Thursday, December 29, 2016

Forum Cafeteria (1911-1973) at 64 W. Madison St. was the Biggest Restaurant in Chicago, Illinois.

After World War II, Chicago's Forum cafeteria served every day appetites hungry for prosperity.

Perhaps some malevolent god passed a death sentence on the Forum Cafeteria long before it went up in flames, January 6, 1973. Three firefighters lost their lives—and 28 others were injured—when the roof of the Forum Cafeteria on West Madison Street collapsed during a fire.

The old building on Madison Street with the double serving line, the mirrors, murals, and wide overhead lights was, more than anything else, the symbol of an era, a petrified relic that stood its ground for 15 years while the people who used to frequent it gradually disappeared.
Forum diners line up two-by-two for the noon-hour rush on Madison Street. Not the most elegant eatery in post-WWII Chicago, the Forum was nevertheless a landmark on the culinary landscape until it was destroyed by fire in 1973.
Few remembered, in the end, that the Forum was once the biggest restaurant in Chicago and that in its heyday it dominated Madison Street. Conceived in the last year of the Depression, it reached maturity in the '40s and '50s, declined in the '60s, and died in the '70s of an inexplicable midnight fire and premature old age.
The Forum had tropical murals on the wall, a mezzanine level,
and served 11,000 meals in a fifteen-hour day.
I got to know the Forum in the late 1950s because I would go there with my grandfather. He ate there regularly and found it difficult to understand why anyone would want to eat anyplace else. Since he regarded restaurants and cafeterias as primary places to eat, the fact that the Forum offered good food at low prices tended to compensate in his mind for the fact that it offered very little else and, he even grew attached to the second-floor mezzanine where people sat twelve to a table in an open hall that afforded the intimacy of the waiting room at Union Station.

The Forum in the 1950s was a vast, noisy, friendly, and by the standard of Loop restaurants, exceedingly Spartan. The lines formed at 6 a.m. when the doors of the cafeteria opened and they often didn't let up until the closing time at 9 p.m. At peak periods, lines extended in both directions down Madison Street, with one line going all the way to the corner of Madison and Clark, the other stretching well past the Today theatre, which then showed newsreels. Only Elvis Presley could draw that kind of crowd in the Loop of the 1950s and, although the Forum was not the most elegant eatery in Chicago, it was probably the best known.
The Forum attracted people from every walk of life. In its long lines, LaSalle Street lawyers talked with politicians, secretaries with servicemen, conventioneers with pensioners, and Skid Row derelicts socialized with churchgoers who had just gotten out of Mass.

In the hall of the restaurant itself, patrons moved through a glass-enclosed corridor that led to the base of the double serving line. There they took their trays and carefully wrapped silverware and moved into one of the two identical cafeteria lines, past rows of salad and Jello by the vegetables, including such country favorites as squash and greens, past the selection of seven or eight main courses and the array of puddings, cakes, and pies, then stopped at the cashier, who would add everything up and present them with a bill.
From the second-floor balcony, customers seemed like parts on an assembly line as they entered the serving area through the glass-enclosed corridor. If anything it resembled a grand hall. Stained glass murals were set at intervals in the cafeteria's green Vitrolite (Vitrolite was an opaque pigmented glass used as tiles) wall, and were reflected in the mirrors on the opposite side.

The painstakingly arranged murals, which were mosaics made of colored glass, depicted women harvesting tea in Ceylon, people hacking down stalks of bananas in the West Indies, and natives gathering coconuts in the South Sea Islands. They suggested material prosperity and the view, borne of the Depression, that abundance would cure all ills. The men standing patiently in line beneath them seemed to be waiting, not just for food but what they considered to be social due, a generous share of well-earned prosperity.

As it happened, this notion was not far from the mind of C. M. Hayman, who founded the Forum. He chose the name because it reminded him of "For-'em," i.e., for the everyday man in the street. Hayman started his career as a cook and bottle washer in Kansas City in the 1890s and got his first break when he managed to scrape together a meal of hot biscuits and mince pie for Col. William R. Nelson, the founder of the Kansas City Star. Nelson was impressed by the young man's ingenuity ─ and his cooking ─ and decided to make Hayman his assistant butler.

Nelson also taught him what he needed to know in order to open a restaurant on his own, which Hayman did in 1911. In 1927, he established the first permanent Forum cafeteria in Kansas City, and the Chicago cafeteria was opened 12 years later, in 1939.

Perhaps it was optimism that led Hayman to open the Loop Forum because the Depression was still going on in the summer of '39, and there was no guarantee the new cafeteria could be a success. It also involved an enormous initial investment because it was intended to be a showplace from the start. In addition to the murals and wall of mirrors, there was etched glass in a three-foot-wide strip down the center of the ceiling between the overhead lights and along the corridor leading to the serving lines, and there was also expensive crockery and genuine silver. The day the cafeteria opened there were displays of flowers along the balcony and telegrams of encouragement from well-wishers. And, as luck would have it, the Forum made good on Hayman's investment by becoming an overnight success.

The former assistant manager of the Forum, George Havlik, recalled that the long lines began forming almost immediately and there were still people eating at the Forum in the early 1970s who could remember what it was like on that first hectic afternoon. As the Depression ended and the country went to war, the cafeteria's combination of good, inexpensive food and hospitable surroundings suited the city's mood and the crowds continued to grow. By the end of the war, with thousands of demobilized servicemen coming back to Chicago, the Forum had established itself as a Loop landmark and by far the biggest eating place in town. Streams of customers filled its tables and with the arrival of each new convention, the cafeteria seemed to fill to even greater capacity until in the summer of 1948, during a Shriner's convention, the Forum set its own record by serving over 12,000 meals for each of three consecutive days. Havlik recalled that during that week the cafeteria was so choked with people, customers with trays in hand had to wait for ten or even fifteen minutes to find an available seat. In the July heat, lines stretched around the block and there was virtually no letup in the crowds from 6 o'clock in the morning to well past ten o'clock at night.

In many ways, the Forum reigned as queen of the post-war Loop. No restaurant was bigger and few could attract quite the variety of people who would turn up in its long cafeteria lines. It was located midway between the shopping area on State St. and the office buildings on LaSalle, directly across from the old Morrison Hotel, the former headquarters of the Chicago Democratic Party and in the heart of the old entertainment district.

A graying bartender, who in his younger days sold advertising space for an entertainment magazine called "This Week in Chicago," recalled that in the 1940s and early 1950s in the area around the Forum there were bars almost every ten feet and every little place had its own dance band and entertainment. People used to come downtown to listen to jazz or shoot dice, drink or see a show, go bowling or just walk. Because the Forum was both inexpensive and in the middle of all of the activity, it was a natural place to have dinner on a Saturday night and young couples, often in evening dress, used to eat there before going out on the town.

There was little tension then and not much sophistication either. Conventioneers in the area used to drop paper bags full of water on passer-by and pull off other endearing stunts that would earn them a few broken heads if they tried them today. Still, the shenanigans had no harmful effect on the Forum, which continued to draw crowds of customers day and night, averaging as many as 11,000 in a 15-hour period when the Loop was busy and the weather was good. The cafeteria became a kind of a tradition for many people, including my grandfather, who went there every day at exactly the same time. Gradually, Forum patrons became accustomed to a regular cast of characters, many of whom prove difficult to forget.

There was "the duchess," so named for her slightly imperial manner and the fact that she dressed in gay '90s fashion with a long dress, a flowered hat, a long fur around her neck, and a face covered with powder and rouge. She had once been an actress but when she stood in line or sat at one of the Forum's communal tables she managed to keep very much to herself. She was noticed for the style and color of her clothes ─ she favored purples and reds ─ and because she came into the Forum almost every afternoon at exactly the same time. But one afternoon in the early 1960s she stopped coming and was never seen again.

Another Forum regular was an elderly city employee who came in for breakfast and paid for his meal out of a wallet that struck cashiers as unusually thick. Since the Forum was a busy place, no one paid much attention to him or his wallet until the day he made the front pages of all four Chicago papers. It seems he had never trusted banks and had been carrying over $30,000 in cash in his wallet every day for years until he lost the wallet one morning while inspecting a city street repair crew.

Apparently, a passer-by found the wallet and began spending its contents. This aroused the suspicions of his friends who reported him to the police. The wallet was recovered and its original owner returned to the Forum breakfast line until he too, just one day ceased to appear.

There were others too; an eighty-year-old woman who wore several diamond rings and was escorted by her 40-year-old boyfriend, a Frenchwoman who sang in the line, and even a Shriner who was dressed in full Regalia and almost ejected ─ a difficult thing to arrange ─ by letting out full-throated hog calls in the middle of a crowded lunch hour.

The most distinctive feature of the Forum and in the end the thing that was most appealing about it was the fact that although it was designed to handle great numbers of people, the Forum still managed to conceive of each of its customers as an individual worthy of a modicum of respect.

The food, for example, was good. Sides of beef were purchased according to exacting specifications and the cutting of steaks was done on the premises. The Forum prepared its own puddings, donuts, and pies; the dressings, salads, and Jello molds were also made on the premises. There were little extras too. Silver covers were provided for cups of coffee and silver-plated teapots were given to those who ordered tea. The silverware was also made of genuine silver until the late '60s when people started stealing so much of it that the cafeteria had to change over to stainless steel.

The Forum managed to survive, not because it scrimped on either the quality of its service or its food but rather because it was ingeniously organized. Every aspect of the Forum's operation had a pattern, from the preparation of food in the middle of the night to the counterclockwise method used by the cashier in adding up the items on a customer's tray. All of this added up to a savings of hours, which translated into extremely low prices.

In the 1950s it was possible to fill your tray at the Forum for under a dollar; a three-course meal went for something like $.75. The prices increased gradually but just before the Forum burned down it was still possible to get a dinner of T-bone steak with potatoes and salad for $3.00, a dinner of hamburger, perch, chicken, or pork for $1.25, or a special lunch of franks, beans, fried potatoes, and squash for $.79. The prices never stopped being among the lowest in the Loop but the crowds of people who used to pay them slowly melted away.

The crowds held up through the '50s but began to gradually decrease in the '60s, completely disappearing by the end of the decade. The Forum had served around 8,000 meals a day in 1960 and was down to 4,000 a day in 1968.

There were reasons, of course, including the abandonment of the downtown area, which took place at an accelerating rate with the growth of suburban shopping centers. But in the case of the Forum, there was something else as well. With the coming of the 1970s, the cafeteria that had once seemed willing to feed the entire city, that was equipped to serve 800 meals an hour but was now serving fewer than 3,000 meals in a 15-hour day, fed mostly old-time customers who still came in regularly. They were people like a former bantam-weight boxing champion, the father of a well-known Hollywood actor, a few aging politicians, and retirees from all over the city, who remembered the old days when the Loop was a community and the Forum was its heart.

"You know," Havlik said one day last December, referring to a shabbily dressed customer, "you can't tell from outward appearances what these people are or who they were."

They had changed too. The 1940s and '50s were in many cases the most memorable years of their lives. Returning to the Forum was like reliving those days when it seemed that prosperity was here to stay and their problems were behind them.

Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way. A society that suddenly found it had more than enough to meet its needs invented new needs to be fulfilled. Food, when it stopped being scarce, became a form of entertainment. As consumption blossomed into America's number one indoor sport, restaurants such as the Forum were transformed into obsolete reminders of a forgotten mentality and a bygone era.

Standing one afternoon near the Forum's double serving line, Havlik remarked: "You know it's funny, the way at this stage a lot of our customers seem to be dying off. I'll remark to someone that I haven't seen so and so here in some time, a regular customer who had been eating here for years, and he'll say, 'Oh yeah, he passed away.'"

It was a week before the fire and Havlik was feeling nostalgic about the place. "You wouldn't believe what a showplace this once was," he said. "Yes," he continued, nodding, "it was the real center of town."

By David Satter

3 Firemen Killed, 24 Injured In Chicago Fire.
January 6, 1973, CHICAGO (UPI)

The roof of a burning Loop cafeteria collapsed early today, showering firemen with smoldering debris and pinning dozens of them in the rubble of heavy beams, plaster, and bricks. 

At least three firemen were killed and 24 others were i injured, some seriously. More than 30 firemen were inside the building when, without warning, the roof caved in. Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn said the firemen had just been told to leave the building when the roof suddenly gave way, pinning the helpless firefighters.

Firemen continued fighting the blaze while others sifted through the charred rubble in search of their lost comrades or worked with axes, crowbars, and power saws to free men pinned beneath the rubble.

The search for bodies was centered in the fire-ravaged Forum Cafeteria on West Madison Street. Two of the dead firemen were identified as Timothy Moran, about 35, and Richard Kowalzyk, 31. During the search, firemen found the body of a third fireman. His body was cut out from under a crossbeam in the debris. He was not immediately identified.

The cafeteria was closed when the blaze broke out early this morning but seven employees were in the building. They fled to safety. "Christ, we're lucky we're here," an exhausted, ice-laden fireman said when he learned of the numerous injuries. "These damn fires, these ceiling fires. They're the worst. It can go at any minute, just boom, that's all she wrote," he said.

The cause of the blaze was not immediately determined, but fire officials said the blaze apparently started in a storage loft above the second floor, which housed exhaust fans to cool the building.


  1. "Stained glass murals were set at intervals in the cafeteria's green Vitrolite (Vitrolite was an opaque pigmented glass used as tiles) wall, and were reflected in the mirrors on the opposite side." Do you happen to know who the stained glass artist was? the only one i know who was doing glass mosaics at this time was Thomas A O'Shaughnessy.

  2. I worked in the dishwashing room, the summer of 55 between HS and college.
    It was very hard work. I hope the customers liked the restaurant. If I thought about dropping out of college, all I had to do was think of the hard work and low pay at the Forum. I am sorry for the firemen who lost their lives when it burned down. Thank you Dr. Gale for keeping up your interesting site.


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