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Philadelphia Four Seasons Hotel Turns 25;
Hotel's Top Service? Top Secrecy.

By Melissa Dribben, The Philadelphia InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sep. 28, 2008 --They have changed the sheets for world leaders. Popped champagne corks for mobsters. Lugged the suitcases of royalty. And delivered room service to Hollywood megastars registered und,er aliases.

Oh, the stories the employees of the Philadelphia Four Seasons could tell.

But won't.

Of the several hundred loyal souls on staff, 31 have been working there since it opened 25 years ago. They are sworn to secrecy about the guests they serve.

So they'll never reveal what happened in the summer of 1989 when the Rolling Stones blew through Philadelphia for the launch of their comeback Steel Wheels tour. They checked into the Four Seasons.

Or so rumor has it.

"The hotel guards its guests' privacy so fiercely that I could not confirm or deny that they were staying with us," says Ruth Hirshey, who worked for 18 years as the publicist for the famed four-star hotel on the Parkway. Throngs of fans crowded into the circular drive at the hotel's glass entrance, begging Hirshey for a word about or, better, a glimpse of the rock and roll legends.

As the television crews shoved cameras in her face, "I had to say, 'Mick who?' " Hirshey recalls. "Meanwhile, they could see him walking through the lobby behind me."

It is in large part because of the unfailing discretion of the hotel's staff that princes and presidents, Mafia bosses and fugitives, Academy Award winners and the heads of multibillion-dollar financial institutions at the peak of power (and, possibly, at its nadir), have all slept here. Within the last few months alone, the Dalai Lama and Paris Hilton have spent the night (although definitely not together).

"You can't underestimate the impact that this hotel had on the city when it first opened," says Hirshey, who left last year to start her own marketing firm. "No one could believe that something world-class would come to Philadelphia."

The sleek, silver-gray, eight-story building, designed by the New York architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, was built in 1983 across from Logan Square on a site that had been in limbo for decades.

The hotel's success, with its world-class Fountain restaurant, helped lure tenants such as the Morgan Lewis law firm to One Logan Square. "Until then, no one thought business could be done so far from Broad and Walnut," Hirshey says.

In honor of its 25th year, the hotel gave a banquet Wednesday night for the loyal employees who have made the place a favorite, trusted retreat for anyone, famous or not, who wants to be treated like someone special.

"When I started, I was star-struck," says bellman Jim McArdle. "Now, it's like, 'Shucks, I forgot my autograph book.' " Most celebrities, he says, don't want to be fawned over. And though delivering 400 pieces of luggage to 80 rooms for a rock group can be lucrative, McArdle says, the biggest tip he ever got was from a regular guy.

"He had just one bag. I'd helped him arrange getting some flowers to his room."

On the way out, McArdle said, the man handed him $200.

Jim Miller, a waiter at the Fountain Restaurant since opening day, says that whatever thrill he gets from recommending the baked escargot vol-au-vent to someone whose face was just on the cover of Esquire, what he loves most is serving people who are unaccustomed to luxury.

"Once every two weeks or so, someone will say, 'This is the best dinner I've ever had in my life.' There's nothing like that feeling."

Over the years, Miller has had to perform the Heimlich maneuver a couple of times. He's been an accomplice in too many marriage proposals to count, although the time he was asked to present the diamond engagement ring on the stem of a wineglass is particularly memorable.

(The glass broke just before he was about to bring it to the table. The staff scrambled to find a glue that would work. When they finally did, the woman didn't notice the ring. After her creative groom-to-be pointed it out and she accepted, he had trouble breaking the glass so he could put the ring on her finger.

("The glue we used," recalls Miller, "apparently worked too well.")

Among the city's 41 hotels, only two others -- the Rittenhouse and the Ritz-Carlton -- compete in the same big-luxury category. The Four Seasons, however, seems to have held onto first place in personalized service.

"They put extraordinary effort in," says Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. The staff goes through a long training process, and employees are encouraged to help one another identify first-time guests so they can be greeted by name, then recognized whenever they return.

Three of the chefs -- Eddy Hales (pastry), Martin Hamann (executive) and Joseph Drago (banquet) -- have been with the hotel since the start. "You go to other Four Seasons, and the chefs have changed," says Hales, who started with the company in 1975. "This place is unique."

The management gives the staff opportunities to grow, says Hamann, who started as an intern under Jean-Marie Lacroix.

"I've had other offers," says Drago, who lives a few blocks from Hamann in Fairmount. They often share a cab home or a nightcap at Mace's Crossing. "But it's a really nice place to work."

During the British royals' stay last year, the kitchen staff saw to it that Prince Charles was served a perfect three-minute egg and, according to his wishes, an impeccable salad Russe -- blanched vegetables with mayonnaise.

Charles and Camilla stayed in the Royal Suite, a $3,500-a-night spread on the top floor. It is the hotel's second-most-expensive accommodation -- the Presidential Suite has a pool table and baby grand and goes for $5,000 per. Both, however, include a bathrobe to take home (monogrammed for each guest in the on-site dry-cleaning service) and unlimited free use of the mini-bar stocked with Chivas Regal and Pringles.

Pringles?

"We used to have other potato chips, but Pringles are a household name, they don't break, they are well-presented in a box, and the life expectancy is longer," explained Harry Gorstayn, the hotel's elegant general manager.

Should guests prefer another chip, they need only ask. (A batch of warm, salty chips, freshly made in the kitchen, appears forthwith.)

The Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotel Inc. has repeatedly been recognized by Fortune as one of the best companies to work for. (It was sold in 2007 for $3.37 billion to a group of investors including Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates and Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.)

Employees say that they are treated with respect. "And the benefits are good," said Sideth Mean, who has worked in the airport hangar of a laundry room in the Four Seasons' basement for 25 years.

For each year on the job, employees earn additional days that they can stay, at no cost, at Four Seasons hotels and resorts throughout the world.

That includes the George V in Paris, says Farra D'Orazio, the Philadelphia Four Seasons' new public relations director. "It's company policy."

No wonder everyone from the GM to the housekeeping staff happily plays by the rules.

So you didn't hear this from anyone still on the payroll, but Al Gore considers the Four Seasons his Philadelphia home. Michael Jackson and his entourage once visited and brought two of their own chefs -- one to cook vegetarian for Jacko and the other to do soul food for the crew. John Kenneth Galbraith, Jimmy Carter, Dennis Rodman and Darryl Dawkins, Maurice Sendak and Anna Quindlen have all been guests.

Ed Rendell was so enamored of the place, he ordered his gubernatorial bed from the hotel's supplier.

The FBI has occasionally had to break open the hotel's protective embrace to pursue thieves with the good taste to spend their dirty lucre in style.

And at least once, the staff unwittingly provided cover for a guy trying to escape his life. Todd Arcomano, a surgeon from Arlington, Va., checked in and then disappeared. He eventually reappeared on the West Coast, where he'd decided to start a new life.

A few guests have taken their last breath in the solitude of their rooms here. Most famously, Edgar Rosenberg, Joan Rivers' husband, committed suicide in 1987. (Rosenberg, in the city on business, had just finished reading Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind when he took an overdose of Valium.)

Overall, however, the hotel is a salutary place. Respectful of its guests, whose privacy it protects. Supportive of local artists, whose work it exhibits. And generous to the community. Today, as it has every year since its first, the hotel is sponsoring a 5-kilometer run to raise money for cancer research and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Gorstayn, the general manager, will be running.

"Then," he says, "I'll be out there, serving breakfast."

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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To see more of The Philadelphia Inquirer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.philly.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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