Pump Room to change forever at end of the month
Chicago's cultural jewel out of time
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Sun-Times Columnist
The doors of time are closing on the Pump Room. The legendary restaurant has eliminated its dinner menu in a downsizing prompted by a pending sale of the restaurant and its Ambassador East hotel to New York-based Ian Schrager Co. And, after cabaret singer Nan Mason's final song on Jan. 30, the restaurant will no longer have live music.
The Pump Room is the cultural jewel of the Ambassador East hotel, 1301 N. State Pkwy. Schrager is eyeing a renovation that could bring the hotel into the 21st century. He was co-founder of the Studio 54 dance club before becoming a pioneer of the boutique hotel concept.
Sources say the deal could close as early as late February.
The Ambassador East lobby entrance to the Pump Room was desolate during a mid-afternoon visit on Wednesday. Smooth jazz played in forgiving tones. An antique grandfather clock was stuck at 7:40. A steel gate barricaded the Pump Room. Breakfast is served until 11 a.m., and the room reopens at 5 p.m.
The Pump Room's classic photos were still on the wall. Talk-show host Tom Snyder is yukking it up with Papa Bear George Halas near the gate.
Cary Grant is around the corner, eyeing the future through thick black glasses.
A young Hugh Hefner is in a snow white suit with a tanned woman in a white dress. They are all actors on a forgotten stage.
Mason said business has been up since Jan. 4, when the Sun-Times first reported the changes in the Pump Room. "People are coming in to say goodbye," the singer said Wednesday. "The bar -- not the restaurant -- has done extremely well compared to past years."
The Pump Room opened on Oct. 1, 1938. It thrived on a celebrity culture that has vanished like Marshall Field's and Magikist lips.
Original owner Ernie Byfield recruited stars to sparkle in its dimly lit elegance. He saw the Pump Room as a spinoff of the 18th century spa of the same name in Bath, England.
That pump room was where London aristocrats mingled with local showfolk, absorbing the cure of the waters by day and the roguish social scene at night.
It was "Swimming with the Stars."
Chicago's Pump Room was a hit from the jump. Stars traveled to the city by train. More recent celebrities stayed over for a day or two instead of rushing to a private jet.
The "Great Signature Book" of the Pump Room includes signings from Marlene Dietrich, Cole Porter and members of Led Zeppelin. Legend has it that actor John Barrymoore urinated on the book after being overserved on champagne.
The restaurant's lore is priceless. John Belushi ate caviar with his fingers. Sammy Davis Jr. sang for his supper -- for the help in the Pump Room kitchen. After pop star Phil Collins was refused entry to the Pump Room because of its dress code, he titled his next album "No Jacket Required."
The dress code hasn't existed since the late 1990s.
The restaurant was a place where those dreams came true. Anyone could be like Bogie and Bacall.
They stopped at the Pump Room en route to Hollywood the day after getting married in May 1945.
"Ernie [Byfield] invited [my wife] Essee and me to join the Bogarts at table No. 1," the late Daily News and Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet recalled in his 1988 memoir Kup (A Man, An Era, A City). "What I remember best was the lovelight in the eyes of both Bogie and Baby."
The Pump Room could do that to you.
"The Pump Room put Chicago up in a level not quite like New York City," said Peter Alter, curator at the Chicago History Museum. "That is significant. Every city wants a piece of stardom.
The Pump Room was a place people could get that. It put Chicago on the map in terms of celebrity, the way the Bulls did during the Michael Jordan years."
Kup worked from Booth One in the Pump Room. The original booth is now in storage at the History Museum.
"We don't have any immediate plans for Booth One," Alter said. "Booth One is a very large object. We don't have a lot of space in the gallery where Booth One would go."
The Ambassador East was built in 1926 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The hotel's ornate lobby was featured in Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest."
Iconic Pump Room maitre d' Arturo Petterino lived next door to Caray for 15 years. In a 1996 interview Petterino recalled his late 1950s glory nights at the Pump Room -- only after mentioning he owned 50 tuxedos.
"When I worked at the Pump Room, it was ultra-sophisticated," he said at Mondelli's Lounge off of Rush Street. "A 17-piece orchestra. The tables had to be four feet apart. A bellhop in a nice jacket would put your name on a French chalkboard and come by with a little bell [to notify a guest of a phone call.]
That's all gone now. Today, they just scream over the crowd."
And this was before the ring-a-ding-dong of the cell phone.
Several of the hotel's 55 suites are named in honor of the celebrities who stayed in them: Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra for starters. The Rat Pack's 1988 reunion tour ended in the Ambassador East after a concert at the Chicago Theatre.
Sinatra wanted to hit the town and Martin preferred staying in his suite to watch Westerns. (Martin was replaced by Liza Minnelli for the rest of the tour.)
The Rat Packers are included in the 725 celebrity photos that adorn the walls of the Pump Room. "Those are all the original pictures," Paul Lauritsen, general manager of the Ambassador East, said earlier this month. "Most people don't know that. That's foremost on my mind. I'm not sure if they will incorporate them into the new space."
Liza Minnelli is officially joining the cast of "Ugly Betty" this season.
The Broadway and Hollywood icon begins work next week and will be appearing in multiple episodes later this season. Our set insiders tell us Liza will be playing Lena Korvinka, a high school drama teacher at Justin's (played by Mark Indelicato) school.
Liza has an intense filming schedule that begins in Brooklyn on January 28th and runs until February 12th.
"There were massive rumors last year, then again in early January that Liza was being courted for the show, but Liza originally hadn't planned to do the show. 'Ugly Betty' producers presented her with a great offer and a hilarious story and they kept coming back to her," said our source.
"She's going to be playing an outrageous drama teacher and it is going to be fun!
Liza is excited to be playing another off-the-wall character like Lucille 2 on 'Arrested Development'."
Liza was going to have knee replacement surgery at the end of January, but due to the 'Ugly Betty' schedule, it looks like she's put that on hold. "She's a professional and everyone is excited for her first day!" our insider said.
"Ugly Betty" went from a weak Friday time slot to a stronger place on ABC's Wednesday night comedy schedule at 10PM this fall. So producers, including show star America Ferrera and Executive Producer Salma Hayek, are doing their best to bring in big names.
"Salma has her eye on the what's happening at all times, and she's an involved woman in the production process. I wouldn't rule out a chance that she will be back on the show as well," said our insider. "The cast, crew and writers of the show are working hard to regain their following after the Friday night graveyard time slot."
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