Bringing Down The Blackhawk
By Bob Knack
I was taking a lunchtime stroll in Chicago's Loop when I saw the scaffolding going up. It started on the south side of Randolph Street near the old library and was just beginning to curl around the corner and past 139 N. Wabash. I'll wager most of the passers-by had no recollection of the music history that took place at that famous but now shuttered address. It was the site of The Blackhawk, where big band music was king.
The restaurant opened December 27, 1920 and in September of 1926 offered its first dance orchestra, Carlton Coon-Joe Sanders and their Kansas City Nighthawks. Partially due to the popularity they received from the remote broadcasts, aired on WGN Radio, the band stayed at The Blackhawk for five winters. While fax machines are all the rage today, back then, a Western Union telegraph was installed so that listeners could send in requests to the Saturday night broadcasts.
Four-year-old Mel Torme would listen to and learn from those programs on his parent's table radio. It got so he knew most of the tunes by heart. On a Monday night in 1929, his folks took him for dinner and Coon-Sanders at the Blackhawk. Getting word on the bandstand that their youngest fan was in attendance, Joe Sanders, “The Old Left-Hander,” asked him to come up and sing. Young Melvin’s rendition of “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” his first public appearance, was a smash. He was offered a regular Monday night slot with the band for $15 a week plus dinner for Mel, Mom, and Dad.
Grown-up Melvin was also featured at the eatery with the Chico Marx band in 1942. There is a CD recently available of a remote broadcast of the seventeen-year-old “Velvet Fog” singing “Abraham” from the movie “Holiday Inn.”
After Coon-Sanders departed the Blackhawk, an all-star roster of greats followed. There was Herbie Kay and then Ben Pollack with sidemen Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Hal Kemp starred from 1932–34 with Skinnay Ennis and Saxie Dowell airing the “Midnight Fliers" program over WGN. Others spending time on the bandstand over the years included Louis Prima, Jan Garber, Les Brown, Ted Weems, Harry Cool, Del Courtney, Al Trace, and Eddy Howard.
In 1935, Kay Kyser arrived with Ish Kabibble, Ginny Simms, and Sully Mason. In an attempt to increase typically slow Monday night business at the restaurant, the band settled on the idea of an audience-participation quiz show. It was vocalist Mason who came up with the moniker “Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge,” broadcast for two hours locally each Monday night. The hit program was eventually bought by Lucky Strike cigarettes, went national on NBC, and had a ticket waiting list in the many thousands.
At least one big band hit was born on the Blackhawk stage. In the Spring of 1938, Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats were finishing a Sunday matinee. In attendance was a group of New Trier High School students from north suburban Winnetka. As the story goes, the band had just finished their last tune, “Big Crash From China,” and needed an encore. Ray Bauduc and Bob Haggart started ad-libbing with Ray beating on Bob’s Bass strings with his drumstick. When Haggart then whistled a catchy improvised melody into the mix, it all came together as “Big Noise From Winnetka.”
In 1942, about the time Ted Weems was featured with whistler Elmo “Heartaches” Tanner and young crooner Perry Como, the Blackhawk menu was something special. You could have your choice of a whole broiled lobster with drawn butter or the roast prime rib of beef au jus for $2.25. As a “Special Late Supper Suggestion” one might dine on the “Scotch Woodcock” consisting of scrambled egg on toast, anchovies and french fried potatoes for $1.50. Under the heading of “Special Sandwiches” there was the “Bob Crosby,” chicken hash with American cheese, toasted, for $1.
However, it was in October of 1952 with the Big Band Era over and people now being entertained at home by television, that the music ended forever at the Blackhawk. The bandstand and dance floor were removed and the rolling "Roast Beef Cart" and "Spinning Salad Bowl" took their place. "Food’s the Show" became the slogan as the restaurant continued on until August 31, 1984, when the downtown location closed forever, being replaced for a time by a women’s apparel shop.
All the old buildings have come down now near the corner of Randolph and Wabash, replaced with high-rise 'ultra luxury' condominiums. It looks as though the old facades will be incorporated into the new design to give a 'retro' look, at least at street level.
It’s ironic that in order to get people to move back downtown, one of the best reasons to come to The Loop in the first place is now long gone. I hope someone thinks to put a plaque where the Blackhawk is now only a memory. Future generations at least could stop and read about one of the most beloved venues of big band music and the fun folks used to have there.