On June 6, 1962, after months of anticipation, Manny Skar – resplendent in a “metallic red tuxedo,” according to Chicago Tribune reporter Robert Wiedrich — stood at the door of his new 267-room hotel/restaurant/nightclub complex at 3939 N. Mannheim Road in Schiller Park to greet visitors at the grand opening of the Sahara Inn North.
Time magazine, just a week later, published a short travel piece written by a correspondent who’d been at the opening, who called the Sahara “a little bit of Las Vegas, but without gambling tables yet.”
“A salmagundi of Italian marble, Japanese carpet, matched rosewood, Hawaiian monkeypod wood, gold foil and tropical fish, the Sahara Inn is like a movie set for a dream sequence in a musical starring George Jessel and Zsa Zsa Gabor,” the Time magazine author wrote.
Patrons lounging beside the outdoor pool, its deck punctuated by palm trees and gold torches, were served cocktails by waitresses, called “starlets,” sporting ruffled bikinis and beehive hairdos.
The waitresses inside the cocktail bar served drinks while wearing skimpy “harem” outfits, draped with strands of faux pearls and topped with tiaras sprouting ostrich feathers.
A mural on one wall of the bar was covered with caricature drawings of big and once-big stars — singers, comedians and entertainers – many of whom graced the nightclub stage.
Inside the main nightclub, the Club Gigi, the headliner on opening night was popular singer Bobby Darin, who had just released a new single, “Things,” a country-tinged side that would shoot to No. 3 on the U.S charts.
Second on the bill was all-around entertainer George Kirby, a singer/piano player/comedian, a black man who had an uncanny ability to do impressions of white Hollywood stars like John Wayne and of jazz singers as diverse as Joe Williams, Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughan.
Also, on opening night, the place was lousy with cops.
“Platoons of policemen,” including “detectives from the state police, state’s attorney’s office, police intelligence unit and the Federal Bureau of Investigation almost outnumbered the guests,” wrote Wiedrich, who chronicled organized crime of the era for the Tribune.
Wiedrich made it a point to note that “hoodlums” known to associate with Skar were in short supply on opening night. Among those who did make an appearance that night were Rocco DeGrazio and Gus Alex, whom Wiedrich described as “gambling bosses for the mob crime syndicate.”
Annoyed by the number of law enforcement officers, Skar – whom Wiedrich repeatedly referred to in newspaper articles as a “thrice-convicted felon” — complained to a detective, “What’s the matter with you guys? Don’t you believe in rehabilitation?”
In this case, judging by the attention the Sahara Inn North received in the press in the weeks prior to and after its opening, they surely did not.
The Sahara Inn North may have been one of the glitziest hotel/nightclub venues to be built on Mannheim Road near O’Hare Airport, but it certainly wasn’t the first.
“Glitter Gulch,” as Wiedrich called it in the Trib, started turning on the lights in the late 1950s just as O’Hare Airport was being transformed into an international commercial airport served by a pair of new highways – the Kennedy Expressway and the Tri-state Tollway.
“The strip’s proximity to O’Hare field and the network of tollways and expressways that serve the Chicago area are providing the crime syndicate with one of the biggest bonanzas in years,” Wiedrich wrote in June 1962.
The mob financed and populated places like the Guest House at 2409 N. Mannheim Road, where Wiedrich reported seeing mobster Americo DePietto, “a muscleman and terrorist in the juke box racket” greeting friends at a table, and Andre’s Lounge at 3011 N. Mannheim Road, owned by Frank V. Pantaleo.
Wiedrich described Pantaleo as “a River Grove contractor with close crime syndicate ties” who’d testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field in 1959 and pleaded the 5th Amendment so many times “that his inquisitors almost went to sleep.” Pantaleo was the concrete contractor for the Sahara Inn North.
The mob-controlled restaurants, lounges and nightclubs along Mannheim Road were part of a larger enterprise, said Arthur Bilek, former chief of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department and later the longtime executive vice president of the Chicago Crime Commission, in a 2011 interview with the Landmark.
Bilek was named chief of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department in December 1962, following the election of Richard Ogilvie as Cook County Sheriff a month earlier. Ogilvie had vowed to make war on the Chicago mob, and Bilek, a Chicago police sergeant, was going to be his right-hand man.
“The information my vice men developed was that Skar intended to open up a gambling casino down in the basement,” Bilek said. “Because, at the time he started this, the running of casinos out of the county was something that was an accepted activity and the county was ringed with them.”
Bilek said the mob ran casinos at the Chevy Chase Country Club just outside of Wheeling, at Pat Patterson’s on Skokie Highway near Lake-Cook Road and one at Narragansett and Gunnison called the Wagon Wheel, run by Sam Giancana.
Others were the Casa Madrid in Melrose Park, said Bilek, and The Hilltop, near Midway Airport. On the far South Side was the Owl Club, run by Tony Accardo, outside Calumet City.
“They made a semicircle right around the city of Chicago,” Bilek said.
After Ogilvie was elected Cook County Sheriff, said Bilek, “all of the casinos voluntarily closed, because we went to every one of them.”
“And fortunately I had been in the state’s attorney’s office as the investigator on organized crime, and so I surveilled and visited all of these places in the years leading up to 1972,” Bilek said. “So I knew where they all were, plus I had the list of all the bagmen for the sheriff of where they made their collections, so I knew where all the handbooks were. … We made over 500 gambling raids in the four years that I was chief of the county.”
That was very bad news for Manny Skar, who’d come such a long way, from a petty hood to impresario.
Born Mendel (or Mandel, most press accounts used the latter) Skovunack on April 29, 1923, Manny Skar first makes his appearance in the Chicago Tribune at the age of 20 in 1943. The 5-foot-5 Skar was arrested for stealing 50 cases of whiskey from the basement of a far South Side Chicago tavern.
In 1952, he was indicted in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for mail fraud, an offense for which he was convicted. His two-year prison sentence and $2,000 fine were suspended.
Despite that rather lackluster criminal career, he caught the eye of Rocco DeStefano, who was 10 years older than Skar and had ties to the Capone gang.
DeStefano had had run-ins with the law of his own. He was indicted for robbery in 1936, a charge that was later dropped. In 1938, DeStefano and his father, who ran a liquor business, were charged with failing to pay about $50,000 in sales taxes since 1934. They were later acquitted.
In 1941, DeStefano and six others were charged with looting almost $1 million from the treasury of the Retail Clerks International Union, but the case against him apparently went nowhere.
But by 1950, DeStefano was in the construction business and, according to Chicago Crime Commission records, was president of the 51st Street and Michigan Building Corporation.
At some time in the next couple of years he’d taken Skar under his wing. In 1957, both Skar and DeStefano are reported to be partners in R&M Construction Company. Skar was also a partner with DeStefano and his brother, Frank, in Southwest Community Builders, which the Tribune reported was building 300 homes between Cicero and Harlem avenues and 77th and 79th streets.”
And on Jan. 14, 1957, the Cook County Recorder of Deeds noted that Southwest Community Builders had purchased property at 4501 S. Cicero Ave. in Chicago. Between then and May 1959, Rocco DeStefano would buy three more lots adjacent to that address.
That land would be transferred to the Sahara Motel Corp., which shared the same address as Southwest Community Builders. And in June 1959, Sahara Motel Corp. obtained an $800,000 construction loan from Prospect Federal Savings and Loan for what would become known as the Sahara South.
It opened in July 1960, similar in style to its much flashier cousin, soon to be built in Schiller Park. A brochure shows an exotic-looking, mustachioed doorman wearing a fez standing in front of the motel and it’s garishly lit sign. A cocktail waitress in a harem costume serves drinks poolside.
By the time the Sahara South opened, the Cook County Recorder of Deeds also noted that several liens had already been placed against the property for non-payment of bills, and on June 6, 1961 a company called National Heat and Power initiated foreclosure proceedings.
On the very next day, Marshall Savings and Loan of Riverside made a loan of $1.7 million to refinance and take on the Sahara South’s mortgage.
And in August 1961, Marshall Savings would refinance another Prospect Federal Savings and Loan mortgage – this time a $2 million loan for the construction of the Sahara North. Loan records kept by Marshall Savings and Loan noted that the loan was made to “DeStefano.”
Before the first payment on that loan was due, in October 1961, Marshall Savings and Loan refinanced its Sahara North Loan, increasing it to $2.7 million, with the first payment due in August 1962.
How did Marshall Savings and Loan strike up a business relationship with Rocco DeStefano?
It’s not entirely clear, but it appears to have been through a man named Joseph Mercurio, who since 1957 had been senior loan officer at Prospect Federal Savings and Loan, which made the original construction loan for the Sahara South.
Mercurio’s son, Phil, in an interview with the Landmark, said his father told him he was “part owner” of the Sahara South. For a couple months during summers as a child, Phil said he remembered staying at the Sahara South. The adults would hit the nightclub scene at night while Phil and his sister stayed in a hotel room.
Immediately after a conversation with his father in June 1997, Phil Mercurio jotted down some notes that he shared with the Landmark. His father told him that he initially refused a job offer from Marshall Savings and Loan because they did “shady loans.”
But by May 1962, Joseph Mercurio was employed as senior loan officer at Marshall Savings and Loan. Company records showed he was the second highest-paid employee of the association.
And just around that time, in April 1962, Marshall Savings and Loan refinanced the Sahara North Loan – this time to the tune of $4.2 million. The Cook County Recorder of Deeds indicated that the loan went to a real estate trust. But in Marshall Savings and Loan’s own records, it states the mortgage was given to “Skar.”
Rocco DeStefano saw this as the mob’s moment to get out. In 1965, the Trib’s Wiedrich revealed that DeStefano forced Skar, who the mob used as a front man, to buy him out of the Sahara operations at a cost of $1.2 million.
What nobody knew at the time was, to do that, Skar had to divert money to DeStefano from the $4.2 million loan he’d received from the Riverside S&L.
The FBI was already surveilling the situation. A June 1962 FBI field report indicated that an informant had told an investigator that “an official of the Marshall Savings and Loan Association, possibly the president, Henry Moravec, or his son, received one hundred thousand dollars under that (sic) table for negotiating the four million dollar loan [for] the Sahara Inn North.”
The Sahara North’s connections to the mob, along with its ostentatious, Las Vegas-style look and Manny Skar’s thirst for the spotlight attracted plenty of attention from the press, state regulators and local and federal law enforcement.
In February 1962 Tribune columnist Herb Lyon announced that Bobby Darin would open the Sahara’s Club Gigi in June, calling the nightclub “a Chez Paree of the suburbs,” referring to the famed Chicago night spot that had closed in 1960.
In April, Trib columnist Will Leonard made the nightclub scene’s flight to the suburbs his lead item, calling Skar “a man who has been known to look for trouble.” In the column, Skar boasts that the Sahara North would run the downtown night spots out of business.
“Wait and see; they’ll all be following me,” Skar said. “In five years there won’t be any nightclub business downtown. It’ll all be out here.”
After DeStefano’s retreat, one of the biggest hurdles Skar had in opening the Sahara North and keeping the Sahara South operating was getting a liquor license. His felony convictions meant the liquor licenses couldn’t be approved in his name.
He turned to a mob-connected front company whose president, Larry Roth, owned the Park Inn, a tavern on Chicago’s North Side. Roth’s wife, the company’s secretary, had worked as a waitress at the Riviera Lounge on Milwaukee Avenue in Niles Township, a place Wiedrich called “a notorious crime syndicate vice and gambling place.”
In the weeks prior to and after the Sahara North opened, the stories kept coming. For three straight days in May 1962, Wiedrich filed stories linking the Sahara North to the mob.
And on June 3, 1962, just three days before opening night, Wiedrich filed a story revealing Skar had been holding “secret meetings” with Chicago Outfit bosses and that the mob ran a network of call girls who rented rooms in buildings owned by DeStefano and mailed their rent checks to the Sahara South.
The day before the Sahara North opened, Wiedrich reported that six separate agencies were investigating Skar and his operations, and on June 9, 1962 he reported that the Internal Revenue Service was probing the financing of the Sahara North.
Things kept getting worse. Just four days after he opened the Club Gigi, Bobby Darin was roughed up by “five hoodlums” in the hotel lobby after he walked off the stage because they were causing a disturbance. One Schiller Park police officer was assaulted trying to intervene.
And, in July 1962, a former Sahara North “harem girl” was found dead of a drug overdose in her Schiller Park apartment.
Despite the headaches, work started on the five-story, 102-room addition to the Sahara North that summer. Whether that addition was to have been financed from the $4.2 million loan back in April is unknown.
But, in November 1962, Marshall Savings and Loan loaned another $1.7 million for the Sahara North project. The S&L’s loan records note that the money was for the “motel add’n” already under construction.
In all, Marshall Savings and Loan had loaned $10.3 million to finance the construction of both the Sahara North and South. And all signs indicate that the savings and loan still hadn’t been paid a dime on any of the debts.