DISCO KING OF SKOKIE: Carey Weiman looks back at a life of bringing music to bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Carey Weiman playing a bar mitzvah in 1985.

The former “Disco King of Skokie” is now engaging in an even greater starring role than when he spun his platters and raised the Saturday Night Fever level at the top of the old North Shore Hilton and many points beyond.

At 61, Carey Weiman is experiencing the right kind of delayed gratification as a doting Jewish father of two grade schoolers even as his old friends from Niles North are getting fitted for bubbe and zadie gigs.

One of the more noted local Jewish entertainment impresarios of the last century got a very early start helming children’s parties while still in grade school himself. He was the first live deejay at bar mitzvahs, weddings and parties as he entered his 20s.

But Weiman, now a Northbrook resident, is proving it is never too late to assume the best job of all.  In the wake of a documentary on his disco days that aired recently, to great acclaim, on Channel 11, he talked about the newest phase of his life not profiled in the 35-minute video production.

You might say bashert has enveloped Weiman’s existence. He was where he was supposed to be at just the right time, starting as the “Disco King of Skokie,” transitioning to the old Faces club on Rush Street, and then his own niteclub.

“My first chapter was doing all the stuff in the niteclubs and corporate events all over the country,” Weiman said. “My second chapter was owning the niteclubs. My third chapter is being retired and raising my two kids. I got married at 49 and was 50 when my first kid was born.

“I was busy and that is probably my only regret about having kids so late. I won’t be around long enough as most fathers will be for their children. But the one thing my kids will get from me is that I am there all the time.”

The attention to his kids is a lesson he learned back in his deejay days.

“There was a party I did, my first big-money bar mitzvah,” he said. “It was at the Empire Room in the Palmer House for a very famous event planner.  I was able to talk to everyone because I treated everybody the same – I treated the bartender and the busboy the same as the owner of the restaurant or hotel. I treated the customers as good as the help.”

Weiman with Dick Clark in 1991.

Elaborating, Weiman credits his people skills to a quality sadly lacking at the highest levels of public discourse today: empathy.  And then he recounted how a big spender gave him a personal First Commandment.

“The (father of the bar-mitzvah boy) was like 40 years old,” he said.  “He had just retired. I asked him, ‘How could you afford this? How could you do all this?’ This was a $50,000 in 1978 on a bar mitzvah. At the most, $5,000 was tops. I wanted to know why? He said to me when he grew up his dad was never there. He never had his father, his father was always working. He ended up going into his dad’s business, a lumber yard.  He merged his lumber yard with an Ace Hardware. The concept was bought out by either Home Depot or Handy Andy. He had just sold out. He had all the money to do this for his kids.

“When he hold me that story, I said I want to be there (eventually) for my kids. I was 21 when I learned that idea.”

Every deejay, no matter how successful, no matter how much he graduated from local disco king to the equivalent of Chicago’s Dick Clark, apparently needs a savvy director. With a capital “D.”

Carey Weiman today.

“Hashem was involved in everything I did,” Weiman said. “G-d was involved in everything I did, and I did not know it (at the time).”

He believes G-d made it possible for him to be able to tell his story via the Channel 11 documentary.  Meeting documentarian Ken Goldstein and then pitching the 35-minute production to Channel  11 management until they agreed for a timeslot was helped by Weiman’s fortuitous possession of 100 hours of video of his path from the 1970s to 1990s. As part of his business, he had set up a video arm back in the day, then saved the footage.

“The only people who had (professional) video capabilities in the 1980s were TV stations,” he said. “I had more video (than other outlets) on Rush Street. “

Weiman saved home movies and photos from his pre-deejay days.   So he and Goldstein were able to craft a time trip through his life and a Chicago cultural era of bright lights and big names.

In the production, his entrepreneurial grade-school self began when the young Weiman figured he’d stage kids’ parties for even younger Skokie youths. He fondly recalled his first payment from a grateful mother: eight quarters.

In the documentary, he re-visited the old family home on the 8900 block of Lamon. For a teeny-bopper audience, he began playing records and drawing young dancers.  Eventually that transformed into a new genre: the live deejay.

Weiman said he was different than the WLS-Radio and WCFL-Radio deejays who when they were not on the air emceed sock hops and dances throughout the Midwest.  However, once on site, the radio deejays had to stop and change records, interrupting the rhythm of the event.  Having to stop dancing, the teen-agers got restless.

But employing a newer, better double turntable, Weiman was able to continue playing music without a break. He’d talk over the records at appropriate times, improving the presentation and boosting the good time had by all.

Timing is everything, getting back to his credit to higher guidance. Rock music at the end of the Vietnam era got serious and even angry, hardly the pace to carry a fast dance. At the same time, a new beat soon nicknamed disco, after the 1960s version of dance clubs called discotheques, became an outgrowth of traditional rhythm and blues.

Weiman recalled how the youth of the mid-1970s simply wanted to get away from the seriousness of Watergate and a stinking double-whammy economy of inflation and high unemployment through dancing. Mainstream artists began producing disco records and John Travolta’s “Saturday Night Fever”  adeptly captured the garish dancing, clothes and party-hearty atmosphere.

Weiman and a friend posing in a scene out of the movie ‘Saturday Night Fever.’

Weiman cemented his “Disco King of Skokie” nickname by deejaying dances on the top floor of the North Shore Hilton, then the highest point in Skokie with a 360-degree view. The mobs were so packed in that the Skokie Fire Marshal complained about exceeded capacity. While he kept the beat going, Weiman could look out at the Chicago skyline 15 miles distant. Dreaming bigger things, he viewed those 100-story buildings as the “Emerald City.”

He got down to Rush Street faster than his satisfied dancers could twirl around a floor. In an entertaining video recollection, Weiman remembered almost being carried by two 300-pounders from a nearby niteclub to work at Faces. Their free ride wasn’t the only offer he could not refuse.

While he did not encounter the old-fashioned payola from record companies that, say, Dick Clark was pitched two decades earlier, individuals with “made man” visages ensured their favorite songs would be played by the deejay.

“When I’d be at Faces, there were a lot of Italians there,” he said. “I knew who these guys were.  I knew the Elmwood Park Crew, the Taylor Street guys. I got along with them well. First night at Faces, one came up to me. Then, $20 was a lot of money. He put a $20 bill in my hand by slapping it down. He said from now when you see me walk in, you’re going to play this (favorite) song.  I would do that every time he came in.

“That was $20 when I was making $65 a night at Faces, and I was probably the highest-paid deejay then.  That $65 grew exponentially when all the Italians came in, and they wanted me to do that ‘New York, New York’ song again.  I said I already played it three times. ‘Well, do it again!’  Then it became $40. I did very well that way.”

Weiman went big-time, both corporate and civic. He played at the World’s Largest Office Party and a regular schedule of corporate events. He helped kick off the Taste of Chicago’s nearly-four-decade run.

But he also kept to his roots on the North Shore.  He could probably recall every back corridor of the famed Purple Hotel in Lincolnwood, which hosted innumerable bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings.

“I think I did a couple thousand bar mitzvahs at the Purple Hotel,” he said. A good payday for working a bar mitzvah was $350. Weiman continued on as a deejay with different music genres after the disco fad passed.

Moving on to run his own niteclub, Weiman eventually wrapped up his after-hours career several years ago when an unconnected nearby shooting unfairly branded the property as trouble.

But that is not the end of the story as he performs his fatherly obligations. Weiman got quantity and quality of reaction to “Disco King of Skokie.” He is kicking around sequels, including a video series on life in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. “If you ever want to talk about people who worked for me, hundreds of kids from the North Shore, we called them disciples,” said the retired music monarch. “They all ended up being very successful in anything they did.  I did that for everybody who was around me. “

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