That Toddling Town! CHICAGO!

Mar 28, 2007 | By Peter Weller
That Toddling Town! CHICAGO!

Chicago, while the situation lasts, is, undoubtedly, the most elegant city in the United States. in which to smoke cigars. Downtown Chicago is packed with classic jazz joints, cigar shops, cafés, hotels, restaurants and bars, and many are cigar-friendly -- but this may not last, alas. In 2008, the city will follow the fascism of the modern metroplex and it may be a coooooollllld day in hell when one can easily smoke in Chicago. Hopefully the certain havens that I have found, like upstairs at Sullivan's Steakhouse -- where, for the fall of 2006, I virtually kept "office" on my lunch break -- will remain cigar friendly or be "grandfathered" in. Appropriate term -- as how many occasions have we heard some someone next to us, at the outdoor café or other rare establishment, condoned our cultured indulgence with, "My grandfather smoked cigars!"?

Grandfather indeed. I was portraying a famous one, Frank Lloyd Wright, no less, at Chicago's renowned Goodman Theatre, in a wonderful play about that genius entitled Frank's Home, written by esteemed New York playwright Richard Nelson and directed by the garrulous and inventive Tony winner, Robert Falls. (Aida, Death of a Salesman) Frank was maternal-grandfather to actress Anne Baxter, nominated for a 1950 Oscar for her title performance in All About Eve, and the seminal American architect was Baxter's escort to the Academy Awards ceremony. (Both she and Bette Davis lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday). One of Baxter's daughters is cloistered nun, Maginel Galt, who lives, today, in Rome. I wonder if Sister Galt read this writer's diatribe about the sad state of puros in Italy and the floor (yes, floor) of the Sistine Chapel, back in 2002. Maybe not.

Returning to the stage for the first time in 20 years in a play that required my presence on the "boards" for almost a solid one hour and forty-five minutes (no intermission) felt like curling one-hundred-pound dumbbells after being in bed for a month. And playing "Frank" was no walk in the park. Wright's life was a hobgoblin's ride through calamity and brilliance. Born in Richland Center, Wisconsin (not far from this writer's birthplace of Stevens Point), and, as a young man, having apprenticed in Chicago for the great Louis Sullivan (the developer of the skyscraper), Frank went on to see his "prairie house" ideal come to life all over the Midwest. The prairie house erased unneeded attics and basements and broke down the small boxy rooms of the Queen Anne houses, popular in the late 1800s, into larger volumes, flowing one into another, and all usually centered around one grand hearth in a spacious living room. This interior concept of "flow" was apparent in both Meso-American as well as Japanese public and private architecture and, although Frank never acknowledged it, both cultures influenced the architect's transformation of American domestic living forevermore. (Frank rarely acknowledged any influence except for Sullivan.)

The exterior of the prairie house was a conception of a house conforming horizontally, to the organics of environment and horizon instead of jutting up vertically, like those aforesaid boxy and tall abodes. With wide terraces instead of minute balconies, along with entrances hidden by terraced walls, Frank's concept of airy, yet integrated space is the "white paper" by which most of America went about domestic building for rest of the twentieth Century. As popular as the prairie house concept was, however, by 1909 Frank was burnt out. He proceeded to fall in love with a neighbor's wife, Mamah Cheney (for whose husband he just happened to be designing a house), and ran off with her, first to Europe for a year (where he spent most of his time in that bug nest called Florence -- see this writer's column on the city) and then to Wisconsin where he built his famed studio, "Taliesin" (Welsh for "shining brow").

Travesty occurred when, in 1914, Mamah and her two children, along with four others, were gruesomely murdered at Taliesin. Frank was in Chicago working on the Midway Gardens (later destroyed), when the deranged house manager of Taliesin, after serving lunch, locked all the windows and doors, save one, and set fire to the place. As the group fled through the only open door, the man killed them all with an axe, save two other draftsmen who escaped through broken windows.

Wright, in despair, immediately sank himself into a project in Tokyo, the Imperial Hotel, a masterpiece that would occupy the next eight years of his life, demanding many trips back and forth from the States to Japan. The hotel boasted "floating foundations" and "freestanding" walls as an antidote for possible earthquakes. The genius also stepped into a ten-year, on-and-off relationship with a full-fledged morphine addict named Miriam Noel.

Now this was the stuff of a five-cigar-a-day research junket, in which I engaged in Los Angeles, before flying off to Chicago in October of 2006.

Los Angeles was the perfect place for the research as the play takes place over three days, from August 31 to September 2, 1923 during Frank's sojourn there, shortly after his final return from Japan and the opening of the Imperial Hotel. Frank had begun designs for four houses, all at the same time, in Los Angeles in the early '20s. The homes were "concrete textile block," textured with unique Mayan designs in the blocks; those four houses -- "La Miniatura" (privately owned), "Ennis House" (in the process of being restored by a conservancy), "Storer House" (once owned by producer Joel Silver and restored soup-to-nuts) and Freeman House (owned by the University of Southern California and in need of repair) -- all still exist in L.A.

After finishing the remarkable hotel in Tokyo, Frank found himself essentially out of work except for the L.A. projects. He'd worked in L.A. before. A rich, free-spirited friend from Chicago, Aline Barnsdall, had commissioned his first building in the city, Hollyhock House, in 1914, shortly after Mamah's murder and Frank's commencement of work on the Imperial Hotel.

The play takes place on Olive Hill, the site of Hollyhock House on the corners of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont Avenue. Barnsdall had asked Frank, if he could add, while finishing the textile block homes, a "progressive school" to the grounds of her Hollyhock House. Since Frank, at a nadir of his life, had no offers in his home area of Chicago and Wisconsin, he ensconced himself at "Residence B" (an addition on Olive Hill and part of the Hollyhock compound that also included a theater) and got to work.

News of the Imperial Hotel collapsing during the Great Kanto earthquake of September 1, 1923, brought work on the school to an immediate halt, and therein is the drama of the play. It is not enough that the hotel's "miraculous floating foundations" had proved to be worthless, but Frank's oldest son and daughter (the mother of Anne Baxter) -- having been abandoned by Dad when, in their teens, he went off with Mamah -- are both at Frank's throat at the same time he finds his professional life imploding. It turns out (and you may already know) that the initial reports about the hotel were wrong and it actually withstood the horrible quake. But Frank and others were ignorant for several days. Perfect time for the kids to hit him while he's down. Good stuff, huh? And you thought an actor's life was all chicks and limos!

Aside from going flat broke in the theater, working on an artist as complicated as Frank Lloyd Wright jacked my cigar ration to six a day! Immediately upon accepting the offer to play Frank, I hooked up over Montecristo No. 4s at the Grand Havana Room in L.A. (sorry a private club where I also play trumpet in a bebop sextet with local pros who make me look good) with my dear friend, Mark Hime, one of the four or five high-end, first-edition antique book dealers in the world. (Check out his Web site below. He will also mail hard copies of his catalogue). We segued to a couple of Juan Lopez No. 1s while deliberating the pros and cons of the man who changed the face of American architecture. Mark suggested I meet his architect friend Dennis MacGuire, a virtual spring of info about Frank's buildings in Los Angeles. Dennis, Mark, my wife, Sheri, and I spent the day at Hollyhock House, which features an outdoor fountain that pools water into the living room, around the fireplace and out the other side of the main building. Groups of architecture students floated around the grounds, in and out of the house and theater, but I saw none with cigars, like Mark's Partagas D 4s, which we puffed from the top of Olive Hill by Frank's fountain. (Mark likes short smokes, I prefer long).

In Frank's day, one could see clear to the sea from Olive Hill, but no more. About a thousand shopping centers and high-rise condos have blown that view. But back in 1923, much of the surrounding area around Olive Hill was used for movie sets, and the play actually refers to C.B. DeMille's rotting-plywood Roman Coliseum a few miles from the base of Olive Hill. Mark and I finished the D 4s and went inside the main residence to have a look at the sublime model of Frank's progressive school that was never built. After news of the Imperial Hotel standing, the whimsical Aline Barnsdall stopped all work forever on Olive Hill and gave the entire estate to the city of Los Angeles. She spent very little time in this home of seminal American architecture.

Stoked with a list of cigar retailers and info from all the conservators for Frank's L.A. "Mayan" or "romanza"(as he called them) abodes, off I flew to Chicago for eight weeks' work at the Goodman Theatre. With its rejuvenation and restoration, the river and walking promenades, a much-improved Chicago has, to my eyes, the most beautiful urban center in this country. And clean as a whistle. I readily admit tossing a cigar butt in the street on my first afternoon downtown -- to the jeers of 20 people around me. I quickly retrieved it and put it into a city trashcan.

The cigar bar section of Mike Ditka's Restaurant
Having yet to discover my "office" at Sullivan's, I immediately found my way to the familiar ground of the Hubbard State Cigar Shop where proprietors Raki Mehra and Rhoda Bogardus reloaded me with four Gloria Cubana Churchills, and then it was off to Mike Ditka's Restaurant to light up the first one before a steak upstairs. The other three smokes lasted until the next noon, whereupon finishing the last one during lunch, I spied a man puffing the nub of some maduro in front of Picasso's stupendous monolith in Daley Plaza. A Padrón, he said it was, and I could get all I wanted a few blocks away at the Old Chicago Smoke Shop on LaSalle. Therein, after meeting manager Tony Alpacios, I ensconced myself in one of the eight chairs at the front of the store with a Churchill-sized Anniversario and The New York Times crossword puzzle. (I would eventually O.D. on F.L.W.) Antonio's chairs fill up fast at lunch, so go early.

From the Old Smoke Shop, it was only a block north, on LaSalle, to the Lavazza Café where manager Amanda Ilc would steam me up the most perfect cappuccino to be found in the city before I'd return to the afternoon's work at the Goodman. As a resident of Italy who's gleaned the coffee talent from the Neapolitans, I am a virtual snob regarding lattes and cappuccinos, but Lavazza is a company from Torino that is not only cutting into the overcooked Starbuck's market with its far superior roasting, but it also teaches its service folk the fine art of drawing, steaming and pouring. I hope they land in New York and L.A.!

Mondays, my day off, I would jog from my digs on Huron downtown to Iwan Reis Tobacco on South Wabash. Not only is this shop, possibly, the oldest cigar store in the United States, but also it is located in an original and gorgeous Louis Sullivan landmarked building. Manager Kevin Levi, the youngest in the long kin of Reis entrepreneurs, carries an inventory of any legal smoke you could want in the United States; he also sells his own blend of any size and color you wish. And as owner of the building, he's not only restoring the entire edifice to its original specs, but he's mapping out a breathy cigar lounge in the front room of the tobacco store's floor, nestled right behind windows that open on to Sullivan's beautiful colonnade on the facade.

The front entrance to the Peninsula Hotel
After enjoying Thanksgiving dinner at the Peninsula Hotel with my visiting cousin, Gary, and his family at the Peninsula, we repaired to the spacious cigar room there to watch college football with a Ramon Allones Double Corona (my favorite). And soon I found Sullivan's. As Sullivan's Steakhouse was only a five-minute jaunt across the river from the Goodman, I quickly embraced general manager Lorne Richman as my new best friend. Thanks to Lorne's gracious hospitality, I spent almost every lunch hour of rehearsal in the upstairs lounge there -- running the lines of this behemoth play with young thespian interns. One hour -- the walk to and from, as well as the script work -- would just about cover a home-blend Churchill from Iwan Reis. Or a Fuente Fuente OpusX Perfection X, courtesy of Carlito Fuente and Wayne Suarez. Or a Davidoff pyramid from Jack Schwartz. And every Thursday evening, with friends, family or cast, a scrumptious steak in Sullivan's main dining room would prep me for the upstairs lounge indulgence of one of Pete Johnson's Tatuaje Taino Double Coronas, courtesy of that cigar-maestro himself, who had bestowed 100 of the beauties on me as a wedding gift. (I tied the knot last June 24…my birthday, so I wouldn't forget the anniversary.)

The humidor inside Jack Schwartz Importers, a Chicago cigar retail mainstay
Football season is a terrific time of year in Chicago. Lorne would reserve a chair for me and costar, Chris Coffey (playing Anne Baxter's dad, Kenneth), at Sullivan's every Sunday evening after the performance. Our only prerequisite for this service was to root for the Bears, which we did until they played New Orleans. Blowing through two Hoyo Double Coronas on a Sunday eve with Chris or Stan Lawrence, host of the local CBS radio "Stan and Terry" show, followed by two H. Upmann No. 1s during the next night's game was a sublime respite from the grueling work of embodying a controversial genius during an emotional familial/professional ruckus on stage night after night.

Chicago is truly elegant. And there are smokes aplenty and a glut of wonderful places to smoke them. Go there now. A cherry on the cake: one morning during a Monte 4 and a fight with a computer, I got a call from Stan Lawrence to come down and meet a special guest on the show. Upon arrival, there stood the legendary picker, Buddy Guy, looking a good 20 years younger than his 70 years. Having impacted Hendrix and Clapton and who knows whom else with his feedback and string bending, Buddy is still packing them in at his own club. Alas, no cigars allowed.

Mark Hime Books at "BIBLIOCTOPUS"

Click here for info on the Big Smoke Chicago.

Sullivan's Steakhouse
415 North Dearborn
Chicago, Illinois 60610
General Manager: Lorne Richman
Manager: Troy Smith
Tel: 312-527-3510

The Peninsula
108 East Superior Street
Chicago 60611
Chief Concierge: Todd Nelson
Tel: 312-337-2888

Mike Ditka's Restaurant
100 East Chestnut Street
Chicago 60611
Evening Manager: Paul Woodward
Tel: 312-587-8989

Iwan Reis Tobacco
Owner and GM: Charles and Kevin Levi (father and son)
19 South Wabash Avenue, 2nd Floor (A Louis Sullivan building!)
Chicago 60603
Tel: 312-372-1306

Old Chicago Smoke Shop
10 South LaSalle Street
Chicago 60602
Sales Agent: Antonio Palacios
Tel: 312 236 9771

Monadnock Tobacco/House of Fine Cigar & Tobacco Products
53 W. Jackson Blvd.
Chicago 60604
Sales agent: Jay Patel
Tel: 312-939-0629

Hubbard & State Cigar Shop
6 W. Hubbard Street
Chicago 60610
Owners: Raki Mehra and Rhoda Bogardus
Tel: 312-670-0687
Fax: 312-670-0805

Jack Schwartz Importer
141 W. Jackson Blvd.
Chicago 60604
Owner: Billy O'Hara
Toll-Free: 888-733-5225
Local: 312-782-7898
Fax: 312-786-0037

Lavazza Café
134 North LaSalle
Chicago 60602
Manager: Amanda Ilc
Tel: 312-917-9701
Corporate office Tel: 847-545-1900
Closed weekends

619 Randolph
Chicago 60606
Tel: 312-715-0708

Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust
931 Chicago Avenue
Oak Park, Illinois 60302
President: Joan B. Mercuri
Tel: 708-848-1976

Coulson's Music Matters
77 East Van Buren Street
Chicago 60605
Owner: Ray Coulson
Tel: 312-461-1989

754 S. Wabash Avenue
Chicago 60605
GM: Brian Moravec
312-427-1190 ext. 22

Green Mill Jazz Club
4802 N. Broadway
Chicago 60640