As I Remember It
by Peggy Schatz
You stepped out of your car and into a world of priceless memories. Men in dark suits and women in evening dresses seemed to frame the moment. The elevator was so small and slow, you wondered how the operator managed to survive endless trips on any given night. The elevator door opened onto a French outdoor bistro scene in the entrance walkway. Approaching the headwaiter stand, you could hear music, and suddenly there it was: The Chez Paree. As the lights darkened, you could make out crammed-together tables filled with the young, the old, the glamorous, the overdone, socialites, wise guys and now, you.
Being ushered to a two-top ringside table was thrilling because all eyes were on you. Only the very elite (or, in my case, being on the arm of one of the owners) could command such service. The cramped quarters of ringside were a badge of your importance: “Sold out,” except for you! As your eyes adjusted, you’d notice sparkling adornments, stunning couture, beautiful furs draped over the backs of chairs, and handsome men whose suit-jacket sleeves were shortened to fully display their gold-and-jeweled cuff links. If it was before 7:30, you would see “evening hats,” many from Chicago’s Bes-Ben hat designers, which were quite expensive and coveted for their wacky-chic fashion statements.
The show began with a tuxedoed announcer welcoming the audience: “And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present the Chez Paree Adorables.” The dancers broke into their first number, swooshing perilously close to the ringside tables and wafting the scent of their stage makeup and perfume as you surrendered to the evening.
When the headliner appeared, whispers could be heard throughout the room. “I had no idea he was that short.” “She’s better looking in person!” Most of the audience had only seen such stars in the movies or on very small, snowy, television screens. Without fail, the show made you laugh or swoon with excitement, over a cocktail that cost the same as a man’s dress shirt in the 1950s. You hoped there was enough left in your wallet to have a nightcap in the bar and listen to Chet Roble play one song just for you.
But just as the show ended, a beautiful “camera girl” approached to ask if you would like a memory of your night at the Chez. Who could refuse? Even though the glossy pictures were expensive, you posed to capture the moment and ordered one more drink after being told the wait for developing that memory was 20 minutes. Next came the cigarette girl, with her low décolletage and short draped skirt, carrying a tray of trinkets, cigars, cigarettes and memorabilia. Everyone smoked in those days, but if you weren’t completely out of cigarettes, “just matches” was enough souvenir for many.
Then, it might be time for a visit to the ladies room, which was a full-service experience. The attendant, who always called you “Honey,” handed you a towel to dry your hands and kept a full stock of supplies to repair a torn fingernail or stocking, plus perfume, hair spray and pins, headache and stomachache remedies, and face makeup. She also provided a corner to sit in and recover from over-indulgences. She was a pro in every sense of the word, and the proof was in her tip jar.
When you returned to your table, your photographs were ready. But before leaving, a visit to the Chez Bar or the Key Club was a must. This could be a life-changing experience. In the paneled retreat of the Key Club, you might end up smoking a cigar with the comedian who just worked three shows, sitting elbow to elbow with Jimmy Durante, or taking in an impromptu performance by Duke Ellington at the piano. Stars playing all around Chicago dropped in to share wild stories of bookings since they last met. It was exhilarating; it was the place to be; it was just mind-blowing fun!
That night was so precious, you didn’t want it to end, so you stayed out ‘til the sun came up. For you—and America—had survived the Great Depression, only to be flung into World War II. You had gone from one stark situation to the next, and live entertainment was a rare indulgence. To go out and watch celebrities, listen to music, and see everyone looking their glamorous best was vastly different than your daily life. You saw stars that stepped out of a twenty-foot movie screen to perform three feet away from you. Comedians made you laugh once again. Entertainment was a salve to help your wounded perception that things kept getting worse. You felt like a movie star, walking down Rush Street, or cramped into the Tip Top Tap at the Allerton Hotel.
Ah, Rush Street! It was a part of the Chez milieu, and it was a world unto itself. I remember a priest on Rush Street who sat in a second-floor window with a sign saying, “come in and tell me your problems.” There were so many girls going to see him that he had a full-time business! Nightlife thrived at the Trade Winds, the Happy Medium, Mr. Kelly’s, the Cloister, the London House, the Gate of Horn, and many more. A few blocks north on Chicago Avenue, famous celebrity photographer Maurice Seymour made iconic celebrity portraits for film stars, musicians and dancers. He could airbrush anyone into movie-star perfection.
Most of our acts stayed at the Maryland Hotel, at the corner of Rush and Pearson. In the morning (about noon for them) you could find quite a few in the little coffee shop there. The other good place to sleuth stars staying in Chicago was at the Carnegie Pharmacy in the Drake Hotel.
Fritzel’s, a famous State Street restaurant known for its “flanken soup” and brisket, was very big with Chez celebs and the “in crowd.” Downstairs at Fritzel’s, the stars could sit in on a wildly popular card game known as Klabiash, a fast-moving game that required strategic balance and technical skill as well as being very addictive. Some of the acts used to go down to the stockyards and watch the animals get slaughtered. Performers were always looking for the ultimate “Chicago experience.” Exploring our world-famous stockyards seemed logical, but few were prepared for the slaughterhouse, and returned shaken. Other days, we would take them to the gun club on the lake to shoot skeet. We also rode horses on the lakefront, on what is now the running path. Things had a very glamorous bent to them then, but that was soon to change.
I came to Chicago in 1955, nearing the end of the Chez Paree. However, it was still going strong, and it was fabulous. I was totally enamored with the Chez, and years later, I married an owner. After the last show, somehow everyone seemed to wind up back at the home I shared with my husband, Jay Schatz, where I would cook a late-night dinner, only to be shoved aside by Jack Carter, who was fanatic about how his eggs were cooked (the only thing he ate after the last show), or Frankie Laine, who made a salad he claimed took more calories to eat than there were in it, or Carl Ravazza, who created “Chicken Steamboat” and loved cooking so much he took out the living room in his Steamboat Springs home and made it into a huge kitchen, or Sonny King, whose specialty was pasta and rapini. One evening after the show, there was a gathering including Sammy Davis Jr. Jay remarked that he was the only tap dancer who could dance as well with his left foot as he could with his right. Without drawing a breath, Sammy jumped up and tap-danced on the terrazzo to something like “Sweet Georgia Brown” until the phone rang off the hook and the outraged doorman came knocking. Somehow it never crossed our minds that people were trying to sleep! Surprisingly, most entertainers did like to perform during those late-night gatherings.
Most beloved by Jay was Al Torre from the Vagabonds act. He had what he affectionately referred to as “a grape farm” in Sonoma, California. Years later, we would take the kids and go out to his beautiful vineyard where he and other performers would cook and enjoy the gift of the grape.
As I look back, our place was one of the best after-hours haunts, so we did not spend much time in the popular nightclubs. A home setting was a divine change of pace from the hectic life of hotels and raw backstage quarters. When we did go out, to the Black Orchid or Mr. Kelly’s, the world of nightclubs had become a sea of new faces and new material. Hugh Hefner had started Playboy. Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and female comedians like Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller and Moms Mabley, were changing the definition of comedy. The gloves were off when it came to getting a laugh. People “dressed down” and dropped their barriers on just about everything. The collective statement was “move over world; time to give youth their rightful place.” Changes were afoot every day and in every facet of life. Stars we revered were put out to pasture and new names came to us on TV screens.
Chez Paree was one of the “regal palaces” of show biz. Countless jazz musicians and dancers, sung and unsung, appeared on its stage. Legions of Jewish comedians tried out their material here. Torch singers and Rat Pack crooners melted hearts here. Superstars of the day held court in the Key Club. These were real entertainers in the golden age of entertainment. They brought tremendous happiness to the people of Chicago who were lucky enough to catch a show at the Chez Paree.