The lingering spirits of the California ClipperMicco Caporaleon September 16, 2020 at 3:40 pm

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FRANK OKAY

When news broke in May that the California Clipper was permanently closing, people began to talk. Not just about the circumstances of the bar’s closure–which owner and boutique restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff claimed was due to the financial strain of the pandemic–but about the bar’s history, too.

Most believe the Clipper was originally a nickelodeon that shuttered because of the 1918 flu pandemic. Many believe it’s haunted, too, because that’s the kind of place the Clipper is: a fountain for fascinating stories. But much like the bar’s closure announcement, all Clipper stories contain a drop of truth amidst a pool of speculation–ones that reveal more about Chicago and culture than about the tavern itself.

In interviews with more than half a dozen former Clipper employees spanning the last 20 years, “David Lynch” is used as a descriptor of the space almost every time. “David Lynch turned sideways,” one person says. “Patsy Cline meets David Lynch,” says another. Even patrons describe it as a place where time doesn’t feel linear. Its air sizzles with an expectation that past and present might collide in surprising, even unnerving ways, making it a likely place for something spooky.

Early into her year-and-a-half as a bartender there, Chelsea Foss-Ralston heard rumors about a ghost. One of her opening duties included saging the space, and coworkers would tease it was to clear lingering spirits. If something unexpected happened, like a mop falling over, someone might joke, “Clipper ghost!” Occasionally, she’d meet adventurers on self-guided ghost tours who’d ask about the lore. The bar is included in two books on Windy City haunts, and in the aughts, its website used to advertise a woman in white who’d appear to “freak out management.”

But then Foss-Ralston started to have experiences: things like hearing phantom knocking and footsteps, even one night losing her garage door opener only to find it placed on her driver seat in the morning. These encounters convinced her it was more than talk, and she’s not the only former employee with such accounts.

“Ghosts are liminal (between here and there, between now and then),” writes Dr. Tok Thompson, an anthropology professor at University of Southern California and folklore expert. “So often they appear at liminal places. Ghost stories are interesting to me in the way they express the ‘shadow side’ of history. They often can contain truths that official histories do not.”

The Clipper is an ideal site for a ghost–or at least a ghost story–because as far as official histories go, it doesn’t have much of one. Or rather, the one it has is markedly incomplete. It’s true that it started as a turn-of-the-century movie theater. There are sub-basements in the area similar to those beneath the Green Mill and a false wall in the bar, too, prompting suspicion it might have been a speakeasy during Prohibition, which collapses the Clipper into beloved Chicago mythology

When the Clipper’s landlord Gino Battaglia bought the building nearly 20 years ago, part of its appeal was its hazy, storied past. He likes that it’s still a true tavern–a holdover from a pre-Mayor Daley time when liquor licenses weren’t contingent on serving food, and bars commonly functioned as neighborhood hearths. Rumors swirled that bootlegger Baby Face Nelson–born only a half block south on California Avenue–had maybe used the bar as part of his operation. While very likely untrue, Battaglia likes that it feels like it could be true. Lots of patrons did.

Alas, the movie theater chapter of the Clipper’s long life was not actually ended by the flu pandemic. Relative to now, few businesses permanently closed then because the 1918 quarantine only lasted a few weeks, and anything not associated with nightlife (like movie theaters) quickly reopened. Newspaper ads in the Tribune reveal the theater was still showing films early into the 20s. Then in 1927, a for sale ad at 1002 N. California boasted a 300-seat movie theater and a side space for a beauty shop. (Presumably, this is what the false wall was for.) But the persistence of rumors that it closed in 1918 reminds people of the cultural toll pandemics take.

It likely wasn’t a speakeasy, either. Contrary to many people’s belief, beer barons didn’t build any tunnels beneath Chicago, just exploited ones that already existed. The ones underneath California and Augusta were likely part of a larger freight network that moved coal, housed telephone wires, and even funneled cool air into large gathering spaces such as movie theaters. But according to Battaglia, there’s no indicator the Clipper had direct access to such tunnels.

Some speculate a Walgreens shared a wall with the Clipper. Pharmacies could legally sell booze, making this a convenient Prohibition workaround. But property records show this also isn’t true; the nearest pharmacy–a family operation–was a block away, and alcohol prescriptions were so expensive, no one in the working class Humboldt Park of the 1920s could have made a habit of them. But the fact that so many ghost stories are associated with the bar is itself a holdover of Prohibition.

As legend goes, a woman in white haunts booths one and nine, as well as the women’s restroom, and her rose-like perfume chases lingering drunks at close. Foss-Ralston thinks the ghost is a woman from one of the photographs on the wall of the bar who’s never been identified. According to the Chicago Haunted Handbook, a manager brought in a psychic in the mid-aughts who said something similar.

“The woman in white was waiting for her beau who went to war and never returned,” says Jessi Meliza, a long-time patron who ran a trivia night there for a year.

“A young woman gets dressed up and goes to the Clipper for a date she’s excited about,” recounts Stephen Spataro, who worked at the Clipper for more than a decade. “He stands her up, and she gets so distraught, she runs out and gets hit by a car. Now she haunts the place.”

According to Daniel Majid, who also worked at the Clipper for more than a decade, first-time customers would go to the bathroom–most often the women’s one–then return and say, “Is this place haunted?” Or they’d remark on their hair standing on end, the place feeling a little eerie.

Amidst all the accounts, two themes emerge: the ghost is always a woman, and she’s often heartbroken.

“[Ghost stories of heartbroken women] are a common thread in many cultures,” says Thompson, the USC anthropologist, “particularly patriarchal ones where a woman’s place in society is heavily dependent on marriage.”

Temperance was born, in part, from women organizing to deal with alcoholism’s impact on their families. If booze wasn’t so readily available, they contended, their husbands wouldn’t undermine their security by, say, losing their jobs or becoming violent. In this light, it makes sense why people might perceive or imagine a female ghost scaring off drunks with her perfume.

But the way the story varies expresses a plurality of ideas about women, too–the toll WWII took on women’s security and livelihoods, for example. Changing attitudes about women even persist in stories of one of the Clipper’s former owners.

In 1937, the Caporusso siblings–Gus, Joe, and Antonia–bought the building and opened the Clipper Tavern. Gus died in the 1950s, but Joe and Antonia continued running it until the late 90s, when Joe died and Antonia retired. (She continued living in the building until she passed around 2010.) Tales of the bar’s life pre-1999, when Max Brumbach bought it and transformed it into the California Clipper, all center on Antonia.

In one, cops come in to shut down an illegal gambling night. “OK, OK, everybody out,” they say, but Antonia grabs a gun and says, “No, you get out.” In another, she refuses to serve women who come in unescorted. “Harlots,” she supposedly called them.

They’re anecdotes that reveal less about who Antonia was than ideas of what Humboldt Park–and women in it–were becoming. As a myth, she gets to be a brazen outlaw who puts her financial stakes above the law as much as a strict enforcer of traditional gender roles. A woman who’s tough enough to provide for her family and come out strong in a changing, often turbulent neighborhood. But she’s not so tough that her job interferes with her or other women’s abilities to have a family.

That stories of imbibing persist as threatening marriage or performing idealized womanhood might be the scariest part of all.

All the talk of ghosts makes Battaglia chuckle. “One of our tenants has been living there 22 years,” he says. “A lot, seven to ten years. We rarely have a vacant apartment. Certainly nobody scared off by ghosts!”

Battaglia’s proud of the relationships he has built with his tenants, which made it all the more wrenching when Sodikoff announced he was closing the Clipper, a neighborhood bar that’s become a local institution, and retaining rights to the name. According to Battaglia, he offered Sodikoff ample rent relief, but he believes Sodikoff was just looking for an excuse to break his lease. (Hogsalt Hospitality, the group that owns the Clipper, did not respond to an interview request.) Now they’re duking it out in court.

While the future of the California Clipper is unclear, one thing is very obvious: there’s something about 1002 N. California that makes it a mirror for local fantasies and anxieties. And that’s something that will endure regardless of what comes next. v

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