Pump Room Diaries

Arturo Petterino, always a helping hand. (Sun-Times photo by Jon Sall)

LOTS of Pump Room memories and we haven’t even gotten to everyone’s Pump Room padre, Arturo Petterino. I spent a stylish New Year’s Eve with the legendary matrie d’ at the tiny Mondelli’s Lounge on Rush Street. I’ll excerpt some 1996 oral histories with Arturo in a minute, but here’s a great story shared by reader Jim Mueller:

The Pump Room. My 1970s friend Jerry Phillips, an aging rake at 55, picked up the damndest girls back in the day. He’d drink too much, then go home with the cute gal who’d hidden her left hand all night in a jacket pocket. They’d be jumping at it hammer and tong. She’d hoist herself up in the saddle. He’d invariably look over to see…no hand! There were others with glass eyes and wooden legs–and each time Jim wouldn’t notice until waaaaay too late in the negotiation.

Decades before the current Cougar Phenomenon, Jerry would occasionally troll for lonely older ladies. One of his favorite fishing holes was the bar at the Pump Room….


…….He’d get all gussied up and wander in for the evening. Over the years he met a few wild ones. Remember Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily Munster)? She supposedly had a voracious appetite for extremely young men. And she held her looks well into her 60s. She would have been in her 50s when she hit the Pump Room. He said she was something else! I could never watch a rerun of The Munsters again without thinking of Lily in the Pump Room chatting up Jerry Phillips.

Now, herrrrre’s Arturo.

In May of 1996 I did a two-part series on Chicago’s most famous matrie d’ for my old Nocturnal Journal column. Arturo cut his chops at the Pump Room. Those columns lit a spark and by 2002 Rich Melman opened Petterino’s restaurant in Chicago. It was Melman’s first venture in the downtown Loop.

Petterino is still alive but residing in a nursing home.

Here is an edited version of one installment:

In the early 1960s Chicago’s most famous maitre d’, Arturo Petterino, was on the road, working the Riviera Hotel showroom in Las Vegas.

Arturo received a mysterious phone call just before show time.

On the line was Col. Tom Parker, who generally managed Elvis Presley. The King was appearing next door at the Sahara. “He said, `Arturo, we’re going to bring Elvis in tonight; he loves (saloon comic) Shecky Greene,’ ” Arturo recalled over a glass of wine at Mondelli’s Lounge near Oak and Rush. “He said he needed a table for 20. So we put them center, ringside and Elvis had a hell of a time. The casino picked up the check and the King passed out $100 bills. He was very nice, autographs and pictures for everybody.”

The next night the Colonel called again.

Elvis must have been indescribably blue.

“I say to myself, `What happened?’ ” Arturo said. “Turns out Elvis liked the cocktail waitresses. So they all come in again. And after Shecky’s show Elvis asks if the waitresses will sit with him. And they sat together the rest of the evening with Elvis passing out $100 bills again.”

Arturo figures he has seated half a million people in a 40-year career as an elegant maitre d’. But it always hasn’t been Pump Room and circumstance.

In the mid-1950s jazz singer Lena Horne became the first African American to perform at the Clover Club in Miami. The nightclub was owned by Jack Goldman, who built the Riviera in Las Vegas. Horne knew Arturo from her appearances at the Chez Paree in Chicago. She requested that Arturo be hired as maitre d’ for the tense engagement. Goldman flew Arturo in from Chicago.

“Remember, this was not Miami Beach,” Arturo lectured. “That was very heavy into segregation. She was not allowed to live in any hotels on the beach. She had to live in Mr. Goldman’s home. They escorted her to the club.”

On opening night, when Horne took her curtain bows, Arturo recalled, the stage was showered with flowers. “It was an important performance,” Arturo said. “Flowers from fans, retailers, political people. It was overwhelming. Lena Horne. So great, so gracious.”

Those are essential values to Arturo, who last week celebrated his 76th birthday. I asked him to stand up from the barstool at Mondelli’s and demonstrate the correct posture of a maitre d’. Arturo did not need to be coaxed.

He is a maitre d’ of the first degree.

Arturo stood with his back as straight a board. “You look the guest directly in the eye,” he said. “You look down at the hand, sometimes, too,” he added with a sly smile. A gentleman to the core, Arturo won’t say who gave him the biggest tip of his career or how much it was. “All I can tell you is that he owns three casinos in Las Vegas,” he said. “And he owns a major movie studio.” (Start guessing with Kirk Kerkorian of MGM.)

Although Arturo lived next door to Cubs announcer Harry Caray at the Ambassador East Hotel for 15 years, he now resides in an apartment on the Near North Side. Arturo spends his afternoons reading two to three newspapers. Sometimes he goes to the racetrack. At night he makes the shuttle between joints like Jilly’s, Gibson’s and Mondelli’s Lounge, joints that remind him of the old days.

“There has been a 360-degree turn in Chicago night life,” he said. “At one time, I could walk down Rush Street and name 10 major restaurants or nightclubs: the Singapore, Mister Kelly’s, the Cuban Village, the Latin Quarter. Bars were open late. Show girls walked down Rush Street unmolested. It was wide open.”

Arturo admits he still would like to work as a maitre d’ two or three nights a week. But he won’t return to his beloved Pump Room. “I don’t think I could handle it,” he said. “I’m out of touch. Celebrities like Liberace and Dean Martin are gone. Sinatra won’t be around anymore.”

Arturo said he has just one regret in life. He never married or had a family. “I dated (actress) Janice Rule for three years,” he said, glancing away into a foggy night. “She married (actor) Ben Gazzara. I know the real reason I never got married. I worked until 4 or 5 in the morning. Who was I going to date? I have all these memories; I don’t know who I will give them to.”

They’re here now, Arturo. Rest easy.

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