Memories, memories and more memories came flooding back to Mike Herman, lighting the corners of his mind, as he recalled the way it was at the Lexington House for the past 44 years.
Open since 1968, the Lexington House will close its doors for the final time as it hosts two events on Saturday. The property has been sold to DriveTime Car Sales Company, LLC and it will be used as a used car showroom.
Many people have memories of the place, but Herman may have more than anyone.
This is a place that Barack Obama threw a party long before he became president and Ray Charles performed. Members of the Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears held a fashion show there. Former governor Jim Thompson's helicopter touched down in the parking lot right next to the hall.
And Herman was there to see it all.
Herman, 61, started working at the iconic banquet facility in Hickory Hills during his junior year of high school, helping out his Dad, John, who worked there part-time doing maintenance and often serving as a Maitre d and bartender.
“My dad was good friends with the owner, Jack McGann and worked here a lot in addition to being a firefighter. I learned a lot from him.”
Of the 44 years he has been there, he has spent 35 of them as the chief bartender for the many large events held there. However, bartending didn’t sit well with him in the beginning. Working alongside his dad one day during a fashion show with more than 500 women attending, he was trying to keep up with the waitresses returning with trays full of ten or so glasses to be refilled.
“The orders were all blended drinks, apricot stone sours, pink ladies, etc., I threw my hands up finally and said, that’s it, I’m done, I can’t do this,” he said.
He took a brief break from the bartending aspect of the job, but after a year or so, he took it up again and has been at it ever since.
Many events at the Lexington were annual affairs, often with 500 to 600 people attending.
And when the parties got swanky, Herman was more than happy to put on a tie.
“People may not have always remembered my name each year, but they remembered me as the 'bartender with the Three Stooges tie' because I always wore it when I was working the bar,'' Herman said. "I would tell them I wore it because the owners said I had to dress up for the party.”
After a few years, the tie became a little ragged and one of the owners came out and said, ”It’s time for a new tie, here’s a few bucks, go out and buy a new one.”
Herman said he has been through a number of the black and white ties over the years. He still has one very crisp, clean tie for the last events planned at the Lexington. He said he has been offered money for the Stooges tie, but it is not for sale.
Herman said working at the Lexington has always been exciting with the parade of big names that have come through the doors.
“When Barack Obama was running for the Senate, he held a meeting here,’ said Herman. He added that every Illinois governor since the 1970s has been to the facility.
Herman said one of his biggest thrills was when Thompson was there for the ribbon-cutting of the southbound exit on the I-294 Tollway, which is just down the street from the Lexington. Thompson’s helicopter landed in the parking lot of the banquet hall. While it was sitting there waiting for the governor, the pilot asked Herman if he wanted to sit in the governors seat in the cockpit.
“I said sure, so I climbed up and sat there in the cockpit. I thought it was pretty cool.” Herman said.
Governor Rod Blagojevich also visited in 2005, the year the White Sox won the World Series.
“I may not have made the best impression on him,” said Herman who said he is a dyed-in-the-wool White Sox fan. He said Blagojevich, who was known as a staunch Cubs fan, strolled into the kitchen and Herman greeted him with “Go Cubs!”
“I don’t think it set well with him” Herman said, laughing.
Other well-known visitors have included both Mayor Daleys and Cardinals Joseph Bernadin and Francis George.
Herman said his favorite sports celebrities who showed up were the Chicago Bears, after they won the Super Bowl in 1985. “They came to a lot of special events and they were just great guys. I remember Gary Fencik and Michael Singletary being here a number of times.”
Big name entertainers also have a place in his memories. Ray Charles, Roy Clark, Mel Tillis, all appeared at the Lexington. Also a local popular group, Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows performed there.
“The night they were here, in the 80’s, it was a very, very cold night in January and 800 people came out to see them in spite of the weather.” Herman said.
For many years, New Year’s Eve saw parties of 1,000 people being held at the Lexington. “It would be pretty wild,” said Herman. “It would be so crowded we would have people seated at small tables in the balcony area.”
Other large parties with more than 500 guests were held annually at the facility for more than 20 years, including the Polish Prince Charming Ball and the Hispanic Rodeo Club.
Hundreds of weddings, anniversaries retirement parties, baby showers, high school proms, and company parties have been held at the Lexington House. Herman said, couples who have held their wedding receptions there, often return for their children’s wedding receptions. He himself was married there as was his sister, his step-daughter and many of his friends.
Herman said the big draws of the Lexington House were its convenient location, the fact that it had one ballroom, so there would be no overflow from other parties, and it had a huge dance floor.
But, times change, the economy changed, companies no longer hold large holiday parties and many people choose to hold house parties on New Year’s Eve instead of going out. Herman said things began declining in the late 90’s.
There was a time when the Lexington could not book a party without a minimum of 400 people. Then it dropped to 300, then 200, he said.
Since word has spread that the Lexington House is closing, people have been stopping by just to take a last look around or to show their grandchildren where their own wedding or senior prom was held, Herman said.
“It has been a good run and I am going to miss the people I got to know through the years and the people I have worked with,” he said. On a personal note, he added that he wanted to thank the McGann family, founders of the Lexington House, for all they have done for him and his family through the years.
Asked what his future plans were, he laughed and said, “If anyone is looking for a mature, experienced, loyal bartender, I’m available.” He said he can be contacted through the Beverly Woods Restaurant in Beverly, which is also owned by the McGann family.