Palmer House Hilton hotel’s Ken Price, the ‘last of the great publicists,’ has died at 82

He brought flair, knowledge and relentless energy to promoting the historic hotel and also was involved in creating Chicago’s International Sister Cities Conference.

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Ken Price, who was the longtime director of public relations for the Palmer House Hilton hotel and its historian, was known for his dramatic personal style as well as his love for dogs, the American songbook and the city of Chicago.

Ken Price, who was the longtime director of public relations for the Palmer House Hilton hotel and its historian, was known for his dramatic personal style as well as his love for dogs, the American songbook and the city of Chicago.

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Ken Price didn’t need a family; he had a hotel.

“His work was his life. His work was his family,” said his niece Julie Stevens. “He loved what he did.”

The 800-person staff at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel, where he was director of public relations for 38 years, reacted to news of his death from cancer Wednesday the way any family member would: with sadness and tears, shed by everyone from bellmen to telephone operators to Dean Lane, the hotel’s general manager.

“We’re emotionally devastated,” Lane said. “Ken treated everybody with so much dignity and respect. From bartenders to room attendants, we’re all crying. He meant so much to many people. It’s been incredibly devastating.”

“Whether someone was a doorman or a housekeeper or a senior vice president, he was interested in everybody and treated everybody the same,” Stevens said.

Mr. Price, 82, was tall — about 6-feet-2 — and elegantly turned out: beautiful suits and neckties, shoes shined, pocket square folded. And large designer eyeglasses that somehow seemed part of his persona.

“No one other than him could get away with wearing them,” Stevens said. “They stopped making this frame long ago. He had them specially made, found someone to do it,”

“He would wear his ascots and he would wear his Hollywood glasses,” said Shelley MacArthur, an entertainer who sang at the Palmer House Empire Room, which staged nightclub shows until 1976 — comedian Phyllis Diller put on the final performance — and then started functioning as a regular, albeit splendid, hotel ballroom.

“Mister Kelly’s, all those great clubs, the Empire Room was one of the last survivors of that,” MacArthur said. “When they changed the room, that was one of Ken’s very sad moments.”

He did have his times of darkness. Mr. Price would deeply grieve, for months, after the death of one of his beloved dogs — Kugel, Fotchie, Sidney. The world was not going in a direction of which he approved.

But his love of history — he also was the official historian of the Palmer House — helped keep the past alive. He filled the corridors of the Palmer House with large photos of the famous stars who once performed there — Judy Garland, Carol Channing, Liberace, Frank Sinatra among them.

Mr. Price created the small, cluttered archive and museum on the Palmer House mezzanine and in 2011 started giving historic tours of what by then was the third version of the hotel given by Potter Palmer to his wife Bertha in 1871, making it the longest continually operated hotel in North America. Mr. Price’s ”History is Hott” tour brought thousands of visitors through the hotel and was named Illinois Meetings & Event’s Editor’s Pick for the Best City Tour in 2013.

He liked to bring students to the hotel and let them see its elegance, for instance, hosting a camp-like event for kids facing serious illness He felt just being in the hotel could improve a young person’s life.

“This isn’t how any of us live,” he once told WTTW-TV. “But what’s amazing for young people is, when young people get exposed to this kind of environment — the grand palace architecture and magnificent frescoes above — they stand up a little straighter. They speak a little differently. They’re a little more conscious of their demeanor. And that’s important We need to have these kinds of environments so young people can say, ‘I can aspire to this.’ ”

Mr. Price threw the Empire Room open to a dog tea party that saw society canines sniffing each other to live music and eating off the Empire Room’s gold-rimmed china on a low table. He oversaw an endless chain of heartstring-tugging — and publicity generating — promotions for the hotel. Couples who spent their honeymoon there could get the same rate on their 50th anniversary — if they kept the original receipt — and would stay there for $13.75 a night, or whatever the 1940s or 1950s rate happened to be, generating press.

He’d gather 400 tuba players from around the world to play carols for “Tuba Christmas.” It became a holiday tradition for decades.

“He was so rare, the last of those great publicists,” MacArthur said. “I don’t know of any hotel that has their own publicist.”

Ken Price (center front) served six years in the Army, mostly as a scriptwriter with the psychological operations unit.

Ken Price (center front) served six years in the Army, mostly as a scriptwriter with the psychological operations unit.

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Mr. Price was born in Chicago and went to William Penn Elementary School. He attended the University of Miami, then John Marshall Law School. He spent six years in the Army.

Afterward, he began work in hospitality publicity for real estate developer Harry Chaddick, who had developed the Palm Springs Country Club and Tennis Club. He joined the Palmer House in 1984.

He also helped create the Celebrate on State festival, which he chaired for seven years.

Many publicists send out emails and then wonder why nothing happens. Mr. Price would take reporters to lunch and ply them with the hotel’s latest developments.

“He was an old-school PR guy,” Lane said. “One thing that really frustrated him to no end is PR not what it was in 1990. It’s gotten digital, with lots of corporate PR teams.”

“Underneath his flashy facade, he had a heart of gold,” bandleader Rich Daniels said. “The thing I most admired about him, he would always ask about my family — he’d name my children, my wife.”

Mr. Price was also involved in creating Chicago’s International Sister Cities Conference and a delegate to the White House Conference on Tourism. He worked with the Mabel Mercer Foundation to preserve the memory of the great American songbook.

In 2007, the Palmer House named a conference room on the fifth floor after him, which he viewed as “a badge of honor.” In 2018, Historic Hotels of America honored him with its lifetime achievement award.

One thing a publicist does not do is spread bad news. So when he was hospitalized in September — his disease progressing because COVID-19 made it harder for him to see a doctor, which he avoided doing anyway — he told almost no one.

“He didn’t tell any of his friends he was sick,” Stevens said. “He said, ‘It’s going to be too emotional.’ ”

Mr. Price did not want a funeral service. In addition to Julie Stevens, he is survived by a nephew and two other nieces — Barry Stevens, Lisa Maclean and Stephanie Domenitz — and numerous grand-nephews and nieces.

Ken Price, with friends, in the small museum he created at the Palmer House.

Ken Price, with friends, in the small museum he created at the Palmer House. He also oversaw the hotel becoming more dog-friendly, offering pet beds and bowls to guests and hosting a doggie tea party in the famed Empire Room. He didn’t want a funeral service and asked that any donations in his memory go to PAWS Chicago.

Anthony Robert La Penn

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