The Glamorous Thirties

                                                 How the Pump Room Became the Pump Room



Now that prohibition was a thing of the past, Chicago was really alive with a plethora of night clubs.  Most of the downtown hotels were featuring big bands, all the top names in the nation, such as Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Horace Heidt and Eddy Duchin, etc. Swing music was all the rage.  The Blackhawk Restaurant on Wabash Avenue, popular since prohibition, was still packing them in with live broadcasts of all the nation’s top bands.

The Chez Paree was probably Chicago’s top night club featuring the top headliners of the day, such as Sophie Tucker, Helen Morgan, Ted Lewis, Harry Richman, Milton Berle to name a few. The Edgewater Beach Hotel’s Marine Ballroom was very popular due to its proximity to the breezes from Lake Michigan and its famed boardwalk.

The Camellia House at the Drake Hotel featured sophisticated entertainers, such as The Incomparable Hildegarde and the former Ziegfeld Follies Showgirl Peggy Fears. The room, newly decorated by Dorothy Draper the famed designer of the era, was popular with the social set.

The Stevens Hotel, which is now the Hilton Chicago, had several rooms devoted to nightly entertainment, including an elaborate ice show.

The Empire Room in the Palmer House was still one of the most popular spots in the Loop. The Merriel Abbott Dancers were a mainstay of this beautiful room.

Don the Beachcomber restaurant opened on Walton and became an instant hit with the young set.

Theater was going strong, showcasing legends, such as John and Ethel Barrymore, George M. Cohan, Gertrude Lawrence, Ethel Waters, Maurice Evans, Katharine Cornell and many others.

On October 1, 1938, Ernest Byfield, the owner of the Ambassador East Hotel, opened the famed Pump Room.  After considering dozens of names for the room, he (Byfield) remembered Booth Tarkington’s “Monsieur Beauclaire.” The setting for this sword-and-dagger adventure was Bath, the 18th century British watering place and gambling spa.  Its Pump Room was the first fashionable spot where the aristocracy and actors socialized together.  Byfield liked the idea of a place where society would go social climbing after the actors.

“We’re going to call it the Pump Room.” Byfield told James Hart (his protégé, the dapper general manager of the hotel). Astounded, Hart said, “We already have a pump room. It’s in the basement.”

Hart tried to dissuade Byfield from using the Pump Room name. He solicited the opinions of the hotel’s permanent guests. Some were so outraged that they threatened to move out of the hotel if the name were used, and one did. Those who stayed drew up a petition imploring Byfield to reconsider.

Undaunted, Byfield ended up calling it the Pump Room.  Here is a copy of the risqué personal invitation Byfield sent to some of his friends. And the rest is history!!








Stanley Paul


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Coming next in Stanley Paul’s Classic Chicago series, That Toddlin’ Town, Chicago in the 40’s.