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Milton Shlaes, co-owner of Chicago’s Faces nightclub, dead at 96

MiltShlaes an owner Chicago's Faces Disco Rodeo bar Jukebox Saturday Night.

Milton Shlaes, an owner of Chicago's Faces Disco, the Rodeo bar and Jukebox Saturday Night.

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Updated: February 12, 2014 6:09AM



Founded in 1971, Faces exuded a lip-glossy sheen. The doormen wore tuxedos. The dress code stipulated no jeans and no leather jackets. By the late 1980s, the club’s membership fee had climbed to $500.

The joint started jumping around 11 p.m. But sometimes the enchantment started a little early, at the 9 o’clock opening.

You might spot a mature couple circling the floor, doing a modified jitterbug to the disco beat. That would be Milton Shlaes, an expert dancer who guided his wife, Evelyn, with just the slightest pressure from his fingers on her back.

“A complete and utter gentleman,” former Faces manager Jim Rittenberg said of Mr. Shlaes, who was 71 when he and two of his brothers became the main partners in the Rush Street discotheque in 1978.

The Shlaes brothers — Milton, Ben, and George — operated the club until it closed in 1989.

Mr. Shlaes died Jan. 4 at his Gold Coast home. He was 96.

The brothers also owned the Rodeo Bar, a watering hole at 2251 N. Lincoln with a mechanical bucking bronco, a fad that followed the release of the 1980 John Travolta-Debra Winger film “Urban Cowboy.” Later, they turned it into “Jukebox Saturday Night,” a 1950s-1960s-themed bar where the DJ sat in a ’57 Chevy while spinning platters.

But first there was Faces, even before New York’s famed Studio 54, to which it was compared.

“We opened in 1971,” Rittenberg said. “Studio 54 was a lot like Faces. It opened in 1978. . . . Those guys came to Faces before they opened, [Studio 54 founders] Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell,” to check out the Chicago club, Rittenberg said. “If they got a celebrity, it was in People magazine. If we got a celebrity, it was in Kup’s column” in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Faces was a Midwestern version of Studio 54 — minus the in-your-face dissipation and the drugs. It had a light-up dance floor, a fog machine, bubble blower and a feel-it-in-your solar plexus audio system created by Murray Allen, sound designer for the Grammy Awards.

Every night seemed to be a Dom Perignon-lubricated carnival, with Farrah-feathered foxes and qiana-clad hunks. Once your eyes adjusted to the pulsating lights, you might spot Frank Sinatra celebrating his engagement to Las Vegas showgirl Barbara Marx. Or Mick Jagger, who came to shake his groove thing. So did Sweden’s King Carl XVI, Bill Cosby, Bob Hope, Pele, Brooke Shields, Sting and John Travolta.

Faces also attracted the great triad of panty-throwing targets: Engelbert Humperdinck, Julio Iglesias and Tom Jones — who would stay and croon country-and-Western songs like “Green, Green Grass of Home” until 6 a.m.

The club featured videos long before the 1981 debut of MTV. When the disco version of “Star Wars” played, multiple TV screens showed the movie’s bar scene with its alien musicians, and the doorman walked around in a Darth Vader mask with a green plastic baseball bat that resembled a lightsaber. He’d get in a staged fight with another guy.

When the disco version of “Jaws” pounded, “We would put the fog across the floor, and we would have the busboys put out a platform with a shark’s fin on it, and you’d see a fin slide across the floor,” said Rittenberg, a Chicago restaurateur.

Patrons entered through a 20-foot tunnel — meant to make them feel they were leaving the real world and entering the enchantment that awaited at 940 N. Rush St. The clientele skewed a little older, from about 25 to 50. “The magic formula — the guys with money, and girls who liked to be treated well,” Rittenberg said.

Mr. Shlaes grew up on the South Side, the son of Lithuanian immigrants. His mother wrote to her brother in Chicago to ask for $25 to come to America because she didn’t want to marry her town’s aging butcher. The story sounds like the plot of “Fiddler on the Roof,” but Mr. Shlaes’ daughter, Linda Schiffman, said, “I swear, before they even did ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ we knew the story.”

After arriving in Chicago, Mr. Shlaes’ mother met and fell in love with her husband-to-be, also a Lithuanian immigrant.

Mr. Shlaes graduated from Lindblom High School, married Evelyn and served in London as a GI in World War II. He had to take refuge in shelters during air raids, his daughter said. While he was gone, “I kissed his picture goodnight for two years,” she said. After returning home, he and his brothers operated several furniture stores.

He and his wife raised their daughters, Linda and Toni, in Chicago’s Jeffery Manor neighborhood. After the children grew up, the couple moved to North Lake Shore Drive. They kept fit by walking for miles, from Lincoln Park Zoo to their favorite breakfast place, Lou Mitchell’s, for a shared bowl of oatmeal and two eggs, sunny side up.

They were married for 70 years, until Evelyn Shlaes’ death in 2011.

Mr. Shlaes attended college briefly to study chemistry, but his family needed him home to help run their South Side grocery store. Still, to the end of his days, if you wanted someone to decipher the complex or obscure — say, the history of Afghanistan, or why some people use the phrase “all the tea in China” — he could explain world events and word origins.

Milton and Evelyn Shlaes loved traveling, especially to London, where they would see a new play every day. In Las Vegas, they never missed a revue with comic Shecky Greene. At the old Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago, they saw a young Barbra Streisand before she became a star with “Funny Girl” and were bowled over by her voice, though Mr. Shlaes thought she wouldn’t make it big because of her unconventional looks.

Mr. Shlaes is also survived by his brother Ben, three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

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