When Herb Karoll was just a boy, his daddy wanted him to be a rabbi. But young Herb figured there wasn't much money in that line and opted for business.
Herb and his younger brothers, Sam and Dave, recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Karoll's Red Hanger clothing shops. "We were the first clothing store that specialized in the big and tall man," Herb boasted, loud enough to be heard above the din of the 100 or so celebrants who filled a Palmer House banquet room. "We've got 16 outlets in the Chicago area."
In the middle of the room, chatting among themselves, stood Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet, Congressman Frank Annunzio, and former Cubs TV announcer Jack Brickhouse.
"You're in this business 50 years," said the 84-year-old Herb, smiling proudly, "and you make a lot of friends."
Three bulky guys from the mayor's office moved to the podium. "We were at least a size 16 and one half before we started on lunch," said John Wilson, who almost burst the seams of his jacket. The crowd laughed; a husky fellow with a yellow tie who sat in the corner laughed particularly hard. Wilson then announced that Eugene Sawyer had proclaimed Monday, November 21, Karoll's Big and Tall Day in Chicago. Some people guffawed, others clapped.
To the podium stepped Kup. "First of all, I'd like to make a recommendation to the three people from the mayor's office that they should visit a Karoll's shop," he said. His audience laughed. "And I'd just like to say a few words for our beloved Karoll brothers who stayed together for 50 years because no one trusted the other." Kup raised his glass of white wine.
"But seriously, folks, I'd like to offer a toast to a business that has remained free from the merger mess that has taken charge of our country."
Then it was Brickhouse's turn. "The timing's good; the wine just got here," he said. "But really, I have a lot of things going for me when it comes to Karoll's, including my clothing. Not only that, but I live next door to Sam. I'm kind of proud of that, although I kind of wish he wouldn't throw those wild parties."
Everyone laughed, including Sam, who at 81 uses a cane and is hard of hearing.
Brickhouse then launched into an analysis of the great ethical quandary that began the day some fellow walked into Karoll's with a $50 bill. The guy needed a suit fast, Brickhouse said, so he handed the 50 to Herb--or was it Sam?--grabbed a suit off the rack, and bolted out the door. "Well, Sam--or Herb--was fingering the 50 when he realized that there were two $50 bills stuck together," Brickhouse explained. "So, here's the great ethical question: do you or do you not tell your brother about that second 50?"
The crowd broke up. The husky guy laughed so hard, he almost shook his table. That prompted Brickhouse to try another joke that was so unbelievably lousy no one laughed, although the husky guy sort of chuckled. "I can see that one's got to go," Brickhouse said. "Anyway, Sam, Dave, and Herb: may the happiest days of your past be the unhappiest days of your future."
Brickhouse made way for Sid Luckman, the former Chicago Bears quarterback and one of the greatest Jewish athletes who ever lived. Luckman looked great for a guy who's 72; he was slim and tan, his face unlined. He said he wasn't even going to try to compete with two funny guys like Kup and Jack Brickhouse. Then he said he guessed it was back in 1946 that the Karoll boys sponsored the Sid Luckman TV show. That's right, he said, it was on Channel Nine, and the real stars--the guys who did most of the talking, anyway--were Kup and Brickhouse.
"They were so good, and I was so bad," Luckman said. "That was the start of it all. And you know, it makes me think. What makes Chicago strong? Jack and I were just in Vegas--remember Jack?--for a tribute to Harry Caray. And I was thinking then that what makes our city the greatest city in the United States is people like the Karoll family. I've known Kup--jeez, I don't know, he was the second person I met in Chicago after George Halas. Brick, Irv, and I worked the Bears together. As great as our relationship is, the start of it all is the Karoll family. It's great to see you healthy, wealthy, and wise. I hope you have 50 more years."
More than a few eyes in the place were moist as Luckman sat down. That prompted Kup to rise. "I forgot one thing," he said. "Today happens to be Sid Luckman's birthday. He's the only one young enough in this crowd to have a birthday."
The husky guy laughed, Herb started singing "Happy Birthday," and almost everyone joined in. Luckman beamed.
The waiters--elegantly attired in white jackets--had finished serving lunch. The three guys from the mayor's office wanted to shake hands. Someone suggested a group photo. Kup, Luckman, and Brickhouse barely took time to eat. Old-timers wandered by saying "Remember me?" The stars--ever gracious--laughed, patted them on the back, and had a good word for each.
"They don't make guys like this anymore," a salesman told me. "They're legends. My God, if the young Sid Luckman played for the Bears today, they'd win three Super Bowls." He shook his head. "Ah, you're too young to understand."
Herb stepped up to the podium for a few remarks. He thanked Kup, Luckman, and Brickhouse. What a great group of guys, he said. We should have kept sponsoring that old Sid Luckman TV show. We would have kept sponsoring it, he explained, but it got too expensive. The first year WGN wanted $14,000 for a half-hour spot; the second year it went up to $32,000. When they asked for $250,000 the third year, we had to drop it.
Herb told how Sam and he moved to Chicago from Toronto in 1923. He described the day they opened for business, with merchandise bought on consignment from a New York manufacturer who was going out of business because of the Depression. Then he told how they used to customize matchbook covers with the photographs of customers, how they moved from Maxwell Street to the Loop, how hard it is to fit a guy who wears size 18 and has short arms, how the secret to success is selling not one suit but a whole bunch of suits.
Herb remembered their old slogan--"Find us the man we can't fit"--and the 650-pound circus strongman who walked into the shop looking for a dress shirt on a day when dress shirts were on sale for $3.95. Sam measured his neck; it was 27 and a half inches. They had to order the guy's shirts at $5.95 each, but, keeping their word, sold him the shirts for $3.95. They dropped the slogan.
By that point in Herb's reminiscences, Kup had left. A pressing appointment. Brickhouse was leaving.
"You have to go, Jack?" Herb asked.
Brickhouse was apologetic. "I'm taping a special for the city, Herb. I'm holding up a crew."
Herb nodded. "Thanks for coming, Jack."
"I wouldn't miss it, Herb," said Brickhouse. The crowd clapped.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.