Archive for February, 2013

The Fraternity of Music and Hospitality

Endeavoring to serve an exemplary dinner while simultaneously minimizing table time, ambitious restaurateurs meticulously choose a musical soundtrack that can have either the adrenal effect of a starting pistol or the sultry character of a velvet cushion. At least, this is what R2University of Strathclyde Scotland researchers Clare Caldwell and Sally Hibbert thought when they hypothesized on the notion. Inclined to believe that the perception of time differed between those visiting eateries where a heavy percussive bass pushed diners along, as opposed to others where pace was kept to a moderato, they patronized a well-frequented Italian restaurant in Glasgow between the hours of 7:00 and 10:00 over a series of weeks, limiting observation dates to Thursdays and Sundays. Procedurally, the two researchers recorded the durations of clued-in diners’ experiences and had all fill out a questionnaire, as well.  Once the weeks passed and the timers were put away, the two noted that, on average, not only did customers dining in an atmospherically moderato dining room remained seated for approximately 15 minutes longer, but that these guests actually under-estimated their time frame. Conversely, those influenced by an allegretto-paced environment lingered less, yet believed that they had remained longer. The experiment concluded, the ladies theoretically deduced what driven owners already knew subconsciously: musical tempo is the sly motivator of the restaurant industry.

Truly, the fraternity of music and hospitality is a dual relationship. As theorized by Caldwell and Hibbert, the team works conjunctively to either increase or decrease the heartbeat of a dinner out. On the other hand, those working on avenues where music fills the air regularly can attest to the sly way that music brings people indoors, and not to escape the beat on the street necessarily.

geja-s“I’ll tell you about Geja’s,” began owner John Davis. “We started out in 1965 as a little wine and cheese café on Wells Street in Old Town. It used to be an artists’ colony, but the rents had recently gone up, so most of the artists who lived there had moved out. The Vietnam War was there, which people were against. The Beatles were coming out with a new song every week. And,” John interrupted himself with a lilt,” revolution was in the air. So Wells Street [became] a real Bohemian enclave, and like other parts of the country- Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and The Village in New York- it was a magnet for all types of people, creative people, rebels, what-have-you. People would come from all over the country to watch the hippies walk the streets.”

A recognizable subset of the American population of the era, hippies rejected the well-established conservatism and values instilled by preceding generations, challenging these institutions with personally aware expressions of free love, oftentimes accompanied by the music.

map“On the north end of the street on North Avenue was a great, great club called Big John’s,” John continued.” You never knew who you’d run into a Big John’s. You could be sitting at the bar, and a judge could be on one side of you, while a syndicate hit man, dope pusher, narc, nurse, or teacher could be on the other. It was a great collection. But they had great blues. It was all white guys at first, the Siegel-Schwall Band, the Paul Butterfield Band, Mike Bloomfield (who was a great guitarist)… These guys were so good that eventually the black musicians on the south side wanted to play there. So Muddy Waters, Harland Wolf, Otis Spann, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy came in. It only lasted about a year-and-a-half, but what a year it was!”

Equally as popular was a folk club across the street from the original Geja’s Café. It was called Mother Blues, and on Monday nights, it held a hootenenanny that rivaled Big John’s with headliners of its own.

Mother Blues“Everybody in the folk world played there. I don’t know if Joan Baez did. But the Kingston Trio certainly played there, and George Carlin. In fact, George Carlin used to come over to my place for a little wine and cheese between sets, and [we] used to talk. Jose Feliciano used to play there, too, and I knew him and he knew me! I used to go to Mother Blues, and he’d say, ‘Hi, John!’ He could just tell by my pace! Another performer was Elaine McFarland, who eventually went on to replace Mama Cass in The Mamas and The Papas as ‘Spanky McFarland.’ She was supposed to be my first waitress, actually, but couldn’t make it. [She] was a character! The last group to perform was a great bluegrass group called the Naublich Upper Ten Thousand, and everybody couldn’t wait to see them.”

A final noteworthy nightclub was The Plugged Nickel, just across the way from Mother Blues, which featured much of Chicago’s finest jazz artists.

Miles Davis“Everybody who played good, solid, traditional jazz played The Plugged Nickel. Miles Davis played there, just to give you an idea. In fact, one of the best records he ever made, ‘Miles Davis at The Plugged Nickel’, was recorded there. But it was an interesting club. For example, when you walked into the bar, there was a tree growing in the middle. A real live tree! But what made it most interesting was that it was owned by white guys and had a mostly black clientele. So there was a lot of racial tension there, as you might expect. We would close Geja’s, go across the street to this club, watch all of the ID checking, and the confrontations at the door. The guys that ran it were very, very tough characters and didn’t take any guff from anybody.”

Eventually, Old Town’s voluminous music scene would fade to a pianissimo as the population of Old Town shifted away from its bohemian lifestyle, the music replaced by the screams of police sirens. Still, John maintained, “It was a grand, grand experience. I would open up every weekend and just not know what to expect.” And as one who witnessed firsthand Wells Street’s switch from an avenue cue to a road filled with tense silence, perhaps John sentimentally wished the songs had been a touch slower, so that he, like a diner in an allegretto-paced dining room, could have had another moment to linger.

Sleigh Ride

Christmas classic “Sleigh Ride” owes its inspiration to the sauna-like glare of the August sun of 1946. Perhaps seeking the equivalent of the newly invented air conditioning wall unit, American composer Leroy Anderson collected his coolest thoughts that summer, envisioning a man so c&i sleighenticed by a prairie laden with fresh snow that he asks a loved one to join him for an outdoor adventure. To begin his illustration, the thirty-eight year old son of Swedish immigrants looked to a set of handheld jingle bells, then continued to draw by boldly snapping the reins on a team of percussive tricks. Over the course of the two-and-a-half minute ride, he utilized xylophones, clapboards, and woodblocks, each taking the driver’s seat alternately, peaking above the broad shoulders of a bossy blend of brass and strings, until the carol reached its throatiest point. Then the horse, fatigued from the breadth of the snowy spin, arrestingly rears its forelegs, a final flair made possible by none other than the principal cornet player. And although these elements would not be fully integrated until February, 1948, it is due to the sultry character of those August afternoons that a ticket to Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” can still be pressed into chilly palms annually.

“Most good things happen with time,” Black Flag lead singer Greg Ginn once said, adding, “especially music, which needs time to breathe and to find its own way.” This is true, of course. Yet, it not only holds value for those involved in music, but to those who create a place where life’s music can evolve. It is pertinent to neighborhoods where children are newly introduced to others of the same age. It applies to their friendships as the roots dig deeper. Last, it is vital to those who survive with their roots still intact, strengthened by thickened stalks and branches that reach for the sun, that they value their own connections when blending into a harmonious business unit.

“The first job I had in a restaurant was in high school,” said Danny Miller, who opened Rosebud on Taylor with high school buddy Alex Dana in rosebud marquee1975.” I worked at hot dog stand with friends of mine, Ralph DiPinno, Mr. Alex Dana [who owns Rosebud], and Tony Calabrese. We were all kids, maybe seventeen years old, and we all grew up on a corner of the street on Grand Avenue. It was an Italian neighborhood that was further north.”

The neighborhood, which spread from the Chicago River to an area slightly beyond North California Avenue, was mainly populated by southern Italians and Sicilians, and “was to Italians what Milwaukee Avenue was to Poles and Lincoln to the Germans.” Its southern border was Chicago Avenue.

“Alex just got in the restaurant business. I don’t want to say it was an accident, [but] the person who owned this building approached Mr. Dana thirty-five years ago and asked if he was interested in opening up a restaurant. And that’s how The Rosebud became The Rosebud. It used to be called Binleder’s before.

sled“Now,” Danny continued, “people always ask, ‘Where did you get the name, ‘Rosebud’?’ Well, Mr. Dana named The Rosebud after the sled in the movie, Citizen Kane, [a film] about a famous man [who] had a sled when he was a kid, and that was the name of the sled. That’s how the name came about. We actually went to the castle in California, and this guy tried to sell us the sled. We were going to buy it and put it up on the wall, but we could make it for twenty bucks, since it was only a piece of wood with the work ‘Rosebud’ on it.”

Thus began the tale of the Taylor Street mainstay that marks its fortieth birthday within two years. Since opening its doors, it has hosted generations of performers ranging from classic crooners like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett (with whom Mr. Dana has a friendship) to sports figures such as Mike Tyson. Joe Pesce has twirled pasta made in the Italian-inspired kitchen, former mayor Richard Daley has entertained elite politicos in its elegant environs, and historical figures like Robert Kennedy have sat on its barstools.

“I can’t think of all of the people who have been here!” Danny exclaimed.

rosebud taylorPartner Alex Dana still continues to reach into other Chicago neighborhoods, now that Rosebud on Taylor is in full bloom. To date, the Rosebud moniker is employed on a downtown steakhouse, a trattoria, and Streeterville favorite Carmine’s, in addition to Rosebud’s suburban branches. Each stands as a testimony to Danny’s longstanding relationship with Mr. Dana and what grew from the combination of their entrepreneurial spirits.

“But we’re at the end of our career,” Danny remarked.” I’m sixty-eight and the owner is sixty-six. His son is in his thirties, though, and he might want to take over.”

Taking a moment to reflect on gentrification’s effect on Taylor Street, which has evolved from an ethnically proud, working class neighborhood to an area populated by BMW-owning Yuppies, Rosebud partner Danny Miller proffered a simple statement to explain the wild success of the establishment whose name was inspired by the legendary sled.

“We have been very, very lucky,” he smiles, exhaling agreeably.

Considering that twelve years is the average lifespan of most successful restaurants, he and Mr. Dana have truly been lucky. They have survived as many of the hospitality industry’s ups and downs as sled-riding children experience while repetitively towing their toys uphill during an early snowfall. Given the virtues of time and maturation, they have successfully created a place for people to celebrate the music of life also. And to consider those who have walked through the front door over their forty-year tenure, it can be said that they capably managed the ups and downs of business, remained a vital part of the community, and continue to take all who climb onto their seats on a wonderful Sleigh Ride.