Dick Schilling, Sr., after buying the Beverly Hills Country Club in 1971.
When my sister made her first communion in 1982, the restaurant she wanted to go to was the Islands, or what she called, the ‘Pink Islands,’ docked on the Newport, Kentucky side of the Ohio River. Before the riverfront was decked with numerous riverboat restaurants, the Islands was the first of its kind. It was a great ‘Pink Palace’, conspicuous from the Big Mac Bridge that we traversed the Ohio River to get to Grandma & Grandpa’s house in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky. It was pure novelty – such that even a 7 year old girl could see. Of course pink was her favorite color.
The Islands had just opened the year before in 1981. It was known for its seafood menu, and its popular tropical theme. It quickly became one of highest grossing restaurants in the country. Its success prompted the building of an adjoining Splash nightclub, which, along with the Islands, would become the model for a later restaurant mogul, Jeff Ruby’s Waterfront Restaurant and Las Brisas Nightclub complex on the Covington, Kentucky side of the river a few years later.
I remember Grandma casually saying that the owners of the Islands, the Schilling family, were her relatives. That meant they were sort of our family too. But in Northern Kentucky, if your family was German and Catholic, with roots more than two generations, you were related by blood or marriage to the majority of the other folks in Campbell or Kenton Counties.
Grandma’s uncle George Brosey – her mother, Catherine Muchorowski’s brother – had married Bertha Schilling, sister to the family of Schilling restaurant moguls. This was in an era where the mob was being cleared out of Newport, and northern Kentucky. Although Aunt Bertha never worked for any of her Schilling family’s swanky clubs, she was a cook at her sister, Emma and husband Jacob Heringer’s café in Newport. Food prep and hospitality was in their DNA.
Grandma (2nd from left) and her aunts – Aunt Bertha Schilling Brosey is far right
The Schilling name didn’t mean a lot to us as kids, but the Schilling family had also owned the Beverly Hills Supper Club, in Southgate, Kentucky, where the nation’s worst restaurant tragedy had happened in the late 1970s. Before the devastating fire at the Supper Club, it was known as “The Showplace of the Nation,” and had regular bookings of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, along with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Franki Valli and the Four Seasons. It was also known for its elegance and its gourmet food. Grandma and Grandpa, to my knowledge, never went there, even with the family connection. They too, had food to prep. Friday night and Saturday morning being some of the busiest days of the week in the bakery business, which they ran. My parents went there a few times for benefits that my father’s company hosted.
Aunt Bertha’s twin nephews Dick and Bob Schilling were the ones behind the restaurant and nightclub empire. They had grown up in a family that had all been in the grocery and café business in Newport. As young boys, they peddled eggs door to door in their neighborhood and both didn’t proceed further than a sixth grade education.
Aunt Bertha and her brothers and sisters grew up on a farm in Bradford, Kentucky, on the river between California and Maysville, Kentucky. Their father John was an immigrant from Alsace Lorraine and had fought with the 16th Kentucky Infantry during the Civil War. He was well respected in the community – five priests presided over his funeral Requiem High Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Newport. He settled with others from the kingdoms of Baden and Alsace Lorraine, on the Kentucky side of the river from towns like Augusta and Camp Springs to Maysville. The Ohio and its hills reminded them of their Rhineland, and many grew Catawba grapes and made wine. Some even supplied the Longworth Wine House in Cincinnati. But to Aunt Berta and her siblings, the bustling town of Newport, Kentucky, offered better opportunities than farm life.
Dick Schilling was known as a flamboyant entrepreneur. People would go out of their way to visit a Dick Schilling nightclub. Dick wanted to create clubs where people could see and be seen. At 22, he was sent to run the Officer’s Club in Johnson Field, North Carolina, during World War II. It was here Dick learned about cooking, purchasing, pricing and cleanliness. After the war, Dick took over the commissary at Newport Steel Company, where he worked for 10 years.
After leaving Newport Steel in the early 1950s, Dick opened the Schilling Restaurant and 135 room Motel on Dixie Highway in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, until he sold it in 1962. It was innovative in that it was the first drive-in restaurant in the area to arm its carhop waitresses with walkie talkies to communicate orders to the kitchen. The restaurant even had their own tartar sauce dressed double decker called the Dixie Boy on their menu. In 1962, Dick and Bob bought the old Lookout House, a former gambling den, which they turned into a thriving club, known nationally for its gourmet food and high class entertainment.
But, by 1970, Dick confided to friends that he’d taken the Lookout House as far as it could go and was looking for the next opportunity. That opportunity came in 1971 in the form of the Beverly Hills Country Club, which had sat vacant for several years. Dick changed the name to the Beverly Hills Supper Club and transformed it into one of the finest clubs in the country, with national name entertainment and fine food, just like he and his brother had done at the Lookout House.
There were six banquet rooms above and then the Zebra Room below. The Viennese Room could be three banquet rooms and could seat 300 people. The Empire Room was the main ballroom, and held 650 people. The Schillings added the Garden Room and the Cabaret Room. The Cabaret room was where the big name entertainment played, and was set up like a big Vegas showroom, like the Sahara or the Sands.
Dick Sr. left the management to his sons. Scott headed up the busboys and party services. Ron took care of the shows, booking talent for the Cabaret Room. Richard ran the restaurant and bar, and was sort of the boss. Dick Sr., came in occasionally, and when he did his presence was felt.
After the devastating fire in 1977, the family took a year to regroup. The Schillings considered moving to Florida. But with a lot of friends in the area, they felt it was still their home. And, they had something to prove, feeling they owed Cincinnati another super nightclub. Dick Sr., believed they were not at fault for the terrible tragedy.
In 1978, Dick, with his three sons, opened a new venture in Downtown Cincinnati, an entertainment complex with nightclubs s called January’s, Porky’s and Oodles. January’s was a 900 seat nightclub featuring three bars and a 13-piece orchestra for dancing six nights a week. Oodles was a 300 seat lounge to be open for lunch and dinner. Porky’s was the name of the club in the same building that catered to the 50s and 60s dance craze at the time. The complex was at the corner of Pete Rose Way (2nd street) and Plum Streets, amidst several other clubs.
Oodles’ interior featured exposed beams, skylights and fireplaces in what was called Aspen-modern or ski lodge. January’s interior design style was dubbed hi-tech chic. Ron Schilling said the brass ceiling fixtures, reflecting walls, stainless steel dance floor and house band, Celebration, were designed to attract the ‘varsity crowd’ – people who go out all the time and like to stand around and mingle. Oodles and January represented the beginning of a typical Schilling outburst of ambition. They planned to franchise the nightclubs in Dallas, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Columbus and there was even talk of building a private club In Greater Cincinnati and another complex on the order of his family’s ill-fated Beverly Hills.
It was completely from the proceeds of this Pete Rose Way entertainment complex that the Schillings financed the Islands in 1981, that my family thought was such a fun concept. In 1986, the Schillings moved the Islands and Splash nightclub downriver to Louisville, Kentucky, and Dick Sr. retired from the business in 1987. Then in 1992, Dick Jr., moved the Island and Splash further downriver to Tunica, Mississippi, 29 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee, where he became the Father of the $3 million Mississippi Gaming industry, the third largest in the U.S. In 2002, he opened and ran the $75 million Harlow’s Casino Resort in Greenville, Mississippi, selling it in 2009.
I am a product of that Sin City Club era in Northern Kentucky. Although I wasn’t born in that era, or even old enough to go to these clubs, I am a legacy of the descendants of those over the top Vegas-style nightclubs. In high school in the late 80s and early 90s my group of friends frequented the clubs on Pete Rose Way like Caddy’s , Porky’s, and across the river to clubs like the Las Brisas and Glass Menagerie – all descendants of the Schilling nightclubs. Friends from that era complain that there are no good places to go dancing and party anymore. These type of clubs were the standards of our entertainment. We would we get dressed up and go out to those clubs and dance and socialize for hours on end. But like Beverly Hills, all these clubs are now gone. The entire strip of Pete Rose Way clubs was demolished for the new Bengal’s stadium. And, the smaller versions of these clubs in Clifton – Prime Time, R Club, Beat Club and many others – are gone. Even the Warehouse in Over-the-Rhine, once a large late night dance club, is now a renovated office complex.
Jeff Ruby, to his credit tried bringing back this type of club with his Tropicana complex at Newport on the Levee. But a lawsuit on the trademark name caused its closing. And there was another failed attempt with the Jillian’s Entertainment Complex at the old Bavarian Brewery building in Covington. It’s sad to say that the era of over the top entertainment clubs is now gone, but for those wonderful decades in Greater Cincinnati when we had them, we have the Schilling family to thank.