JEWISH RENAISSANCE MAN: Illinois state senator, real estate developer, restaurateur and now producer of a hit theatrical production, Chicago’s Bill Marovitz has led a life of wide-ranging accomplishment

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Amid the glitz and glamour that often envelops his life, Bill Marovitz’s base was still traditional Jewish Chicago and the political webs that accompanied it.

Cocktail hour had begun at his bustling Carnivale restaurant in the burgeoning Fulton Street dining district. And long before Carnivale, Marovitz had access to the Playboy Mansion, having been married to Playboy crown princess Christie Hefner. He now is a musical play impresario at the Royal George Theater. And yet, through all of these experiences and others over nearly 75 years of life, Marovitz wants to talk about his “Uncle Abe.”

That is U.S. District Court Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, one of the most prominent Jewish jurists in the country and a gentleman of the firmest political connections. He was best friends with Mayor Richard J. Daley, “one of the few people who could go over to (Daley’s) house late at night and just walk in,” said Bill Marovitz. “Eleanor ‘Sis’ Daley would be baking bread. Abe would sit down, have a drink and eat some fresh bread.”

The judge, appointed to the federal court by John F. Kennedy in 1963, also was known as “Uncle Abe” to all of Daley’s children. Richard J. Daley was an only child.

Bill Marovitz being sworn into the Illinois Senate by his uncle, Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, as his father, Sydney R. Marovitz, looks on.

“Nobody’s going to believe it,” West Rogers Park native Marovitz said. “He had a girlfriend of 50 years, and he never married her. Bernice Curtain, was Irish-Catholic. We called her ‘Mickey.’ Abe didn’t marry her out of respect to his mother (and Bill Marovitz’s grandmother) Rachel. She was Orthodox.”

On one hand, Dick Daley would have had a twinkle in his eye with an authentic colleen coming into his inner circle.  “He loved her. He was crazy about her,” Marovitz said of Da Mare’s feelings toward Curtain.

On the other, Daley was a conservative family man and observant Catholic. Thus he understood the Jewish traditions of his buddy, with whom he became close when they were state representatives serving together in Springfield in the 1930s. The elder Marovitz swore in Daley for all six of his mayoral terms.

The Marovitz-Daley connection automatically conferred some boosts in the young life of Bill Marovitz. Father Sydney Marovitz was a civic activist attorney who became a longtime Chicago Park District board member. The lakefront nine-hole golf course directly east of Wrigley Field is named for Sydney Marovitz, who also served as Ner Tamid’s congregation president and helped found the Bernard Horwich JCC.

Possessing such lineage, and elected to the Illinois State Senate from a politically cloutful district on the North Side, Bill Marovitz existed in two worlds – the common man for whom he sponsored progressive legislation, and the power brokers of the most hyper-political city on the planet. No wonder both Tribune Company and Major League Baseball asked Marovitz in 1987 to negotiate a deal for lights at Wrigley Field when Lakeview community activists and their local politicians blocked night games after the media company’s purchase of the Cubs six years earlier.

But Marovitz extended the legitimate art of the deal beyond politics. When his time as a legislator was up, he applied both political and legal skills to a real-estate business even as he toe-dipped into show biz as Hefner’s husband. Now Marovitz is fully immersed in the bright lights of Chicago’s theater district as creator and producer of “Miracle,” a musical about a working-class family’s love of the Cubs and their reaction to the century-deferred 2016 World Series triumph.

A scene from ‘Miracle.’

The Cubs have semi-adopted “Miracle.”  Team chairman Tom Ricketts led its own seventh-inning stretch singalong recently.  Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg fronted TV spots for the play along with maestro duties to match those of Ricketts.

Since opening in mid-May, “Miracle” has received good reviews. But no rookie producer ever knows if he’ll get a week’s worth of performances, let alone an entire summer-long run through Labor Day, as Marovitz is enjoying.

“I think you have to be tenacious in whatever you do,” said Marovitz, appearing 15 to 20 years younger than his given age. “There are pitfalls in whatever you do. You have to overcome a lot of adversity, and trials and tribulations. You need a stick-to-itiveness nature. I have a stick-to-itiveness nature.

“I came up with this idea in February 2016, before spring training.  I just stayed on it because I believed in it.”

There was one huge catch to Marovitz’s idea. Although the Cubs took a huge step forward in 2015, reaching the National League Championship Series, they still had not played in a World Series since 1945 and won the whole thing since 1908. Bad omens, portents and billy goats still walked Cubs fans’ emotional landscape even though Theo Epstein had his rebuilding program in high gear.

“I felt in February 2016 that the Cubs had as good a chance of any team in baseball,” Marovitz said. “I said let’s follow this team through the eyes of a working-class family in Chicago.”

Marovitz knew that backing a play that had a bit of a narrower focus – White Sox fans likely would not be interested – was risky business. But he had waded into such challenges previously. After all, any big real-estate development – especially the 60-story skyscraper he built — has its hazards. The restaurant business has a high mortality rate, but the South and Central American-themed Carnivale has been humming since 2005.

The play “is the riskiest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done,” Marovitz said. “To create something out of nothing, to make something happen out of a germ of an idea, a seed of an idea, is satisfying.

“I’ve learned a lot about musical theater in Chicago. Nothing makes it right off the bat. We’re not ‘Hamilton’ obviously. This is a new show, with new music. I was confident that if people came, they would enjoy it. I was confident people would come, but in this town there is so much competition for discretionary dollars. In the summer, you got concerts, outdoor dining and drinking, art shows and ballgames. You’ve got to compete with that, and it’s not easy.”

Suddenly Marovitz interrupts the flow of the “Miracle” narrative. He is an idea man and things are always percolating. He has an outline for another musical for the theater, but is keeping the plotline in his head. He also expressed a desire to make an updated version of the 1965 Steve McQueen-Edward G. Robinson movie “The Cincinnati Kid.”

Marovitz with David Letterman and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth at a fundraiser for Duckworth held at Marovitz’s restaurant, Carnivale.

“Today, maybe the guy who’s the poker champ (Robinson in the original) is Robert Redford. Now I got to find a ‘kid’ to be ‘The Kid.’  I actually talked about this with Spike Lee. Instead of making it in Las Vegas, let’s make it in New Orleans to showcase New Orleans jazz and New Orleans people.

“I’m not afraid of anything. As long as I can be part of the creative process. It’s not money that turns me on. It’s not power that turns me on. It’s satisfying my creative juices. I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. You need to have a lot of skin in this game, and I have a lot of skin in this game.

“Clearly, (‘Miracle’) is an artistic success. Every single night, the show gets standing ovations. When people come out, they’re smiling, they’re laughing, they’re singing a song. It brings joy to thousands of people who come to the show and re-live their memories. We have three scenes in the show in the cemetery. Really emotional scenes. So many people in this town visited their parents and grandparents (after the World Series win) and put hats or ‘W’ flags by the graves.”

Arny Granat, who is Jewish, co-produces “Miracle” with Marovitz, who gives copious credit to Jewish writer Jason Brett for the script and Michael Mahler for composing the music and lyrics. Julian Frazen, also Jewish, wrote several songs, including one on the great announcers in Cubs history – including Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray, Vince Lloyd, Lou Boudreau, Ron Santo and Jack Quinlan.

“I definitely had input in terms of the scripting,” Marovitz said. “I gave the writer the premise of the show. I gave them the four lead characters – the grandfather, his son, the daughter-in-law and a little girl. I came up with the name of the show, the logo and some of the scenes.”

Marovitz can even be granted a bit of indirect credit for the actual World Series that “Miracle” celebrates. By overcoming the Wrigley Field lights opposition, the Cubs could now get more rest in the heat of summer and not suffer as much “shift-work disorder,” switching from exclusive day games at home to largely night on the road, back and forth for six months. The all-day schedule when every other team could play night games after 1948 was a competitive failure in every season except 1984.

“I stuck my neck out and said, ‘I’m going to help (the Cubs) get lights, and we’re going to work out a compromise that satisfies everybody,’” Marovitz recalled of his deal-brokering. More than three decades later, the bulked-up, renovated Wrigley Field is the linchpin of what can be called a tourist and entertainment center of Chicago, thanks to the ability to play games in prime time and successive periods of contention.

“It worked out great, the property values went up and the people in the neighborhood are tenfold (better),” he said.

Marovitz’s successes reflect both a second-generation political education and Jewish sensibility fostered by his father and uncle. When he got to Springfield, he was advised to carve out a niche where he’d be considered an expert.

“I chose representing the little guy, the consumer, the senior citizen, the person not represented by the special interests in Springfield,” he said. “Almost all the legislation I did was against the special interests. I was against the NRA. I authored every piece of gun-control legislation (in the Illinois House, then the Senate) from 1975 to 1993.

“I was against the utility companies, I was against the big drug companies, I fought the medical society on many issues.”

Marovitz has been a member of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, among other civic activism. Among the Jewish organizations to which he has belonged are the Anti-Defamation League, the Weizmann Institute of Science and Young Men’s Jewish Council. Marovitz has chaired dinners for both ADL and Weizmann, and been honored by both organizations.

He said he is honored to this day to be the son of Sydney Marovitz, who died in 1989. Sydney raised three sons in a middle-class home at Coyle and Rockwell, just south of Indian Boundary Park. Thus young Billy Marovitz had a nice hike to Hebrew school at Ner Tamid, where he was the first young men’s organization president.

“The (Jewish) social consciousness of my family was instilled and ingrained in me,” the younger Marovitz said. “I watched my father, who was one of the most beloved people in the city of Chicago. My dad was the nicest, kindest, most thoughtful, decent, compassionate, generous and giving person I ever met. 

“My dad’s motivation was to do good things. If the elevator operator or janitor had a problem or needed money, my dad would go to his bank and get money for them. Even if my dad had to borrow money himself, he would take care of others. He was an honest, sincere person. I loved him more than anybody I’ve loved in my whole life.”

Sydney Marovitz’s involvement in Jewish issues was passed on to his son. As a state legislator, he became involved with various Israeli consuls general as they rotated through town.

“Uncle Abe lived on Lake Shore Drive very near to where the consuls general lived,” Marovitz said. “I became close to them.

“We had comparatively few Jewish elected officials then,” he said of the post-Jacob Arvey era. Marovitz, Howard Carroll and Art Berman were the only three Jewish state senators. Thus Marovitz was sought out for support by all the major Jewish organizations.

During most of his time in Springfield, Marovitz was not married. So when he was seen with a date, he got media publicity as the eligible legislator. But he did not have a swinging life after he married Hefner in 1995. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner simply made another Jewish friend. Many of his top deputies, including founding art director Art Paul, were Jewish.

During the Marovitz-Hefner union, which lasted 18 years, Pops Hefner liked talking politics, business and sports with his son-in-law at the mansion, which by then had moved from State Street to Los Angeles.

Marovitz obviously picked up some business tips in these schmooze sessions. He decided to take the plunge into the dicey restaurant business in the post-9/11 era, knowing even some celebrity-fronted diners bearing Michael Jordan’s, Mike Ditka’s and Jim McMahon’s names had closed.

“Fifteen years ago when I opened up, there was nothing around here. I was a pioneer. People said you gotta be crazy. It was suggested to me I should take this location and go vertical – build a high-rise. Fifteen years later, restaurants are closing all over the place and we’re still doing $12 million in business.

“I would say we have very good management. It’s a beautiful facility, but there’s no substitute for the food.  If we didn’t have good food, people wouldn’t come back.”

Carnivale is a lot more sophisticated than the “fine dining” of West Rogers Park of Marovitz’s youth. Then, the high-end restaurant was Miller’s Steakhouse on Western Avenue.  As a training ground for his later-in-life deal making, Marovitz hustled up the steakhouse’s support.

“I played 16-inch softball three nights a week, one of the loves of my life. I started a team and Miller’s was a place my dad and the family would go every single week. It was two blocks from our house. I asked if they’d sponsor our team.”

Marovitz had limitations as an athlete, though. He would have liked to see how he would have done running a pro sports franchise. Sports ownership remains Marovitz’s Mt. Everest.

“If I had my druthers, I would love to be in Reinsdorf’s shoes and own a sports franchise,” he said. “It would be my dream-come-true. I wouldn’t be a passive owner. I’d want to be managing general partner.

“I couldn’t be a GM, though. You have to hire the best people (under you) or else you won’t succeed.”

If “Miracle” is any indication, mogul Marovitz would choose wisely.

“Miracle” performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and matinees at 2 p.m. Thursdays and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St. Tickets can be purchased on-line at  https://www.ticketmaster.com/miracle-a-musical-108-years-in-the-making-tickets/artist/2615817 or by calling the theater box office at (312) 988-9000.

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