Kerth: If you ever wondered how to get to the Empire Room…

Last Sunday evening, I stood in the little dressing room behind the stage of the Empire Room in Chicago’s Palmer House, gazing at the photos of some of the performers who had taken that elegant stage to entertain audiences over the past century or so.

Frank Sinatra.

Carol Channing.

Jimmy Durante.

Deanna, the sweet, smiling event coordinator, was saying, “So if you will all sign this form to state that you’ve been paid for tonight’s performance, we’ll be ready to go.”

Maurice Chevalier.

Eartha Kitt.

George Burns.

“And if there’s anything you need – anything at all – please let me know,” Deanna was saying.

Harry Belafonte.

Peggy Lee.

Victor Borge.

It was my turn to sign, and as I took up the pen I mumbled, “Well, I don’t see my big bowl of blue M&M’s.”

It was a stupid thing to say, but I had just glanced at a photo of Liberace, and I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of ridiculous diva demands might have been made in that very dressing room.

“M&M’s?” Deanna said. “No problem.” She lifted a little cellular device to her ear.

I tried to explain it was just a joke – that any photo of Liberace with a beautiful woman on each arm was proof that the Palmer House surely had an appreciation for irony and deception – but by then the Empire Room wheels were in motion.

In about the time it has taken you to read this far, a porter scurried down the hallway into the dressing room, delivering a white bowl with about a pound of M&M’s in it. I felt a brief pang of regret that I hadn’t asked for the candies to be delivered individually by the Swedish Bikini Team.

But I’ve gotten way ahead of myself. I always do. You probably have questions.

If your first question is “How do you get to the Empire Room?” I might say, “Practice, practice, practice.”

But a better answer is, “Well, it all depends on who you know.”

And the guy I happen to know is named Hans Stucki, a friend and neighbor who lives three doors down the street from me. He also happens to be the keyboard player in my old-school rock band, Old’s Cool. There are five of us in what you might call a garage band, because we rehearse in Hans’ garage.

But Hans also happens to be a Chicago lawyer, and his brother Dave happens to be a judge.

As it also happens, Dave Stucki is the outgoing president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Justices, who was making his final appearance last Sunday as president at the Palmer House’s Empire Room, where the new council president would be inaugurated.

And as it further happens, when they asked Dave Stucki what kind of entertainment he would like to perform at his going-away party, he said, “Old’s Cool.”

His brother’s band.

My band.

At the storied Empire Room of Chicago’s historic Palmer House Hotel.


Once the forms had been signed in the dressing room and the M&M’s delivered, it was time to take the stage, where we rocked the House for a bit more than two hours. The 400 or so judges in attendance loved us – proof that there is still plenty of good judgment going on among our judiciary. It restores your faith in America.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that we played a few numbers that were sure to be a big hit with judges. Songs like “I Fought the Law and the Law Won,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Stuff like that.

We even invited a few of the judges up onstage to join us when we played “Mustang Sally,” because it’s a sure bet that judges would approve of lyrics that urge, “You better slow that Mustang down.”

And they rocked the House, too, even without their gavels.

At the end of the night, after the music had stopped and the judges filed out of the room, we dismantled our gear and trundled it through the kitchen to the freight elevators, where our cars sat surrounded by tubercular pigeons in the foul-smelling alley off Wabash Avenue. (Hey, we may have played the Empire Room, but we still don’t have roadies to shield us from rock-world realities.)

Before leaving, I crossed through the lobby and climbed back up the grand stairway to the second floor of Chicago’s Palmer House, where the Empire Room now stood empty and silent. I walked on that elegant stage one last time, gazing around, saying to myself, “So … that just happened.”

All that remained on the stage was a single chair, holding a half-empty white bowl of M&M’s.

But I noticed for the first time that they weren’t all blue, as I had originally requested. Some were green, and yellow, and some even brown.

Still, I slipped a few into the pocket of my vest for the ride home.

But next time, I swore to myself, I won’t be so easy-going on Deanna and the Palmer House personnel.

And I’ll be sure to phone ahead to see that the Swedish Bikini Team is in town.

• Tom “T. R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He can be reached at

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