Gladys Meyers still winds her way down to Al Capone's Hideaway for a few beers and some good conversation in the big house that sits on the shore of the Fox River, just 40 miles west of Chicago.
It's not as hard for her to find the restaurant and speakeasy in the northwest suburban Valley View, as it is for others. The beer probably doesn't taste the same to her as it does to newcomers, either.
That's because back in 1927 (until 1938), when she was Gladys Reitmayer, she and her husband owned the reputed hideout of Al Capone. Until "Scarface" took over, they made their own beer in a hidden cellar behind the chicken coop and pumped it to their thirsty Prohibition-era patrons through an intricate copper tubing system that remains hidden underground to this day.
Bill Brooks, Al Capone's present owner, says the 77-year-old Elgin resident hasn't lost the spunk that carried her through the police raids, barroom brawls, and three marriages and divorces, including the one from the man who built Reitmayer's Beer Garden in 1917.
Chicago boasted many bootlegging syndicates at the time, according to Meyers, and rival gang members would visit the Reitmayers every other month, each suspecting the other was selling beer to the couple.
"They were always takin' samples" recalls Meyers. "Snoopers, we called em... The state's attorney wished us good luck," she chuckles. "He was a good friend of ours after we paid all the fines, and he got me my divorces."
On one of Meyers's visits to Al Capone's Hideaway, she brought her photo album to reminisce with Bill and Claudia Brooks. "It's all changed," she says. Although the first floor remains a restaurant as it was in the 20s, the second floor, which used to be the Reitmayers' apartment, is now an authentic speakeasy where Brooks has a three-piece jazz ensemble playing on Saturday nights.
One thing remains the same, though: People come from miles around to enjoy great food, tasty spirits, and lively entertainment. "We were supposed to have had the biggest crowd around," says Meyers. "We had people from all over. All kinds from Aurora, Illinois, and towns in between. We had a lot of railroad men. But Sunday was our worst day. We had people from rival towns come in. I could have gone against (Sugar Ray) Robinson then, I was in training." Brooks supports Meyers stories with rumored reports of a rival bar down the road owned by infamous gangster George "Bugs" Moran.
The Brooks' have done a great job of recapturing the atmosphere of the Prohibition days in their speakeasy. All patrons enter by the stairway where the famous beer cooler once stood (holding 500 to 600 fifths of beer). Once inside, the atmosphere is as roaring as the 20s, with music by Dixieland stars such as saxophonist Franz Jackson, Johnny Waters, and Glenn Koch.