JOLIET – A pantomimist concentration camp survivor and a dry tuxedo helped put Joliet on the map.
At least that’s how Earl D’Amico remembers it.
D’Amico, owner of D’Amico’s 214 (now the Joliet Renaissance Center) from 1957 to the 1970s, hosted the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, Tina Turner and scores of musical stars and big bands in his grand ballroom.
“It was a challenge, but it was so much fun,” said D’Amico, who will talk about his experiences Sunday at the Joliet Area Historical Museum.
D’Amico’s foray into show business began in 1957, when he and his brother purchased the Harwood Post American Legion at 214 Ottawa St. in Joliet and converted it into an upscale restaurant/banquet/entertainment facility.
D’Amico hired a local pantomimist, John Yonely of New Lenox, to entertain patrons. Yonely was a survivor of Nazi concentration camps.
“One time John said to me, ‘Earl, you’ve been awful kind to me, I’m going to do you a favor,’” D’Amico recalled. “ ‘I’m going to get you a satellite booking of big stars traveling on the road that would have time to come and do a show for you.’ ”
Yonely introduced D’Amico to the owner of the New York-based Associated Booking Corp., then the largest booking agency in the country.
The first big booking came a short time later.
“They asked me, ‘Will you take Louis Armstrong?’ ” D’Amico said. “Would I take Louis Armstrong? Of course I would take Louis Armstrong. He was my first big star.”
Armstrong’s passionate jazz trumpet and vocal performances were legendary, usually leaving him drenched in sweat.
“He always had to take out a big white hankie and mop himself off,” D’Amico said.
Knowing this, D’Amico wanted to make sure his first big act stayed comfortable.
“So we stripped him naked and put a dry tuxedo on him for the second show,’” D’Amico recalled.
Armstrong was so impressed, D’Amico said, that the jazz great told Associated Booking, “‘You can send me to Joliet anytime. They know how to treat people there.’”
And the rest was history.
D’Amico’s 214 became a stopping off place for acts traveling between New York and Las Vegas: Al Hirt, Guy Lombardo, Dave Brubeck, Chubby Checker, Frank Sinatra Jr. and scores of other stars all made the pilgrimage to downtown Joliet.
“We had room for 1,000 seats in the ballroom, with the stage right in the middle,” D’Amico said. “It was very intimate ... the performers were thrilled and the audiences enjoyed it so much.”
The shows became so popular that D’Amico later launched live theater in the ballroom, which he dubbed Piccolo Playhouse. Among the many performers were Tab Hunter, Louis Nye, Andy Devine and Imogene Coca.
Playhouse performers would rehearse for one week and then perform for two weeks. D’Amico later built the 122-room Sheraton Hotel to accommodate performers and patrons.
Rosemary Prinz, an actress from the soap opera “As The World Turns,” was one of the playhouse’s biggest draws.
“She’d sell out in an hour,” D’Amico said. “The women just loved her.”
Phyllis Diller, a comedian known for her wild hair and crazy clothes, was another popular performer.
D’Amico recalled having a squad car pick Diller up at the Joliet Airport to drive her downtown. As he escorted her down a back stairway into the ballroom, a well-groomed Diller suddenly shrieked “My hair! My hair!”
“She started pulling on her hair and had it standing out in all directions,” D’Amico said, in order to perform in her accustomed disheveled manner.
D’Amico still has the photos of the many stars that graced his stage.
“They were such wonderful people,” he said.
If You Go
What: Joliet restaurateur and businessman Earl D’Amico will talk about his life and the scores of entertainers and celebrities he hosted at D’Amico’s 214
When: 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Joliet Area Historical Museum, 204 Ottawa St. in Joliet
Cost: Tickets for the program, part of the museum’s Talking Joliet History series, are $6. The program is free to museum members.
Know More: Call 815-723-5201 or visit www.jolietmuseum.org