The year was 1935. The Great Depression was tailing off, Miami hosted the inaugural Orange Bowl, and Little Havana's Ball & Chain opened its doors. For the next two decades, the club became among the Magic City's most popular venues, a place where legends Billie Holiday and Chet Baker crooned the night away and jam sessions ran until 5 a.m.
With Ball & Chain set to reopen this fall, that glorious history is rightly being lauded. But there's another side to the golden-era club -- one populated with gangsters and highlighted by great feuds.
Most colorful among the bar's many owners were Henry Schechtman and Ray Miller, who bought the bar in the early '50s. A businessman and "well-known burglar" -- as noted by the Crime Commission of Greater Miami in a 1957 Miami News piece -- Schechtman was also owner of the nearby Tower Hotel. The not-so-smooth criminal was arrested twice in two months, once for breaking and entering into a Lincoln Road bar and a second time for attempting to pry open the trunk of a jeweler's car.
Miller, Schechtman's business partner, was a Teamsters Local 320 union organizer who, according to the Crime Commission, "attempted to organize doormen and car parkers in Miami Beach" and was tied to several acts of vandalism, including slashing 70 car tires.
Back at the bar, Schechtman and crew were rumored to be selling stolen liquor and bootleg cigarettes. "Schechtman had a jail record and was involved in a lot of things," says Paul George, a historian with HistoryMiami. "The name Ball & Chain really evokes the image of a prisoner, which is very coincidental, because the name was there before the guys bought it."
Schechtman and Miller's shady ways finally caught up with them in 1957, when legendary band leader Count Basie sued the pair for $5,000 after not getting paid the $13,000 he was promised to play the Ball & Chain.
"[The club] went broke after Basie pulled in only $5,100 in gross business," Miller told the Miami News back in 1957.
Of course, the club was also known for some more-positive history. "The Ball & Chain had black entertainers post-World War II, which was amazing," George says. "Even though the community was predominantly Jewish, it was still a Deep South city. It was an unusual place."
Schechtman, being a street-savvy wise guy, would sneak in regulars like Billie Holiday and Count Basie through a hidden door in his nearby Tower Hotel and allow them to stay at his property. Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole were said to have performed there as well, but George says there's no documentation of their shows.
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Almost 60 years since the original Ball & Chain opened its doors, Bill Fuller, along with partners Zack and Ben Bush, will bring the past to life this fall. "Ball & Chain was a passion project for me," says Fuller, whose grandfather was a regular at the bar.
Constructed with high beam wooden pillars and adorned with giant leaf ceiling fans, green walls, wooden and patterned tiles, and an outdoor band shell, Fuller's Ball & Chain encompasses that old Florida vibe.
"We wanna preserve a lot of the history -- it's in its original space -- but at the same time, we wanna portray the vision that if Ball & Chain hadn't closed in 1957... this is how it would look like today," Fuller says.