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Lillian 'Tiger Lil' Reis dies

The ex-showgirl ran a celebrated Phila. club. Her past was colorful, if controversial.

Lillian Reis in 1960 with longtime lover Ralph Staino Jr., leaving prison on bail in the Pottsville burglary case.
Lillian Reis in 1960 with longtime lover Ralph Staino Jr., leaving prison on bail in the Pottsville burglary case.Read moreInquirer files

Lillian Reis, 79, a colorful former showgirl and Philadelphia club owner implicated in a famous 1959 burglary in Pottsville, died Thursday at Virtua Marlton Hospital.

A striking, stylish brunette in her heyday, Ms. Reis was known as Tiger Lil. She owned the Celebrity Room, a club that booked up-and-comers such as Don Rickles and Johnny Mathis, said her daughter, Midge Pfersich. Ms. Reis and her lover of 54 years, Ralph "Junior" Staino, who went to prison for the burglary and later for a racketeering and drug-trafficking case involving the Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo organized crime family, were friends with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and actor Robert Conrad, who once planned to make a movie about her.

Pfersich described her mother as a modern-day Mae West. "She was the bombshell back in the '60s," she said.

Staino and her family were at Ms. Reis' side when she died after years of illness, including a stroke, lung disease, and kidney problems bad enough to warrant a transplant about seven years ago.

"Even when she was dying, she was beautiful," Staino said yesterday. "She was the love of my life, and we really were dear lovers."

Ms. Reis became a celebrity herself when police fingered her as a mastermind of the burglary of coal baron John B. Rich's home, in which, police said, about $478,000 in cash was taken from a basement safe. (Rich maintained that the burglars only got $3,500 in cash and $17,000 in jewelry. He was indicted for tax evasion in 1964 and agreed to pay fines and costs totaling $90,000 in 1965.)

Ms. Reis bought the Celebrity Room soon after the burglary. Two witnesses in the case were killed.

Her 1961 trial ended in a hung jury, but she was convicted three years later. She appealed, and in 1970 the charges were dropped.

But, by then, reporters had written thousands of words about her and photographers had taken dozens of pictures of her entering and leaving court, awaiting decisions, leaving a psychiatric hospital, cuddling her poodle, demurely wearing pearls or, not so demurely, a feather boa. She could look sultry, confident, intense, smart and, sometimes, just tired.

Philadelphia author Allen Hornblum, who studied the era to write his book, Confessions of a Second Story Man: Junior Kripplebauer and the K&A Gang, said Ms. Reis was a one-of-a-kind woman who was tough and profane and openly ran with a rough crowd long before women's liberation. She was also so "spectacularly attractive" that men on both sides of the law compared her to Elizabeth Taylor.

Hornblum said the Pottsville burglary, one of the largest ever in Pennsylvania, not only became an obsession for Capt. Clarence J. Ferguson, the most famous Philadelphia detective of the time, but served as an inspiration to the city's young criminals. "It's a legendary crime that played its part in the psyche of every criminal wannabe in this town for basically two decades," he said.

Ms. Reis and Staino were also a legendary Philadelphia couple.

Staino said yesterday that he served 21/2 years for the Pottsville burglary. His conviction was overturned in 1970. He came home to South Philadelphia three years ago after serving 21 years in eight federal prisons around the country.

During that time, he sent Ms. Reis three cards and a letter every day, Pfersich said. Her mother visited him once a month, scheduling trips around dialysis treatments. She had to settle for more phone calls and fewer visits toward the end, when he was imprisoned on the West Coast.

Staino said he met Ms. Reis at an after-hours club. She was sitting at a table with singer Johnny Ray. They had a fight. She went to the bar and stood next to Staino. He was 25. She was a little younger. A romance was born.

"She was the most beautiful woman that I've ever seen in my life," Staino said. "She was the most gorgeous thing that was ever in Philadelphia."

Conversation would drop to a low hush whenever she walked into a club, he said. "It was unbelievable. I swear to it as sure as there's a God in heaven."

In the '80s, Staino kept a diary while he was hiding from police in the Dominican Republic. It became public after he was caught. In it, he pined for Ms. Reis and his family. "Can't take loneliness," he wrote. "I want Lillian." When police caught him, he was living with a woman. Hurt, Ms. Reis stayed away from his racketeering trial the next year, but she cried in court in 1989 at his sentencing.

A Brooklyn native, Lillian Reiskin left home after high school to join the rodeo, Pfersich said. At some point, she shortened her name to Reis. She moved to California, where she became a dancer and choreographer with the Earl Carroll Vanities. Later, she moved to Philadelphia and worked at the Latin Casino, a popular club that attracted stars such as Sinatra and Nat King Cole, Pfersich said.

She later went to the Celebrity Room, which she bought - with savings, Pfersich said - in 1959 and sold in 1962. She bought the club again in 1971. She also operated summer clubs in Atlantic City. Pfersich said her mother was well-known for her limbo and twist contests. Police charged her with lewd behavior for her version of the twist, a popular dance of the time that would seem tame now.

She made two movies: The Block and The Other Guy, Staino said.

Ms. Reis had two daughters, Pfersich and Barbara Reis, from a brief, early marriage to Michael Carobi. She and Staino have five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, with a sixth due in two weeks.

Ms. Reis dropped out of the entertainment business in the '70s to devote herself to Staino and her family.

"She became a full-time mom-mom," Pfersich said.

She is survived by her daughters and a sister, Maxine Reiskin, a brother, Robert Reiskin, and her mother, Marge Reiskin, all of Hallandale, Fla.

A viewing will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday at Carto Funeral Home in South Philadelphia. On Tuesday, there will be a viewing from 9 to 11 a.m., followed by a funeral at 11:30 a.m. Entombment will be in Eglington Cemetery, Clarksboro, N.J.