Bringing a legend to life
Kathy Krigers book tells how she built a real Ricks Cafe in Casablanca
Ricks Cafe, the famed nightclub from the classic Casablanca, exists in real life thanks to Kathy Kriger from Lake Oswego.
That makes Kriger the successor to Rick Blaine, as played by the fabled Humphrey Bogart, the most legendary and glamorous night club owner in movie history. Big shoes to fill, right?
Not for Kriger. Bogie only had to deal with Nazis. Kriger had to deal with bureaucrats who seemed ready to shut the doors to Ricks Cafe before it even opened. But thanks to Krigers brain and guts, Ricks Cafe is open for business.
Now Kriger is telling her story in the new book, Ricks Cafe: Bringing the Film Legend to Life in Casablanca. Kriger recently came home to promote the book.
I did a guest author appearance at Annie Blooms (a book store in Multnomah Village) and they sold out all of my books, Kriger said. Some of the most meaningful people in my life were there, from grade school, junior high, high school and the University of Oregon. I was really touched at the turnout.
Kriger attributes some of her tenacity to growing up in Lake Oswego.
It was great growing up here, Kriger said. But I had a cloistered upbringing. I was so sheltered growing up. But I had some fantastic teachers who sensed potential in me and other kids. I was attuned to being an adventuress.
Just like Ilsa Lund in Casablanca the character played by Ingrid Bergman. Krigers adventures started when she took a freighter to Japan in 1968. The trip gave her a taste for world travel, and when she returned, she opened a travel service in Portland.
In 1985 she moved to Tokyo along with her 4-year-old son Kyle and worked in managing and marketing for foreign executives. Those days were a commercial boom time for Japan, but Kriger was soon ready to move on. She joined the Foreign Commercial Service and was ready to use her language skills and experience in Asia to great advantage. She was assigned to Prague in Czechoslovakia.
It was mystifying, Kriger said. I spent a year learning the Czech language.
The Foreign Commercial Service continued to be mystifying and frustrating for Kriger through the subsequent years.
It was hard to sublimate my own ideas, she said. I was chafing a bit. Then I was transferred to Casablanca and I loved everything about it. The climate, the people were great.
Yet one thing seemed missing.
I was overwhelmed that there was no Ricks Cafe. I thought surely someone wouldve done it. I thought, That is a great idea. Someone should do it. I filed the idea in the back of my head. But not for myself.
It turned out that fate was tapping Kriger on the shoulder. An endless procession of Casablanca fans had gone to Casablanca and come away disappointed when they discovered Ricks Cafe was only a set cleverly concocted by Warner Bros. in 1942. Naturally, Kriger was a Casablanca fan. She viewed it for the first time in 1974 at the Humphrey Bogart Film Festival in Portland.
I loved it, she said. At the end the audience stood up and applauded.
Little did Kriger know that she would watch Casablanca literally hundreds of times in the years ahead. The film would give her courage and inspiration when she went up against the slings and arrows of government officials.
When the terrorist attacks occurred on 9/11, it marked the turning point between Krigers old career (foreign service) and new career (night club owner).
I was feeling wasted in terms of using my ability in government work, she said. When 9/11 happened, I thought I should maybe leave government. Things wouldnt get better, only a lot worse. I started thinking, Maybe Im the person to do Ricks Cafe?
Her new book provides the exhilarating saga of how Kriger rode the rollercoaster, conquered all and opened Ricks Cafe. The concise version goes like this: Kriger made a friend in the governor of Morocco, who thought her idea of building Ricks Cafe was great.
After a long search, she found a beautiful, if rundown, mansion that was perfect. Construction started in 2003 and everything went just great. That is until her governor friend was pulled out of Casablanca, and Krigers problems started. Agencies started showing up bearing bad news.
The ministry of tourism was one of the worst, Kriger said. They said our kitchen was too small, which was so ridiculous. I couldnt get a permit to open. I got more success by going there to scream at them and threatening to hold a press conference. Our final meeting was a circus.
Fortunately, one bureaucrat liked Krigers spunky spirit, and at the last minute she got her permit.
I barely made it on time, she said. I had 5,000 postcards ready to send out.
They said that Ricks Cafe was opening after 62 years of renovation.
Kriger still had some big obstacles. She had no chef and no piano player who could provide a passing resemblance to Sam in Casablanca. Ricks Cafe without Sam was unthinkable. But eventually Kriger found her gold star piano player and chef.
The last ironic twist in Krigers story is perhaps the most delicious of all. Somebody had to warble As Time Goes By for the customers, and Kriger found a 93-year-old show biz veteran with a booming voice named Lenny Bluett. As it turned out, Lennys mother was Humphrey Bogarts cook, so 70 years ago he was urged to try out for the part of Sam in Casablanca. But there turned out to be a sizeable problem.
Lenny was 6-6, Kriger said. Bogie was 5-6.
Since Casablanca was not meant to be a comedy, Lenny didnt get the part and Dooley Wilson did.
Making Ricks Cafe work was difficult for the first three years but Kriger said the work was worth it. The cafe would only gain in fame with the publication of Krigers book. The new version of Ricks Cafe is light on the gambling, but heavy on delicious food and entertainment.
Kriger even lives upstairs just like Rick did and she sweeps down the staircase to greet her guests. One added feature: In one room the movie Casablanca is always playing.
Casablanca had a happy ending, and so did Kathy Kriger. If Rick Blaine could speak to her today, he would surely say, Heres looking at you, kid.
For more about Ricks Cafe, visit http://rickscafe.ma.