Part two follows, Part one was posted last night:
Nichelle, born in 1932, studied in Chicago as well as New York and Los Angeles. Her first big break came in an appearance in Kicks and Co., Oscar Brown, Jr.'s highly touted, but ill-fated musical. Although the play closed after its brief try-out in Chicago, she attracted the attention of Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy, who was so impressed with her appearance that he booked her immediately at his Chicago Playboy Club. While still in Chicago, she performed at the "Blue Angel", and in New York, Nichols appeared at that city's "Blue Angel" as a dancer and singer. Between acting and singing engagements, Nichols did occasional modeling work.
While making a name for herself in the Chicago clubs, she received a two week offer to open a posh new supper club in Milwaukee. It was a dream job, headliner status, a two week contract with options for up to six, and great pay. The newly remodeled club was magnificent with a spacious stage that was a performer’s dream. She met the musicians, chorus-line dancers and Laura, a singer whose specialty number was a scintillating bolero. Everyone seemed like one big happy troupe.
The first week went very well, with great reviews and packed houses, but she sensed something peculiar about the place. The dancers would giggle nervously between acts, then dash from the stage, dress in a flash, and head upstairs to mingle with the customers after each show.
From Nichelle’s basement dressing room, she would hear Louie the bartender snapping at the girls, “all right, let’s move it. Ya know, Mr. B. don’t like nobody bein’ late. Let’s go!” Within minutes, they’d be gone. What these pretty young girls were doing was going upstairs to “B-drink”. This was an old practice where the girls mixed with the audience to encourage male customers to run up large bar tabs. If you were B-drinking with a customer, you might order
a glass of champagne, then the bartender would pour you a ginger ale. The customer, who probably ordered champagne, also, got billed for two champagnes. This allowed the club to make a fantastic profit on the bar and also created an atmosphere conducive the other business of prostitution. Of course, in the better B-joints, prostitution was not openly practiced, but many a girl made her “dates” on the side. Nichelle was sitting in her dressing room one evening when Louie the bartender came banging on the door. “ Miss Nichols! You’re wanted upstairs!” She replied “Thanks but no thanks. I’m getting ready for my next show.”
“Look,” he replied firmly, “I’m not askin’ ya, I’m tellin’ ya: You’re supposed to be upstairs. NOW.”
Nichelle: “Excuse me? Who do you think you are talking to?” Louie’s mouth dropped as she closed the door in his face!
When Nichelle got a chance to talk to Laura, the bolero dancer, she found out what was going on. “This used to be a strip club” she said matter-of-factly. “Leopards don’t change their spots, they just change the decor”. Nichelle: “You mean it’s the same owner who owned it when it was a strip joint?” “Yeah replied Laura, “we were the strippers. Or did you think we were all legit?” She then realized that this was probably a mob connected joint that she was working.
The next night the club’s owner came to the dressing room, Frankie Balistrieri. Nichell described him as small, stocky, yet always impeccably dressed. “I understand from Louie that we’re having a problem.” Nichelle: “I don’t have any problems, I go upstairs every night, do my two shows, then I go home.” “Yeah, I know,” he said patiently, then proceeded to explain to me what my job really was. “So you see, that’s how we do it here.”
“I’m sorry”, Nichelle replied. “I don’t B-drink and I don’t play B-bars. My agent told me this was a legitimate supper club.” “But I want you should do this,” he said gently as he calmly cracked each knuckle.
After going back and forth for awhile, with Nichelle asserting that she was raised by good parents, didn't drink, didn't smoke and had a young son to raise, she threatened to leave if that’s what Frankie expected of her.
Frankie stood there silently, looking at her. “Okay,” he said at last. “You’re bringing in lots of customers. They like you, so it’s okay. You always mind you mother and father, you will not go wrong. Anybody tells you anything, you tell ‘em to talk to Frankie Balistrieri. I like ya. You got class kid.” “Thank you”, said Nichelle.
Note: Mobsters seldom take no for an answer. They just think of another way to get to you! This was in the mid-1950’s and Frankie was not yet the “godfather” of the Milwaukee mob, that wouldn't happen until 1961, but he was training hard for it!
Nichelle knew she had to get out of there and was counting the days until her two week contract was up. A couple nights before what was to have been her last night came another knock on the door from Louie. “Oh, uh, Miss Nichols,” he said in his cretinous voice, ”by the way: Frankie wants ya here anuddah two weeks.”
Frankie exercised that first two week option with a raise, then another bigger one, by which time, Nichelle was dying to leave. She began to get the idea that Frankie was fond of her when he invited her up to visit his family. His wife and children were said to have never been seen at the club before. While staying at a very nice hotel around the corner and up the block from the club, she began hearing stories about Frankie and the local rackets. He was not yet the Midwest Don he would become, but was working hard at it. His gang and his rivals were entrenched in a turf dispute, and right before she left, a stripper at another club was shot on-stage and killed by a rival mob. They had no compunction about making sure that their girls never got away. The implied threat of a savage beating or a shattered nose kept all the girls in line. Nichelle became increasingly afraid and more determined than ever to get away. Ironically, her show was growing increasingly popular and for the first time in Frankie’s career, one of his shows was reviewed in the local paper. The better she got, the deeper the hole she was getting into.
When finally marshaling the nerve to tell him she was leaving, she first saw the dangerous glimmer in Frankie’s eyes. “You know,” he said menacingly, “nobody quits on Frankie Balistrieri.”
Scrambling to find an excuse, she blurted out “But it’s my dad. He’s had a heart attack and my family needs me back home. I have to go.” It was the performance of her life. “Your dad, huh?” Frankie considered as he eyed her carefully, her thinking that he knew she wasn’t telling the truth, but he “seemed” to go along with it.
Remember, they just start thinking of another way to get to you!
“Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do: You leave and go care of your father. I respect you. That’s beautiful. Then you come back here and bring your little boy. We’ll find you a nice apartment. You’ll love it here!”
Smelling the trap, Nichelle responded, “I’m not bringing my son here. And I’m not moving to Milwaukee. I’ve been here 10 weeks and I’m dying inside. I’ve got to go.”
Frankie’s response was a statement, not a question: “Okay, go home, and come back, and you’ll give me six weeks. Then you’re free.” Nichelle went home for a couple of weeks and told her parents some, but not all of what was going on. Her father had enough experience with the mob that he also knew she couldn't just walk away. She had observed Frankie carefully and started to formulate a plan. So did Frankie. Thinking that if she stayed the whole six weeks, he’d be able to convince her never to leave, he started turning up the heat. Enter Frankie’s lawyer, Dominic Frinzi or Mr. F. as everyone at the club called him. In his $1000 silk suits, he was slick, suave and cunning as a snake. He tried to buy her with a key to an apartment, fur coat and jewelry, which Nichelle had to continually refuse.
It was now time for Nichelle’s plan. Three or four weeks into her run, she contacted a reporter that had written a great review of her. She told him she had a real scoop for him and proceeded to enthusiastically reveal how because of the terrific exposure she’d gotten working for Balistrieri, she was on her way to New York! She told of how she owed everything to Mr. B, she gushed, because he was so kind to feature me in his club. The writer ate it up and when Frankie read the item in the paper, he did too! “Why dincha tell me you were going to New York?” he asked proudly. Whether Frankie really believed that she really believed that he had discovered her, or was simply saving face and deciding to give her a break, we’ll never know. Frankie went around for years boasting that he discovered her. Nichelle’s engagement was mercifully shortened a couple of weeks and she finally got away. However, not before a girl from another club was found dead one morning, her body disposed of in a trash can!
Credit and thanks to Nichelle Nichols and her 1994 book Beyond Uhura. The book is still available at Amazon (link provided below) and is a very good read, especially if you were a Star Trek fan!
More of my posts about the Mob:
The Beef That Didn't Moo - Wisconsin Ties to the Mob
Lieutenant Uhura (of the Starship "Enterprise") - close encounters with the Chicago and Milwaukee Mob!
The New York Mob and Iowa Beef Processors - Part II
"Mr. Fancy Pants" Balistrieri - Tracking Milwaulee's most dangerous mobster
"Mr. Fancy Pants" Balistrieri - Tracking Milwaulee's most dangerous mobster