Here’s a recent discovery from the Danny Miller archives, a fabulous moment in time captured 40 years ago tonight at a raucous New Years Eve celebration at the Covenant Club in downtown Chicago. My parents are the ones standing up, my mother with her impossible 1960s skyscraper hairdo, my father already decked out in celebratory regalia, my grandparents on the left, obviously feeling no pain, and my dad’s brother and his wife on the right, my Uncle Willie and Aunt Fannie. Amazing to me how formal everything was back then. Did the men own those tuxes? I’m guessing yes although I don’t remember seeing my father’s at home. One thing that’s surprising is that the ever-present cigarettes are not visible in the photograph. My mother, grandmother, and Aunt Fannie were heavy smokers who should have listened to their nagging husbands. All three died of smoking-related cancer, first Aunt Fannie, while still in her 40s, then my grandmother in 1990, and finally my mom in 1999 at the age of 65. Casualties of an era that clearly knew how to have fun but wasn’t nearly as concerned with health as we are today.
Are there any places in your past that you’d give anything to revisit just one more time? The Covenant Club is that place for me. This was a Jewish social club that was founded in 1917 for well-to-do businessmen at a time when Jews were not welcome at the mainstream clubs. It was a refuge for the men during their busy workdays. They’d have lunch at the club and enjoy a “shvitz” in the steam room where endless deals were made among the city’s Jewish elite. The wives would hit the club regularly to attend meetings for their charitable organizations and plan fundraisers and parties. My grandparents were married at the Covenant Club in 1932. During its heydey, the Covenant Club was THE place to be among local and visiting Jews. It attracted guests ranging from Sophie Tucker to President Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt. On the weekly Opera Nights, they would invite performers from the nearby Lyric Opera for free dinners and then cajole them into singing something. One night Maria Callas didn’t feel like singing for her supper despite entreaties from the regulars. Hadassah Briskin, the wife of the club’s president, noticed that Callas’s zipper had split. She asked for some needle and thread and proceeded to sew Callas up right there at her table. Seeing this, world-famous tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano ripped some of the buttons off his own vest and shouted, “OK, now sew me!” This loosened Callas up and she sang for the excited crowd after all.
During World War II, the members of the Covenant Club raised money for an ambulance and sponsored a Red Cross unit. They worked hard towards the founding of the State of Israel and weren’t afraid to touch controversial issues. One luncheon they had during the height of the McCarthy Era was for movie producer Herbert Biberman who had been imprisoned for six months after refusing to name names for the House Un-American Activities Committee. His wife was the actress and free thinking Gale Sondergaard (who, long before she was blacklisted, had been cast as the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” but left when they decided they would go with a more traditional ugly witch rather than the sexy evil witch called for in the first version of the script). Few venues would risk allowing the outspoken Sondergaard or her husband to speak but the Covenant Club honored them both.
I attended dozens of functions at the Covenant Club at a time when it was a Big Deal to go downtown. We’d dress in our finest clothes and head on over for the annual Purim carnival or Hanukkah party or children’s magic show or just for dinner in the fantastic restaurant where we were waited on by the very Old School staff, many of whom had probably worked there since the club’s opening. To my young eyes, walking into the Covenant Club was like entering the Palace of Versailles. I will never forget the curved marble staircase, the luxurious furniture, or the opulent chandeliers. By the late 1970s, the club’s aging membership was moving to warmer climates. Those that remained attended less and less social functions and the once flourishing Grand Ballroom stayed dark. The Covenant Club started losing money hand over fist and closed its beautiful doors for good in 1986.
I’d give anything to pop in at this 1965 New Year’s Eve party and hear some snippets of conversation. Those affairs were not open to children, of course. My parents were consummate partygoers and dressed in their finery every New Years Eve for the champagne-flowing party at the Covenant Club. We’d stay home watching Dick Clark on TV and at the stroke of midnight unleash a torrent of streamers that would cover every inch of our white shag carpeting. God knows what time my parents finally got home but the following day we would examine the hats and horns and other props they brought home with them, carefully placing them in a box for our own festivities the following year.
Wishing you all a fun, safe New Year’s Eve and a fantastic new year!