The Mirage tavern 40 years later: Sun-Times-BGA special event

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The Mirage Tavern, now Brehon Pub, at 731 N. Wells. | Sun-Times file photo

UPDATE: The Mirage special event has sold out.

January marks the 40th anniversary of the debut of one of the Chicago Sun-Times’ — and journalism’s — most historic investigative series: “The Mirage.” Now, the Sun-Times and Better Government Association plan to celebrate in style, inviting the public to a Jan. 25 event featuring three of the journalists who worked on the story.

The setting? The bar where their work played out.

Flash back to the late 1970s: Then-Sun-Times investigative journalist Pam Zekman and BGA chief investigator Bill Recktenwald purchased a tavern at 731 N. Wells under aliases, using it to expose “payoffs,” “tax gyps” and other Chicago-centric strains of corruption. Appropriately, they named the joint “The Mirage.”


Zekman and fellow Sun-Times journalist Zay N. Smith, who also worked on the project, eventually wrote a book about the series, summing it up as “A tale of cold beer and hot graft, in which a team of investigative reporters ran a Chicago tavern to probe corruption — and pulled off the greatest sting in the city’s history. The Mirage [became] the focus of a 25-part series in the Chicago Sun-Times that, during the Pulitzer Prize deliberations . . . put undercover reporting under a cloud.”

The Jan. 8, 1978, Chicago Sun-Times front page, the first story in “The Mirage” series.

The Jan. 8, 1978, Chicago Sun-Times front page, the first story in “The Mirage” series.

In this event at the same bar (now Brehon Pub) where history was made, Zekman, Smith and Recktenwald will discuss the series, the graft it exposed and the changes it inspired. All went on to storied journalism careers: Zekman remains one of Chicago’s investigative reporting greats at CBS2 Chicago; Recktenwald teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University after a distinguished career at the Chicago Tribune, and Smith, now retired, entertained Sun-Times readers for decades with his popular “QT” column.

The BGA is a presenting partner in the event, which will be moderated by Sun-Times Editor-in-Chief Chris Fusco. It will include an audience question-and-answer session.

Here are the details:

Location: Brehon Pub, formerly Mirage Tavern, 731 N. Wells, Chicago

Registration:6:30 p.m.

Program: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Light Appetizers will be served. Dinner and drinks available for purchase (full menu available)

Ticket prices: $20 for reserved seating; $15 standing room

To buy tickets in advance here:

About the panelists:

Zay N. Smith |

Zay N. Smith |

Zay N. Smithwrote a popular Sun-Times column from 1995 to 2008 called “QT,” a mixture of humor and commentary. Subsequent QT columns can be found on his website: Before starting QT, Smith worked as an investigative reporter on stories ranging from laetrile smuggling to religious cults; as a foreign correspondent on such stories as the pilgrimages of Pope John Paul II to Poland, and as a writer of major features. Smith is a graduate of Lawrence University, did postgraduate work at the University of Iowa and has taught at Northwestern University.

Pam Zekman | CBS 2 Chicago

Pam Zekman | CBS 2 Chicago

Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Pam Zekman worked at the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times before moving to CBS2 Chicago’s investigative team in 1981. At CBS, her investigations have earned every major award in television reporting and resulted in governmental reforms and criminal indictments. Recently Zekman, and her producer Dan Blom, have exposed dangerous cab drivers with long histories of moving traffic violations and accidents including some that injured or killed pedestrians or passengers. The reports resulted in a major overhaul in the way the city tracks their driving records and toughened enforcement efforts to suspend or revoke their licenses to drive a cab.

Bill Recktenwalddirected a Better Government Association effort in 1972 in tandem with the Chicago Tribune to expose massive vote fraud in Chicago. The project was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. With Chicago Tribune reporter William Jones in 1970, Recktenwald worked for six Chicago ambulance companies to expose inhumane treatment, graft and bribery.

Bill Recktenwald | Southern Illinois University photo

Bill Recktenwald | Southern Illinois University photo

The series on their experiences was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting and resulted in criminal indictments of numerous ambulance company officials and Chicago police officers. After working on the Mirage series with the Sun-Times, Recktenwald joined the Chicago Tribune staff in the late 1970s, working on some of the newspaper’s highest profile investigative stories and projects He joined the faculty at Southern Illinois University in August 1999 and teaches a variety of journalism courses. He also works with the staff of SIU’s Daily Egyptian and is faculty adviser to the student chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. He also has written or contributed to several books.

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