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Chicago To Get Its Own "Boardwalk Empire"

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 21, 2010 6:20PM

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Given the nearly universal acclaim HBO's Boardwalk Empire keeps earning, it is no surprise to see talk of some other series in the works trying to evoke the heady cocktail of relentless entrepreneurial energy, politico-criminal networks and an American frontier mentality that hadn't quite yet been tamed. We confess that we're excited that it may be Chicago's rather notorious history which may be getting the treatment next. No offense to Atlantic City, but early 20th century political corruption and gangster stuff... that's kind of our thing. reports that work has begun on a television series based on Lords of the Levee: The Story of Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink, the book-length narrative about the long-time bosses of Chicago's First Ward and two of the most colorful characters in the history of a city larded with them.

John "Bathouse" Coughlin was a larger-than life, bad-poetry spouting force of nature, who worked his way from a scrubber at the Palmer House baths up to running several of them himself, and then becoming alderman for the First Ward in 1892. Mike "Hinky Dink" Kenna was a tiny and taciturn owner of profitable saloons, including the "Workingman's Exchange" on Clark just south of Van Buren, where the less well-to-do denizens of the city came for "the largest and coolest schooner of beer in the city" for a nickel at the world's longest bar, as well as free lunches and not infrequently a job and an instruction about who to vote for. Together they ran one of the most powerful and profitable districts in the country, selling protection to the underground economy until Coughlin's passing in 1938.

We like the cinematic potential of the infamous First Ward Ball, which was Chicago's first Lollapalooza

The 1907 First Ward Ball was perhaps the most widely reported and for this reason, seemed to raise the most ire among the various reform movements in the city. By the time, the ball opened that year, there were 15,000 people jammed into the Coliseum. One newspaper reported that there were so many drunks inside that when one would pass out, they could not even fall to the floor. In addition, women who fainted were passed over the heads of the crowd to the exits. As the event opened, a procession of Levee prostitutes marched into the building, led by Bathhouse John, with a lavender cravat and a red sash across his chest. Authors Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan described the parade: "On they came, madams, strumpets, airily clad jockeys, harlequins, Diana’s, page boys, female impersonators, tramps, pan handlers, card sharps, mountebanks, pimps, owners of dives and resorts, young bloods and ‘older men careless of their reputations’…"

Even though there had been 100 policemen detailed to the party, there were only eight arrests and one conviction -- that of Bernard Dooley, who was fined for entering the party without paying! Hinky Dink Kenna later called the party a "lallapalooza" and added that "Chicago ain’t no sissy town!"

All this and we haven't even mentioned Alphonse Capone. Robert De Niro's production company is planning to shoot in Chicago in 2011, with Chicago natives Phil Donlon and Joe Sikora (who has appeared in "Boardwalk Empire") at the helm. This is subject matter for a great series, and we'll be watching and hoping everything pans out.