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OFFBEAT: A fading future for Chicago's famed celeb-filled Pump Room
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OFFBEAT: A fading future for Chicago's famed celeb-filled Pump Room

Off Beat with Philip Potempa

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OFFBEAT: A fading future for Chicago's famed celeb-filled Pump Room
A CLASS ALONE - - The famed Pump Room at the Ambassadors East Hotel in Chicago, shown in this 1949 archive photo, continues to draw luminaries from around the world. Note a gentleman in the photo is using the house telephone while dining. (File Photo Image by Stanley Kubrick / NOT for sale via The Times)

It was just two years ago that I finally had my first visit to one of Chicago's most famous and fabled legendary dining spaces: The Pump Room in the Ambassador East hotel.

I had the chance to dine there for my 37th birthday in August 2007 as a guest of photographer Michael Berkos and 2006 Pillsbury Bake-Off finalist turned dear friend Mary Beth Schultz, who is also the executive director of The Caring Place in Valparaiso.

Alas, this week, the Ambassador East Hotel announced the landmark restaurant is being "downsized," a result of the growing problem with our stalled economy.

Paul Lauritsen, general manager of the Ambassador East hotel located on Chicago's ritzy Gold Coast, blames today's changing tastes and says the dining room will be closed except for private events, while the bar and lounge will remain in operation, featuring a "lighter fare bistro menu."

Despite my current Seattle Sutton diet menu for the next three months, I had made up my mind to have "one last supper" in the dining room of The Pump Room before it was closed off.

However, the dining room already abruptly shut down for good last weekend.

Much has been made in the media in recent months about how The New York City-based Ian Schrager Co. has been bidding to buy the entire Ambassador East, including The Pump Room, of course, to convert it into a more modern and contemporary experience like the chain of properties they own in the Big Apple.

If you recognize the name Ian Schrager, it's because the 63-year-old business man was the partner of the late Steve Rubell, in developing the wildly popular exclusive VIP disco nightclub of the 1970s Studio 54.

Of course, at one time, anyone who was anyone had dinner at the Pump Room, which opened Oct. 1, 1938.

And if you were really a VIP, during the era before cell phones, I'm told it was common for notables to receive a telephone call while dining, and the waiter would personally bring a telephone on a silver tray to the table so the guest could take the "important call."

But besides the likes of Bette Davis, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Ronald Reagan, Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor, the Pump Room's Chicago mainstays were the real celebrities such as Sun-Times gossip columnist Irv Kupcinet and the resident orchestra leader Stanley Paul.

I feel honored that I had the chance to become friends with Kupcinet late in his career, after I joined the Chicago Headline Club. And when I'd visit him at the apartment home he shared in downtown Chicago with his beloved wife Essie, who died in 2001, he loved to point out he had the original Pump Room Booth One in his home.

This news is just another of the latest casualties in the world of restaurants with a reputation as favorite dining spots for Old Hollywood. On the West Coast, Romanoff's closed in 1962 and the last of the original Brown Derby restaurants closed in the 1980s, and then Chasen's closed in 1995.

On the East Coast, Sherman Billingsley's The Stork Club closed in 1965, followed by the closing of the Palm Court and The Persian Room in the Plaza Hotel, and most recently, Tavern on the Green closed forever last week, following one last New Year's Eve dinner to welcome 2010.

Today, only Sardi's, the traditional hangout for New York's theater set, which first opened in 1927, still remains.

And here in Chicago, thankfully we still have Petterino's, one of Richard Melman's Lettuce Entertain You restaurants, which is named for Arturo Petterino, the famous former maitre d' from Chicago's Pump Room.

For decades, Petterino was the watchful eye over the Pump Room while it was still considered the watering hole for visiting celebrities passing through Chicago, especially during the days of train travel.

During the years, he granted the restaurant wishes of Frank Sinatra, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Phil Harris and Alice Faye, Lauren Bacall and others.

After Petterino retired, Melman decided to create an entirely new restaurant in tribute to the maitre d' to the stars. During the first years after its opening, Arturo in his tuxedo was a Friday night fixture greeting guests.

Today, dividing his time between Florida and Chicago, he only drops by occasionally.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at philip.potempa@nwi.com or 219.852.4327.

Today's Celebrity Birthdays

Author William Peter Blatty ("The Exorcist") is 82. Actress Terry Moore ("Mighty Joe Young," "Peyton Place") is 81. Country singer Jack Greene is 80. Keyboardist Paul Revere of Paul Revere and the Raiders is 71. "Rolling Stone" publisher Jann Wenner is 63. Singer Kenny Loggins is 62. Singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman is 61. Actress Erin Gray ("Silver Spoons," "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century") is 60. Actor David Caruso is 54. TV personality Katie Couric is 53. Femme fatale Donna Rice (Presidential hopeful Gary Hart's former mistress) is 52. Country singer David Lee Murphy and bassist Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go's are 51. Actress Hallie Todd ("Lizzie McGuire") is 48. Actor Nicolas Cage is 46. Singer John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting is 45. Actor-rapper Doug E. Doug is 40. Actor Kevin Rahm is 39. Country singer John Rich of Big and Rich is 36. Actor Dustin Diamond is 33. Actor Liam Aiken ("Lemony Snicket") is 20.

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