It’s fashionable for bars and restaurants to claim some connection to the days of Prohibition, but Roc’s Blackfront Tavern & Grill, at 410 Sixth Street in Charleston, Illinois, is the real deal. It even has the memorabilia to prove it. In my senior and graduate school years at nearby Eastern Illinois University, I frequented Roc’s to have a drink with friends in a classier atmosphere than the usual college bars.
That brick building, absent its black tile facade and martini glass-shaped neon sign, was originally built for the Charleston Courier newspaper office in 1841. Willis W. McClelland opened the Red Front Saloon there in 1917. As fate would have it, the Eighteenth Amendment banning the sale of alcohol in the United States passed in 1919. What were establishments like the Red Front Saloon to do? The saloon changed its name to McClelland’s Cafe and continued to clandestinely sell alcohol a short walk from the county courthouse.
Racing enthusiast Hank O’Day bought the speakeasy in 1931 and renamed it Hank O’Day’s Tavern after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. Illegal activities continued, however. O’Day ran an underground casino in the room above the bar, complete with buzzer system to alert patrons of police raids. When owner Mike Knoop renovated in 1996, he discovered hidden gambling devices and paraphernalia, including total boards for horse racing and a roulette wheel that now hangs on the wall.
I attended Eastern Illinois University during a time of change, when longtime fixtures of the community disappeared and new things rose. EIU’s campus is very different from when I first set foot there, but the town of Charleston has changed as well.
Aaron’s Barbershop was local institution, and I was lucky to get my haircut by the man himself. His shop, tucked in a strip mall across the street from campus, is empty now—a sad remnant of the past. When I look inside, I can still see the red bench where I waited for a haircut, and the glass case that held old hair care products and candy for sale, and an old cash register. A thin layer of dust covers the empty shelves.
Aaron Buchanan opened his barber shop in the University Village strip mall at Fourth Street and Lincoln avenue, across the street from EIU’s campus, in 1963 or ’64. He charged 50 cents. My dad attended EIU from 1963 to 1967, and he remembers getting his hair cut by Aaron.
Students at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois always had a variety of choices when it came to getting their caffeine fix. I was no stranger to Java B&B in the MLK Student Union (I still can’t find a better scone…). There was Jitters & Bliss, and even Common Grounds for those students adventurous enough to drive to nearby Mattoon. When it came to local coffee shops, however, nothing beat the JAC.
Jackson Avenue Coffee, at 708 Jackson Avenue just off Charleston’s town square, was the brainchild of EIU alumni Ryan and Dulcy Dawson. They spent several months renovating the space before opening on Friday, April 26, 2002. Their intention was to create a friendly and relaxed environment where students could study and stay as long as they wanted. It was a fixture for students and local residents alike, and for at least one summer, was like my second home.
JAC was divided into two rooms, the front for the main coffee shop, and the back where patrons could play board games and where meetings and live events were held. Local artists displayed their artwork on the walls for sale on a rotational basis, and a few tables even doubled as chess and checkers boards. It was a fun, lively environment that became a showcase for Charleston’s creative community.
Built in 1938 at a cost of $90,000 in Art Deco style, the Will Rogers Theatre has been a fixture of downtown Charleston, Illinois for generations. It was named after William ‘Will’ Rogers, a famous Cherokee actor, humorist, and newspaper columnist of the Progressive Era who died in a plane crash in 1935. When I was an undergrad at Eastern Illinois University, my Friday night routine was to walk down to the Will Rogers and watch whatever movie had been released that week.
During the 1980s, Kerasotes Theaters divided the 1,100-seat auditorium and began showing movies on two separate screens. The Will Rogers was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and designated a Landmark Property by the City of Charleston in 2011.
When I entered EIU as a freshman in the fall of 2000, Kerasotes still owned Will Rogers Theatre. They showed two films per week on two screens, one at 7:00pm and the other at 7:15. Movie tickets were only $2, and popcorn was cheap too. My first visit was to see The Replacements with a sorority girl named Valerie who my roommate introduced me to (for more on him, read my article on Carman Hall).
On the evening of Monday, June 11, 2001, Eastern Illinois University’s campus was deserted. The temperature was in the high 70s and falling. Most of EIU’s 10,531 students had returned home for the summer, but several hundred remained behind for summer classes, or to relax in the town they had come to love. I was back home in suburban Prospect Heights, relaxing after a long day working for the local park district. I would enter my sophomore year in August.
In a second floor apartment on 4th Street in Charleston, just a few blocks from campus, a small group of friends drank and socialized. The apartment door and windows were open, allowing a pleasant summer breeze to circulate among the party. Laughter, music, and light from the open door sounded inviting to anyone who happened to pass by on the sidewalk below. It was a nightly ritual to unwind from spending hours in stuffy classrooms or at tedious, temporary summer jobs.
The next morning, in a three-story apartment building near the corner of 4th Street and Taylor Avenue, 21-year-old Shannon McNamara’s roommate discovered her strangled and brutalized body on their living room floor. Shannon, from Rolling Meadows, Illinois, was a physical education major and sorority sister of the Zeta Alpha chapter of Alpha Phi.
As a student at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, there was only one place to go after coming home from the bar at 2 am. You wanted something cheap and greasy, and Chubby’s had just what the doctor ordered. Though I wasn’t much for the bar scene, I ate my fair share of Chubby’s over the years. It was the largest pizza in Charleston for the best price, and just a short walk from campus.
Leon and Lisa Hall opened a Topper’s Pizza in the Midtown Plaza strip mall at 215 Lincoln Avenue in 1995. Topper’s is a restaurant chain founded by Scott Gittrich in Champaign, Illinois in 1991, but Leon and Lisa found themselves alone after the original location closed. After three years, the couple felt they weren’t benefiting from the franchise, so they decided to go their own way and rebranded as Chubby’s Pizza.
They kept the same menu but were able to lower prices because they were no longer paying franchise fees. “The Topper”, a 20-inch pizza with 12 toppings, became “The Big Chubby.” Why the name Chubby’s? Leon told the Daily Eastern News, “I’ve put on a few pounds since I’ve owned the place.”
As 2002 came to a close, I was getting ready to go on Christmas break and start a new year at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. The hot issue of the day was the impending war with Iraq. Everyone knew it was coming, but no one knew when. UN weapons inspectors had been combing Iraq for several weeks, with no results. That December, a group of protestors would meet at Old Main on Lincoln Avenue to lend their voices to peace.
Having followed events in Iraq for quite some time, I was skeptical of the threat it posed or the utility of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Despite Bush Administration horror stories about weapons of mass destruction, I always suspected something worse might replace Saddam, and that starting another war in the Middle East wouldn’t help stamp out Islamic extremism. In 2002, however, the antiwar crowd seemed to be in the minority. A January 2003 CBS poll found 64% of Americans approved of military action against Iraq after all diplomatic options had been exhausted.
On the sixty-first anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 2002, a number of small campus groups, including the Green Party, junior art major Ryan McClure, and Newman Center director Roy Lanham, organized an antiwar protest to coincide with similar marches around the country. I showed up with my video camera to document the event and interview the participants.