4812-4836 North Clark Street
Opened ca. 1920
Host to a variety of amusements and some of the early twentieth century’s best-known celebrities, Fred Mann’s Rainbo Gardens was one of Chicago’s premier entertainment venues. Located at 4812-36 North Clark Street, Rainbo Gardens lured patrons from across the city with its eclectic mix of traditional vaudeville acts, trendy jazz bands, extreme sports events, and easy-going dance and liquor policies.
The Rainbo Gardens site had long been used for recreational purposes. As early as 1894, the site was occupied by a small roadside restaurant that likely enjoyed a robust business. After all, the roadhouse had a prime location. It was situated alongside what was then still the main road between Chicago and the northern suburbs, Clark Street, and stood across the street from one of the city’s largest cemeteries, St. Boniface. Like many of the other picnic groves that operated across the city’s northern periphery during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Clark Street roadhouse would have offered weary travelers and cemetery visitors a welcome place to stop and refresh themselves before continuing their journeys or returning to the city. There was food in the restaurant, drinks in the tavern, and a spacious picnic grove out back. Two lengthy horse sheds provided visitors a place to hitch their horses and park their carriages.
During the next twenty years, urban growth gradually engulfed the Clark Street roadhouse. As the area grew, the roadhouse changed. By 1905, its owners had added a second floor to the restaurant and erected a two-story beer hall, a bowling alley, an outdoor dance floor, and several stand-alone refreshment stands. These new amenities helped transform the old roadhouse into an urban amusement center. Whereas the old nineteenth-century roadhouse had catered to travelers and cemetery visitors whose dining options were limited by the remoteness of the site, the enlarged twentieth-century eatery and outdoor pleasure ground competed with other urban amusements for the business of young, pleasure-seeking urbanites. By the summer of 1917, the pleasure spot had come to be known as the Moulin Rouge Gardens, with D’Urbano’s Eccentric Italian Band heading the bill of entertainers.
Shortly after the end of the First World War, Chicago restaurateurs Fred and Al Mann took over the Moulin Rouge Gardens. The pair changed the name of the place to Rainbo Gardens, reportedly in memory of Al’s wartime service in the 42nd “Rainbow” Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. After a visit in July 1921, a Variety correspondent reported that the Rainbo Gardens was “running an easy first with the money-getters. The gardens are beautifully decorated, cool and inviting. Stunts are proving drawing cards, and at present a toddle contest is very popular. An automobile is to be given to the winners.”
But owner Fred Mann had bigger ideas. In 1921, he set about giving the old pleasure spot a million-dollar make-over. Plans called for a redesigned outdoor gardens for summertime events and the construction of a two-story structure to house a cocktail bar and dining room that would remain open year round. The rebuilt gardens opened in June 1922. According to a promotional pamphlet, the gardens were “surrounded by a wall with tall trees planted at intervals to provide an illusion of complete remoteness from city life.” Four months later, the Rainbo Casino, housing the cocktail bar and dining room, opened for business. The dining room, known as the Rainbo Room, could accommodate as many as 2,000 diners at a time—plus an additional 1,500 dancers if need be. Variety said it was “probably the largest cafe in America conducted strictly on a dine and dance basis.” Indirect, multi-colored lighting gave the Rainbo Room a romantic glow and a revolving stage ensured that the entertainment—be it vaudeville, ballet, or dance music—never stopped.
Some of the biggest names in Chicago night life performed at Rainbo Gardens during the early twentieth century. During the late 1910s, singing sensation Ruth Etting performed there after having made a name for herself as a costume designer at Chicago’s Marigold Gardens. She wowed audiences at the Rainbo Gardens with her deep singing voice and her eye-catching chorus-line costumes. Before leaving for Hollywood, many Chicagoans had come to know her as “Chicago’s Sweetheart.” Musicians were also an important part of the Rainbo Gardens during these years. Renowned saxophonist Isham Jones led one of many so-called Rainbo Orchestras while performing at the Gardens during the early 1920s. Jones’ Orchestra thrilled the Rainbo’s dancers with snappy jazz pieces like “Dance-O-Mania” and “Jing-A-Bula-Jing-Jing-Jing,” as well as more romantic tunes like “I Love You Sunday” and “Sahara Rose.” Among the other band leaders to perform at the Gardens during the 1920s were Frank Westphal, Ralph Williams, and Sam Wagner.
Despite the top-flight entertainers, Rainbo Gardens, like many of the city’s other night spots, struggled during the years of Prohibition. The ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages took much of the excitement out of the place. Patrons responded by smuggling their own flasks of liquor into the Gardens and sharing with one another. Rainbo’s managers, not unlike their counterparts at other Chicago night clubs, usually turned a blind eye to the surreptitious liquor consumption, not willing to risk driving away patrons. Federal prohibition agents, however, were not so tolerant. One of the first big raids came in October 1920, when federal agents stormed the Rainbo, along with the nearby Green Mill Gardens, and seized a large supply of liquor at both establishments. The raids continued, off and on, for the next eight years.
Mann looked to protect his investments against the uncertainties of Prohibition by diversifying the Rainbo’s range of amusements. In 1927, he converted the outdoor gardens into an indoor sports arena with 1,726 permanent seats. Initially known as the Rainbo Fronton, the arena pushed the Manns’ total investment in the property to over $2 million. At first, the Fronton was used for jai alai matches, the novelty of which attracted the interest of many Chicagoans. For a time, the sports pages of the city’s daily newspapers were filled with jai alai scores and profiles of various Rainbo Fronton players. As the novelty of the sport wore off, however, the Fronton began to be used primarily for boxing and wrestling matches. The facility could accommodate as many as 2500 for the matches by setting up an additional 800 seats on the main floor of the arena.
The Rainbo, meanwhile, remained a top target of law enforcement officials. Prohibition agents intensified their efforts in 1927 and 1928. During the wee hours of the morning of 5 February 1928, agents raided the Rainbo and at least ten other Chicago night clubs without the use of search warrants. As Variety reported, “For the first time in the history of local prohibition enforcement, no search warrants were used, and every guest that had a highball glass, ice, ginger ale, or charged waters at their tables were given the once over. Names and addresses were taken and verified before the people were permitted to leave.” Law enforcement officials contended that night clubs functioned as public spaces and could be entered by law enforcement officials without search warrants–even though search warrants had always been used in the past. Fred Mann and other Chicago night club owners, however, challenged such tactics by forming a local trade association and taking prohibition officials to court. They contended that raids conducted without search warrants were unconstitutional and that local enforcement of Prohibition targeted outlying night clubs, like the Rainbo, while ignoring widespread liquor consumption at prestigious downtown hotels.
Following the February 1928 raid, federal authorities ordered Rainbo Gardens closed. Soon thereafter, Mann was arrested on gambling charges. Authorities alleged that Mann sponsored illegal pari-mutuel betting at the Rainbo Fronton. In February 1929, with the Rainbo still padlocked, Mann fell into bankruptcy. The Rainbo did not reopen until November 1929, with the Charley Straight Band providing the entertainment. Shortly after reopening, a fire forced the Rainbo to close yet again. It reopened in December 1929, after a month of reconstruction and redecorating, but by then many Chicagoans had found other places to enjoy themselves.
The Rainbo’s struggles continued during the Depression. Most activity during the 1930s centered in the Rainbo Fronton, where jai alai tournaments and other sporting events continued to draw crowds. By contrast, the old Rainbo Casino remained fairly quiet. For a few months in 1934, the second year of the Century of Progress exposition, it reopened as the “French Casino.” A few years later, in 1939, theatrical producer Michael Todd and a group of investors purchased the Rainbo Gardens complex. After spending an estimated $60,000 on repairs and new decorations, Todd reopened the old Rainbo Casino, calling it the Theater Café. The new café and its spectacular stage show proved very popular. Disagreements between Todd and his backers, some of whom may have been associated with the notorious Nitti gang, led to the former’s ouster in May 1931. Following Todd’s departure, police raided the café and discovered employees selling liquor to minors. The city subsequently revoked the night club’s licenses, forcing it to close yet again.
After the Second World War, new operators reopened the Rainbo, holding wrestling matches in the Fronton. A bowling alley was also built on part of the property. An ice skating rink was installed in 1957. Since then, rock concerts and roller skating have been the main attractions at the Rainbo. In 2002, local newspapers reported that a real estate development firm had purchased the Rainbo property and planned to demolish the historic structures in preparation for the construction of a new condominium complex.
Photographs: Ruth Etting and the Rainbo Gardens Chorus Line [Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln Music Library]
Music Recordings: Isham Jones and His Rainbo Gardens Orchestra [Red Hot Jazz Archive]
Sources: Variety, 28 April 1917, 34; 8 October 1920, 9; 22 July 1921, 9; 5 April 1923, 47; 19 Jan. 1927, 43; 19 Oct. 1927, 58; 8 Feb. 1928, 55; 15 Feb. 1928, 54, 62; 29 Feb. 1928, 56; 21 March 1928, 72; 20 Feb. 1929, 71; 30 Oct. 1929, 84; 25 Dec. 1929, 56; 3 June 1941, 15; Chicago Sunday Tribune, 29 Sept. 1957, pt. 3, pg. 2; Rainbo Gardens, “Mann’s New Rainbo Gardens Magnificent,” promotional brochure (Chicago: Rainbo Gardens, n.d.), 1-4.
Image sources: Rainbo Room advertisement, Chicago Sunday Tribune, 18 Sept. 1927, pt. 7, pg. 2; author’s collection.