Friday, May 15, 2015

THE VILLA VENICE - Albert "Papa" Bouche'

The public television station in Chicago sometimes runs a program called "Chicago Time Machine."  It's sort of like this blog on TV.  The host stands before a spot in Chicagoland today, and the tells you what happened there years ago - along with photos of the way it used to look.  One rainy Sunday afternoon I stumbled on an episode of Chicago Time Machine and I thought, "Now that's my kind of TV show," so I sat down to watch.

After several stories the host stood in front of a chain hotel in Wheeling, Illinois and started to tell the story of the Villa Venice restaurant and nightclub which stood on that spot from its opening in 1924 until it burned to the ground in 1967.  The host said, "The Villa Venice was owned and operated by a character called "Papa" Bouche."  He then went on to talk about the time the "Rat Pack" appeared at the Villa Venice, and  of it's mob connections, all of which happened after Papa Bouche sold the Villa Venice in 1956. 

The Villa Venice was before my time, but my parents used to fondly reminisce about evenings at the Villa Venice - and saved their most effusive praise for Papa Bouche himself, and what a wonderful host he was.  After hearing the Chicago Time Machine refer sneeringly to "a character called Papa Bouche" I decided to see what I could dig up about him and tell his story in this blog.  So sit back and I'll tell you the story of magical nights in Wheeling, Illinois and gondola rides on the Des Plaines River.

When digging into someone's background you usually discover interesting facts about them and this is certainly the case with Papa Bouche.  Albert Bouche was born Abram Laurin on January 13, 1881 (some sources say 1882) in Celano, Arbuzzo, Italy.  Nothing is known of his parents but his immigration papers mention a brother, Augusto Laurini.  We do know that Abram Laurin came to the United States from Italy for the first time on August 29, 1901 a the age of twenty.   We don't know how long he stayed in the US on this trip, but we do know that he came back to the US on July 30, 1906.  At that time he reported his name as "Abramo Laurini" and his occupation as "Cook."  He was coming to live with his brother Augusto who lived at 1091 East 182nd Street in New York City.  Abramo said that he had been in the US once before - for a "Job" in 1901.

Sometime after his arrival in the US in 1906, Abram Laurin changed his name to Albert Bouche'. History does not record why Abram changed his name, but he may have thought that the more exotic name of Albert Bouche' sounded better for a restaurateur.  The newly named Albert Bouche settled in Rochester, New York, and, the story is that he became not a restaurateur, but a policeman for the City of Rochester. (Note: Through the years Albert spelled his last name sometimes as "Bouche' " with the accent over the last "e", and sometimes as just "Bouche" without the accent.  For ease of typing, for the remainder of this story I will not use the accent unless the primary source uses it.)

There is no record of either Abram Laurin or Albert Bouche on the 1910 US Census but it was about that time that Albert made two life-altering decisions:  he got married, and he moved to Chicago.

For his bride he chose Flora Marseilles - a divorcee with a young daughter.  We'll let the new Mrs. Bouche tell the story in her own words:

"My maiden name was Flora Marseilles," she said.  "I met my first husband (Joseph) DeRepentigny, while I was attending the Notre Dame Convent in Montreal.  He forced my to elope with him to Rochester, New York, where the child (Marguerite Carmen DeRepentigny) was born. Subsequently Albert Bouche, who was then a policeman in Rochester came into my life.  I married him, and we moved to Chicago."

In fact, the first two times the name "Albert Bouche" was in the Chicago newspapers it had to do with his wife and step-daughter.  On September 3, 1912 the Chicago Tribune reported that a man named Joseph Milora tried to commit suicide because Flora would not leave Albert and marry him.

One year later on September 13, 1913 their names were in the Tribune again.  This time, Joseph DeRepentigny tried to kidnap ten year old Marguerite as she left Holy Name Cathedral Academy in Chicago. Luckily there were witnesses around, and within a short time DeRepentigny and his accomplice were captured and the girl (whom the Tribune called Marguerite Bouche) was reunited with her mother and step-father.

The Tribune did report that Albert Bouche was the proprietor of the Cafe Belvidere at 868 N. Clark at Chestnut Streets.  A parking lot occupies that space today.

The next time Albert Bouche's name was in the Chicago Tribune was on January 15, 1917, when the newspaper was reporting Bouche's arrest for refusing to observe Chicago's "Sunday Closing Rule" where restaurants could not serve liquor on Sundays.  There was a new police chief in town named Herman Schuettler and he was determined to enforce the "no liquor sold on Sunday" law.  On January 14, 1917, using eight teams of one policeman and one policewoman, Schuettler managed to close twenty-two "saloons, cafes and restaurants" and arrest their owners, bartenders, and sometimes even their waiters. Albert Bouche was among this unlucky group.  There was no further publicity about his arrest, so Bouche probably paid the fine and that was it.

On April 19, 1917 Abram Laurin, aka Albert Bouche applied for US citizenship - and was rejected - probably due to his police record.  In fact, Albert Bouche did not become a naturalized US citizen until 1926.  

On May 27, 1917 the Chicago Tribune announced that Albert Bouche was opening a new "summer restaurant" at Clark and Lawrence in Chicago at the site of the old Rainbo Gardens.  He called it the Moulin Rouge Gardens in remembrance of the time he worked as a chef (he said) at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.  Albert Bouche sold the Moulin Rouge Gardens in 1921 in preparation for bigger ventures.

First off, he bought a parcel of land on the Des Plaines River in Wheeling and built a roadhouse he named "The House That Jack Built."  It was on Milwaukee Avenue where it crosses the river.

The House That Jack Built - Wheeling, Illinois

Then he sold the Moulin Rouge summer restaurant and instead opened the Moulin Rouge all-year-round restaurant at 416 S. Wabash in Chicago.  416 S. Wabash is also a parking lot today.


The Real Estate page of the Chicago Tribune of April 6, 1924 carried the following item:


The 1920s were good for people, and good for Albert Bouche.  People had a lot of money to spend and they liked to go out to dinner or even better, dinner and a show.  Albert Bouche already knew that "if you build it, they will come."  The Chicago Daily Tribune from June 12, 1924 announced the upcoming opening of the Villa Venice:

From the very beginning, Albert Bouche strove to make an evening at the Villa Venice an "event." He spared no expense on the exterior and interior of the restaurant and also on the shows he produced. 

He wanted the time spent at the Villa Venice to be "magical," and it was, but it was more than that. According to people I have talked to, Papa Bouche had the talent of making everyone feel that he was doing all this just for them.  He was a gracious host, greeting every guest by name if possible and went out of his way to make their evening one they would talk about for years to come. 

In the summer of 1925, Albert Bouche the showman had an idea - there were gondolas in Venice, why not gondolas at the Villa Venice? Here's the announcement from July 25, 1925:

Yes, you could actually take a gondola ride on the Des Plaines River - complete with singing gondoliers.  The gondolas Albert Bouche bought were original antique Venetian gondolas - he had to get permission from the Italian government to take them out of Italy. 

In the early 1930s, Albert Bouche decided to branch out - he opened a second Villa Venice in Miami Beach, Florida.  Here's the first ad for it from June 9, 1932:

and later in the 1930s he opened a third Villa Venice - this one in Dallas, Texas.

Here's a program from the Villa Venice from 1933.  It will give you a good idea of what a night at Papa Bouche's meant:

Three shows each night - the first at nine, the second at midnight and the third at 2:45 a.m.!  And the midnight show was different from the other two and you were invited to stay!  Boy, those days are gone forever,,, 

Bouche's first name was Albert, but everyone called him "Papa Bouche." I don't know how this got started but the first time it appeared in print was June 17, 1942:

My parents always referred to "Papa Bouche" as if he were a member of the family.

Papa Bouche's restaurants may have been very successful, but his marriage was not.  He had married Flora back in about 1910 in Rochester, New York when he was a policeman.  Now he was a noted restaurateur and showman with Villa Venice nightclubs in Chicago, Miami Beach and Dallas, as well as a dinner theatre in New York City. During those days, Papa Bouche was either working or travelling.  He was constantly back and forth to Florida to Texas to New York to Chicago to keep an eye on things, and then off to Europe, Cuba or South America hunting for new talent and new ideas for his shows. Albert and Flora's marriage was essentially over by the late 1920s, although Flora was still calling herself "Mrs Albert Bouche" as late as 1934.  I could not find any record of a divorce, but Flora seems to disappear after the mid-1930s.

Starting about 1930, Albert picked up an interesting travelling companion.  Her name was Edna Olts (1898-1984) and she accompanied Albert on all of his overseas trips.  By the 1940s she had even moved into the Villa Venice and was openly living with Albert.  In fact, as late as 1947, travel documents were referring to her as "Edna Olts known as Edna Bouche."  They must have finally married in 1948 because it was reported that the IRS audited Bouche's return for 1946 and 1947 and "the returns of Bouche and his wife Edna" for 1948, 1949 and 1950.

You would think that for someone in the limelight like Papa Bouche that there would be hundreds of photos of him in existence.  The truth is, in all my research I was only able to find two - and neither one is a head-on shot.  The first one is from June of 1948 where Papa Bouche is in New York looking for 25 girls to add to his show.  It seems he had gone through all the pretty girls in Chicago:

Here's one where he's a little more "formal", and the girls are a little less...a little less...well - a little less!:

The end of an era was announced in the Tower Ticker column of the Chicago Daily Tribune on October 12, 1956:

"Aging Papa Bouche sold his Villa Venice (in Wheeling) and poof goes Chi.'s most fantastic showplace."

Yes, the Villa Venice would continue under new ownership as the "New" Villa Venice, but it just wouldn't be the same.  The dream that was the Villa Venice finally ended when it burned to the ground on March 4, 1967.

Albert Bouche had maintained a separate residence in Miami Beach, Florida for years and he ultimately lived there full time after he sold his Chicago operations.  Eventually Bouche sold all his restaurants as age and poor health began to catch up with him.

Albert Bouche died in August of 1964 in Miami Beach.  He was 83 years old.  He was buried in Fred Hunter's Hollywood Memorial Gardens East in Hollywood, Florida:

Photo Courtesy Find a Grave Volunteer JoeyC

Out of sight - out of mind.  Even after all his years as a restaurateur and showman in Chicago, the only note of the death of Papa Bouche was this mention buried in Herb Lyon's "Tower Ticker" column of  August 21, 1964:

"Albert (Papa) Bouche who ran the spectacular shows at the Villa Venice during its voom days, died in Hallandale, Fla., at 83."

After the Villa Venice burned in 1967 it was not rebuilt.  Instead, a Hilton Hotel and Allgauer's restaurant (which they have the audacity to call "Allgauer's on the Riverfront") now stand on the site.

Since I moved to Wheeling last year I often pass by the site of the Villa Venice.  And if I concentrate really hard I can hear the sound of music and laughter and the singing of the gondoliers on the Des Plaines River. Oh, the Villa Venice - how magical it must have been.

Papa Bouche' - there will never be another like him.  May he rest in peace.


  1. WOW! What a life and what a story.... God Bless America!

    1. I have a full on photo of Papa Bouche and the cast of one of his shows. My parents were married on Sept 1, 1940 at a cast party, Papa Bouche giving away the bride.

  2. I have a 1950 vintage postcard showing "Papa" Bouche looking dapper holding a cigar at an outside bar at his Northbrook restaurant. Signed 'Your host, "Papa" Bouche' by him as well as 13 others.