Another Reason Newspapers Matter: Jim Frost And The Mirage Tavern Bribes

UPDATE: I learned since posting this story that Jim Frost was the uncle of one of my high school classmates, Mike Frost. Small world for sure.

Last night while reading the digital edition of the Chicago Sun-Times I learned news photographer Jim Frost had died on March 1 at the age of 79. His fame is one I have come to know over the decades of listening to WGN radio and having a love affair with the Windy City. One who loves politics must also love the place where it is an art form. It was the darker side of politics that Frost helped uncover as a journalist, and with the power of a newspaper, he became a legend. A legend, it needs noting, that’s recounted in journalism textbooks to this day. As such, his story lands on Caffeinated Politics.

Sun-Times photographers Jim Frost (left) and Gene Pesek in their hideaway at the Mirage tavern.
Sun-Times file

His most famous images came while perched in what amounted to a journalistic deer blind at a dive bar on the Near North Side.

The game he was hunting: crooked city of Chicago inspectors.

It was all part of what came to be known as the Mirage tavern sting.

It took place inside a bar the Sun-Times bought in 1977, staffing it with reporters posing as workers in order to blow the lid off the culture of corruption involving city inspections.

In a lofted space in a back room at the bar, Mr. Frost cut a hole in the wall and covered it with a vent. From there, he and another Sun-Times photographer, the late Gene Pesek, secretly documented it all with their photos. The vent was new. But that wouldn’t work, Mr. Frost realized.

A cutaway illustration of the Mirage tavern showing undercover Sun-Times photographers Jim Frost and Gene Pesek ready to capture images of bribery and corruption that Chicago bar owners faced.
Jack Jordan / Sun-Times

“I took it home, and I beat it all up because it was not a pretty place, and a shiny vent would have been out of place,” he told the Sun-Times last year in an interview for his fellow photographer’s obituary. “The whole thing was hanging on me and Gene in a big way.”

Posing as a repairman, Mr. Frost would carry his camera equipment in a toolbox. He’d walk in and say something like “that fuse box again?” and disappear into the back, he recalled for the book “Chicago Exposed” that was published last year.

He kept the ruse alive when a plumbing inspector nearly discovered his secret spot.

The inspector was fumbling for a light switch in a back room when an undercover colleague yelled for him to stop because it would blow a fuse. The ploy gave Mr. Frost time to scramble up a ladder and hide the equipment beneath a tarp under the guise of searching for a flashlight. 

“My heart was in my throat,” said former Sun-Times reporter Pam Zekman, who played the role of a young bar owner. “Jim saved the day. The whole thing could have been blown.”

Mr. Frost would make sure the jukebox was turned up loud so the click of his camera’s shutter wouldn’t be heard.

He was a recent hire from the Daily Herald when his Sun-Times bosses called him in for a hush-hush meeting and offered him a yes-or-no choice on an important assignment that they would say nothing more about until he committed.

“I was chosen because I was the new kid in town, and none of the City Hall types would recognize me,” Mr. Frost recalled for the book.

“Not even my mom knew,” said his son Robert Frost. “He couldn’t tell her. He was so new at the time, he would have done anything. It was his dream job.”

The sting produced a 25-part series that ran for weeks and birthed a legend that’s recounted in journalism textbooks to this day.

“My favorite headline was ‘The envelope please . . .’ and showed an inspector holding the envelope,” Zekman said.

Working on the Mirage tavern investigation, Sun-Times photographer Jim Frost captured this memorable image of a Chicago fire inspector picking up a bribe. Jim Frost / Sun-Times

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