I’ve said a lot about the last Aladdin’s Castle. Let’s talk about a better story: The first Aladdin’s Castle arcade at the Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, IL circa 1969.
Jules Millman, the chain’s eventual founder, graduated from University of Miami and went to work with World Wide Distributors, a Chicago company dealing in coin-op machines. They say he noticed machine operators were making a fortune without applying much business expertise.
As the story goes, Jules went to his company with a plan for a new chain of “amusement centers.” Better locations, better business principles (his own), and a family focus. The company wasn’t into it. He left and set out with his brother intending to do it anyway.
Modern arcade cabinets were not yet “a thing,” and pinball had a sketchy reputation. It was still outright banned in many places, and it hadn’t been that long ago that mayors smiled for drug-bust-style photos smashing the machines with hammers.
Millman wanted to open his amusement centers in malls, but because of the legal and reputation issues, nearly everyone said no. This made him one of very few people to benefit from the Dixie Square Shopping Center opened in Harvey, IL in the mid 1960s.
The rise of modern malls was also in its infancy, so the developer bought an old golf course in an economically depressed area to build Dixie Square. The launch was gradual before Millman ever happened along, but the mall did eventually thrive.
Nevertheless, Dixie Mall was plagued by difficulties throughout its short life of barely a decade. When Millman pitched his idea for a well-maintained arcade in a mall and wanted to bet on Harvey the way the developer had, he got his opportunity.
Even with a dedicated community of archivists and game history enthusiasts, it’s difficult to locate much of anything in the way of photos of this first location, but it was an immediate success. This was the win Millman needed, and the chain took off nationwide.
Millman operated the chain this way for five years, before eventually selling to Bally’s which continued to expand and operate the chain in the form many of us remember it today. The number one comment I get about that is, “I had no idea there were other locations.”
As for Dixie Square itself, crimes and hard times continued. The most famous crime was a notorious 1973 murder in which a 13-year-old female was lured from the mall to an abandoned apartment building by three teen females where she was strangled and left nude.
Three children around ages four or five found the body when they were inexplicably playing in the building. Some say the abandoned apartment building is still standing in the same condition today. The murderers were found and eventually plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
Stores started to leave the mall. A renovation and re-opening in 1975 failed to correct its course. Dixie Mall officially shut down in 1978. If you can believe it, this is less than half of the Dixie Mall story.
In early 1979, the city let the local school district hold actual classes in the mall while a new school was built. One of the anchor stores was used as a gymnasium. Imagine!
Later that year, John Landis rented the mall to film the famous car chase scene for The Blues Brothers. The school district argued that they had really destroyed much of the mall in the process and, in turn, their school. This led to a lawsuit they eventually dropped.
After this time, the mall stood abandoned in part or whole for over 30 years. It became known as America’s first great “dead mall.” The photos and videos over those years are stunning. Unfortunately, the mall’s presence further decimated the local economy.
The site eventually attracted the interest of Illinois governor Pat Quinn, who helped fund the final tear-down. “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” he said at a conference to kick off final demolition. Clean-up was completed in 2012.
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.