Bob’s Chile Parlor (Seattle)

  • By Nick Rousso
  • Posted 10/05/2022
  • Essay 22563
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Bob’s Chile Parlor was a gambling den in downtown Seattle during the period in the 1950s and 1960s when city officials gave tacit approval to illegal vice and Seattle police extorted payoffs from club owners and passed them up the chain of command. Located at 608 Union Street, the restaurant was nondescript, but upstairs there was a cardroom – licensed improbably as the Caledonia Bridge Club – where the poker action ran hot. Newspaper columnist Emmett Watson romanticized Bob’s as "a raffish place of almost Runyonesque flavor," while a Seattle Post-Intelligencer colleague described Bob’s as "a manhole cover on the underworld" and "a hangout for gamblers, ex-cons and assorted characters with checkered backgrounds." Bob's Chile Parlor closed in 1971, the same year the city’s tolerance policy came to a halt and three years after co-owner Bob Kevo was shot to death in the restaurant. In this original essay, HistoryLink editor Nick Rousso goes looking for the characters – including his own father – who made Bob’s one of Seattle’s legendary hangouts.

Action Upstairs

Almost nobody went to Bob’s Chile Parlor for the chili. One could get a bowl of chile – Bob’s always spelled it with an ‘e’ -- or maybe a salami sandwich, but the restaurant attracted gamblers, drinkers, and assorted nightcrawlers for reasons other than the food. At the Chile Parlor, one could unwind, commiserate over a few drinks, gamble with the bartender – never a good idea -- or settle up with the bookmakers lining the tables opposite the bar. Occasionally a Seattle beat cop would come by to receive his monthly payoff, or a prominent politician would amble up the stairs to play (an illegal) game of lowball, as Chuck Carroll and Warren Magnuson apparently did in the 1960s.

My father, a downtown lawyer, was a regular at Bob’s. He told stories about the place when we were kids, most of them about a bartender named Joe Sidis (1927-2007), whose claim to fame was betting with customers that he could toss empty beer cans from one end of the bar into a distant garbage can at the other end. Sidis was uncannily accurate, as those who wagered against him found out. It was said that Sidis made a comfortable living throwing cans.

I now know why my dad admired Sidis so much. One of nine siblings, Sidis pulled himself up from an impoverished childhood to become one of the most popular bartenders in town. In 1939, near the end of the Great Depression, his father was unemployed, his mother was sick, and the 11-person family was subsisting on a King County relief allotment of 9 cents a day. Sidis got his first bartending job in 1948 at the Magic Inn on Union Street, right after he turned 21. He built a following over the years at the El Gaucho, the Airport Hilton, and the Sheraton Renton Inn, where he instituted a wildly popular men’s lingerie show – the audience was about 90 percent women – in 1984. Sidis was "a prince," according to one person who knew him. "He would never cheat anybody."

The fact that Sidis was honest and honorable made him a minority in the Chile Parlor. Another employee, daytime bartender Roy Keys (b. 1915), was, according to one witness, "a hustler who showed up in town, got a job, tried all his tricks. He had been in prison and looked like it. He would cheat you at anything." Keys went to prison in 1958 after he and an accomplice were stopped by Seattle police with a carload of crooked dice. Keys was still cheating customers a decade later, when his duplicity played a role in the 1968 shooting death of the Chile Parlor’s co-owner, Robert Rudolph "Bob" Kevo (1930-1968).

What About Bob?

Bob Kevo is a hard character to pin down. Born in Aberdeen, he moved to Seattle in 1954 after serving in the Korean War. He never married or had children. His lone sibling, John (d. 1990), was a respected maître ‘d and restaurant manager at various spots around town, and John’s wife was the well-known singer Holly Winters (1929-2016). Bob had an inner circle of friends and associates; they were the ones allowed to sit in the back-corner booth at the Chile Parlor. "Big doings at Bob’s Chile parlor," Emmett Watson wrote on April 23, 1964. "A bunch of the 'in' group (Harry Fink, Bob Kevo, Al Benson and Jack Kessler) have organized a steak-and-champagne party (in a chile parlor???) to celebrate Roy Keys' 50th birthday Thursday night. After which this wild, wild group will top things off with some Chinese coin-lagging."

A 1968 newspaper story described Kevo as a "con man and loud-mouthed tough," but those who knew him dispute such characterizations. "Kevo was generally soft-spoken and generous; he had lots of gentlemanly qualities," said one acquaintance. "But he could not be crossed, and he was a strong man." In 1964, while working at the 605 Club in the International District, Kevo got into a scrape with an unruly customer who ended up dead. Some recall that Kevo, who had a stake in the 605 Club, threw the man down a flight of stairs; newspaper accounts say the incident happened outside the club, and that the victim, 35-year-old William Krieger, was struck by Kevo and hit his head on the sidewalk. In any event, Kevo skated when a jury declared that it was justifiable homicide.

Kevo was linked to another death far more sinister than Krieger’s. In 1962, Kevo was living in a downtown apartment tower with roommate James Alfieri (1933-1973), a lawyer held in esteem by some of the Chile Parlor crowd and reviled by others. In the early morning hours of December 5, Gloria Jean Fowler, a 31-year-old cocktail waitress, plunged from a window of their 11th-story apartment to the roof of a garage seven floors below. Fowler died on a hospital operating table. She had dated both Kevo and Alfieri, though Alfieri was the only person present when she fell. Alfieri, who had been at the Chile Parlor with Fowler earlier in the evening, told detectives that Fowler entered the apartment, went directly to his bedroom, and when he followed and got to the bedroom door, he saw her legs going out the window. Police declined to rule her death a suicide. "For one thing," reported the P-I, "the cuts on her back indicated that she had gone out the window backwards, not only through heavy drapes, but the glass of the closed window as well. Furthermore, the window frame was just 18 inches wide, only an inch wider than her hips." As far-fetched as Alfieri’s story may have seemed, the police never connected the dots, and the cause of Fowler’s death has never been resolved.

Kevo had two partners in Bob’s: One was Harry Levy Naon (1904-1979), a former boxer who ran boxing clubs in White Center and Bremerton before taking an interest in the night club business. His cousin, Victor Naon, owned the nearby Magic Inn and the Celian Building, which housed the Chile Parlor and the upstairs cardroom. The other partner, Al Benson, was a smoothie with a fearsome countenance. His wife worked at I. Magnin, Seattle’s fanciest department store, and Benson dressed snappily, "like Lee J. Cobb in On the Waterfront," according to someone who knew and feared him. The partners didn’t start Bob’s Chile Parlor from scratch; the restaurant was founded in 1932 and they bought it in the 1950s.

Cast of Characters

None of the owners ever retained my dad, but he did gain a few clients at Bob’s. One of his favorites was Don Hanlon (b. 1935), who for several years was one of Seattle’s most successful bookmakers. Personable and clever, Hanlon had a convincing cover for his illicit activities: He drove a bread truck during the daytime, and along his route he would visit bartenders – including the ones at Bob’s -- and "piece them off" in exchange for friendly referrals. Hanlon's business began to unravel in 1965 when he and Bill Driscoll, another of my dad’s one-time clients, were arrested for violating federal gambling laws. 

At some point, Bob’s became a clubhouse for the boxing crowd. The area’s leading promoters and trainers, including George Chemeres and Jimmy DeCaro, frequented the place. Future heavyweight champion George Foreman dropped by one day. Thousands of fight tickets were sold from behind the bar. "The town’s top ticket hustler has to be Roy Keys, manager of Bob’s Chile Parlor on Union St., where a lot of the fight crowd hangs out," Watson wrote in January 1968. "Chartering busses has long been a Keys specialty, and now we have Tuesday night’s Larry Buck-Marcel Scott fight coming up at the Eagles Auditorium. A chartered bus? Right. The bus leaves Bob’s Chile Parlor at 8 p.m., stops at the Bull 'n Bear, one block down Union, proceeds down to 4th Ave., turns right, right again up Pike St. for another load at the Kansas City Steakhouse, then up to 7th & Union to the Eagles. Total distance from the Chile Parlor: ½ block."

Another regular was "Big" Jim Martin, a popular disc jockey at KOL and then KJR. Martin was a street urchin who took his phone calls at the Chile Parlor because he had no known address other than the green Gremlin he drove around town. He was a deft gambler. Martin knew that the boxing matches televised at Bob's on Friday nights were tape-delayed, so, according to friend Chuck Bolland, Martin would call a contact in Los Angeles to get the names of the winners "and we'd meet at Bob's, sit at the bar and start a lively debate between the two of us over the possible outcome of whatever fight was on at the moment. Very quickly the other patrons at the bar jumped in, as Jim knew they would, and wanted a piece of the action. Small wagers were placed. We didn't go every Friday night, but for months Jim and I never paid for a drink or a meal ... He knew just what to say to pull them in. This was a crowd that would bet on anything."

Armando "Paul" Morlos and Paul Haber, the world's greatest handball player, frequented Bob's whenever Haber was in town. Haber was a legendary drunk and rabble-rouser; Morlos was his doubles partner and wingman. After they won their first tournament together, the 1963 Seafair Invitational, the two went on a four-day bender. After his career washed out, Morlos began writing a novel based loosely on their exploits. "One chapter in Morlos' book will be worth waiting for," Vince O'Keefe wrote in The Seattle Times. "It deals with the characters in a place called Bob's Chile Parlor." (There is no evidence that such a book was ever published.)

In 1969, a squadron of young Democrats set up an office at 610 Union Street as headquarters for Wes Uhlman’s mayoral campaign. Some of the staffers were still in high school, and they too got a taste of Bob’s Chile Parlor. Taylor Bowie, who drove a Gray Top cab in the mid-1970s and later owned a bookstore on Pike Street, was one of the teenagers. "One day, one of the other teenage volunteers wanted to take a break and have some lunch at Bob’s and invited me to join him,” Bowie recalled in 2022. "Among the Uhlman 'campaign kids,' he was considered the star … everyone who knew him, young and old, figured that he was really going to make something of himself, maybe in public service. So he and I popped over to Bob’s. The waitress brought us water and asked us what we wanted to drink. My 17-year-old friend said he’d like an Oly and, holding my breath, my 16-year-old self called for the same ... I won’t tell you the name of the kid I was with who ordered the drinks, but will just say that he is currently Governor of the State of Washington."

The characters upstairs – Fats Brown, Big Six, Doodles, Jew Mike, Lucky, assorted others -- were just as colorful as the ones down in the restaurant. Managing the cardroom was Louis LeBow (d. 1974), an old-timer who had been convicted of illegal gambling as far back as 1930 and would spend his golden years in and out of trouble with the law. LeBow had a piece of the cardroom business along with Kevo, Naon, and Benson, and for more than a decade the men made money hand over fist. 

The Caledonia Bridge Club

Bob’s Chile Parlor might be forgotten if it weren’t for the Caledonia Bridge Club. In 1968, the not-so-clandestine cardroom was surveilled by reporters from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who were investigating the presence of illegal vice, including high-stakes gambling, and police corruption in Seattle. Eventually, thanks to the media and some dogged work by federal and county prosecutors, the lid would be blown off the city's longstanding tolerance policy and the dirty cops who helped sustain it.

Poker was the name of the game in the Bridge Club, and lowball, a variation of five-card draw, was often the variation of choice. As the name implies, the best low hand wins, with a "wheel" – ace, 2, 3, 4, 5 – the best of all. Gambling savant John Scarne wrote that "hands such as 6-high are equal to a Straight Flush in Draw Poker, and a 7-high is equal to Four-of-a-Kind. These hands usually win the pot." Lowball isn’t a game for amateurs; it requires steely nerves and a talent for bluffing. Even seasoned gamblers could suffer catastrophic losses playing lowball, which was part of the allure. Legend holds that Meyer Rothstein (d. 1962), a revered Seattle gambler commonly known as Jew Mike, once lost $70,000 in a lowball game on the turn of a single card.

A mountain of a man named Clarence "Big Six" Greathouse (1901-1962) was one of the poker dealers at the Caledonia. Big Six had previously worked at Green’s Cigar Store, another gambling venue in downtown Seattle. "He was huge … about six foot three and almost completely hairless," said an acquaintance. "He got his nickname at Bob's when he drew a six on really skinny odds in a lowball game and made a shitload of money."

In 1968, the P-I sent plants into the Caledonia Bridge Club to play poker and take mental notes. "One of the biggest poker games in Seattle is run by meek-mannered Louis LeBow under the guise of a private bridge club at 608 ½ Union St.," wrote P-I reporter Orman Vertrees. "Thousands of dollars change hands almost every night of the week and all day Sunday at LeBow’s busy poker tables in the Caledonia Bridge Club, where many of the ‘live’ players congregate after the city’s licensed cardrooms close down at 2 a.m. LeBow usually operates three to four low-ball draw poker tables, and the house drags up to $2 per pot, depending on the size. Based upon estimates from P-I investigators and informants, this single house may take in well over $600 a day. A sign outside the door at the top of the stairs over Bob’s Chile Parlor, 608 Union St., says: ‘Private Bridge Club.’ But anyone who wants to play high-stakes poker can get in with little trouble."

The newspapers laughed at Seattle Police Chief Frank Ramon (1914-1986) when he responded to the P-I story by claiming that his department’s own efforts to infiltrate the Bridge Club were unsuccessful because the police plants failed to show proof of membership. "Strange. Very strange," P-I Managing Editor Louis Guzzo wrote in mocking Ramon. "Those great big, tough, experienced policemen couldn’t get into the biggest poker game in town. But at least a couple of our inexperienced fragile reporter-investigators on the P-I staff came and went as they pleased. They entered the club and got into the game several times on different evenings, played for long periods, won and lost – and they were never asked for their membership cards. Tsk! Tsk! A little more effort, chief, old boy."

Death and Recriminations

The Seattle Times, which started nosing around in 1966 for evidence of the payoff system, was soon joined by the P-I and Seattle magazine in ferreting out the truth about Seattle's tolerance policy and the abuses it engendered. The tolerance policy would be stamped out by 1971. In the meantime, it was business as usual at Bob's — until the morning of April 2, 1968, when Nikolai "Russian Nick" Vishtak shot Bob Kevo eight times during a heated argument over money. Russian Nick, known around the Chile Parlor as an agitator, fled down Union Street but was soon apprehended. Kevo, 38, died on the restaurant floor. 

In his subsequent trial, held just 13 days later, Vishtak, 25, testified that the dispute grew from a dice game between himself and the felonious Roy Keys in which Vishtak lost $140. Vishtak wanted to continue playing; Keys demanded payment. When Vishtak refused, Kevo intervened. Vishtak said Kevo bent him backwards over a chair. "Blood was running down my face and from my nose," Vishtak testified. "I couldn't see, there was blood in my eye. His knee and body were on my upper torso. I reached in my pocket and fired my pistol." Vishtak said he feared for his life because he knew Kevo had killed a man at the 605 Club. "He was inflicting punishment on me. I was scared. I was frantic. Mr. Kevo killed a person. Now it was happening to me." The coroner's jury absolved Russian Nick, ruling that Kevo's death was justifiable homicide. Two weeks later Russian Nick sued the remaining owners of the Chile Parlor for $84,550, claiming permanent injury.

With Kevo dead and a legal comeuppance looming, Bob's Chile Parlor began a steady fade into oblivion. By the end of 1968 the police payoff system had been shut down by M. E. "Buzz" Cook, the assistant chief of police. Cook would claim under oath that he had no knowledge of the payoff system, a lie that led to a perjury conviction and a prison sentence. In 1971, Louie LeBow was granted immunity for his testimony before a King County grand jury, but then refused to talk and was jailed for contempt. The questions he refused to answer were never disclosed, and LeBow took many secrets with him when he died in 1974. Eventually, 10 men were tried after being indicted by the grand jury. George Hermann, a retired Seattle policeman, told the court about payoffs he received while on foot patrol. "While on the 3rd Avenue beat he said he picked up $100 to $150 a month from the 611 Union restaurant, $50 a month from the Wunderbar tavern, $250 to $300 a month from the Caledonia Bridge Club, $50 a month from a cardroom on the second floor of the Eagles building, and $50 to $75 a month from 'a bootlegger.'" Another prosecution witness said he was present at Bob's on three occasions when pinball figure Ben Cichy made $1,000 payments to King County sheriff's deputy Robert Covach.

All in all, 1971 was a dismal year for the denizens of Bob's Chile Parlor. LeBow went to jail, the restaurant was shuttered, and Jimmy Alfieri, Bob Kevo's former roommate, was arrested and charged with intimidating a witness in federal court. The witness, Betty Luke, said Alfieri and another attorney threatened to rape her two young daughters if she testified in the trials of former King County Sheriff Tim McCullough and Seattle night club operator Frank Colacurcio. Alfieri was acquitted and died two years later at age 40, cause unknown. 

On June 27, 1971, a public auction emptied out the contents of the Chile Parlor, and then the restaurant was bulldozed, to be replaced by the Sheraton Hotel. Lamented Watson in the P-I: "Quickest chunk of destruction in this town has to be the 600-700 block of Union Street, north side, where a whole flock of buildings went down. There, in the nostalgic past, roamed habitues and the sons of habitues in the Italian Club, managed by the inimitable John Scali. Many a top-flight entertainer played there, including Frank Sugia and Merceedes ... That was upstairs. Downstairs in the same block were the Magic Inn, which headlined some great names in show biz; the Rainbow Club, Bob's Chile Parlor, and a funny little 'social club' where the high rollers gambled after 1 a.m. and the cops always seemed innocently unaware of what was going on."

And my father? He took his gambling elsewhere. He frequented Longacres, where the wagering was legal. And he joined a regular Monday night poker game, hosted by a prominent Seattle doctor and frequented by lawyers and judges. 

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