Thursday, November 2, 2023

Flashback 2000: Joseph Colucci, 93, owned Division St. Russian Baths

     Wednesday I went to Wicker Park to take the heat at the Chicago Bath House on Division Street  — the former Division Street Russian Baths. I might write something about that next week. While I was schvitzing, a man sat nearby, running a razor over his bald head, telling a third patron how some kid had tried to upbraid him for shaving in the sauna.
     "So I ask him, how long have you been coming here?" he said. "And the kid says, 'This is my second time.' And I say, 'I've been coming here 33 years...;"
     "Thirty-three years!" I interject. "I've also been coming here for 33 years." Since I checked the bath out to see if it was the sort of place I could take my buddies to after my bachelor party. "You must remember Joe Colucci."
     At which point we fell to telling Joe Colucci stories, his lines delivered in his trademark gravely bark. This guy said that Colucci, as a young man, had been one of Al Capone's drivers. Which I'd never heard before, but could be possible. I realized I never shared his obituary. Now seems a good time.
Joe Colucci

     Joseph Colucci came into the world in 1906, the same year as the Division Street Russian Baths, and he devoted the last 25 years of his colorful life to preserving the venerable institution, an anachronism in a modern age, the last old-world steam bath in Chicago and the only one between the coasts.
     Mr. Colucci, 93, died Sunday at his home in River Forest.
     He was born on the West Side, the son of Anthony and Rachel Colucci, Italian immigrants from the town of Potenza. His parents ran a grocery store.
     An only child, Mr. Colucci helped out early, preparing newspapers for delivery at Madison and Paulina when he was just 6 years old.
    By his teens, Mr. Colucci was driving newspaper delivery wagons, which then were still pulled by horses. He ended up working for the Herald-Examiner, rising through the ranks of the circulation department.
     Newspaper delivery was a brutal business at the time, and delivery trucks were famous for not stopping if pedestrians were in the way. Mr. Colucci met his future wife of 63 years, Mabel Robertson, when the truck he was driving nearly ran her down.
     In 1940, Mr. Colucci became a car dealer, with a Kaiser-Frazier dealership at California and Madison. He ran Parkside Motors, 2810 W. Madison until 1968. He moved his dealership to 1301 W. Washington, where he sold Studebakers, then Jeeps.
     He was always proud of his roots as a newsboy and liked to reward industrious Herald-Examiner newsboys by giving them bicycles.   

     Mr. Colucci was widely known as a bookie. While Mr. Colucci always denied any underworld connection, in 1963 the commander of the Chicago police intelligence unit testified before a Senate subcommittee that Mr. Colucci was one of the top organized crime racketeers in Chicago.
     Whether mob-related or not, Mr. Colucci certainly was a power in the 27th Ward. He caused controversy in 1950 when he erected a "gaudy and illegal" neon sign boosting a sheriff's candidate atop a building he owned. The city, which also backed the candidate, ordered the sign removed — after the election.
     Despite Mr. Colucci's efforts to clear his name — which included suing the Chicago Crime Commission for $1 million in 1970 — Mr. Colucci's reputation was such that in 1974 a top Chicago police official was demoted after being seen playing cards with Mr. Colucci.
     The same year, Mr. Colucci began a new career, as owner of the Russian Baths, 1916 W. Division, where he went every day to enjoy the heat. They were badly run down, and Mr. Colucci was proud of the many improvements and renovations he made to the structure.
     Survivors include his wife Mabel and sons Jimmy and Joe Jr.
     Visitation will be from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. today at Salerno-Galewood Funeral Home, 1857 N. Harlem.
     The funeral mass will be at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at St. Vincent Ferrer Church, in River Forest. Burial follows in the family crypt at Queen of Heaven Mausoleum, Hillside.
                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan 25, 2000


  1. Ever take the splatza where they beat you with the branches? It's got leaves on them.
    Love that place though. You notice they changed the name from Russian baths

    1. Years ago — it's more like someone blotting you with a big soapy sponge made of leaves. I didn't think it worth the half a c-note.

  2. but what is that THING the guy is making in your photo? Is that a mountain of powdered sugar?

    1. I believe it's dough. He's just cracked a dozen eggs over what looks like flour. In the window of a new Italian joint on Division.

    2. I tried to phone the restaurant, Tortello, and ask, but nobody picks up. I'd say dough, or noodles.

    3. Looks like pizza dough-my grandmother used to make hers that way

  3. My father and his brothers grew up near Humboldt Park between the World Wars, back when there were still dozens of places to enjoy a "schvitz." One of them was the Luxor Baths, on North Ave. near Milwaukee and Damen, which had a revival in the mid-Eighties.

    My wife and I went there once, on a Saturday night, mostly because we'd heard so much about it. Taking the heat sounded cool, and both sexes were allowed in, so we grabbed our bathing suits and shlepped down to Wicker Park.

    The Luxor, which first opened in 1922, still had an impressive terra-cotta facade, but the interior had probably not been renovated since my father's time. It was pretty run-down and scuzzy inside, and there were too many cockroaches to ignore. Although I really enjoyed the steam, I never went back. The overall shabbiness was a turn-off.. But the bugs were the deal-breaker. I hate bugs.

  4. This is my second great uncle. His brother was vito who is my great grandfather.

  5. Would love to hear more about Joseph Colucci, as he’s my distant family member

    1. He shows up in this old column:

  6. Colucci was a good man and so are his son, was a privilege and a honor to talk with them


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