records, renter rolls, since he owned all these other buildings. Nobody had been in there. The owners of the building didn't know [about] that. It was scary to go down there."
Cole: "I was fascinated with this place when I started. I'd root in every corner because you'd find such cool stuff. I found a flyer from a Halloween party for the Aragon Ballroom. It's just a flyer, but it was from 1926. This place isn't a museum, but it was left [alone] because nobody really gave a shit for years and years. This neighborhood was bad. This was grime, real dirt. This was earned. It's not like they tried to make it like an old place; it's a real old place that was forgotten and left alone."
Jemilo: "I had opening night on June 19, 1986. It was packed. I knew everyone in the bar business. You know how old places had those lights shining? I had a spotlight. People were lined up to get in. I had every band that was playing the first week play an hour. So it would have been Ed Pedersen Quintet, Brad Goode Quintet, the Vu Jazz Quintet, Susie Hansen Band, Deja Vu Big Band, Mike Finnerty & the Heat Merchants. I didn't have the 4 AM license yet; that would come a few months later. I was still screwing in lightbulbs as the alderman walked in for the grand opening. Screwing in lightbulbs in the sign outside."
- SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
- Neil Tesser in 1985
Neil Tesser, jazz critic: "The opening Friday here was packed, because he had so many friends."
Goode: "When we had the opening-night party, the musicians and guests all dressed like gangsters and flappers, 1920s costumes, and there was dancing."
Jemilo: "I thought if I could just hang on until the Uptown Theatre opens, I'll make it. Of course, it still isn't open, which is kind of funny, but I wanted to make it into a jazz club. I thought we could make it a destination joint. Where did guys go to see jazz in the 40s in Harlem? You have a joint that looks cool, with hopefully great music, people will make the trek. If it's safe for 'em once you get in, it's OK."
Goode: "I would say for at least the first two or three years, on a typical night you could expect to see 20 or 30 people in the audience. But fortunately, Dave had the Deja Vu, which was doing very well. He had a 4 AM license there; it was a really popular place to drink after hours. The crowd from the Deja Vu was supporting the losses at the Green Mill for a couple years. That's why most music clubs close quickly—it takes a lot of time to build a reputation and a steady audience. People don't usually have the funds to make it through the rough times. But luckily Dave had the other club supporting the Green Mill."
Jemilo: "At first I was doing music six nights a week and had cocktail hour. That was getting to be a bit much. It was a rough couple of months. And then in August I started getting people coming in. A writer for the Tribune wrote it up as one of his favorite joints to go to. I was charging $1 during the week and $2 on weekends, mostly to keep the bums out. And it worked. Then I got the 4 AM license."
- SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
- Ted Sirota
Ted Sirota, drummer in Sabertooth Organ Quartet: "My impression was it wasn't quite as trendy yet with people on the north side, Lincoln Park and that area. It seemed to be more local people from Uptown, and jazz musicians and aficionados."
Jemilo: "I used to have to hire off-duty coppers so people weren't afraid of going to their cars and the bums wouldn't bug them on the street."
Cole: "The floor manager here when I started working, he would find ways of talking to the crazy people. He would listen to their rantings and respond. There was one crazy woman who would get violent. It was pretty disturbing shit. She would yell, a lot of it was about her father. He would say, "If you don't get out of here, I'm going to have to call your father and get him to pick you up." That's the only thing that would get her out of the front area. When I started working the door I didn't know that particular trick. I tried to talk to her and she punched me in the eye. And she gave me a shiner, too. I was like, that'll learn ya."
Goode: "When I started at the Green Mill, I was 23, leading my own band. It was a group of older musicians who were some of the best musicians in Chicago. I was the bandleader and I had these great artists playing with me. I had the opportunity to learn from them onstage night after night. It was my real education. Even though I was the bandleader, I was the least qualified to lead them. Dave gave me the opportunity. I never questioned whether I needed to change what I was doing to please him or please the audience. He just let me be creative."
Jemilo: "Clifford Jordan started playing here, and it was a lark. He was playing the old Jazz Showcase. He started playing in the late 80s. Wilbur Campbell the drummer played here a lot; he called me and brought Clifford in here. Clifford said he liked this place because we don't have a dressing room—he could just go to the bar and talk with the girls."
Tesser: "What was the scene like then? I'm of the opinion that the scene hasn't really changed substantially since the late 70s. Places come and places go. The Jazz Showcase wasn't where it's at now, it was at the Blackstone Hotel. Katerina's wasn't around. The Jazz Bulls, I'm pretty sure it was still open. It was a place in Lincoln Park, a basement club. Fred Anderson's place was there. All the big supper clubs had been closed for years, like the London House and Mister Kelly's; those closed in the 70s. Fred Anderson was going strong, Von Freeman was going strong, Andy's, the Jazz Showcase. There weren't so many people doing DIY clubs, like the series at Elastic and all those things."
- SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
- Marc Smith, July 21, 1986
Jemilo: "The poetry slam started in July of '86, month after it opened. Didn't want to compete with myself at Deja Vu with the jazz, so I was thinking, 'What can I do?' This guy Marc Smith, inventor of the poetry slam, who had done two shows at the Deja Vu, asked me if he could do the poetry an hour before the jazz jam. I said, 'What? Poetry?' And he said, 'Yeah, Jack Kerouac, you know, beat stuff. It goes with the music.' I was a football player from the south side, a linebacker for the Chicago Fire. I don't know any of that shit. And I say, 'What's the cost?' And he says, 'We'll do it for nothing.' It was performance poetry, which no one ever heard of. They're coming out of the basement and back room, standing on tables. Chicago Poetry Ensemble was his group. So anyways, he did that a couple of times, it went right into the jazz, it was wonderful. So you've got the poetry freaks there for the poetry. When the jazz starts they like that too, so you already have the crowd. So I call Marc and see if he wants to do something Sunday. He calls me a week later, said, 'We'll do something called the Uptown Poetry Slam.' I say, 'What the fuck is that?' And he says, 'Don't worry about it.' The slam started at the Green Mill, and now it's around the world."
Smith: "For some reason it's kind of a religious, spiritual thing for people. There are several pastors who come here and get their dose of the devil, I say. They say, 'It's a look inside the true human experience.'"
Cole: "Well, one of the first nights I worked here I saw a guy get slashed across the stomach in the street in front of us, blood squirting out. I'd never seen something like that, and I ran out there, and it struck me how much a slashed gut looks like someone cutting into a piece of rubber. It was kind of in the intersection, and a squad car pulls by and I wave at them—and they look at me, and look at the guy, and get on their radio, but they don't get out of their car, and slowly pull away."
Goode: "I was there a lot. If I wasn't working I would hang out there. Dave would sit at the bar and intentionally listen to the music and study the music. He wasn't distracted, off having conversations with people. He was paying attention, trying to understand the music. I sat there with him many nights, kind of giving him jazz lessons, telling him what was going on, giving my impressions, explaining the roles of different players. At one point in the first year he said to me, 'I have an idea. Let's go to New York for a week and check out jazz clubs, and we'll see who the players are, who we might want to have to the Green Mill.' This was when he was considering having traveling acts. I had never been to New York before, and he had never been to New York before. So that's what we did. We went to New York to study jazz clubs. He studied what they were doing with customers and drinks and booking the music, and how they were dealing with people and the seating. He was really seeing how all these jazz clubs were operating, and he was taking mental notes about what he wanted to do and what he would avoid doing."
Jemilo: "This is going to sound so weird, but my goal was by the turn of the century, 2000, it would be known—I'm not trying to say I was cocky, but I was hoping it would be a real well-known joint for jazz. We don't have a publicist. There is nothing special about the drink menu—we don't have a drink menu. We just ask people what they want. A martini menu, I think that's kind of silly. There's a martini, and then there's a vodka martini, the modern one. Vodka martini is called a vodka martini. I'm embarrassed when someone says, 'Can I have a martini?' and you have to say, 'Gin or vodka?' Unless you say you want a vodka martini, you can have whatever you want. But you have to be cool."
Cole: "Dave always wanted to make traditional cocktails, traditional American cocktails. Glassware was really important to him, making them the way they used to make them."
Goode: "It changed when it became a popular drink and date spot for younger people. I think people go to the Green Mill because it's the Green Mill, not because they're going to hear Brad Goode or somebody else. In the early days, that would be the only reason you'd go to a place like that. I think it's a trendy place to have a night out for a lot of people, a famous place. In the early days it was a real fan who would go up there for great jazz. And to Dave's credit, he was always only presenting the best jazz. He built an initial reputation offering the real deal to people. Once it caught on, the nature of the crowd changed."
Tesser: "All of a sudden, you started noticing, looking at the schedule, that they were booking somebody from out of town. He started to build up relationships with these people. Dave has for the last five years had a situation where a combination of factors makes it really difficult for anyone to book in there. One, he's constantly being assailed by people who hear about what a great experience it is, and there's only 52 weekends a year. Two, he has a loyalty to Chicago artists, so he doesn't want to fill every weekend with somebody from out of town. And third, he has loyalty with guys from out of town and wants to have them there every year or 18 months. So he's constantly trying to juggle. He really needs a second room to accommodate everyone who wants to play for him."
- ANDRE F. CHUNG | SUN-TIMES
- The Mighty Blue Kings at the Green Mill on February 11, 1996.
Cole: "The turning point was the Mighty Blue Kings. We had lines before then, but it attracted a crowd that usually wouldn't venture to this neighborhood. They played on Tuesday nights, and we'd have a line around the block on a Tuesday."
Jemilo: "They started in 1993. It made the Lincoln Park people come up here, all the people afraid to go north of Belmont. I hate the word hipster, but it was that crowd that wanted to check a place out: 'Let's go check out this dump.'"
- Courtesy Chris Anderson
- Chris Anderson
Chris Anderson, manager: "The Mighty Blue Kings really spearheaded the whole swing revival. All these bars all over the city had swing dancing, but it really started at the Green Mill."
Cole: "We were making old-fashioneds for years, manhattans for years, especially when the Mighty Blue Kings starting playing here. People started ordering those, and they were old hat for us. And that kind of faded, and then the whole Mad Men thing happened—Don Draper drinks old-fashioneds—and people would come in here and be like, 'Do you know how to make an old-fashioned?' And I was like, 'We've been making them here since day one.' What's old is new again, but we haven't really changed."
Smith: "Before that big tragic accident on the south side [E2], on Sunday nights, sometimes I'd have 350 people in here, double what the code allows. They're sitting on the stage, piled up on the back. Dave would do the same thing, he'd have a line out the door."
Anderson: "A guy offered me $500 a few years ago [to cut in line]. It just doesn't work that way. When you do that, it throws off the continuity and balance of everything. Once you walk in that door, it doesn't matter if you wash windows or are a millionaire, you're all the same."
Tesser: "It's very interesting that Dave, who has no musical training but a great ear, supports all kinds of music from rockabilly to blues to jazz, and is so open to the AACM and the Ken Vandermark school. He has those guys up there and he loves that music. So that helps put a recent stamp on it. And then something else that's marked it is the return and presence and reputation that's expounded upon by artists from NYC who rave about the place and become regulars."
Cole: "I said something to Dave—I was talking about a musician, and I was like, 'They act like the night they play here is the only night this place exists. They don't care about anything that happens outside of their night. That kind of pisses me off.' And Dave was like, 'That's what you want them to think, that their night is the only one that matters.'"
Jemilo: "Patricia, she played at the Gold Star Sardine Bar for years, and I'd go down to see her every once in a while, and she was real good. They had her locked up—she played five to six nights a week, so I never thought to ask her. But they had a falling-out. Sheila Jordan was playing by me, and Patricia loves Sheila, so she would come to see her. All of a sudden a few weeks after Sheila played here, this record guy calls me and says, 'I'm so-and-so, and Patricia Barber wants to know if she can have a gig.' 'Why?' 'Well, she likes the way you treat Sheila Jordan. She's an old woman, you walk her to her car.' So I go, 'Sure, I'll give her Sunday nights, rotating thing, 11 to two after poetry,' and she at the time had terrible stage fright and bad asthma, so if she got nervous her throat would start to close up. She was so afraid [that] we had it so she didn't have to face the audience. It was her behind the bar with a bass player. She goes, 'Look, if I get nervous and I have to get off the stage, you're going to get mad.' And I said, 'Hey, I don't pay you enough to get mad about nothing. You do what you got to do.' And that made her not be nervous about nothing."
- Michael Jackson
- Patricia Barber with Blue Note label mate Charlie Hunter c. 1999
Barber: "I had gone through a year getting over a bad asthma episode and recalibrating some asthma medication. Going through my savings and the indignity of being stuck on the couch with ill health led to my feeling dark and ambivalent about going back to any kind of music performance. Dave called and asked if I'd like to try Sunday nights. I told him I might get up there and just start screaming. He said he'd pay me anyway. So off I went. There were two drunks at the bar that night as my audience, and I had the support of my lover and two friends. We got through it, and that was the beginning of a long residency. We ended up pulling in so many people we expanded to Monday nights."
Anderson: "Anywhere else when she's playing, it's $40 to $50 a ticket, and on Monday it's $7. It's a pretty good deal. People come in to hear her play, and it's really annoying when people go there and talk. It's really more of a self-policing crowd. They will shush people themselves. I've had numerous conversations with people who don't get it. You can get your money back and go to any other place in the city. There's hundreds of other bars. Here you have to be quiet and respectful."
Cole: "We ask people to be quiet. We ask a few times, and then we'll tell you. It's not fair to people who have paid a lot of money to see the band that you think it's all about your bachelorette party. It's not."
Barber: "I had to quit at one point because my asthma had gotten so bad my doctor insisted I not be around smoke anymore. It was a matter of survival. After about a year Dave asked if I would come back if he banned smoking on Monday nights. I did. It worked and was lovely. A couple of years after that the city passed a nonsmoking ordinance, which is now everywhere around the world. I started there with two drunks, so the crowd has changed into a hip crowd. It's a lovely mix of old and young, black and white, hip and square."
Tesser: "Dave's one of the smartest guys you'll ever meet, even though he purposely plays up the accent, the weird syntax. It's a smoke screen. He knows how to use it, and people will underestimate him. He's one of the shrewdest businessmen you'll ever meet. You don't get to own two farms on the profits from a club and a bar you sold without being a savvy businessman. The other part is that he's just such a stand-up guy. He's so good to the musicians, and he so seriously likes the music he'll actually walk around and kick people out if he has to ask them to be quiet a few times. Most club owners won't do that. In the middle of the set I've seen him take the mike and say, 'OK, guys, you're getting too rowdy.' So the musicians love him for that reason. He has this great sense of this code of honor about how you treat the musicians, patrons, and how things are done right."
Jemilo: "I love setting up for Sabertooth, because we need to take out tables to fill up the space, and I always think of that scene in Goodfellas. I try and take a table out with a lit candle on top and a tablecloth, and carry it from behind the bar and through the crowd. People freak out. I designed the stage myself so we could use it this way, and you wouldn't know how to do it unless you owned it."
Anderson: "It's a much more vibrant, rambunctious show. That's when the Mill's the Mill, it's a really big party. Great fun, great musicians, they put on a fantastic show."
Sirota: "The most interesting thing about it to me [is that] although I've been doing it for so long, you never know what to expect when you get in there. During the course of the night the vibe can really change. You may walk in and it's crowded and crazy, and then a half hour later it's half empty. Or vice versa. That keeps you going."
Anderson: "A few weeks ago we had a drunk guy walk out of the bathroom and sit down at the drum set and start playing. We're open until 5 AM Saturday, so you really have to be sharp and keep your head up. You have to realize you're around people who may have been drinking for six to seven hours."
Sirota: "It's really changed a lot of people's lives who have come in unexpectedly and became total Sabertooth heads. We've played a lot of weddings for people who come into the Mill, came there with their boyfriend or girlfriend, or met them there. My next-door neighbor, I was talking to him over the fence and told him what I do; he was like, 'Man, I love Sabertooth,' he was telling me that's where he met his girlfriend. They got married."
Sirota: "It's been gentrifying. It's a slow process—they weren't completely able to overhaul it like they did in Wicker Park and Bucktown, but it's definitely changed. Still a lot of homeless people up there, people on the streets that belong in a home."
Jemilo: "There's a Starbucks on the corner. Figure that out."
Cole: "I was working the door one time, and this guy came in; he had a few-day layover in Chicago. I was at the door, and he was by himself, and when you're working the door and someone wants to chat with you, you have nowhere to go. Sometimes it's fine. This guy was fine. He wanted to come here because in a few months he was turning 50. I was like, 'Happy birthday.' He's like, 'My parents are from Chicago, and my father used to take my mother dancing at the Aragon Ballroom. They would go dancing, and my father was always trying to get my mother to come out to the Green Mill afterwards and have a drink with him. So finally she said she'd go out for a drink with him. So they came to the Green Mill, and my father got my mother drunk, and I was conceived that night, so I thought it would be cool to come where my father got my mother drunk.' You don't work at a lot of places where you get stories like that."
Jemilo: "Something is cool if it's not trying to be cool. We're just what we are. If people think it's the greatest thing in the word, that's fine. We just do it how we do it. We have a Web page, but that's what you have to do these days. We started trends, and if they fall off—like Malort is a big deal, but we're the only ones who used to have it. And if it falls off again, well, we'll still have it here for old guys to settle their stomachs. I had it at the Deja Vu. I always need to have Malort on hand because this one guy who liked it would come in and spend like $30 a day, and in 1982 that was a lot of money. I always had Malort everywhere I owned a joint. So now everyone that works at the joint starts drinking it. This shit tastes like crap, so it grows on you. I always like doing Malort face—look at how they look after they drink them."
Anderson: "Malort, it's a Chicago drink to the bone. Not saying this is where it started, but we helped popularize it for sure. There's something very Chicago about it, that's for sure. For quite some time we were Jeppson's number one customer. We sold the most Malort of any other venue in the city. A lot of times, when an out-of-town band is done, the staff will do a shot of Malort with them. And then the next time they come back, they ask for it."
Sirota: "You get guys in from New York and they say there aren't a lot of places like that in New York now. The Vanguard is historic, but the room isn't like the Green Mill, where you feel like you step into a different era. The stage is six inches off the ground, you're right there, real close to the audience. With the wood and the way it's set up, it sounds really good. To me it's like my living room, I've been playing so long. It's hard to step out to think about what it's like to first play there."
Anderson: "People ask, 'Where did Big Al sit?' Almost every single night someone comes and asks where Al Capone sat. There is the Al Capone booth where he sat, and that's still there. It's funny, you get all sort of questions. 'Where's the bullet hole?' 'I don't know what you're talking about.'"
Jemilo: "I'm sick of it in the sense that I don't find it important, but I'm not stupid. I take advantage of it when Japanese television comes in and wants to do stuff about [Capone]. I heard stories they used to get liquor in there from a trapdoor on the beach by Foster and there were tunnels—that's all bullshit. Heard there was a tunnel that's connected from the Aragon Ballroom. Is that right or wrong? I don't know. You can get to the Uptown Theatre, but that's boarded up now. I like just leaving it a little bit more mysterious. People make stuff up, I don't care. I never say they're right."
Cole: "The picture of Capone was given to Dave as a gag gift by a friend of his. It's old and beat up, because it's been here for so long. People think it's real, and people have tried to steal it. It has been stolen. One time it was gone for about three years. One Saturday night a girl came up to me and she's like, 'This is embarrassing, but my boyfriend's roommate was being a dick, and they just moved out of the apartment they had lived in, and there was this picture, which I knew they had stolen from here. So I wanted to give it back.' I was like, 'Dave, you need to get over here and hear this.' So we got that back. The other picture is a gag picture of a couple musicians who have played here. They dressed up as gangsters for a gag picture. People would say, 'That's Al Capone, but who is that?' This old bartender Tom would say, 'That's Al Jolson and Charles Lindbergh,' whatever came off the top of his head."
Jemilo: "My friend Gilette gave it to me in 1987. It says, 'Dave, thanks for running my joint real good.'"
Tesser: "It reeks of Chicago. It screams Chicago in the day. But the other part of it is, it all comes from the top. The people who work there are serious. The bartenders, they don't take any guff, but there's still a sense that they're happy to have you there. It all comes down from Dave. You're here to hear great music. He's dedicated to presenting that, and the whole place operates that way, from the manager to the guy at the front door. There are places in town where the bartenders don't seem to understand they should keep their voices down when they're talking to the patrons at the bar while the music is going on. That never happens at the Green Mill."
Smith: "Dave doesn't work the bar anymore like he used to, but he was a main character in the bar, a personality. The best example I could give you of the Dave character was at Deja Vu. He was a semipro football player. He would take a busload of patrons from the Deja Vu to see him play, with a beer keg on a bus. This is a great story, and I'm sure it's true because I heard it from a few different people: at halftime, his friends from the Vu would go out on the field and lie down and spell out Vu. Might be a folktale, but I heard it from a couple of other people."
Cole: "This old bartender, Tom, there's a picture of him on the organ behind the bar now. He used to say, 'This job is like working in a coal mine, but it's the best damn coal mine in town.' One of my favorite lines of his was, 'As a bartender, you should be civil to everyone but respectful to no one.'"
Jemilo: "I think Uptown and the Green Mill almost go hand in hand. My ads, they all say, 'All roads lead to Uptown.' That's on the back of the envelopes Steve Brend had. I used to send all the press releases in envelopes, so I copied it. What's cool now is, someone showed me something in the Reader for an apartment: 'Uptown, near the Green Mill, great apartment.' That's cool. I got a kick out of that."