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Pump Room Swan Song?

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7-22 Stewart Pump Room 1.jpg
Stairway to Heaven (Sun-Times photo by Scott Stewart)

THE PUMP ROOM is on the downbeat.
After cabaret singer Nan Mason's final song on Jan. 30, the restaurant will no longer have live music. There will be no extravagant dinners except for special occasions. The Pump Room is the cultural jewel of the Ambassador East hotel, which is in the process of being sold to Ian Schrager Co. in New York. Schrager is eyeing a hipster renovation. He was co-founder of the Studio 54 dance club.
"Holy Cow!," as former Ambassador East resident Harry Caray said.
The Pump Room opened on Oct. 1, 1938. It thrived on a celebrity culture that no longer exists.
Original owner Ernie Byfield recruited stars to sparkle in the dimly lit elegance of the Pump Room. He saw the room as a spinoff the 18th century spa of the same name in Bath, England. That pump room was spot 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."
The Pump Room was a hit from the jump. Celebrities stayed over in Chicago for a day or two instead of rushing to a private jet........

Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet worked from Booth One in the 225-seat restaurant. He saw his sources eye to eye. [The original Booth One is in storage at the Chicago History Museum.]
Kup (far left) with Eddie Cantor and Pump Room founder Ernie Byfield (far right) circa 1947.

The Great Signature Book of the Pump Room includes signings from Marlene Dietrich, Cole Porter and Led Zeppelin. Legend has it that actor John Barrymoore urinated on the book after being overserved on champagne.
John Belushi ate caviar with his fingers and 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 Pump Room's genesis was in style.

The Pump Room is on the north port of Rush Street, once known as "The Street of Dreams." 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 Essee and me to join the Bogarts at table No. 1," 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 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 classic "North By Northwest."
Baseball Hall of Fame announcer Caray lived in a suite in the 285-room Ambssador East. Several of the hotel's 55 suites are named in honor of the celebrities that 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, who probably does not like westerns.

The Rat Packsters are included in the 725 celebrity photos that adorn the walls of the Pump Room. "Those are all the original pictures," said Paul Lauritsen, general manager of the Ambassador East, home of the Pump Room. "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."

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I was there on Saturday. I have to say that the clientele at the Pumproom belonged in a era long gone. The smell of old money and ben-gay, I mean gay-ben, I mean gay men mad me nauseous. Many of the people were wearing clothes that, one would surmise, made T-Rex dinosaurs angry and therefore undesirable evening wear. That club needs to move on. It’ needs a facelift more than many of the people that showed for it’s “last waltz”

Thanks Ted, what was the last song Nan Mason sang? Was it crowded?

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.


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This page contains a single entry by David Hoekstra published on January 4, 2010 5:34 PM.

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