At 8 PM on a recent Saturday six women are sitting at the best table in Crooner's on Clark. They've earned their spot; after all, they come to Andersonville on most Fridays and Saturdays and always on Mondays, which is banjo night, from places as far away as Palatine.
"It's just six tonight," one of them says, "but there's usually more of us. We're all widows, and we're all good-looking, and we're all looking for rich men." They've come for the piano playing of Dick Reynolds, who sits directly in front of them, backed by a sign bearing a picture of him wearing a sparkly vest. In gilded letters, the sign reads "Dick Reynolds, With Songs to Remember. Your Requests Are My Pleasure." Tonight he's wearing a black tuxedo with a red-frilled shirt. He has black hair, greased to the right: He looks like a compressed Mel Torme.
For nearly a decade, fun at Crooner's has meant singing along with Dick Reynolds, whose predecessor now works as a croupier in Las Vegas. Reynolds first started entertaining when he was in the Navy during World War II. "One time, I sat down at the piano in a smoker while I was on leave," he says. "I played for a bunch of sailors, and they loved me. I thought, 'Jeez, if I can please these guys, I can please anybody.'"
Reynolds, who was raised in Kansas City, moved to Chicago after the war and started playing various north-side joints. For several years he manned the piano at the Astro near Clark and Diversey, where he met his wife Harriet. "She irons all these creases," he says, pointing to his red tuxedo shirt, "presses in between the frills. She always makes sure I look nice when I go to work, and I love her for that." Reynolds idolizes Liberace. "I always thought he was one of the greatest," he says, and though he doesn't quite match Liberace's sartorial style, he does wear several large rings.
He only plays on Fridays and Saturdays these days, although he does weddings occasionally and makes special trips to nursing homes. He is, he says, a musical ambassador to the people. "I love it, really I do. I think people are great, God bless 'em. They sing their hearts out, and I try to get them to get rid of their troubles once in a while. Nobody is supposed to be that great a singer. They go up there and they try. It's hard sometimes putting it in their key, but I try to work it out somehow."
The women are sitting at a table at the far end of Crooner's, with booths behind them and a long bar to their left. The place is done up mostly in wood paneling and black leather. A back room, seldom used except for occasional banquets, is occupied year-round by a Christmas tree decorated according to the season. It currently bears shamrocks and white Tivoli lights. Crooner's will probably be covered in Saint Patrick's Day memorabilia until the summer, when a more patriotic motif will move in. Except for those few decorative touches and some video poker machines by the door, Crooner's could be any place in any decade since the 40s.
As Reynolds swoons into the microphone singing "Heart of My Heart" and "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," the women, who have just started dinner and are only on their first drink of the night, sing along softly.
"Eddie Fisher's wife sang that," one of them says.
"Oh, yeah?" says another.
"I never liked her much."
"No? Even after Singin' in the Rain?"
"No. I thought she was phony."
"Oh, she was. Her name was Debbie Reynolds."
"She's 65 but doesn't look it."
"Who was that fellow Bette Davis was married to?"
One of them waves at Reynolds, who smiles back, and launches into a Humphrey Bogart impression, quoting from Casablanca and singing "As Time Goes By."
Ruth Blanchard, one of the women, orders a tall gin and tonic from the bar. Another one looks up at the television, which, in preference to the Final Four and the Bulls game, is tuned to an Andy Williams special on PBS. "Look," she says, "Patti Page is on."
Blanchard, who's 75, serves as the unofficial leader of the group. "I put out a name-and-address list," she says. "I called it 'Ruth's Group' because I didn't know what else to call it. We get away from our families, and they don't know what we do when we go out."
"It's ten o'clock, and you don't know where your grandparents are," says Millie Ring.
Reynolds starts playing "Memory," and Blanchard hums along. "Dick knows everybody's favorites," says Sharon Rodriquez, "from Millie's 'Mack the Knife' to Donna's 'Autumn Leaves' to mine. It's a little country number called 'Slippin' Around.'"
"We're here all the time," Blanchard says. "We're their regulars. We used to go to another place, but we're here now, especially on banjo night. They get the best banjo players from all over. They come from 15, 20, 50 miles away. Even from Schaumburg."
Crooner's is owned and operated by a man named Ed, who doesn't like to tell people his last name. "Just call me Ed Crooner," he says. "People, when they come in here, talk to Mr. Crooner. I even get my mail addressed to Ed Crooner." He bought the place five years ago from two women named Nancy and Rose. Before them, it was called Hobson's Oyster Bar, but it had to close after the owner, Mr. Hobson, was shot and killed by a customer who hid in the bathroom until after closing time. When Ed took over Crooner's, he realized people came to the place for the music. "I love this," he says as Andy Williams sings "Moon River." "My father had a band; my mother taught dance. It's just kind of nice that people get together, sing songs, and don't forget the past. We get some young people in here who really like the music; it's foreign to them, but they still like it."
In the past, Ed was an executive at a fire-extinguisher company. His business took him often to New Orleans, where he discovered Cajun cooking. Crooner's menu --along with surf and turf, roast pork loin, and sauteed calf's liver--includes red beans and rice, jambalaya, and seafood gumbo. "Everybody serves blackened catfish now," Ed says. "Everybody steals our recipes. We're mainly American food, but you've got to have something to kick you in the ass."
Around 9:30, during his first break of the evening, Dick Reynolds works the tables, greeting the customers. "Hello, I'm your piano player tonight," he says softly to two thirtyish men and an older woman in a wheelchair. "I hope I've played some songs that you've liked."
"Oh, you have," says one of the men.
"Is this your mother?" he asks. It is. Reynolds shakes the woman's hand. "Well, it's been a pleasure playing for you tonight," he says. "Remember, I'll play whatever you request."
His break over, Reynolds begins playing a song called "Rows of Washington Square," and the women begin to get teary-eyed. It was the favorite song of a friend of theirs who recently passed away. "We'll still sing and blast the neighborhood out," Blanchard says, "but the crowd is getting a little thin. We're losing some of our friends." Then Reynolds plays "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," and the mood picks up.
"Don't talk about me when I'm gone," Millie Ring says.
"We won't, Millie."
"You know," Ring says, "none of us in this group has ever had a fight. If we have a problem, we talk about it."
"But we don't ever have problems, not that I can remember," says Blanchard.
"We're beyond the petty stage, because we're not petty people," Ring says.
As Reynolds starts playing "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now," he winks at Blanchard. "I wonder what her 'now' is," says Blanchard. The women all laugh uproariously. "What do you think that could be? What's he kissing when he's kissing her 'now'?" They laugh again. "You know the best thing about this place?" says Blanchard. "We can make absolute asses of ourselves, and nobody will ever remember!"