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High school friend Jenee Delott, also 29, tries to explain. “Marc was always entrepreneurial. He started his first business, a lox box delivery service called The Breakfast Club, at 15. He’s so creative, he’s certainly the kind of person who could design a nightclub people would want to go to. He’s just not the sort of person who would go there himself. I guess you could call him a contradiction.”
To his father, Joe, 55, Marc is more like a happy confluence of traits that appeared just in time to take over the business that he and his brother, Mike, a schoolteacher, had started on a whim more than 20 years ago.
“My grandfather had a pharmaceutical company, which my father took over and then I took over after him. It’s a family tradition,” Joe Bortz said. “In the early 1970s I bought an ice cream parlor on Montrose in Chicago as a hobby, moved in some jukeboxes and called it Dr. Jazz. It was such a hit my brother left teaching to help with the accounting.”
Before long, the brothers had opened Sally’s Stage, at Western and Devon Avenues, a family eatery known for its roller skating waitresses, and five Blue Suede Shoes nightclubs built around a ’50s theme.
“Mike and I never thought beyond three or four clubs,” Joe said. “We saw owning nightclubs as a way to make a living. But Marc hopes to own 50 or 60 clubs. For him, it’s a way of life.”
In many ways, Dr. Jazz and Sally’s Stage were young Marc Bortz’s life. His mother had died when he was 3, and Marc’s relationship with his father’s second wife (they are now divorced and Marc has a half sister, Mikhael, a 20 year old college student) never grafted, so Marc went everywhere with his father.
“I grew up in that ice cream parlor,” Marc said. “I started scooping ice cream before my arm was long enough to reach the bottom of the container. Once I fell in.” Later Marc was a dishwasher and busboy at Sally’s Stage.
“When I was negotiating for a new deal, I’d take Marc along,” Joe said. “Marc was always small for his age, and people looked puzzled, wondering why I’d brought a kid. By the time he was 11 or 12, they were listening to him. Marc has all the traits necessary for this business: He’s fast with numbers, he has great ideas, and he’s good with people.”
Marc, a Highland Park resident, is also fast enough to know those traits would adapt to any number of careers.
Sitting on a leather couch in his modestly decorated office over a bank in downtown Highland Park, he talked about his unlikely status. “When I went to college, at Emory University in Atlanta, I thought of majoring in pre med or art history and finally settled on economics.”
Although he spent a year abroad, studying first in Spain and then at Cambridge, Marc finished Emory in three years, then spent nine months trading commodities before joining the Bortz Entertainment Group in 1990. By 1991, Uncle Mike had returned to teaching, Joe had “retired” to the back office, and Marc was company president.
“Am I a typical nightclub owner? Probably not,” Marc said. “Did you see this picture of me?” Marc pointed to a framed cover of the June 1995 Nightclub Bar magazine, where Marc, looking like your kid brother out with a borrowed ID, grins from a stool at the Venus bar. He’s flanked by gorgeous female models, and behind him are glimpses of the Schaumburg nightclub’s decor: pink curtains, gold trim and faux marble replicas of the Venus statue.
“Once a club is finished, I don’t fit in real well,” he said. Marc and his father don’t drink or smoke, and in high school Marc was a leader of the anti drug movement. “But I love to build things, and designing a nightclub gives me something to show for all that hard work. I enjoy the strategy of finding a niche no one else occupies, and I enjoy putting deals together.”
Marc’s boyhood friend and former business partner, Todd Cahan, 28, said, “The thrill for Marc is the entertainment aspect. When we were 21, we opened a bar called Bermuda Bob’s in Joliet together. We brought in some palm trees and put sand on the floor. Marc decided we should have a show, so he hired a choreographer to teach the staff to dance to Wipe Out,’ by the Fat Boys.”