Edgewater Beach Memories - Part 2

Vol. III No. 3 - SPRING 1991

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.

Irwin Kostal worked at the Edgewater Beach Hotel for a few years, writing orchestrations for the floor shows. At the time, he was also orchestrating the floor shows at the Latin Quarter, the Palmer House and the Chicago Theatre, and was doing arrangements for NBC. Eventually, he says, he was told by the musicians’ union to stop doing so many jobs, so he headed to New York, where he worked for Your Show of Shows and the Garry Moore Show and orchestrated Fiorello.

Then Kostal shifted to Hollywood, where he won an Academy Award for his arrangements for West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Currently he teaches at the University of Southern California.

Irwin Kostal, arranger:

I had adapted a lot of pieces for Dmitri Tiomkin and Dorothy Hild always had great ideas for production numbers. We would do all kinds of music - Chinese music, Duke Ellington music. Sometimes the lights would go out and all you would see would be the radium-treated costumes; the girls would make like a Chinese pagoda design or a chariot of some kind and it would roll across the stage.
One time we were playing some music based on something by Dmitri Tiomkin for some sort of African picture he had done. We had a live tiger, a live elephant and a few other things on the stage. And on Monday nights, when I conducted the orchestra to play the floor show, Dorothy Hild was always the choreographer.
What happened this time was I was conducting the music and everything was going along fine until, all of a sudden, there was pandemonium on-stage and I didn’t know what happened. The audience was hysterical. The whole stage had sort of fallen apart. Dorothy Hild was waving at me from the sidelines to keep playing, so I called out a bar number to the orchestra and we went back and played a little bit to the end again.
And finally the stage cleared and we went back and I asked her, “What happened?” She said, “We forgot to tell you. If the elephant shits, go back to the top.”

From the age of 4 to the time she was 13, Marilou Hedlund lived in the Edgewater Beach Hotel. The adopted child of elderly parents, Hedlund was one of only two children in the building. Later, she would become a Tribune reporter, a Chicago alderman and the vice president of a Chicago public relations firm. Back then, she was one of the Edgewater regulars and she got to know Kay Thompson when the future author of Eloise was staying at the hotel and singing on the Beach Walk.

Marilou Hedlund, resident:

The entertainers were my friends and I used to love to go down and watch them rehearse. A lot of them were animal acts. There were some standard lines that I used to become friends with entertainers. I said, “My mother’s four foot eleven; she wears a size three-and-a-half shoe,” and that’s quoted in Eloise. So, Eloise is a composite of many hotel children that Kay Thompson knew in various places.
In the wintertime every year they had Sharkey the seal. Sharkey lived in a tank in a room just off the garage, and Sharkey was my good friend. I would feed him twice a day with the trainer present. There were a lot of magicians with rabbits and I used to get the rabbits when the rabbits got to be too big for the magicians’ hats.
Girls would ride in on camels and then they’d bring in horses and that sort of thing. So I got to ride elephants and camels and all that sort of thing when I was growing up. The circus troupe that came for three or four years had a girl who was a year older than I and she was tremendously skilled in trapeze stuff and she taught me some of that. It was wonderful and bizarre growing up.
I remember my mother was thrilled when I met Barbara Stanwyck and her husband. But I think the biggest thrill for me were the dressage horses.

Betty Gray, organist:

You want a list of the people who played there? Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Russ Morgan, Vaughn Monroe, Freddy Martin, Wayne King, Rob Flanagan, Xavier Cugat, Liberace with his brother George, Henry Brandon, Johnny Long, Tex Beneke, Woody Herman, Guy Lombardo, Frankie Carle, Bill Snyder, Evelyn and her magic violin, Patti Page, Tony Bennett, Jack Cavan, Griff Williams and Claude Thorndale.

Louise Lindahl now is a booking agent but, from 1947 to 1951, she was Louise Summers and she sang in the Marine Dining Room and out on the Beach Walk. She played the off-nights, Mondays and Tuesdays, with Jack Cavan’s band.

Louise Lindahl, singer:

The Marine Dining Room was one of the elegant spots in town and it was a performer’s dream. They had a stage and a dance floor and where the people sat was all tiered. I had two different things that I did. When you sing with a band you sing the current tunes and some of the old standards.
The band would swing into the chorus and I would swing into my key and I would get up and sing the song. Besides being a singer, I was a soprano, and I had an act with Italian street songs and the kinds of things Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy would sing.
When I sang dance music, I always wore beautiful gowns and the men always wore beautiful tuxes. It was just very, very elegant. I sang Cole Porter - “So in Love.” I sang, “I Love You So Much It Hurts Me,” “Night and Day,” “Stardust” and “Temptation.” The same stuff that everyone else sang.

Betty Gray, organist:

Russ Morgan was a very fine musician with a strange background because he came from the coal mines of Pennsylvania and he was very rugged looking. He was rough and rugged and had a heart of gold. He was generous with his money. One Christmas, he gave war bonds to everyone he was acquainted with in the hotel.
He was very temperamental; he’d be in the floor show and he said, “I’m tired of having the orchestra give [the singers] background. Come down, Betty, and finish the show.” You just better know that number or else you’re in big trouble. We segued from orchestra to organ and back again all evening. One time he had a 19-piece orchestra and he made them change the key of the piece just to upset me so that I would come in on the wrong key.
He was doing something and I said “Something sounds a little strange.” I pressed one pedal on the organ and he looked over to me and said, “What are you doing? Checking me out?” His ear was that good that he could pick out one little pedal out of 19 musicians.

Les Waverly, bandleader:

Jack Cavan was a trumpet player and quite a character. Eventually he became almost a bum. And he was driving a cab out in Vegas and I guess he drank himself to death - and you hated to see that happen to a guy like Jack who was so nice and talented. He’d do crazy things. Yet, as fast as he’d goof on one thing, he’d do three more things right.
He was sort of a portly gentleman and he’d put on a nice white coat and, after five minutes, it looked like he’d slept in it. He had problems with some of the music, but until he left it didn’t affect his ability to get more work.

Betty Gray, organist:

During the war period, we were packed there every night. Mr. Dewey used to have people from the war every Saturday night. So one Saturday night it would be soldiers and the next sailors and they would be entertained in the Marine Dining Room for the whole evening.
It was just so unbelievably popular, filled to capacity almost every night. It got so smoke-filled. The only thing during the war was you had to be careful what you played. You couldn’t play numbers like “Japanese Sandman.” You had to be careful not to provoke any criticism.

Romeo Meltz, bandleader:

At that time, they had quite a few ballrooms in Chicago that they called “over 30” for people over 30. Those were places that wouldn’t hang you by your thumbs if you were over 30. Most of the people who came there were in their 60s and 70s. And the guys would tell their wives they were out playing cards or bowling with the guys and they were dancing with gals who told their husbands that they were out with their girl friends and knitting clubs. But they loved to dance. And you had the Aragon and the Trianon and all that in those years.

Betty Gray, organist:

One evening there was a group at the ringside table and there was one gentleman who was just recovering from a massive heart attack and he mentioned to one of the guests that he would like her to dance with him around the floor. Just around the floor for a little bit over to the organist, because he wanted to ask me for a request or something.
She said, “You are just getting over a heart attack; you should not be dancing.” He said, “I’m gonna do it.” They danced from there across the floor and he dropped dead right in front of the organ.

Marilou Hedlund, resident:

Usually, when there was a big show, we would have a table for one night. Just once a show. But that wasn’t nearly as interesting as being behind the band shell or up in the wings. I don’t remember getting all dressed up and watching the floor show. It was a lot more fun to be watching in play clothes from the wings.
And the ballrooms were wonderful. Part of the joy of that hotel was the vast amount of interesting space to explore. It would be fun to go there when they were setting up the ballrooms and hide out and watch them. There were lots of secret passages and you’d go down after the events and pick through the debris to find treasures. Kids have different treasures than grown-ups. What grown-ups throw away can be a treasure for a kid.

Betty Gray, organist:

One night at the hotel, three bellhops decided they were going to find out what Liberace did after his shows to entertain himself. They followed him all night. They followed him to a place where he had a bite to eat. Then they landed down in the Loop and what do you suppose they saw him doing? What do you suppose the wild evening he had was? He went to a midnight show on Clark Street. Nothing too fascinating.

Betty Gray, organist:

They had an exciting time there. Xavier Cugat was exciting because whenever he was there he had trouble with the ladies. They crashed down the door and Abbe Lane appeared nude there. The little, elderly, wealthy ladies who lived in the hotel – and there were a lot of them - they very rarely came into the dining room to eat.
They were very conservative. But the next night they were all there to see what excitement had happened the night before that made the Chicago Tribune. Cugat told me one time. “I don’t care what kind of publicity I get as long as it’s publicity. All publicity in my way of thinking is good.”
He once asked me to go on a tour of Europe with him. My husband said, “No, thank you. Not for you.” I didn’t go, but Cugat’s band was always an unusual group of men. He had an albino because he had an interesting look, a black drummer who was dynamic and used to throw his sticks in the air every once in a while when he got aggravated and the sticks would break. It was an unusual group and I just loved it.

Louise Lindahl, singer:

We had a big laugh about it. I went to work one Monday and all of the waiters and waitresses couldn’t wait to tell me how Abbe Lane was found in Xavier Cugat’s room. Today, they’d probably put that on television. But in those days it was a no-no. My, that was something. It was such a scandal to find a girl singer in bed with the band-leader.

Betty Gray, organist:

One time Xavier Cugat wanted audience participation at the end of the show. He would have a couple of the claves players come down and they’d be at the front of the stage. And Abbe Lane and he would ask for someone to come up to participate in Latin dancing, like the mambo or the rhumba or whatever. And he’d ask these people to come up.
The funny thing was that Abbe Lane, who was much younger [33 years, in fact], had all these sharp-looking, sometimes Latin, very sexy men come up to dance with her. Cugat, being older, always got these matronly, heavy women. And it just floored him. He did it for a few weeks and then he quit because he was horrified at the type of women he drew. He thought he’d get girls like Abbe Lane and he didn’t. It didn’t flatter him at all.

(To be continued)