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Al Klass may do an encore

Al Klass
ROCK ISLAND -- A quiet corner of downtown Rock Island is home to one of the biggest restaurant stories this area has to offer.

Al Klass, creator of the Gay Nineties and Town & Country Restaurants, is toying with the idea of opening a new restaurant at the location of his American Provisions Co., 103 19th St.

``I've been up and down three times in this business but I can't get it out my system,'' he said. ``I'm in good health and I feel wonderful. I'm full of ideas. So why not?''

Currently, Mr. Klass sells gift-packaged steaks and ribs and wholesales his own homemade corned beef and famous garlic salad dressing. The man who is best known in the area for creating the Little Giant corned beef sandwich and Gay Nineties Garlic Dressing has a life story as grand as anything he served in his restaurants.

Al Klass' family, who originally spelled their name Kliashtorny, immigrated from Russia to the Seattle, Wash., via China on the Trans-Siberian railroad. ``My family eventually moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where there was a big Russian Jewish settlement,'' he said. ``My father, who later went into the hotel business, was one of nine boys and four girls. My mother died when I was 4 and from there out I was raised by several different relatives. I never really felt I had a home until I moved to Rock Island in 1945.''

Mr. Klass left Sioux City at age 15, hitchhiking his way to Chicago looking for work. ``I ended up driving a truck throughout the Borscht Belt -- Sullivan County, New York -- where my uncle ran a business. I spent summers there hauling live poultry and cattle -- baloney cows we called them -- to the Jersey City stockyards.''

From there his rambling took him to Toledo, Ohio, where he worked in a kitchen and as a busboy in the Commodore Perry Hotel. ``I met a truck driver who taught me how to drive for long transport and I began to drive on the Toledo to Pittsburgh run,'' he said.

During the war years, he gravitated back to Chicago and worked for a trucking company driving to the East Coast. ``I also drove diesel fuel from the refineries in South Chicago to an army base in Sparta, Wis,'' he said.

In 1943 at the age of 21 he bought his first hotel in Terre Haute, Ind., that he eventually sold to a brother-in-law. ``Then I heard about a hotel in Rock Island, Illinois, called the Harper House that was for sale and I bought that in 1945,'' Mr. Klass said.

Built in 1876, the Harper House located on 19th Street at 2nd Avenue, was the grandest hotel between Chicago and Denver. ``It had a four-story atrium, long before any of these current hotel chains ever heard of an atrium, and 100 rooms,'' Mr. Klass said. ``The first floor had a bar open between 6 a.m. and 3 a.m. The second floor had a bar that opened at midnight and closed at 6 a.m. The Harper House also had a coffeeshop that was open 24 hours. I leased out the restaurant to different tenants, none of whom were successful, so I took that over and set up a barbecue pit at the end of the bar. That's how the Gay Nineties started.''

Two years later, Mr. Klass sold the Harper House and bought into the Harms Hotel, reopening the Gay Nineties Restaurant in his new location at 102 18th Street. It soon grew to be the premiere hotspot in town.

Downtown Rock Island was in those days ``rip-roaring,'' according to Mr. Klass. ``There were a dozen nightclubs along 2nd Avenue and every one of them had live entertainment and a big following.''

Woody Cather's Hollywood Supper Club, the Buvette Club, the Mardi Gras Club, the Rockaway, the Paddock, the Horseshoe, the Arrow Club and the Dutch Inn were just a few of the spots that had the town jumping all hours of the day and night.

``There were four 24-hour coffeeshops in those days -- The People's Cafe, the Toasty Shop, the Best Ever Cafe and the Harper House,'' he said. ``All the nightclubs had live music. And that's not even counting what went on on the 20th Street strip.''

It all came to a halting stop when the campaign efforts of a group of women, led by Marie VanMeulebrock, aimed to ``clean up downtown Rock Island'' and took a lot of the spunk out of the nightclub scene, he said. ``They said there were too many taverns in Rock Island and somehow they got the newspapers to back them up. Things downtown were never the same after that.''

Despite the quieter surroundings, the Gay Nineties flourished as the place to dine in the Quad-Cities until a fire ravaged the Harms Hotel in 1974. Mr. Klass continued to operate his more casual but equally popular Town & Country Restaurant located on 11th Street for many years later as well as his wholesale business, American Provisions Co.

Although he says he basically has a wait-and-see attitude, Mr. Klass finds the idea of opening a new restaurant intriguing. ``I think this building would be great for a steak and rib restaurant or maybe a cook your own steak restaurant,'' Mr. Klass said.

His historic brick building was originally a brewery called the Northwestern Beer Co.

``The railroad tracks came right through here at an angle -- that's why the building next door is triangular-shaped,'' Mr. Klass said. ``There's a sign painted on one side that says Chicago Brewing Co., Home of Bullfrog Beer and you can faintly see another sign for Dohrn Transfer. This was their original location. There's a lot of history here.''

-- By Lisa Mohr (February 9, 1998)

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