CHICAGO (CBS) — If you’re a Chicagoan, odds are pretty good you’ve been to the Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel, or someone in your family has been there.
CBS 2’s Steve Bartelstein remembers his own mother going there with dates as a young woman, long before his father landed her. It was a special place, and now its owners are trying to hearken back those days.
In a simpler time and place, the legendary venue at 1301 N. State Pkwy. was the place to see and be seen.
“Each booth is like a little stage,” said hotelier Ian Schrager.
The Pump Room closed on Jan. 30, 2010, after a final performance by cabaret singer Nan Mason. But thanks to Schrager, it’s now staging a comeback.
“We went back to the way the place was originally designed back in 1938,” he said.
The Pump Room has a glorious and storied history. It opened in 1938, when founder Ernie Byfield was inspired by another venue called the Pump Room in 18th century Bath, England, where Queen Anne and other London socialites gathered.
Chicago’s Pump Room instantly became a hit for celebrities like future president Ronald Reagan.
Irv Kupcinet met the sources for his legendary column at Booth One at the Pump Room. Booth One was also where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall celebrated their wedding, as did Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood. Frank Sinatra was also a frequent guest at Booth One.
Judy Garland included the Pump Room in the lyrics to her song, “Chicago,” where she sings, “We’ll meet at the Pump Room, Ambassador East, to say the least.”
The restaurant features a Great Signature Book, which includes the names Marlene Dietrich and Cole Porter. John Barrymore is reputed to have urinated on the book after drinking too much champagne, according to the Sun-Times.
The Pump Room remained a hangout for the stars well after Byfield died in1950. During the shooting of “The Sting” in the early 1970s, Robert Redford and Paul Newman dined there on ham sandwiches and pilsners, the Pump Room Web site said last year. Michael J. Fox, Eddie Murphy, Jim Belushi, David Bowie and Mick Jagger have also all paid visits.
And on one occasion, a then-obscure drummer was denied entry for not wearing a jacket, according to the Pump Room Web site. That drummer turned out to be Phil Collins.
“Every celebrity known was at this restaurant, and when you look at all the photographs of all the people that have been here, you almost become numb,” Schrager said.
Perhaps that’s how Schrager feels about breathing new life into an old gal, and in a very different time.
“Of course, it’s a little treacherous, because you’re dealing with an icon,” he said.
Schrager is approaching his renovation with respect to those came before, and those that will come now.
“When I say it’s still going to be the Pump Room, but better, it’s really coming from my heart,” he said.
There is talk about a name change. But meet Ian Schrager, and you know he knows better.
“I want it to be what the people of Chicago want it,” he said. “If they want to call it the Pump Kitchen, that would be fine with me. I want to do what they want.”
As for what Schrager wants, his goal is to return the Pump Room to a rightful spot as a Chicago icon.
“When you do a renovation like this, it looks like this until the day before you open,” Schrager said as he stood with Bartelstein in the workspace that will soon be the Pump Room again. “Then you remove all of the wrapping – it’s like opening up a gift on Christmas.”
If you head to the Web site PublicHotels.com, you can have a voice in all things Pump Room. You can either suggest keeping the iconic name, or suggest another one. You have until next week.