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Pioneering Blackhawk Restaurant's History Featured In New UIC Exhibit

By Josh McGhee | April 27, 2017 5:15am
 Don Roth prepares the spinning salad bowl for diners including actor Buster Keaton (right).
Don Roth prepares the spinning salad bowl for diners including actor Buster Keaton (right).
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Courtesy of UIC

CHICAGO — A new exhibit at the University of Illinois at Chicago will explore the history of the Blackhawk Restaurant, which pioneered a slew of dining and entertainment trends in Chicago.

The Roth family, which operated the Loop restaurant for more than six decades, donated 60 linear feet of memorabilia to the university's archives, including celebrity contracts, photos, scrapbooks, recipes and menus, according to UIC.

“It offers a great perspective on families, their social lives, how we entertain ourselves and what we expect from public entertainment and from the simple act of eating dinner,” said Peggy Glowacki, a special collections librarian at UIC. “The Blackhawk always sought to provide more than a meal.”

Otto Roth opened the Blackhawk Restaurant at 129 N. Wabash Ave. in December 1920, the same year Prohibition began. At the time, classical musicians played from the balcony as diners ate.

With Prohibition in place, Otto searched for a way to attract more customers. In 1926, he ditched classical music, installed a dance floor and stage and began broadcasting "Live! From the Blackhawk!" on WGN Radio.

The show featured dance orchestras and stars such as Kay Kyser, Chico Marx, Louis Prima, Mel Tormé, Ozzie Nelson and Doris Day. A telegraph machine in the restaurant would even take requests from listeners, UIC said in a statement describing the exhibit.

Otto was known as a savvy promoter, attracting female shoppers for a "dainty lunch," executives dining with clients and sweltering Chicagoans to enjoy "cooled air," UIC said.

In 1944, Otto died suddenly, and his son Don, who was working as a booking agent, took over. During his reign, he did away with the stage and live music, preferring to focus on the food.

“Don Roth’s slogan becomes, ‘The Food’s the Show,’ and the focus turns to food as entertainment,” said Glowacki. “He has a keen eye for new ideas and is skilled at adapting them for his customers.”

Borrowing ideas from Lawry's in Beverly Hills, Don made spinning salad bowls and prime rib served from a rolling cart signatures of the restaurant.

The restaurant was also the first to have art exhibits, a salad bar and one of the first to have black and white waiters working alongside each other, according to Ann Roth, wife of Don.

“He was a very imaginative person; he was extremely creative. My husband loved the business, and he was a very, very charismatic person," said Ann.

In 1969, Don Roth's Blackhawk opened in Wheeling. It closed in 2003. Don also tried opening several other restaurants on Michigan Avenue, but they were short-lived, and the original spot on Wabash closed in 1984, according to UIC.

The exhibit will open at UIC's Richard J. Daley Library May 10 and continue until the end of 2017, the release said.