Life Is a Cabaret on Michigan Avenue, Ol’ Chum

Times Staff Writer

Stylish Deco cabarets that recall the romantic top-hat-and-Champagne days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are about to make a comeback in the Windy City.

By the end of the year five cabarets, all under the same ownership, are planned for an eight-square-block downtown area of posh apartments and offices wedged between Lake Michigan and North Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s hottest retailing strip.

The idea for the cabaret district belongs to grocer-cum-impresario Bill Allen, who has enlisted Manhattan lounge singer Bobby Short as a partner in the venture.

Unusual Features

The club cluster will boast some unusual features. Dining areas will contain enclosed booths assuring privacy to patrons who desire it. Plans call for no cover charges and no minimums regardless of the talent. And big-name performers will be used as loss leaders in much the same way supermarkets feature eggs for 10 cents a dozen or soap for 25 cents a bar to build business.

Allen, a founder of Chicago’s Treasure Island, a gourmet-pleasing upscale grocery chain, is also the promoter behind the Gold Star Sardine Bar, a postage stamp-sized cabaret that may be Chicago’s most romantic--and classiest--room for drink and music. The Gold Star--Short’s only Windy City venue since opening six years ago--is the model for the new cabarets.

Luxury and detail distinguish the Gold Star. The bouncers wear tuxedos and the ice cubes are made of imported spring water. Cigarettes bunched in little glass cylinders are centered on the few high, round, black tables dotting the dimly lighted room. Fluffy folded hand towels in the restrooms are changed every eight minutes. The glossy black-and-white menu is a tribute to Brenda D.D. Frazier, “the No. 1 ‘Glamour Girl’ of the 1938-39 (debutante) season.” The curved bar is polished to a Busby Berkeley-dance-floor shine. The music, Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin, floats from the club’s Deco shadows.

And though the bar--which seats 47 with all the tables and chairs in place and stands about 250 with them removed--books talent such as Short, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli and Pia Zadora along with a 35-piece orchestra, there are neither cover charges nor minimums.

“It’s my grocery background. They’re loss leaders,” says Allen, who has a carnival barker’s gift of gab and a James Thurber imagination. “People keep coming back because this is the place where Bobby Short plays.”

Indeed, Susan Anderson, the Gold Star’s chief executive officer and Allen’s alter ego, says the little room--900 square feet if you count the bathrooms--grosses well in excess of $1 million a year.

One of the new cabarets will be in the soon-to-open NBC Building, itself a Deco throwback replicating the NBC Building in New York’s Rockefeller Center. Anderson says this club will be called the Blue Network and feature rebroadcasts of 1930s and ‘40s newscasts. The new NBC Building is next to the Chicago Tribune Tower in the heart of the city’s media, advertising and public relations district.

A second new cabaret, Le Club Hot, is slated for the recently renovated North Pier Terminal Building, a trendy new center for restaurants and shops two blocks east of the NBC Building.

The third is planned for a new building two blocks north of North Pier and the fourth will be one block farther north and just down the polished marble hall from the original Gold Star in the 680 Building, a combination office and residential site and soon to be the location of Playboy’s corporate offices.

Excellence, Not Nostalgia

All will hark to the top-hat days of a half century ago but Allen, who among other things is a barstool philosopher, says the reason is not nostalgia.

“Forget the ‘30s and ‘40s. It’s just a matter of being excellent. Man doesn’t live long enough to be old and have nostalgia,” Allen says. “You’re talking about a rock, not a man. Man lives 60, 70, 80 years and he’s gone.”

The ambitious cabaret district plan is typical of Bill Allen, a character among Chicago businessmen. His resume is eclectic. Allen, who is somewhere between 65 and 70, has peddled merchandise door to door, sold ice cream, produced for television, moderated on radio and worked in advertising. His business partner in the Treasure Island grocery chain, Christ Kamberos, calls Allen “the idea man . . . constantly promoting, always throwing ideas at you.”

In the 1960s, long before such things were fashionable, Allen began stocking his grocery stores with foreign foods, mostly European. “I started to push imported stuff when it wasn’t popular,” Allen says.

“Bill walked me through the grocery store once,” Short says. “He stopped and said, ‘You must taste this olive oil.’ Really, and then he grabbed a bread, tore off a piece--marvelous bread--and dipped it in the olive oil and said eat this. It was just wonderful.”

The Gold Star was also his idea. While setting up a Treasure Island in the same building he came across “this little dirt space.”

Allen says he invited Short to join the business with him, Anderson and partner Sharon Hardy because the singer-pianist made the Gold Star Sardine Bar a success.

“It’s like having Picasso as a partner,” Allen says.