Roadhouse Terror

They were up to 500 Roadhouses in the Chicago area, nine in Morton Grove alone, places of gangsters and jazzy women, gamblers and drinkers, partygoers and criminals. They were often speakeasies sometimes disguised as summer gardens, clubs or even “soft drink parlors”, Many were gangland haunts, with a side dish of violence, murder or kidnapping. Many roadhouses burned, some of arson. Most all were the epicenter of prohibition between January 1920 and December 5, 1933.

The Chicago area had names like like The Dells, Ferris Inn, The Studio, Club Del Rio, Murphy’s, The Bungalow, Villa Venice, The Purple Crackle, The Garden of Allah, The Triangle Café, The Lincoln Tavern, Niles Tavern and dance hall on Milwaukee Avenue, Casino Gardens in Robbins, Cyprus Inn in  Northbrook, McCormick’s in Lake Bluff and hundreds more.

Most were located on main roads on the outskirts of Chicago from Chicago Heights to Blue Island to Robbins, Winfield, Evergreen Park, several in Glenview, Rondout,  and beyond. Evanston being dry was spared the roadhouse scene.

They took on many styles, like an old roadside tavern once a stagecoach stop, some raunchy, shady and dimly lit, with all the charm of an odorous beer hall. At the other end was a 2500 seat two-story palace with a breezy terrace, orchestra, stage shows, a dance floor for 300 couples,  beautiful girls and gorgeous costumes and an eight course dinner for $1.50. Many were run or control by gangsters, cronies or henchmen. And even legitimate roadhouses were forced to buy their liquor from the boys.

Morton Grove , just north of Chicago and about  5 miles west of Lake Michigan was way more than just bedroom community. was the centerof what came to be called “Rural Bohemia,” an area of that large roadhouse district north and northwest of Chicago frpm the Chicago city limits up into Lake County.  

Arlene Harvey

Late in the day on March 24, 1935, Arlene Harvey left her parents’ house at 8023 Kilpatrick in Niles Center (now Skokie). Although she went by the name of Arlene Harvey, her real name is Ruth Arline Pearsall, age 22, born October 8, 1910, to Charles and Leand Pearsall. She was an only child, engaged to be married in June 1935 to Clifford Peterson. Sadly on the last day of her life she arrived at her job as a checkroom girl at the Club Rendezvous at 5931 W. Dempster one of nine busy roadhouses in Morton Grove.

 The club on the southeast corner of Dempster and Austin was one of the better-known small dance and drink establishments. The building was rented by Elmer (Al) and Rose Cowdrey to house the club about 1933 for $35 a month. It was a converted classic Chicago brick bungalow. There was a wood frame addition added by Al onto the front of the building.The club offered drinking, dancing and some food. If you are a Northwestern University student, the four mile trip to Club Rendezvous escaped the dry laws of Evanston.

Arlene began checking coats from the early arrivals. There was a buzzer button in the cloakroom that was used to unlock the front door. Drapes and streamers stretched from the walls and ceiling of the dance hall and the dining room. The roadhouse was full to capacity that March 24th, of mostly Northwestern students celebrating the success of their Waa-Mu show “Good News” . There were others as well mostly young adults from northern suburbs and Chicago. The bar was at capacity while guests on the dance floor moved to the music of a three person orchestra. Tables in the dining room were filled.


A wisp of smoke was first seen near the cloakroom at 2:30 AM on March 25th. Then flames were seen coming out of the ceiling near a suspended gas heater. For a few moments none of some 80 guests were aware of the danger until the flames suddenly burst out from the checkroom. the heavy silk and crepe paper draperies now on fire began filling the club with smoke. The orchestra stopped playing and guests began to scream as they raced to the east exit (which except the kitchen door was the only exit) Worse yet the door only opening inward.. . Some guests escaped through windows or wee dragged out by rescuers who forced the door open. 17 were taken to hospitals including St. Francis Hospital in Evanston and the Frances Willard hospital. Dozens more had minor injuries. At some point the roof collapsed trapping thoseand leaving no escape.

A newspaper report read as follows:

CHICAGO, March 25 (AP) — The sudden swift-spreading Club Rendezvous fire that killed six person, two from Wisconsin, and caused injuries to six others trapped in the Morton Grove night resort was under investigation today by the state’s attorney’s office. Fred Anderson 20, Northwestern University student and only son of a wealthy Eau Claire, Wis., manufacturer, and Miss Helen Johnson, 21, of Milwaukee, were among the six who died in the flames that grew from a small flicker in the cloakroom of the suburban cafe at 2:30 am yesterday.

That inward opening front door was identified as the primary culprit in the deaths, forbidden by law since the historic Iroquois Theater fire in which 575 persons perished in 1903.. That front door was secured by a spring lock and could only be opened by operation of the checkroom buzzer.

An investigation to determine the cause considered whether escaping illuminating gas, arson, a carelessly discarded cigarette or faulty wiring was to blame.There was no such determination. George Fredericks, born about 1900, Morton Grove chief of police, reportedly entered the club 12 times, carrying out victims until he himself had to be rescued. 

Six lost their lives including Arlene
the checkroom girl, Ruth Arline Pearsall who went by the name Arlene Harvey, 22, of Niles Center (now Skokie). She bravely stayed at her post to hand out coats even after fleeing patrons told her to get out, but she smilingly continued to hand out coats. Funeral mass was said on March 26, 1930 for Ruth at St. Peter’s. Church ,Skokie and was buried in All Saints Catholic Cemetery

Frederick Robert Anderson, age 21 born October 30, 1913 at Eau Claire Wisconsin , son of Frederick Wilhelm Anderson and Anna Mildred Anson. Fred was a third-year premed student at Northwestern University. He had reached safety but reportedly reentered the club to hunt for his coat and died. Body shipped home for burial. Buried Forest Hill Cemetery in Eau Claire.
John Howard “Jack” Cocker age 21, a Northwestern University senior, son of Harry Cocker was shipped home to Cedar Rapids Iowa. Buried Cedar Memorial Park in Cedar Rapids.  
Helen O. Johnson, 21 years old, born March 10, 1913 to Adolph Johnson and Oriole Olson in Hancock Michigan. Helen moved from Duluth to 835 Cass St. in Milwaukee two years before the fire. She came to the Chicago area for the weekend visiting her brother-in-law George L. Naumann  She and her boyfriend Norman Rettig, Norman ironically was a fire protection engineer and survived the fire. Helen was cremated following services in Graceland Cemetery Chicago  
  James Hronek, age 32 of 2015 Wellington Chicago, husband of FlorenceVillrock,  and owner of a beauty shop at 1434 Morse Ave. was taken to the Schmidt funeral home 2056 W. Belmont for his funeral. He was buried in St. Adalbert Cemetery in Niles  
Robert Russell Wolf, age 22, born aug 26, 1912, son of Oliver Wolf and Minnie Russell, 1513 hood, an employee of attorney A.L. Schwartz was taken to the Roberts funeral home 5525 N. Clark for his funeral. Buried Memorial Park Cemetery, Skokie.

. May they all rest in peace.

One last thought

History often repeats itself on November 28, 1942 the second worst fire in the United States was the Coconut Grove nightclub on Piedmont Street near downtown Boston. 492 people die in a horrible fast-moving fire. Just like the Club Rendezvous it was crowded and contained flammable decorations. That fire spurred substantial changes to building design and building codes. Outward opening doors were clearly marked, Mandatory noncombustible decorations were just some of the changes as a result of that disaster.

5 thoughts on “Roadhouse Terror”

  1. Why would people stop for their coat to exit? if your fleeing a burning building you wouldn’t. Tell us the real reason the only son of a wealthy manufacturer died.. who was it? What were his ties. It’s pure comedy how plebs keep buying this BS. Nothing happens by accident. There is always a underlying agenda.


  2. In the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in
    Boston, one of Hollywood’s top Western movie stars died (a hero) helping rescue others from the smoke and flames.


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