Johnny Lattner: Still fourth and goal
Loop North News

Johnny Lattner: Still fourth and goal

  • Former halfback for Notre Dame ran popular restaurant at Marina City from 1968 to 1972.
  • Now 76 years old, the football legend / restaurateur / printing company executive returned in June to visit his old restaurant, now known as Dick’s Last Resort.

John Lattner

20-Jun-09 – The first thing you notice about a Heisman Trophy ring is it’s pretty big. Made of 10 karat gold, the ring has a raised image of the Heisman Memorial Trophy, the most prestigious award in college football, surrounded by 22 diamonds.

Johnny Lattner doesn’t mind showing it off. He worked hard for it, scoring 20 touchdowns and 120 points for Notre Dame during the 1953 season. It was during a three-year period in which the Fighting Irish lost only four games.

After a year in the NFL, two years in the Air Force, and five years as a high school and college football coach, Lattner got into the restaurant business – a career path that would eventually lead him to Marina City.

A bread-and-butter ball carrier

Born in 1932, Lattner grew up in a modest apartment building on the west side of Chicago. After graduating from Fenwick High School, a private college prep Catholic school in Oak Park, he went to Notre Dame on an athletic scholarship.

“I was lucky,” he says. “I came from Chicago. I went to Notre Dame. Notre Dame had a great background. Playing at Notre Dame on a Saturday, there was no television, there would be 50,000 people at the game – 40,000 were from Chicago. It was an added incentive to play better.”

As a junior in 1952, Lattner won the Maxwell Award, presented annually to the college football player judged the best in the nation by a panel of coaches, sportswriters, and other experts. In his senior year, in which Notre Dame was undefeated, Lattner became the 19th recipient of the Heisman Trophy.

Head Coach Frank Leahy called the 6’2” 195-pound Lattner “our bread-and-butter ball carrier.” While his opponents averaged two yards a carry, Lattner averaged five yards. In a 1953 cover story, Time Magazine described Lattner as “intelligently aggressive on the football field.”

Time Magazine

With a blood-curdling yell – one that welled and resounded across Notre Dame’s practice football field last week – the varsity players broke from their huddle and dashed forward to face the “Hamburger Squad,” the Notre Dame freshmen. At Notre Dame, the freshmen never play an outside game. Their sole function is to serve as “ground meat for the varsity,” a ferociously hungry group which believes in eating up just as much yardage in midweek scrimmages as in Saturday’s big game.

The seven linemen...charged like bulls into a row of freshman defenders, who were specially padded...to withstand the shock. In the same split-second instant, a long-legged halfback named John Lattner sprang from his crouch, took the deft hand-off of the ball from his quarterback, and cracked through the right side of the line with the power of a runaway steer.

– Time Magazine, November 9, 1953

Lattner said in a 1953 interview that seeing for the first time as a freshman the golden dome of the Notre Dame administration building was “one of the biggest thrills of my life. I got kind of choked up, and I was awful glad I came here.”

Wikimedia Commons

In his first varsity game, though playing defense in the first half, Lattner was plucked from the bench in the third quarter and sent in as halfback on offense. Carrying two Indiana tacklers with him, Lattner bulldozed his way into the end zone for a touchdown.

During his four years at Notre Dame, Lattner rushed for 1,724 yards, caught 39 passes for 613 yards, and had 673 yards in returns.

(Left) The Heisman Trophy, awarded by Downtown Athletic Club of New York City, is 14 inches long, 13½ inches high, and weighs, according to Lattner, about 50 pounds.

From there, it was on to the National Football League. He was a first-round draft choice for the Pittsburgh Steelers, earning a signing bonus of $3,500 and an annual salary of $10,000. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $79,271 today but well below modern minimum salaries for the NFL.

John Lattner

Still, it was more than most NFL players made in 1954. “When I got $3500 for signing – my dad never made that much money. And $10,000 was a lot of money in those days.”

Playing for the Steelers for one season, he carried the ball 69 times for 237 yards and scored five touchdowns.

Because he had been in the ROTC, Lattner had to serve in the U.S. Air Force for two years. During a game on a military base, a knee injury ended his brief pro football career.

First restaurant burns down, taking the trophy with it

When he got out of the Air Force, Johnny Lattner took up coaching, first at a high school in Wisconsin and then at the University of Denver.

While at Denver, he met Robert Nevers, the son of a Chicago restaurant owner. His father owned Randy’s, located downtown at Michigan Avenue & Randolph Street, until it was torn down.

Now married, Lattner was selling printing forms with his brother-in-law. While dining at Randy’s one day, Nevers asked Johnny if he wanted to get into the restaurant business.

“I don’t know how to cook a hamburger, for Christ’s sake,“ he replied. But Nevers and his father talked him into it, each putting in $8,500 to buy an existing restaurant at 105 West Madison Street, near the corner of Clark & Madison in downtown Chicago. It was in the basement of a 22-story building across the street from St. Peter’s Church.

Johnny Lattner’s Steak House opened in 1962. The Heisman Trophy greeted customers from a cabinet on the stairway down to the restaurant. In the front window, there was a Christmas display and that is where the fire started on January 6, 1968.

It was a cold Saturday night. The restaurant was not too busy. At about 6:00 p.m., an electrical fire started, most likely, in the Christmas display. It spread to the drapes, broke the window and the flames, fed with fresh air, came down the stairs.

Nevers got about a dozen customers and employees out through the kitchen. A customer, Frank Niland, who worked for the Union Pacific railroad and had been at the restaurant all afternoon, fell asleep in a phone booth and died in the fire. A waitress, Marge Wallace, who had made it out but came back to get her purse, was also overcome. And a third victim, 62-year-old Herman Radavitz, who worked for New York Central Railroad, died at a hospital about three weeks later of burns and smoke inhalation.

Lattner was at home at the time, celebrating his son’s birthday. “I got the call, rushed down here. It was a pretty bad fire.”

It was out in 90 minutes but the fire destroyed the restaurant and injured three other people.

Chicago Tribune
Photograph that appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on January 7, 1968.

Another victim of the fire was Lattner’s Heisman Trophy. “When I saw the trophy after the fire, the arm was broken off. The stand – I don’t know where the stand was.”

The trophy was taken to a Chicago Police station at 1121 South State Street but Lattner never went to retrieve it. He called the Downtown Athletic Club, sent them $300 and newspaper coverage of the fire, and received a replacement trophy.

A fire four years earlier had ended better for Lattner. While driving home from work in the early morning of November 17, 1963, he spotted a fire in an apartment building on the west side of Chicago. He called the fire department, then roused 25 residents from one of the buildings and carried a five-year-old girl to safety. He was credited with helping 40 people escape injury.

Photo by Steven Dahlman

105 West Madison today...

(Left) Where you see the Dunkin’ Donuts sign, that was the main entrance to Johnny Lattner’s Steak House from 1962 to 1968.

(Below) In June 2009, it was a food court, accessed by the same stairway that led down to Lattner’s.

Photo by Steven Dahlman Photo by Steven Dahlman

Marina City offers Lattner’s a new home

Rebuilding the restaurant, destroyed by fire in January 1968, was an option – but Lattner’s partner, Robert Nevers, who had been at the restaurant the night of the fire and helped a dozen people escape, did not want to go back.

Lattner was undecided, despite encouragement from Mayor Richard J. Daley. “He called me up after the fire. On a Sunday morning [the day after the fire] and he says, ‘John, we want you to stay in the business downtown. We’ll do anything we can do to help you get started again.’ I said, ‘I’ll think about it, Mayor.’”

Robert Hartney was another friend of Lattner’s who had family that owned a popular restaurant in Chicago. His brother, John Hartney, owned Cyprus Restaurant in west Chicago, which according to Lattner, “was one of the most successful restaurants around.”

John Hartney had two sons, Sean and Patrick. “They were Irish,” Lattner, himself of Irish descent, said of the Hartneys. “I still had that feeling I could do it.”

Through John Hartney, Lattner learned that Hilton Hotels Corporation was trying to sell its restaurant at Marina City. Hilton had been operating restaurant and catering facilities at Marina City since 1963. It was the first time that Hilton ever agreed to operate a restaurant in a private complex that was not a Hilton Hotel.

In addition to a dining room, coffee shop, and bar, there was a 5,000 square foot banquet hall across the main hallway on the lower level of the commercial platform, at the base of the theater building.

The restaurant was used by Hilton to train its personnel. Every three or four months, recalls Lattner, a new chef would come in – and the menu would change.

Marina City News

“It was a nice-looking spot. A little wear and tear. It was like five years [Hilton] had it. It had the river – that was kind of glamorous.”

(Left) Actor Gary Lockwood (seated) at Marina City Restaurant in July 1965 with restaurant manager William Curtis.

They negotiated a deal to buy the restaurant furnishings from Hilton for $300,000, paid with $25,000 down and $5,000 per month. In addition, they paid $5,000 per month rent to Charles Swibel’s Marina Management Corporation.

Lattner put in $25,000 and found five partners to each invest $5,000 – and the Hartneys did the same. “They didn’t make any money but we used to have meetings and they’d come down and we’d sit and have dinner.”

“We gave it a shot,” says Lattner, referring to how he took over from Hilton a generous serving of Marina City’s commercial space. It was most of the southwest corner of the level between the marina and the plaza. It included a bar on the south side of the 110-foot-long skating rink. And then of course there was the banquet hall that sat 1,200 people.

Marina City commercial platform in late 1960s

(Above) Map of the lower level of the commercial platform at Marina City in the late 1960s. Entry was from Dearborn Street on the west side of the building, State Street on the east side, the southeast corner of the building, or the escalator seen toward the top. The elevators are for the residential towers.

The coffee shop was called The French Garden. There was another bar in the main dining room called The Red Onion.

A replacement restaurant for a replacement trophy

Johnny Lattner’s Marina City opened in October 1968 in the southwest corner of the commercial platform, in space that is now Dick’s Last Resort.

Photo by Mike Chunko

Working with him this time was the Hartney family – Robert, his brother, John, and John’s two sons, Sean and Patrick. John Hartney already had one successful restaurant.

(Left) Southwest corner of commercial platform in March 1973. Photo by Mike Chunko.

The banquet hall was lucrative. They not only took over the banquet hall from Hilton but they inherited their banquets. The hall could seat about 1,200 people. “That was a nice profitable deal there,” says Lattner. “We could compete with the hotels as far as price.”

The Hilton chefs, earning union scale, stayed with Lattner for a year and a half. Then he brought in his own chef. “We brought in a guy that the Hartneys knew very well. He was a fine chef.”

They did not make many changes to the layout, although restrooms were added.

Marina City being one of the world’s most famous all-electric buildings, Lattner had to reluctantly accept an all-electric kitchen. “The worst cooking in the world, electric cooking.”

The new restaurant was much bigger than the steak house and, says Lattner, “a lot more expensive.”

“Our food wasn’t great but it wasn’t bad. We had fish, steak. Lunch, we would have a buffet – ham, beef, whatever. That worked pretty good. You could cut down the price of it a little bit.”

Though remembered by many as a popular restaurant, Lattner’s was not crowded all of the time. “We had to struggle with lunches. Sunday was not always a big day. It was tough.”

The neighborhood was not much of a destination. There was WFLD-TV in the theater building, a bowling alley, and Kinzie Restaurant, located at Kinzie & Dearborn where Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse is now. “That was it. Hubbard, Kinzie – none of these streets had any restaurants on it. This was a dead area. It was not like it is today. This is not a bad area – with State Street pretty well loaded – [but] we didn’t have any of that. We had to depend on people to come from downtown Chicago. And if there was no action but us, we’d take a very narrow margin that night.”

It would help whenever a barge got stuck beneath a raised bridge on the Chicago River. “If I had people here from downtown, I’d have them all afternoon,” muses Lattner. “That was one way of stopping them from going back to work.”

He had good clientele. “I didn’t have too many problems. And if I had some problems, I broke it up.”

Lattner’s replacement Heisman trophy had a place of honor within his replacement restaurant. It sat in the middle of the piano bar, where Stan Weil was the pianist, in the Ship’s Bar & Lounge.

Ship’s Bar & Lounge at Marina City

“People would say, ‘Why do you have it there, John? Aren’t you afraid somebody will steal it?’ I said, ‘If they try to steal it, by the time they got through the front gate, they’d have a hernia.’ It weighed about 50 pounds. It never was stolen.”

(Left) Every day at 5:30 p.m., in the mid-1960s, the ship’s bell in the Ship’s Bar & Lounge at Marina City would be rung and anyone sitting at the bar could buy for five cents another of what they were currently drinking.

“On Saturday mornings, it was really great. Fathers would come down here with their kids to see the Heisman trophy. That was one aspect that I liked.”

In 2007, Lattner joked to ESPN, “People like to see the trophy. They don’t care for me at all.”

Leaving Marina City

On September 25, 1970, Marina Cinemas opened where the banquet hall, which had once been a good source of revenue for Lattner’s, used to be. The unions were wanting not just higher wages but higher benefits from restaurants like Lattner’s. The monthly payments to Hilton were getting tougher to make.

The hours were long and it was getting too expensive. In 1973, Lattner and his partners decided to get out of the business.

“I’d see the kids maybe on Sunday. It’s a tough business for a married person. My wife was very tolerant. She put up with me – actually for about ten years. Five years over there and five years over here.”

They tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the restaurant. Nick Romas, who had another restaurant nearby on State Street, and who would eventually own the restaurant at Marina City after Lattner but not until the early 1980s, offered Lattner $100,000. “But [Charles] Swibel put a stop to it. We would have broke even. Nick was willing.”

Lattner believes Swibel discouraged Romas from buying the restaurant because the business had significant debt.

In October 1973, Lattner’s left Marina City and the space, for a time, was turned into offices.

“I think we gave back 70 cents on the dollar to our purveyors, which is not all bad – they made money off us over the years.”

Johnny Lattner today

After running two restaurants, Lattner got back into the printing business. Now 76 years old, he is currently Vice President of Sales for PAL Graphics, Inc., a printing company just west of Chicago. He has been active in fundraising for several charities and served on the Physical Fitness Committee of the State of Illinois.

In 1979, he was elected to the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. In 2002, NBC Sports declared him one of the five best Notre Dame running backs ever.

He and his wife, Peggy, live in Oak Park, a western suburb of Chicago. They have eight children and 25 grandchildren, all of whom live in Chicago.

“I love Chicago,” he says. “Great area. I don’t get downtown that often.”

Lattner’s trophy, which suffered a broken finger on its stiff arm that has since been fixed, has served as a tie rack. But mostly it makes appearances at Notre Dame tailgates and numerous charity events.

According to ESPN, Lattner has inspired other Heisman winners to employ the trophy for charitable purposes.

In 2007, for the first time in the school’s history, Lattner’s jersey number at Fenwick High School was retired at a ceremony at Soldier Field.

Larry Wert, president and general manager of NBC5 Chicago, who led that ceremony, says Lattner is a local legend. “But more importantly, a wonderful family guy, and all-around great guy. He rarely misses a game of one of his grand-kids, and shares his time and Heisman with many charities and fans.”

The attention he gets, long after his football career, is amusing to Lattner. “I get letters from kids today...and they say, ‘My grandfather used to talk about you a lot. He saw you play.’”

Photo by Steven Dahlman Johnny Lattner (right) and Richard Fulghum, General Manager of Dick’s Last Resort.

 Read more about Johnny Lattner...

Photo credits: The University of Notre Dame, Chicago Tribune, Mike Chunko, Steven Dahlman.

By Steven Dahlman | Loop North News | Published 20-Jun-09 3:25 AM

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