The Palmer House Hilton Hotel was one of the official conference hotels of the 70th Annual Midwest Political Science Association Conference held earlier this month, and, as the MPSA notes
, it was "the headquarters for all conference activities."
I was fortunate enough to stay at the Palmer House Hotel while covering the MPSA Conference
, and found the hotel to be a destination in and of itself. A welcome message for guests in a book available in the guest rooms reminded me of where I was at. The message stated, in part, "As the longest continuously operating hotel in North America, we are proud of our reputation starting in 1871." It referred, among other things, to two items that are very apparent and almost overwhelming when you enter the historic building and then make your way to your room - the historic art collection and the "rare early Chicago photography" including "galleries of show business luminaries of the 20th century on the guest floors."
Guests arriving at the main entrance on East Monroe Street, whether by taxi, stretch limousine, or personal vehicle, were likely to notice the gorgeous "Peacock Door." A plaque nearby indicates that “This world renowned door, actually a piece of unusual real estate art, is one of three in creation called the ‘Peacock Doors.’…The design is that of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Each of the three doors weigh more than a half-ton, and all three are valued at more than a million dollars.”
Once in the Palmer House, guests will see what the welcome message stated, "Our crowning glory is our awe inspiring lobby ceiling painted by famed French muralist Louis Pierre Rigal in 1900 - one of the most photographed ceilings in the world. It is considered a masterwork."
Walking down the hallways on the guest floors, one will find photographs of famous entertainers who performed at the hotel's Empire Room, such as the ones seen below, and many more including Louis Armstrong, George Burns, Buddy Hackett, Lou Rawls, Maurice Chevalier, Jimmy Durante, Liberace, who got his start at the Empire Room in 1947, and Phyllis Diller, who, as I understand it, was the last person to “play” the Empire Room. Many of the photographs were taken by world renowned theatrical and portrait photographer Maurice Seymour
The inscription on the photograph below reads,“Dorothy Dandridge plays the Empire Room, 1960, 1961.”
The inscription on the photograph below reads, “Judy Garland plays the Empire Room between 1938 & 1939. “The Wizard of Oz” Tour.”
The inscription on the photograph below reads, “Jack Benny plays the Empire Room, 1967, 1969.”
In my guest room, I noticed that behind-the-scenes tours were available for a small price. I wanted to hear from an expert about the hotel's history and specifically about the stars who performed here. I called the number and was told that, due to MPSA Conference activities being held in most of the rooms, tours were not being conducted. However, the very gracious man I was speaking with, Jessie Alarcon, Palmer House senior food and beverage manager, said he had time to give me a quick tour. We went to a number of breathtaking ballrooms including the Red Lacquer Room and the Honoré Room.
Alarcon told me that Potter Palmer had given the Palmer House Hotel to his wife, Berthe Honoré Palmer, as a gift and that she had significantly influenced the artwork and overall grandeur of the hotel.
It was then time to make our way to what the Palmer House calls "an entertainment epicenter" of its time. The Palmer House states
, "In 1933, the Palmer House’s Golden Empire Dining Room was converted into an entertainment epicenter, hosting legendary entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, as well as a little known pianist named Liberace."
As we made our way to the steps leading up to the fabled Empire Room, I saw what the welcome message spoke of: The imposing "Golden Winged Angels" at the bottom of the steps to the Empire Room, which "are among the priceless early works of Louis Comfort Tiffany."
The Empire Room is extraordinarily beautiful, and as Alarcon said, "the who's who of early and mid 1900s" entertainers performed here.
Next came a very special surprise. Alarcon opened the backstage door and I stood in the "green room" where hundreds of legendary stars had stood. It was almost as if you could feel their presence in that small room.
As we exited the stage, Alarcon pointed to the glorious chandelier closest to the stage and said that the last time it was cleaned, they "found a number of pieces of Carol Channing's jewelry." Apparently, according to Alarcon and as can be seen in the picture below, she wore a lot of jewelry when she performed and liked to toss it out into the audience. Some of it wound up on the chandelier seen below.
The inscription on the photograph below reads, “Carol Channing plays the Empire Room, 1958, 1959, 1969.”
As we exited the Empire Room and walked passed the Lockwood Restaurant and Bar, Alarcon told me that Harry Belafonte had been to the hotel "about one year ago and was reminiscing about performing here in the 1960s."
I don't know the exact date on which the Empire Room hosted its last entertainer, but it is currently a wonderful venue for conference activities and receptions. And, according to Alarcon, numerous weddings are held in the elegant ballrooms of the Palmer House. Staying at the Palmer House Hotel
was, for me, an unforgettable and enriching experience.