Hot Air: Brrrrrrrrrr!

I know, I know, I’m always ranting about my beloved hometown but, believe me, were I living in Chi. today, it’d be my despised hometown.

You think it’s cold here? Get this: today’s AM commuters could not get on the reversible lanes of the Kennedy Expressway (I-90/94) because the access gates were frozen! Yep. See, the two lanes down the middle of the expressway go in either direction depending on the time of the day — traffic moves southeast during the morning rush hour and northwest during the evening crawl, with the accesses from either direction controlled by entrance gates. This morning, though, nada.

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Kennedy Access Gates

That cold. Chicagoans can keep it.

[MG Note: Just to put this thing in perspective, the American Highway Users Alliance in November declared the stretch of the Kennedy from Ohio St. to the Edens junction, the entire 12-mile length of the reversible lanes, “America’s worst bottleneck.” Again, keep it.]

The Naked Truth

I was flipping through scads of internet pages the other day and came across a few news stories about a fellow I once knew briefly, Sam Cecola. Sam until recently was the proprietor of Club Paradise, a “gentlemen’s club” in Las Vegas. Gentlemen’s club, of course, is code for strip joint. Club Paradise now operates under the name Centerfolds Cabaret.

At one time, Cecola’s Club Paradise was hailed as Vegas’s top strip joint.

When I knew Cecola, he was the boss at the Admiral Theatre. This was back in the early ’90s and the Admiral at the time was Chi.’s premier nudity arena. When I met him, he was known as Sam Ross.

I’d wanted to do a story about the Admiral and got in contact with him. He was gracious and welcoming. My aim was to talk with the people who ran the place, the dancers, and — if I was lucky — a bunch of customers. I wanted to do a slice of life on a typical night at the Admiral. Despite the fact that I’m listed as a male on my drivers license, I’ve never understood why guys would want to haunt a strip joint. I’d gone to one back when I was 20 and found the whole experience deathly dull.

In any case, I spent a couple of weeks at the Admiral, interviewing the talent and grilling Ross and, yeah, getting a chance to talk to customers. Truth is, I was mightily impressed by the dancers. The lot of them were well-spoken and goal-driven. They were young moms and college students, artists and simply people who’d eschewed conventional careers to make some good cash removing their clothing in public.

I was reminded of my time there when the revelation about Donald Trump walking through some beauty pageant dressing room made the news last summer. Ross, walking me through the place, led me into the dancers’ dressing room. Several dancers sat at vanities in various states of dishabille. He introduced me to them as if we were meeting in a coffee shop. None of the dancers seemed to mind. And the funny thing was, within 22 second of my being there, the shock of seeing bare-breasted women wore off. There was nothing lurid or arousing about it all. They were just people getting ready to do their jobs.

I wrote the story up and included a lot of info about the history of the place. The Admiral had opened not long before the Great Depression as a Balaban & Katz vaudeville-slash-movie venue. Like many such neighborhood movie palaces, it fell on hard times in the 1950s after the advent of TV. It sat vacant until 1969 when it re-opened as a cartoons-only house, a marketing gambit that failed miserably.

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The Admiral In 1927

The Chicago Outfit took the place over after that and started showing porn films. As such it was a hellish place. When I worked for the city’s’ Dept. of Street & Sanitation during the winter of 1975, the crew I was on liked to duck into the Admiral to avoid doing something crazy, like our job. We’d spend hours there with gigantic images of bored people slurping at each other up on the screen. I would sleep. A couple of my co-workers, though, sat on the edges of their seats and hollered encouragement at the huge faces and bodies as if they were at a Bears game. Even at 11 in the morning, there’d be a few dozen lonely men, discreetly scattered in the seating area, presumably doing what such men do at such places.

At that time, a fellow named Patsy Ricciardi was the nominal owner of the Admiral. Patsy was a mid-level Mob guy and one Wednesday night in 1985 he went missing. His daughter called the cops after a day or two and he was found that Friday in the trunk of his car with a bullet hole in the back of his head and $1000 missing from his wallet. It was speculated he’d welshed on some gambling debts and his killers had grabbed the dough accordingly.

Whatever the case, Sam Ross somehow became the theater’s new owner in 1989. How that came about remains a mystery to me to this day. When I asked Sam about it, the story he told me was so convoluted that I had to make a doctor’s appointment to get my eyes uncrossed. Sam did explain it had always been his dream to open a classy strip joint and now he had the chance to do so. He wanted it to be well-appointed and comfortable, a place customers wouldn’t have to sneak into and that women would feel welcomed as well. His wife, he said, was a costume designer and she, too, was eager to see such a place open up so she could ply her craft there.

Sadly, the Outfit, which apparently had retained a healthy ownership stake, insisted he build glory hole booths on the mezzanine level. Glory holes (if the term is unfamiliar to you, you’re on the internet so look it up) were huge revenue producers even though they ran at a quarter a shot. When I asked Sam about them, he shook his head sadly. He didn’t like them at all, he said. They cheapened the place. They hadn’t been part of his original vision, but his partners insisted. A smart chap, he explained, wouldn’t want to disappoint the likes of his partners.

When Sam got finished building the showplace of his dreams, the Admiral was one of the nation’s first really swanky strip joints. It can be said today that the Admiral was at the forefront of the gentlemen’s club rage.

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The Admiral Today

I asked Sam about the Mob. There was no such thing, he said. It was all a figment of people’s vivid imaginations. I noted his reply dutifully. I’d also discovered while delving through public records that his name actually was Salvatore Cecola. When I’d asked him about this, he said the world was filled with bigots, many of whom thought guys with Italian names were criminals so naturally he had to change his name to Sam Ross, otherwise how could he ever hope to run a successful business?

I included all this in my story. Oh, one thing I’ve neglected to mention: In order to get my unrestricted access, I had to agree to let Sam see the finished draft of my story before publication. I brought the manuscript in to him one night and watched as he read. He put on his reading glasses and proceeded. His eyebrows began leaping like dark grasshoppers. He pulled out a heavy marker and began drawing huge X’s through paragraphs and even entire pages. By the time he was finished, the story consisted of the name and address of the place and pretty much nothing else.

“I’m sorry, Mike,” he said, removing his glasses. “I can’t have any of this. There’s people out there you and me don’t want to get on the bad side of. They’re dangerous people. They don’t understand stuff like this. They’re not like you and me.”

I took that to mean these unnamed people were not lovers of fascinating histories and vivid portrayals of the city’s more colorful characters. Either that or they were fellows who’d break my arms and legs. Sam then launched into a lengthy monologue about how unfair it was that people just assumed all successful, hard-working Italians were part of some criminal empire. And the police and the FBI, the newspapers and the politicians, they were the worst! All they wanted to do was crush honest guys like himself. And why? Who knew? Maybe they wanted a society like the Iranians had, “a theocracy,” he said. Only he pronounced it, t’eocracy.

“Look,” Sam said. “I know you did a lot of work on this and you’re a real good writer. I want to help you. I’ll tell you what. I got something I been working on for a long time but I really don’t have the time for it. You got a way with words. Why don’t you come to work here and write training manual for us? This is a professional operation and we want new people to come in here and understand exactly what’s expected of them. You can do that.”

I sat there, stunned. After a few beats, Sam went on: “And hey, when you’re finished, there’s plenty of other things you could do for us. There’ll always be a place for you here.”

I told him I’d think about it. I gathered up my manuscript and went home. I did think about his offer. The money — he’d hinted at some figures — was seductive. I mean really, really seductive. I wondered, though, if I’d ever again be able to write for a reputable publication in Chicago if word got out about the deal I’d made. I also wondered about those people Sam’d said I wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of. Did I really want to work for them?

A couple of weeks later, I called Sam and told him no thanks. I took the manuscript that he’d marked up and stuffed it in a file storage box. It’s in my shed now. Hopefully, bugs or mice haven’t chewed it into a pulp after all these years.

As for Sam, the stories I came across that brought him back to my mind revealed a sad subsequent tale. He’d opened Club Paradise in the ’90s while still running the Admiral. By this time he’d begun using his legal surname, Cecola. His Vegas venue was an immediate and rousing success, with Hollywood celebrities, sports stars, and big spenders filling the place daily. He was able to build a $16 million, 20,000 sq. ft. mansion for himself and his wife on eight acres in the exclusive Chicago suburb of Barrington Hills. The place is so crazily luxurious it was used as the home of Luscious Lyon, the hip-hop mogul in the Fox dramatic series Empire.

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Sam’s Estate

According to Nevada, Illinois, and federal prosecutors, though, Sam wasn’t satisfied with his legal gains. He was prosecuted in Illinois for skimming profits at a number of adult bookstores in the Midwest. He was convicted of defrauding the IRS and was sentenced to 46 months in prison. He was subsequently barred from operating a liquor-license venue in Nevada under that state’s gaming and entertainment regulations so he signed Club Paradise over to his wife. Prosecutors later claimed he’d been running the place while in prison after listening in on his phone conversations with his wife. Nevada then began to consider placing him in its infamous Black Book that bans unlucky members from even stepping foot in any casino or similar establishment in that state.

After he got out of prison, some Korean big shot offered to buy Club Paradise from him and Sam laughed him off. Then Sam was indicted again, this time for credit card fraud — acc’d’g to prosecutors, Club Paradise employees liked to run up phony charges on besotted customers’s cards, enriching Sam even further. That and his potential inclusion in the Black Book put Sam in some dire straights. The Korean read about Sam’s troubles and sent him an email that read: “Sam, seems like your circumstances have changed. Maybe I can be of help to you.” Quicker than a stripper can get a customer to fork over a C-note for a lap dance, the Korean found himself the new owner of Club Paradise. He changed its name and, unlike Sam, has chosen to keep an extremely low profile.

For his part, Sam’s now trying to sell his Barrington Hills estate. At last report, no one had bit on its list price of $15.9 million so Sam has chopped his ask by $2.4 mill.

I doubt if Sam’ll miss any meals between now and the end of his life. Still, he’s no longer on top of the world. It’s doubtful, too, he’ll ever be able to shake the memories of those years spent in the federal joint. And he may be looking at even more hard time in light of the new charges against him.

Me? I might have made a pile of dough working for Sam and his partners. I, too, might have found myself on top of the world — albeit certainly a smaller orb than Sam’s. Then again, I might have found myself caught in their swirl of greed and wound up behind bars too. Money changes everything. I’m lucky.

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