It cost more than expected but was worth every penny.
In our early married years with daughters one and three years old and me still in training we were extra careful with our money. We ate “dime” vegetables, were frugal with our purchase of beverages and limited dining out to special occasions. We had saved enough during two years in the Army to rent a two-bedroom house but there was nothing for extras.
Our most exciting trip of the year was to the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. It was held at the Palmer House Hotel in the Chicago Loop. The hotel was originally built in 1871 and was now in its third renovation. It was stately and elegant, especially the public areas and rooms. The guest rooms, which numbered more than 1,600, were well-appointed but small, usual for hotels of this vintage. And this was fine with us because we spent our time on the go. We always had a nice room, especially during one stay when we were given a bridal suite.
Of the public rooms, none was grander than the Empire Room. It was off the lobby a few steps up an elegant marble stairway. Beginning in 1933, this venue offered top-flight entertainment, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, Liberace, and many others. The Empire Room offered fine food and drink, in a sophisticated and intimate atmosphere that only added to the magic.
There were three shows on a typical night. We opted for the first show which started at 7:00 PM with dinner before. Tonight’s show would be Jimmy Durante and his sidekick, Eddie Clayton. It would be my last year in training and we would splurge by attending the show in the Empire Room. My wife, Barbara, had always made it clear in a nice way that no matter how good the show, up close was better. I was determined to make her happy, so up front it would be.
Wanting to please Barbara and demonstrate savoir faire, I handed the maître d’ five dollars and requested a ringside table. He handed back the five dollars and pointed to a table at midlevel indicating that would be our table, money or not. Once seated, it was clear there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. One for the maître d’ and zero for me.
The show was everything we hoped, and more. Jimmy Durante was not young, but he looked the same as he had the first time I saw him on TV and he sounded like he always did on the radio. All was humming along with the show when, about three quarters of the way through, Jimmy Durante acknowledged Louis Armstrong, who was in the audience not twenty feet away from us. It didn’t take much coaxing to get Satchmo to come onstage and greet the audience. These two consummate showmen then proceeded to do their thing unscripted for about ten minutes to the delight of all.
For Barbara and me, this had been a perfect evening. The dinner was excellent, the dessert sinful but delicious, the drinks good, and the entertainment was all we could hope for. This experience was made even better knowing we would have a short walk across the lobby to the elevators to go back to our room.
The show over, our coffee finished, and the bill paid, we were waiting for the waiter to bring our change. I had given him a one-hundred-dollar bill. The check was just north of forty dollars. I expected close to fifty dollars in change and, of course, would leave a nice tip.
After what seemed to be an overly long wait for our change, I flagged the maître d’ and asked if he could find our waiter who I hadn’t spied since he took our check.
“Oh, he went home,” was the response.
I made an “executive decision”. I wouldn’t spoil an otherwise perfect evening by complaining. I had paid close to a 100% tip. The beginning and end of the evening was two for the Empire Room, zero for me—but Barbara and I had a wonderful time in the middle and the evening was worth every penny.
Contributed by: Gene Helveston
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