March 19, 2010

BY MARK J. KONKOL Chicago Sun Times Staff Reporter

Some joker swung open the door at Blackies in Printers Row to scream at an unsuspecting bartender, “Your boss is going to jail, ha ha.”

Owner Jeffery Thomas says his workers have been getting a lot of that since his longtime nemesis, Nick Giannis — who owns the Boston Blackies bar-and-grill chain — was arrested with two other men while trying to flee the country ahead of check-kiting charges last week.

Giannis, a major contributor to U.S. Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias, along with his son Chris and bar manager Andy Bakopoulos, allegedly defrauded Charter One and Washington Mutual banks of nearly $2 million.

“I’m getting zillions of calls and people coming in saying, ‘I hope you all go to jail,'” Thomas said. “They think it’s funny.”

So Thomas wants those blowhards, and newspaper headline writers for that matter, to know that his Blackie’s — the bar his grandfather opened in 1939 — isn’t connected with the alleged crooks who run the chain of bars with the similar name, menu and art deco decor.

“I had a guy tell me, ‘All you Greeks are the same.’ I told him I’m Italian. Saying that’s derogatory in any situation, but you know … we have no affiliation. We’ve been here for 71 years. They’re a cheap, imitation ripoff,” Thomas said. “That’s how I feel in my heart.”

Thomas has had a beef with the Giannis family since the mid-’80s, when the first Boston Blackies opened on Grand near Michigan.

“A guy called to congratulate me on our new spot. I told him we didn’t have a new spot. He said, “It’s gotta be your spot. There’s a sign that looks just like yours,'” Thomas said.

Over the years, Thomas says the confusion over the bar names has given him nothing but aggravation. Thomas’ attorneys wrote letters asking Giannis to stop using the Blackies name but got no response. Thomas thought about suing for trademark infringement, but decided that was too expensive.

A few years ago, city inspectors burst into Blackies, threatening to shut the place down for starting a salmonella outbreak, when they were supposed to be at Boston Blackies on Grand. And when the Boston Blackies chain went bankrupt in December, customers thought Thomas’ corner bar was closing. Now, Thomas is ticked that newspaper headlines of Giannis’ legal woes shorten that bar’s name to just “Blackies,” creating even more confusion.

“I don’t know how many people don’t come here because they think we’re closed from going bankrupt or because they think I’m a thief,” Thomas said. “It’s hard to take.”

More than that, Thomas worries that Boston Blackies’ bad name will damage his bar’s reputation and overshadow the joint’s place in Chicago history.

Thomas’ grandfather, the late Alex DeMilio, bought the building at Clark and Polk in 1939. DeMilio’s pal Big Band leader Jimmy Dorsey promised to make the place a hangout for Hollywood types arriving in Chicago at Dearborn Station across the street. But there was a catch: Dorsey told DeMilio he had to give a kid named “Blackie” a job.

“My grandfather was a shoot-from-the-hip guy. So, he did one better. He named the place after Blackie and made him maitre d’,” Thomas said. “They called the kid that because the iris of his eye was so dark it looked black. Back then, a nickname stuck with you forever.”

Dorsey lived up to his end of the bargain. Blackies became a hot nightspot for visiting stars. Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Betty Gable often stopped in when they were in town. And during his 1948 whistle stop campaign, President Harry Truman sang “The Missouri Waltz” at Blackies, Thomas said.

Chico Marx was a regular. Two of the Three Stooges — Moe and Shemp — were frequent visitors, too. In fact, the Stooges and the Marx brothers — who were Hollywood rivals — got in a food fight at the bar.

“Back when the South Loop was a seedy vice district, bookies ran numbers from the Blackies’ second floor. Judges played cards in the basement. And cops were on the take — collecting a “weekly drop,” Thomas said.

Thomas, 55, who partnered with his grandfather in 1977, gave the place a face-lift and has served as caretaker ever since, says his rivals at Boston Blackies are getting what they deserve — a little karmic justice, even.

“I’ve been giving those guys the la malocchio — the curse — since they opened,” Thomas said. “I feel good about what happened to them, I do.”