Matchbooks Spark The Unearthing of Long Forgotten Histories

Windy City Memories of the Way We Were

A few weeks ago I picked up a really cool matchbook from a long closed girlie show/burlesque club in Chicago. The club was located on West Madison in a stretch until recently known as skid row and now gentrified and pricey. This sparked an idea about researching the history of a few select defunct places based on my personal matchbook collection. I have an unusual clear glass lamp that is filled with matchbooks, as well as a few other jars stuffed to the brim. Perusing this collection resurrected memories of places I had visited with my ex-husband, as well as unearthing matches for places I had never frequented but collected because they were visually intriguing. Think about it – with smoking banned in most public places, promotional matchbooks have really become a thing of the past and have a decidedly nostalgic vibe.

Club So-Ho at 1124 W. Madison gave out some of the coolest matchbooks I have ever seen. According to this blog, this girlie show was housed in a 220-seat theater and sparked the attention of the Chicago Tribune in 1948 as quite risqué. What exists at this location today – apparently nothing at this precise address, but The CrossRoads Bar & Grill is doing business at 1120 W. Madison.

Restaurateur Leslee Reis was a nationally recognized grand dame of the Chicago-area food scene in the 1970s-1980s. Sadly, she passed away from a sudden heart attack at the age of 47 in 1990. Located in Evanston, Cafe Provencal, an award-winning restaurant and Leslee’s – a more moderately priced cafe with live jazz, were successful establishments where many a sous chef cut their teeth. My memory of Leslee’s harkens back to 1988 when I ate dinner with dear family friends (both now deceased), my mom, my husband and 1-year-old daughter after visiting my dad at Evanston Hospital. Leslee’s opened in 1982 and closed in 1988, shortly after our visit – it was replaced by Reis’ very short-lived Bodega Bay. Cafe Provencal, located in the beautiful Homestead Hotel at 1625 Hinman opened in 1977 – Leslee’s husband Andrew closed its doors in 1993. What took its place – award-winning Trio Restaurant in business from 1994-2006, and currently Quince.

New York, New York – a Helluva Town

Romeo Salta at 30 West 56th Street in New York City was of the first in Manhattan to offer elegant Northern Italian cooking. I assume this matchbook was picked up by my parents since they traveled to the Big Apple every year for as long as I can remember. Mr. Salta’s story is very interesting and he was quite the celebrity. He published The Pleasures of Italian Cooking and sold autographed copies at his restaurant. What is located at 30 W. 56th Street today – Aeffe Group  and next door is a Sushi bar.

I vaguely recall going to The Red Blazer Too in 1979 with an older Dutch couple who were jazz aficionados related to my then-boyfriend soon-to-be husband. This was definitely not Patrick’s scene, especially since he was a little shell-shocked by the Big Apple on his first visit to America, but I recall that it was a lot of fun. Located at 1576 3rd Avenue between 88th and 89th Streets, this jazz club lost its lease at this spot on New Year’s Day 1985. It relocated to 349 W. 46th Street but is no longer in business. The original location on 3rd Avenue is now home to the Uptown Lounge.


The Ever-Changing Vegas Strip

I have only been to Las Vegas once, but I am fascinated by its colorful history and ever-changing landscape. When Jeff and I visited in 1999 we stayed at the Luxor – it was a decent hotel, but too far away from everything else. The wonderful movie The Cooler perfectly captured the seedy side of Vegas and the dark aspects that interest me the most. I discovered several Las Vegas matchbooks among my collection – I know for a fact that Jeff personally picked up the matchbooks from the Hacienda and the Sahara. In operation from 1956 until its famous implosion in 1996, Jeff stayed at the Hacienda on his honeymoon and his 10th wedding anniversary. Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino now stands on the former site.

The Sahara operated from 1952 to 2011 and was the sixth resort to open on the strip. One of the most famous hotel-casinos on the strip in its heyday, among the headliners at the Sahara were Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hackett, Rowan & Martin, Flip Wilson, Jack Benny, George Burns, Shecky Greene, Johnny Carson, and Sonny & Cher. A Vegas venue in the classic tradition, The Beatles stayed here in 1964 when they played two concerts at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The owner plans to transform the shuttered property into a luxury hotel.

The El Rancho blazed a path in 1941 as the first hotel to open on the strip, situated on 57 acres of land. The property had a long and storied history including being the hotel in which Clark Gable heard the tragic news that one of Howard Hughes’ TWA planes had crashed shortly after take-off at the Las Vegas Airport, killing all aboard including his beloved Carol Lombard. On July 17, 1960, the hotel was destroyed by a fire suspected as arson. This matchbook, however, is not from the original El Rancho but from the former Thunderbird Hotel, which opened in 1948 and was rebranded as the El Rancho Casino in 1982 until it shut its doors in 1992. This is the resort where singer Rosemary Clooney made her first appearance in Las Vegas in 1951, and where Judy Garland made her final Vegas appearance in 1965. Demolished in 2000, the former site is home to a condominium development.

Sundance opened on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas in 1980, was sold in 1988 and changed its name to Fitzgeralds, which is still in business. Part of the demise of the Sundance was associated with its connection to racketeer Moe Dalitz who owned the land.

Holiday Casino at 3475 Las Vegas Blvd opened in 1973 at the front of the Holiday Inn. In 1979, Holiday Inn bought a 40 percent share of the casino’s parent company, Riverboat Inc. and by 1982, the hotel had grown to over 1,000 rooms. Holiday Inn bought out the remaining stock in 1983. In 1980, Holiday Inns, Inc. acquired Harrah’s Hotel Casino Company and in 1992, renamed this casino Harrah’s.


  1. Enjoyed the article on matchbooks. Let me know if you are interested in a local matchbook collectors club .

    Bob Cigrang
    Windy City Matchcover Club

    • Thanks much Bob, for reading the article and commenting. Matchbooks are a terrific collectible because they are portable and offer a glimpse back in time. Or they can simply function as a personal souvenir of places visited once upon a time, evoking fond and often vivid memories.

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