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Theresa Wozniak dies; ran Polish club seen in ‘Backdraft,’ ‘Men Don’t Leave’

Actor Kurt Russell (left) and director Ron Howard with Theresa Wozniak at her banquet hall during the filming of "Backdraft."

Actor Kurt Russell (left) and director Ron Howard with Theresa Wozniak at her banquet hall during the filming of "Backdraft." | Provided photo

Theresa Wozniak ran a famed Polish banquet hall on Chicago’s Lower West Side with a 10-lane bowling alley in the basement and an outdoor beer garden that could host 3,000 people.

President Ronald Reagan came there and ate kielbasa at a 1988 campaign appearance.

Director Ron Howard picked Wozniak’s Casino Lounge to film a party scene for “Backdraft.” In the movie “Men Don’t Leave,” the platinum-haired Mrs. Wozniak got a film credit for coaxing Jessica Lange to get up and polka.

Mrs. Wozniak died Monday of respiratory failure at Lexington Health Care Center of Chicago Ridge. She was 82.

Her club hosted bingo nights and boxing tournaments and crowned Miss Polish Americas and Polish Freedom queens.

Crowds never intimidated Mrs. Wozniak. She once fed 700 people at a wedding. Another wedding held at her place had 76 attendants: 38 bridesmaids and 38 groomsmen.

“Polish highlanders have big weddings,” said her son Stanley Wozniak III.

Wozniak’s Casino Lounge at 2530 S. Blue Island Ave. | Provided photo

During the 40 years Wozniak’s was open at 2530 S. Blue Island Ave., her son can’t ever remember a break-in. That might have been because of the banquet hall’s dogs, whose fur was exceptionally glossy from their diet of table scraps.

“We had German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, a Malamute-husky named Queenie,” her son said.

Though no one ever broke in, “We locked somebody in the yard a couple of times when we didn’t realize they were passed out under a bench after a Sunday picnic,” Stanley Wozniak said.

Theresa Wozniak (in white, on right) with Jessica Lange (hands on hips, in yellow checked skirt), whom she encourages to get up and polka in the 1990 movie “Men Don’t Leave.” | Provided photo

After the banquet hall closed around 1992, Mrs. Wozniak took advantage of her new freedom by traveling nonstop. She saw Egypt and Alaska and went on cruises.

“After we sold Wozniak’s, she was probably, for two years straight, going somewhere,” her son said.

Poland was recovering from World War II when 23-year-old Theresa Kubinski left for Chicago. After meeting her in her hometown of Wieliczka, her future father-in-law Stanley Wozniak Sr. sponsored her to come to America. He thought she’d be perfect for his son Stanley Jr., a polka sideman who played with Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones and Marion Lush and the Musical Stars.

He thought she was pretty, smart and experienced in hospitality from working at a ski resort in Zakopane, Poland — a good fit for the Wozniak empire. The family patriarch had started the original Wozniak’s lounge at 2258 W. 19th St. in the 1930s and opened the Blue Island Avenue location in the early 1950s.

When she met Stanley Jr., Theresa liked what she saw, according to her cousin-in-law Sophie Francis.

“She was happy,” Francis said. “She fell in love with him.”

For a time, the couple worked for Fleischmann’s Yeast at 48th and Oakley. But after her mother-in-law had a stroke in the early 1970s, Theresa Wozniak started running Wozniak’s lounge.

Theresa Wozniak and actor Billy Baldwin during the filming of “Backdraft.” | Provided photo

The potato dumplings on the menu were famous. To get them fluffy, Mrs. Wozniak slogged through a spud-disassembly process.

“She would boil them, put them through a grinder, mash them and freeze them,” her son said.

When she thawed them to cook, some of the moisture dissipated, transforming a mere tuber into a tantalizing cloud of a dumpling.

A proud Theresa Wozniak (center) escorts President Ronald Reagan to a campaign event during an appearance at her banquet hall in 1988. | Provided photo

Though she was at ease feeding thousands of people over the course of a single night, she got nervous at meeting Reagan during his 1988 swing through Wozniak’s. Sensing her anxiety, the president asked Stanley III to give him an assuring phrase to say in Polish. Her son taught the president to say: “Don’t worry, miss, everything is going to be all right.”

Later, the president repeated it with perfect Polish inflection. Mrs. Wozniak smiled and relaxed. When her family expressed amazement at Reagan’s memorization and mimicry, he replied: “Some people forget I used to be an actor.”

When Howard was at Wozniak’s to shoot the 1991 movie “Backdraft,” “My mom was Ron Howard’s kids’ babysitter,” her son said.

She enjoyed being involved in the movies. But she was even more thrilled about attending a Mass said by the Polish pope, John Paul II, at Five Holy Martyrs Catholic Church on the Southwest Side during his 1979 visit to Chicago.

Theresa Wozniak and Scott Glenn, another star who did filming at her banquet hall for the movie “Backdraft.” | Provided photo

In addition to Stanley III, Mrs. Wozniak is survived by her sons Andrew and Richard, seven grandchildren and her companion Roman Mytnik.

Visitation is 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Lawn Funeral Home in Burbank. A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Friday at St. Gerald Church in Oak Lawn. Burial is at Resurrection Cemetery.