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Marie's Pizza Decks the Halls, the Ceilings and Pretty Much Everything Else

By Patty Wetli | December 19, 2014 5:50am
 For more than 40 years, Marie's Pizza has been dazzling customers with its annual Christmas fantasia.
For more than 40 years, Marie's Pizza has been dazzling customers with its annual Christmas fantasia.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

MAYFAIR — Deck the halls?

That's for amateurs.

For more than 40 years, Marie's Pizza has been dazzling customers with its annual Christmas fantasia. To enter the doors at 4127 W. Lawrence Ave. is to fall down a rabbit hole that leads to a singular display of holiday sparkle and glitter notable for its sheer exuberance and unabashed embrace of the season's message of joy and wonder.

Patty Wetli says walking into the Marie's is like walking back in time:

"We always have to come in," said Bonnie Jones, grabbing lunch at Marie's with her sister Holly Jones the week before Christmas. "We'll look around and say, 'Oh, that's new, that's a little different.'"

Lights twinkle from the bar, elvish figurines stare impishly from the walls, televisions are draped in pine boughs, and a riot of icicles, snowflakes and metallic swags dangle from the ceiling. If Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney were to suddenly spring back to life, this is where they'd stage their revival of "White Christmas."

Call it "schmaltz" if you must, just not to owner Nadine Karavidas' face.

She's watched wee ones gasp in amazement at the sight of the rear dining room, which the youngsters interpret as "Frozen" come to life, and she's seen grown adults reduced to puddles of goo when they come across a bauble "just like grandma's."

"They identify with something ... that's a success," said Karavidas, the third generation of her family to run Marie's. "You've made so many people invoke something sentimental just by decorating."

"It Just Evolved"

Marie's has been a Mayfair fixture since 1940, but its habit of go-for-broke Christmas decor only dates back to the '70s, under the instigation of Karavidas' mother.

"Let see ... I remember I was in grammar school," said the petite Karavidas, now 55 years old. "We would spend a Sunday morning decorating. And it just evolved."

Today, Karavidas recruits a small crew of accomplices — fewer than a dozen people — who set to work festooning Marie's dining room and bar the Saturday before Thanksgiving, beginning at 11 p.m. and typically finishing 12 hours later.

"We work straight through," said Karavidas, who admitted to being a "task master."

"But we're eating pizza. How do you think I get everyone to help?"

This year's effort clocked in at 23 hours, broken up into two sessions.

"It's the first year I didn't complete it in one day," said Karavidas. "At the 17-hour mark, I had to walk."

"They Used to Be Larger"

Though certain areas of the restaurant retain the same general look every holiday season, it's not unusual for Karavidas to shake things up.

She estimates she has at least as many decorations in storage as are currently on view, and she adds to her collection every year, knowing that certain purchases will have limited life spans.

Indeed, nothing in the current display dates to her mother's initial efforts. The original trimmings were kept off-site and when the building next to Marie's storage facility caught fire "everything was lost due to water damage," Karavidas said.

Replacement gew-gaws retain the spirit, if not the size, of their predecessors.

"The things we have now are similar" but, believe it or not, "years ago, they used to be larger," said Karavidas.

Among the newer objects is a series of custom-made elves Karavidas commissioned after discovering the artist's work — in the form of a seven-foot animatronic Santa — in Las Vegas.

She tracked down the creator, who happened to live in the Chicago area and, long story short, wrangled an invite to the artist's studio.

"When the door opened, it was like going from a black-and-white movie to Technicolor," said Karavidas, an experience that will sound familiar to patrons of Marie's itself.

Silver and White

Marie's signature colors are red and gold, but in something of a departure, Karavidas opted to drape the restaurant's rear party room in silver and white this year, an entirely new look for the room.

"When I stepped back, it was so beautiful," she said.

In order "to reveal the back room" to patrons all the way in the front of the house, she had to rethink her plan for the main dining area, making it less dense and shortening the length of the ornaments swinging from the ceiling — hence the 23-hour design marathon.

The effort, as it does every year, left her exhausted.

Which, if you were wondering, explains why the Karavidas' household is far less decked than Marie's.

"Usually by the time I finish here, I'm pretty pooped," she said. "I have what I call the most amazing Christmas tree because it comes out of the box and plugs in ... it's all decorated and has lights on it ... and takes about six minutes to put up."

Authentic, Old-School

It's almost impossible not to think of Karavidas as the "Marie" of Marie's but the name actually refers to her paternal grandmother, the wife of Theodore Karavidas, who opened Marie's as a tavern and small packaged goods store.

Nadine was carving out a career as a performer and producer when her father, George, who introduced pizza at Marie's in 1950, died in 2000. 

She dropped everything to take over the business.

"I just couldn't imagine it going away," Karavidas said. "People say, 'You could have sold it.' I just never thought of it that way. Responsibility is not the right word. Instinct, that's a good word. It was just an automatic response."

In the decade-plus since, Karavidas said it's been a constant balance between staying true to traditions that represent the essence of Marie's to long-time customers, like the Christmas decorations, while also recognizing the need to appeal to a new generation of diners.

"There's so much attention on what's the new thing," she said. "The challenge can be to keep yourself in the front of people's minds that, when they think of you fondly, they do it in person."

She's introduced live music, a martini menu and a strolling jazz trio, participated as one of the first Taste of Chicago pop-up vendors and said, "I'd like to be at the airport."

But there's only so much change she's willing to introduce.

"I think we have a personality," Karavidas said. "We are authentic, old-school."

Marie's is the kind of place people feel is theirs, she said.

"They get engaged here, they tell their parents they're going to have a baby. Significant moments in their life, they do that here," said Karavidas. "You make your family memories here."

So, yeah, Marie's is going to keep on decking the halls, walls and even the staff.

Should anyone suggest otherwise, Karavidas said, "They don't understand."

Check out Marie's Christmas decorations through Jan. 12.

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