Jan. 9, 1963 marked the halfway point for Marshall Savings and Loan’s two-week long “100 Million Dollar-versary” celebrating the Riverside association’s record asset levels.
Every night, local TV personalities along with stars from the new Sahara Inn North in Schiller Park drew crowds of people to the savings and loan’s lobby, many of whom took the opportunity to open new accounts.
The Sahara North’s stars, like comedian Shecky Greene, who appeared at Marshall Savings on Jan. 9, came courtesy of the hotel/nightclub complex’s owner, Manny Skar.
The former small-time burglar had made a name for himself as part of a mob-connected construction business on Chicago’s Southwest Side. By now, Skar had assumed all of the debt – loaned by Marshall Savings and Loan – related to both the new Sahara North and its smaller cousin, the Sahara Inn South, in Chicago, amounting to a little more than $10 million.
His mob partner, Rocco DeStefano, forced Skar to buy him out – using proceeds from a new loan from Marshall Savings to do so. Skar was now on the hook for a monthly mortgage payment to Marshall Savings of about $31,000.
Given the rocky past six months and all of the press attention related to Skar’s mob connections – and that of local and federal law enforcement as well as state regulators — the officers of Marshall Savings and Loan had cause to feel uneasy about their investment.
When the newspapers hit the streets on the morning of Jan. 9, 1963, the Chicago Tribune carried some more bad news. Detectives from the Cook County Sheriff’s police had raided the Sahara, seized “more than $6,000 worth of marijuana and arrested seven people.”
Among those arrested and charged with possession was none other than Manny Skar himself. He later was cleared by a grand jury, though a musician who worked at the motel was indicted.
On Jan. 11, based on what they’d found during the narcotics raid, county police reopened an investigation into the death of a former Sahara Inn cocktail waitress the previous July. In the meantime, after the drug raid Schiller Park authorities were pondering revoking the Sahara’s liquor license.
The squeeze was on.
In mid-February the Cook County state’s attorney subpoenaed construction records from the Sahara North and convened a grand jury to explore whether hundreds of thousands of dollars in building supplies had been stolen from a Cicero construction firm and used to build the Sahara North.
Skar sought refuge in Florida and stalled for time. On March 26, 1963, after a month of failing to provide the grand jury with the construction records, Cook County Chief Judge John Boyle ordered Skar to appear in court to show why he shouldn’t be held in contempt. By now, the value of the stolen building supplies believed to have been diverted to build the Sahara North topped $1 million.
In front of Judge Boyle on March 28, according to the Chicago Tribune, Skar “testified the records demanded by the jury disappeared while in transit by air from Florida to Chicago.”
On that same day, Marshall Savings and Loan initiated foreclosure proceedings on both the Sahara North and South. With that domino tipped, the rest would begin to fall.
In the blink of an eye, the mirage of affluence disappeared.
Two days after Marshall Savings had initiated foreclosure proceedings, IRS agents seized all of the liquor and food at the Sahara North and South for “non-payment of federal taxes,” according to the Tribune.
In early April a county judge named two men as receivers to take over the motels’ operations. The state sought revocation of the liquor licenses while contractors and vendors who hadn’t been paid placed a flurry of liens on the Sahara North property.
On April 3, the Tribune reported that the Sahara North “was as barren yesterday as the desert after which it was named.” Only a dozen of the hotel’s employees remained and almost all of the hotel guests had left, since there was no liquor or food.
“All that remained was the bread in the coffee shop – that and coffee,” the Trib reported.
Marshall Savings agreed to advance funds to the receivers to get the hotel back up and running, and in June the savings and loan reached an agreement with Manny Skar to gain the deed to the property in lieu of foreclosure.
But if the savings and loan wanted to salvage its investment, it needed to find a deep-pocketed buyer, and fast.
By late June 1963, the cavalry appeared to have arrived in the form of singing cowboy Gene Autry. The movie, radio and recording star, who in 1961 had become owner of Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Angels, announced his intention to buy the Sahara North at a press conference, accompanied by Marshall Savings and Loan President Henry Moravec Sr.
Autry announced he would pay $7 million over 20 years to acquire the hotel and that he would finish the still-under-construction five-story Sahara Tower addition. In essence, however, it was a lease-to-buy arrangement.
An unsigned copy of the sale agreement, which is part of the Marshall Savings archive at the Chicago Historical Society, indicates Marshall Savings gave Autry an interest credit on the first four months to allow him to complete construction of the tower by May 1, 1964.
When the principal payment was reduced to $6 million, according to the deal, Autry had the right to exercise his right to purchase the property.
The Autry-operated Sahara North opened its doors on Aug. 1, 1963. No longer catering to mobsters and no longer featuring an emcee in a metallic red tuxedo, the Sahara’s entertainment for the evening was billed as “Nancy Ames and the Gene Autry ‘Hootenanny,'” according to the Suburban Economist newspaper.
A caption under an uncredited photo in a local Schiller Park newspaper reported that Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner was in attendance.
Although the advertising campaigns in print and on TV might have led some to believe otherwise, news of Marshall Savings and Loan’s foreclosure on the Sahara Inn was catastrophic.
In the weeks that followed, depositors panicked, withdrawing $10 million. Although new savings offset the run slightly, the net result was a net decrease in assets of $7.5 million.
“Without the immediate assistance of the Federal Home Loan Bank, for which we are most grateful, the result might well have been calamitous,” wrote Henry Moravec Jr. to the supervisor of the Illinois Department of Financial Institutions later in 1963.
Even with the Autry-Sahara deal in place, Marshall Savings was struggling to pay back the Federal Home Loan Bank. The S&L’s board meeting minutes from Aug. 20, 1963 indicate that Marshall Savings owed the bank $8 million, of which $3 million was already past due.
“The only way we can repay this loan is through a large cash flow of new savings or through the sale of the mortgage packages that are currently being offered, and since neither one of these sources have materialized, it is necessary to renew and keep renewing these notes as they come due every 30 or 60 days,” the meeting minutes state.
In September 1963, an examiner from the Federal Home Loan Bank put the hammer down in a memo analyzing Marshall Savings and Loan’s banking practices.
The bank examiner blasted Marshall Savings’ excessive advertising and giveaway programs, the S&L’s decision to concentrate loans to a few large borrowers, having just 55 percent of its loans be for homes and making risky loans to land trusts, over-appraising properties, the Sahara Motel loans, its growing percentage of slow-paying loans, its management practices and the makeup of its board of directors.
On the subject of the association’s management, the bank examiner used a particularly unusual transaction to illustrate “irresponsibility on the part of the participants and beneficiaries.”
Back in February 1963, Marshall Savings made a $420,000 loan to a corporation whose officers were Howard B. and Charlotte Quinn, who were directors at Beverly Savings and Loan. For security, the Quinns used vacant land which Marshall had appraised at $610,000. An independent appraiser had valued the property at $331,000.
On the very next day, Beverly Savings made two loans to Henry Moravec Sr. and Henry Moravec Jr. totaling $650,000. The purpose of the loan was for Marshall Savings to “obtain working capital.” Again, the bank examiner noted, the land offered as security for the loan was appraised far in excess of its actual value.
The Moravecs engaged in other practices that would have raised eyebrows. A lawsuit against the IRS filed in 1971 by a man named Sol Diamond stated that he started serving as a mortgage broker for Marshall Savings in about 1960.
Diamond alleged in the suit that for brokering loans he was paid a commission, half of which he would kick back to the Moravecs by writing checks to a company called Real Consultant Associates or to someone named “M. Bonke.”
According to the lawsuit none of the other Marshall Savings and Loan officers or directors knew about the existence of Real Consultant Associates. As for “Bonke,” that was the maiden name of Henry Jr.’s wife.
By early 1964, the writing was on the wall. A 1974 appellate court ruling in a lawsuit the Moravecs brought against the IRS states that in January 1964 the Moravecs were advised by “Illinois supervisory authorities that Marshall Savings was financially impaired and would be closed unless [they] disposed of their Marshall” shares.
By June, there was a tentative deal in place. A pair of contractors, Louis Verive and Anthony Navarroli, who had done fairly extensive business with Marshall Savings, would buy the Moravecs’ shares for $1.25 million, provided the buyers could prove Marshall was salvageable.
Initially, the deal collapsed, but on Oct. 26, 1964 it finally went through. The terms of the deal, while not altogether clear, reportedly were about the same. Verive and Navarroli provided the Moravecs $300,000 as an initial payment. That would turn out to be the only payment they would make.
The sale was announced in the press in November by Marshall Savings’ new acting president, William McGrath, a Wheaton attorney and former assistant corporation counsel for the city of Chicago.
The Moravecs were out of the banking business, but they weren’t out of the woods.
Gene Autry’s experience running the Sahara North was not a pleasant one.
On Sept. 16, 1963, a little more than a month after the Sahara North reopened under Autry’s management, a bomb went off in a stairwell, causing about $1,000 in damage.
In the weeks following the reopening, Autry made it clear that the “hoodlums” who had populated the Sahara under Skar’s management were no longer welcome and had police actively ask them to leave or deny them entry.
The Cook County Sheriff’s chief investigator told the Chicago Tribune that he believed “the bomb had been planted either as a warning or as vengeance for some act. Ouster of hoodlums might have played a part, he theorized.”
Autry shrugged off the bombing at a press conference in October, where he joked, “My Angels were bombed from third to ninth place in the American League, so I’ve been bombed all year.”
On Jan. 16, 1964, a more powerful bomb exploded in the parking lot of the Sahara North. No one was injured, but the blast blew out a dozen motel room windows, damaged several cars and reportedly could be heard two miles away.
Orchestra leader Fred Waring, who was staying at the motel at the time, told a reporter he was “knocked from his bed by the explosion.” Meanwhile, singer Allan Jones (perhaps most famous for his role as Ricardo Baroni in the 1935 Marx Brothers movie “A Night at the Opera”) said he was checking out immediately.
“I refuse to risk my life,” Jones told a Chicago Tribune reporter. Jones also said he was canceling the remainder of his appearances at the Sahara.
Autry continued to operate the Sahara North for another eight months, but in August he announced he was pulling out. Marshall Savings and Loan “agreed to terminate the lease as soon as it can find ‘an adequate and proper’ operator.”
A spokesman for Autry told the Chicago Tribune that the bombings weren’t the reason the singing cowboy wanted out. Rather, he said, “the motel is too far from Autry’s other hotel interests in California.”
After being evicted from the Sahara Inn, Manny Skar’s troubles would only get worse. In the aftermath of Skar’s preposterous explanation that Sahara North construction records had “disappeared” while he was en route from Florida to Chicago for a court appearance, Cook County Chief Judge John Boyle sentenced Skar to six months in jail for contempt of court.
Skar posted $10,000 bond and promised he’d come up with the records the court wanted “if they turn up.”
He had other problems, this time with his one-time patrons in the Chicago Outfit.
Tribune reporter Robert Wiedrich reported that Skar’s life had been threatened over a $35,000 debt owed to a mob-connected contractor who did work at the Sahara North. When Marshall Savings foreclosed on the hotel, Skar reportedly told the contractor to get the money from the savings and loan, because he didn’t have any.
Wiedrich reported that a mobster who was a partner of the contractor’s told Skar “he would be ‘buried’ if he failed to pay the debt.”
In December of 1963, Skar vacationed in California. While nursing a scotch and soda, his favorite drink, at a night club in Palm Springs, Skar got a visit from a man from Chicago, who repeated the warning.
In a panic, Skar reportedly called his old partner, Rocco DeStefano, who “told Skar he was in serious trouble.”
Without the Sahara to fund his lifestyle, Skar subsequently bought in to a couple of Rush Street night spots, according to Wiedrich, and also claimed a stake in a lounge on Devon Avenue.
How he funded those ventures is unclear but, according to Wiedrich, “was of interest to investigators since he claimed poverty” after the Sahara foreclosures. Skar, according to Wiedrich, again ran afoul of mob collectors when he balked at paying $500 a month “operating tax” the mob was levying.
In May 1964, Skar appeared briefly before a federal grand jury convened to probe organized crime in Chicago.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney’s Office was gathering evidence in anticipation of charging Skar with tax evasion. A federal grand jury convened in October 1964, just days before the Moravecs sold their interests in Marshall Savings.
And on Dec. 14, 1964, the Trib reported, the feds indicted Skar “for income tax evasion and for assisting in preparation of false special tax returns for the liquor concession” at the Sahara North and South.
Over a period of four years, the indictment read, Skar hadn’t reported more than $1.3 million in income and that he owned more than $700,000 in income taxes for 1961 and 1962. Skar, who faced up to 24 years in prison, posted bond.
Skar remained defiant.
Two days later, on Dec. 16, 1964, Skar – accompanied by uniformed armed guards – held an impromptu press conference in cocktail bar of the Sahara North to address two issues. Skar told reporters that he never had mob backing for the Sahara North, which no one was likely to believe.
More important, Skar complained, the new owners of Marshall Savings and Loan had leased the Sahara to a new management team for an offer far below two others that had been made by friends of his.
The Tribune’s Wiedrich reported that William McGrath, the new president of Marshall Savings, responded to the accusation by saying that Skar “has burned us up so much we wouldn’t do business with anyone he represents, even if were President Johnson. He is an albatross around our necks.”
In just two more weeks, none of it would matter, anyway.
As Marshall Savings and Loan opened its doors at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 31, 1964, two bank examiners from the Illinois Department of Financial Institutions walked in and announced that the state was seizing the institution and freezing all of its accounts.
Customers arriving at the savings and loan were handed notices explaining the seizure, tellers turned away those who had come to make transactions and a safe expert set about changing the combinations to the vault locks.
The Chicago Tribune reported that about $40 million, or 40 percent of the S&L’s total assets, was delinquent by 90 or more days. The state had given Marshall’s new owners 30 days to raise $5 million, and they had failed.
Savers wouldn’t see any of their money for months while Marshall’s owners battled in court to prevent the state from liquidating the savings and loan’s assets. In the end, the bank was liquidated, with the first checks representing federally insured deposits going out to depositors in April 1965.
For those who had deposits in excess of the $10,000 guaranteed by the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation, the wait would be years for any of that cash. Lawsuits related to the uninsured funds would drag on until 1970.
Manny Skar had been talking, both privately and within earshot of his one-time partners in the Chicago Outfit, throughout 1965 about how he was planning to defend himself in court against charges of income tax evasion.
The Tribune’s Wiedrich reported that in early 1965, Skar started telling friends that he would put his old Sahara Inn partner, Rocco DeStefano, on the stand as a defense witness and force him either to admit Skar had bought DeStefano out of his Sahara investment using loan proceeds or force him to plead the Fifth Amendment, which would be just as effective.
“I’m gonna have subpoenas all over town,” Skar reportedly told his “hoodlum friends,” Wiedrich reported.
In the summer of 1965, Skar had a couple of opportunities to attempt a reconciliation with DeStefano. The first never materialized, Wiedrich reported, because he stopped at a tavern beforehand and got so drunk he couldn’t manage it.
In August, Skar was invited to meet with DeStefano at an Ontario Street restaurant, according to Wiedrich, in “an attempt to narrow the rift.” Skar declined.
By now, it was understood that Skar was cooperating with federal investigators, hoping to avoid prison.
Wiedrich reported that Skar had been “talking to several federal agencies for some months on topics ranging from the framework of collectors and musclemen the crime syndicate uses to shake down night clubs and restaurants to who really benefited from the ill-fated … financing of Skar’s Sahara North motel.”
Manny Skar’s fate was sealed.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 1965, Skar and his wife, Beatrice, had just returned home to their apartment on the 15th floor of the building at 3800 N. Lake Shore Drive from a restaurant near Oak and Rush on Chicago’s North Side.
Skar’s stopped his Pontiac convertible to drop off Beatrice at the front door and then parked it near the building’s garage before walking through the courtyard toward the rear entrance to the building.
Skar walked about 30 feet before shots rang out. He crumpled to the ground, hit five times in the head, neck, chest and knee. Witnesses said the shots were followed by a car door slamming.
Three days later, Skar was laid to rest at the Waldheim Cemetery in North Riverside, just a stone’s throw from Zeigler Ford. The Tribune noted that “crime syndicate mobsters shunned the funeral.”
Skar’s tax evasion trial was to have commenced on Oct. 11, 1965.
Very soon after the killing, informants reportedly told police that the gunman was Joseph “The Clown” Lombardo, who was seen tailing Skar in the days before his execution. Lombardo has never admitted to the killing.
The day of reckoning for Henry Moravec Sr. and Henry Moravec Jr. would come a year later.
On Sept. 16, 1966 – the three-year anniversary of the first bomb blast at the Sahara North – a federal grand jury indicted seven men for bank fraud, alleging the “misapplication of $2.7 million in federally insured funds” from Marshall Savings and Beverly Savings.
Both Moravecs and Howard Quinn, the former owner of Beverly Savings – who a Federal Home Loan Bank examiner stated were party to that suspicious loan arrangement back in 1963 – all were named as defendants.
Quinn already had been indicted and convicted in 1964 of bank fraud. The conviction was overturned on appeal and a new trial ordered, but Quinn in 1967 was found guilty again and sentenced to three years in prison. That verdict was under appeal as he battled the new charges.
Finally, in February 1969, U.S District Judge James Parsons found both of the Moravecs guilty, allowing them to plead “no contest” to the charges.
Parsons sentenced both Moravecs to five years in prison and fined each of them $10,000. Henry Moravec Jr. received an additional six months and one day in prison on 13 counts of fraud.
Judge Parsons suspended all of the sentences, except for Henry Jr.’s six month additional sentence. An editorial published in the Tribune following the verdict indicated that he may have had to serve at least two months of that sentence.
Federal prosecutor Michael Nash was outraged at the judge allowing the Moravecs to plead “no contest” instead of “guilty” and asked for harsh sentences for both men.
“Men in similar positions in other institutions are watching to see what would happen if they steal this much money,” Nash is quoted as telling the judge in the Tribune report of the sentencing hearing.
Judge Parsons in announcing the sentences told the defendants, “I appreciate your not putting the court through a trial that might have lasted five or seven weeks,” according to the Tribune.
All of the Moravecs would melt from the Chicago area – Henry Jr. had long since moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin — decamping to California.
Henry Moravec Sr. and his older brother, Jerome, died within a few months of each other in 1975. Henry Moravec Jr., now in his 80s, still resides in California. He could not be reached for this series.
His son, Henry Moravec III, an attorney in San Marino, California, who was just a toddler in the early 1960s, said his parents never spoke much about the savings and loan. He said he’d been told his grandfather had sold the savings and loan in the mid-1960s, but details were scarce and family memorabilia from that period was lost.
By 1966, Sahara North had become the Ramada Inn-O’Hare. Later the hotel was taken over by Sheraton, which sold it in 1977 to a West Coast company that renamed it the O’Hare Motor Inn.
The former crown jewel of Glitter Gulch would be sold again and again. By 1983 it was known as the Quality Inn-O’Hare, and it underwent a renovation the following year. The main Sahara North complex would be torn down in 1988 to make way for a Hampton Inn.
The former Sahara Tower, which continued to rent rooms to trucking firms and airline employees, was torn down in 1990 to make way for Thrifty Car Rental.
The former Sahara Inn South would continue under various ownerships and names to the present day. Though the pool has been demolished and the façade remodeled, its Lannon stone walls still stand on South Cicero Avenue.
As for the Marshall Savings headquarters at 3722 Harlem Ave. in Riverside, the building was sold in October 1972 for about $700,000 to the Riverside Building Association.
“The firm, owned by a group of doctors from the Berwyn area, will convert the building into a full-service medical clinic,” the Chicago Tribune reported.