Edgewater Beach Memories - Part 1

Vol. III No. 2 - FALL/WINTER 1990

By: Adam Langer

The following memories of the Edgewater Beach Hotel appeared as part of a lengthy article by Adam Langer in the November 10, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader. The author has graciously consented to let the Edgewater Scrapbook reprint the entire article in serialized form.

My parents spent their honeymoon there. My Aunt Faye and Uncle Harry had their high school prom there. They wanted to dance on the Beach Walk, but the 17-year cicadas were swarming, so they had to stay indoors in the Marine Dining Room. I don’t remember the place, but I do remember my dad driving us by in 1970 to watch it being demolished. We sat in the back of his black Thunderbird while he took home movies of the wrecking ball crashing into the pink stucco structure.

In its time, everyone stayed there and everyone danced on the glorious Beach Walk of the Edgewater Beach Hotel. They were all there, from Jeanette MacDonald to Johnny Weissmuller to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. All of the big bands played there. Paul Whiteman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Xavier Cugat - and what a night that was when his wife broke down the door to confront the bandleader in his quarters with lead singer Abbe Lane.

Legend and fiction also visited. That day in ‘32 when Babe Ruth hit a home run to a spot he may or may not have pointed to in Wrigley Field, he’d been ticked off, they say, by someone spitting at his wife at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. You might say Roy Hobbs of the New York Knights in Bernard Malamud’s The Natural was shot there. You might say Eloise of the Plaza in New York stayed at the Edgewater, too. When Samantha and Darrin Stevens, of TV’s Bewitched, attended a convention in Chicago, their room was at the Edgewater.

The hotel had a thousand rooms and was designed by Benjamin Marshall, who also designed the Drake and the South Shore Country Club. When Marshall and his partner Charles Fox set out to persuade the tiny Edgewater neighborhood to accept a hotel, they described it in the most wonderful terms, as a Black-stone on the sea. And so it was…

There were two buildings. The first, shaped like an X, had eight floors and 400 rooms and opened in 1916. The 18-story tower had 600 rooms and opened in 1924. They were connected by a passagio that was lined with fancy shops. In the old days, the bands used to play under the sun and moon on the marble-floored Beach Walk, which went practically to the lake. When the Outer Drive was extended north past Foster in the early ’50s the Beach Walk disappeared, but the hotel installed an Olympic-size swimming pool with cabanas.

In 1929, the Edgewater Beach Apartments, also designed by Marshall, opened a long block north, on the far side of the hotel’s tennis courts and garden.

The hotel and apartments were owned by Marshall and Fox, by managing director William Dewey and by John Connery, president of the Edgewater Beach Hotel Corporation. The hotel was sold in 1947 to Chicago businessmen, who passed it on a year later to the Hotel Corporation of America. Among this Boston-based firm’s other properties was New York’s Plaza. Dewey stayed on as manager.

In time, the Edgewater started to go downhill. As hotels everywhere added air-conditioning, those breezes off the lake lost much of their allure. Then the beach was lost. The neighborhood went to seed. The carriage trade drifted downtown and the hotel began courting conventions. In 1962, the hotel was unloaded to a Buffalo outfit called the H.R. Weissberg Corporation.

Now Jimmy Hoffa and his Teamster associates could be seen around the premises. Now maintenance problems went unattended and sections were closed off. The new owners made claims that they were working to refurbish the place, but they filed for bankruptcy on December 19 of 1967 and locked the Edgewater’s doors two days later. The 65 permanent residents were given two hours to move out. The Edgewater reopened for a short while as a dorm for Loyola University, but it was torn down in 1970.

The Edgewater Beach Apartments, which became a co-op in 1949, remains. Today the hotel site is occupied by a senior citizens high rise called the Breakers. The people there like to sit in the lobby and reminisce about the old hotel. A glass case displays old menus, silverware and decorations from the Edgewater Beach Hotel.

"I had my wedding there," said one woman in the lobby. "I had it there in 1927. Oh, was it a beautiful place! It was so palatial. Glenn Miller played at our wedding, I think."

Agnes Redemski lived in the Edgewater Beach Hotel from 1927 to 1930 and she remembers listening to the Paul Whiteman and Wayne King orchestras on Friday nights. "Back then," she said "you could get a large lemonade for $1.25 and it lasted the whole evening."

"When I first saw the Edgewater Beach Hotel," said another woman in the lobby, "it was a beautiful enchanted island in the middle of the city. You could go there and feel you were in another world. Sometimes when you look out the window and you watch the waves coming up on the beach, you can almost see the old girl there. And if it’s a quiet night and you listen really closely, you can almost hear the big bands playing there."

George Stanton was there from the very beginning. He became chief executive steward in 1924 and held the post to the day the Edgewater closed in 1967. He had come to Chicago in 1923 and taken a job running a DeMets luncheonette on State Street. The DeMets brothers had several luncheonettes and, according to Stanton, they were the ones who created chocolate turtles. Stanton now lives in Andersonville and runs the Swedish Bakery on Clark Street.

George Stanton, chief executive steward:

When I first came to the city, I was in my high school days and I wanted to have a few bucks in my pocket. In those years, 50 cents bought you a good meal. My brother and I, we decided to come to Chicago to see what it was like. We had a little flivver, a little roadster convertible with a rumble seat, a tin lizzy. My father said, "Well, I can tell you all about it. Chicago is a nice city. A hard-working city. But if you want to go see, I’m not going to stop you. You’re old enough to know what you want to do." So we took off.
When I was in Chicago, I was living only a few blocks from the Edgewater Beach Hotel on Gunnison Street, which back then was Lafayette Parkway. They changed the name to Gunnison because there was a Lafayette Parkway somewhere else. I remember watching this construction going up. I said, "Boy, a lot of steel is going into that building." We used to go skin diving in our shorts right there before the building went up. Back then, the squad cars were big Cadillacs and the police would say, "Hey you guys! Stop making all that noise!" I said, "We’re not making any noise. We’re just cooling off."
I remember when they were building it and I remember the sad days when they had to tear it down floor by floor. The idea was that the building would never collapse. An atom bomb wouldn’t have brought it down - they criss-crossed the steel beams so well. An earthquake might have cracked the walls or the plaster, but we thought it would never fall down.

Romeo Meltz, bartender, bandleader:

When I got out of high school during the depression years, I worked at the Edgewater Beach. I mopped the floors there from 12 at night to 8 in the morning for $40 a month and a meal. The fellas that were elevator operators, they got $75 and they were college kids. There was an opening in the bar as a bar porter. And they had opened the Yacht Club downstairs. That was in 1934, when booze became legal.
So you’d have to bring in kegs of beer whenever the beer ran out. You’d squeeze the lemons for lemon juice, and then, when the Yacht Club closed at night, I swept out the club with a push broom. That job paid me $75 a month.

George Stanton, chief executive steward:

In the Yacht Club, it was made up to look like the inside of a ship. We had snacks in there and you’d walk in on a gangplank. And when you hit a certain spot, it blew a whistle like a yacht. It was so unique and the walls were huge canvas walls and after a couple of drinks the head bartender put the switch on and the walls would go up and down.
"Hey," you’d say, "we’re sailing! How the hell can you be sailing in a restaurant?" It was so unique.

Romeo Meltz, bartender, bandleader:

When the Beach Walk opened in the summer, I was promoted to bartender. That’s when the big bands were playing on the Beach Walk and people would be dancing. And then, when the set was over, all the waiters would come over because everyone wanted to be served at the same time. So we had to set up the drinks before. Like we had trays and trays and trays of scotch and bourbon poured, fixings for mint juleps and crap like that.
I worked at the Beach Walk for a summer. I met my wife there. She was a hostess in the Grill Room and we bartenders used to eat in the kitchen of the Grill Room where the chefs ate. I met my wife there, dated her and eventually married her. I’m building this up for you because the story of the Edgewater Beach Hotel is really the story of my life.

Frank Masters, bandleader:

We used to play the Beach Walk before they filled in the lake. It came almost all the way up to the hotel. In summertime, they had the outdoor place. It was pretty enough, but you found out that half the time the floor would be covered in sand flies. And you’d have to pack up and go back in the dining room.

In the summer, dancing was on the Beach Walk. When it rained or when it got cold, dancing was inside in the Marine Dining Room. There, big band performances would be broadcast nationwide over NBC and locally over the AM station WEBH (for Edgewater Beach Hotel), according to Chicago radio personality Chuck Schaden. That’s the station where Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, who later created Amos ‘n’ Andy, got their start.

Every month would bring a new floor show featuring top national acts from across the country and a line of dancers. Through the ’40s and ’50s, the Dorothy Hild Dancers performed there.

Alice Ann Knepp, Dorothy Hild dancer:

Dorothy Hild was terrible to work for. She was very unpopular, but she got results. She would always have some kind of big production number. We did a Polynesian theme with Freddy Martin’s band. Our job included room and board and our salary was $30 a week. If you lived at home, the girls got $40 a week. We were free to choose what we wanted from the menu. At the time, we left a 10 cent tip for the waitress.
They would have circus parades with camels and the girls rode the camels in a parade around the dance floor. One time we did a number with bustles and some of the showgirls would walk around in Gay ’90s outfits and some of the smaller dance girls would pop out of the bustles.
When you’re young, you can do it. I think we were ahead of our time with aerobics. It was fun, and Dorothy was very strict. During the summer she would prohibit us from getting suntans and we weren’t allowed to mix or mingle with the people in the hotel. She was strict with us. I’m sure it was for our own good, but we did find ways of escaping her.

Ruth Homeuth, line captain, Dorothy Hild Dancers:

It was like a reformatory. We used to wear uniforms and we were supposed to go to our rooms right after the show. We did get by with things, though. We had a little door on the side of the hotel that went through the garage where we would sneak out. Once in a while we used to catch Dorothy coming in the same time we did.
She had her good days and her bad days. Probably more bad than good. We all were able to sneak out when we weren’t supposed to. We managed somehow. It was a challenge. For not being able to go out with any of the employees, there were more marriages that came out of that place than you’d believe.

Betty Gray, organist:

I remember one Christmas show that Dorothy Hild put on. They’d have all different Christmas tunes with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at dinner for the house guests. Dorothy Hild had the dancers put bells on their ankles and they would kick their feet and make a tune out of it like "Winter Wonderland" or "Jingle Bells." Feet would be going up in the air to the tune of "Winter Wonderland."

Ruth Homeuth, line captain, Dorothy Hild Dancers:

It wasn’t as glamorous as it looked. Some of our costumes were pretty out of sight. We always used to say that Dorothy had a nightmare and that’s what she would dream up for a costume. Huge head-pieces and stuff you could hardly walk in, very cumbersome. You’d get hot, but being on the lake there was a very nice breeze.
We had to cope with bugs. They were horrible. Plus we always had animals when we worked out there, elephants and all of those good kinds of things, and you had to cope with what they did on the floor. You’d have to step over it gracefully. But we got along very well. For a bunch of women, we did real fine.

[Editor’s Note: We have not been able to verify that Franklin Delano Roosevelt stayed at or even visited the hotel.]

(To be continued)