Glamming in Booth One

Before non-stop coast-to-coast air travel became common, actors and performers relied on the railroad to cover long distances. Usually this involved changing trains in Chicago. Arriving there, weary celebrities were more than happy to be scooped up and whooshed off for lunch or dinner at the Pump Room.

Top celebrities were escorted to Booth One, a cushy white leather nest where their job was to field calls from gossip columnists and smile as the flashbulbs went off. Their lunch may have been on the house, but they earned it. [It’s likely Judy Garland is talking with a columnist in the above Life magazine photo, 1943] Of course both the stars and the restaurant got publicity out of the deal.

The Pump Room stood out as a notable publicity mill in part because it was in the middle of the country. On the coasts there were plenty of such venues – the Stork Club and El Morocco in New York, and Chasen’s and Romanoff’s in Los Angeles to name but a few.

But the Pump Room had a vibe all its own. [Life magazine photo showing a very crowded room, 1943]

In addition to being swanky — with dark blue walls, white leather upholstery and crystal chandeliers — and well connected to the gossip pipeline, the Pump Room drew attention for its culinary burlesque shows featuring costumed staff, flames, and choreography. Waiters – all white men – wore scarlet jackets and black satin knee pants, while the “coffee boys” – all young black men – wore emerald green or white uniforms with giant ostrich plumes seeming to spring from their foreheads. [see grotesque caricature shown below, 1957] There were also “curry boys” dressed in gold. Food was served from wagons except for that skewered on flaming swords.

The coffee servers took it upon themselves to compete in the art of coffee pouring. Competition involved seeing how far they could hold the pot and still manage to pour the coffee neatly into the cups. Management did not approve and stopped the contest, but not before the winner set a record of 5 feet. He said customers asked him to do it. Not unbelievable since it was, after all, in keeping with the spirit of the place. According to one observer, customers watching servers with flaming swords make their entrance secretly hoped “the adroit waiter will slip and ignite one of the highly combustible hats being worn this season.” This never happened.

In 1943, Life magazine visited the Pump Room, photographing a number of spectacular scenes, some of which were undoubtedly contrived for the sake of the story. The crowning photo was certainly that of the procession of waiters holding flaming swords. A flaming-sword dinner cost $3.50 at the time of the story, going up to $4.50 or $5.00 by 1949 according to the menu shown below.

The Pump Room emblemized the sardonic humor of its creator, Ernie Byfield, who also owned its home, the Ambassador East Hotel. Its 1938 creation may have been a desperation attempt to survive during the Depression, but Byfield had long been in the habit of befriending show business stars back when he headed the Sherman Hotel. In the Sherman’s night clubby College Inn, he had entertained actors, musicians, and others on “theatrical nights.” Through the years Byfield made friends with an extensive roster of Hollywood stars that included James Cagney, Bette Davis, and William Powell in the 1930s and Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and a long list of others in earlier times.

Ernie Byfield’s death in 1950 seemed to mark the beginning of a long decline. The Ambassador East and the two other hotels Byfield owned changed hands repeatedly while the Pump Room sagged. A few months after Byfield died, columnist Lucius Beebe noted in a Holiday magazine story that Ernie had always said, “I don’t want grim gourmets around my place. I want laughing eaters.” Beebe’s story made it clear that the Pump Room was meant to be amusing, even moderately ridiculous. Without its creator at the helm, it became difficult to set the tone while maintaining quality.

In 1962 a reviewer for the Michelin Guide visited the Pump Room and, according to a devastating Life magazine account, had a miserable dinner described as deviled turkey breast accompanied by “canned peas and what looked exactly like potato chips.” Equally horrid, Life reported, was the incompetent waiter who recommended a red wine that “not only foamed but tasted as though it were composed of a second-grade detergent.” Learning of the story, an Ambassador Hotel executive dug through that day’s food checks and found, according to a rapidly produced account in a Chicago newspaper, that the reviewer and his Life magazine companion (the story’s author) had each consumed a cocktail and then shared two bottles of wine. He also insisted that the turkey steak on the menu was never served with anything but grilled sweet potatoes and wild rice.

But the damage was done and the restaurant’s reputation continued to crumble. Not much after the Michelin bomb dropped, Irv “Kup” Kupcinet, its number one gossip columnist, who had created a version of the Pump Room in his own dining room, admitted that it wasn’t what it used to be. Cross-country airplane flights were becoming commonplace, eliminating Chicago stopovers and reducing the flow of celebrities into town. Even though the room was remodeled in the mid-sixties by new managers, it was unable to recapture the past glory.

Although loyal Chicagoans continued to support it, the Pump Room closed in 1976, after some years of low ratings and, it was said, grease-spotted menus and chipped glassware. Everything was auctioned, included Booth One. Then came a new owner, Rich Melman, of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group which included Jonathan Livingston Seafood, Lawrence of Oregano, and others. He remodeled it in glamorous fashion and ran it for 22 years. After that it had various owners, including Melman once more who ran it as Booth One.

© Jan Whitaker, 2023


Filed under atmosphere, decor, elite restaurants, Offbeat places, uniforms & costumes, waiters/waitresses/servers

3 responses to “Glamming in Booth One

  1. Rhonda S

    If I could travel back in time, I’d go to the Pump Room for dinner on a warm Saturday evening in the 1960s and enjoy a visit with May Darling, “Princess of the Pump Room”. My kind of celebrity in my kind of town!

  2. I ate there under Melman’s ownership. Harry Cary and his wife lived in the Ambassador Hotel and ate dinner there most every night until his death he held court there.
    I had no idea of the great history! Thanks

  3. Anonymous

    Even in this century, celebrities or no, some of our best times have been between trains in Chicago.

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