"Gin joint" of film fame lives on in Casablanca

CASABLANCA (Reuters Life!) - 1942. The world is at war, and Hollywood does its bit for the Allies with movies like “Casablanca,” enabling stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman to immortalize a song, a romance and a gin joint.

2008. A prince sits at a table of Rick’s Cafe bathed in amber light and shadows. A former military officer with a dozen guests celebrates a birthday. Piano music wends its way toward arched balconies and Champagne is on ice.

But don’t expect Bogie to strut downstairs or Bergman to entreat the pianist to play “As Time Goes By.”

“I thought Casablanca was missing a big bet by not having a Rick’s,” says Kathy Kriger, the 61-year-old former U.S. diplomat who captured the ambience of the film’s “Rick’s Cafe Americain” and turned a 1930s mansion by the sea into a Casablanca landmark.

“But 95 percent of people in Morocco had never seen the movie or even heard about it,” she said.

A couple of taxi drivers had not heard of Rick’s Cafe and did not relate to a reference to the movie. But from midday until closing each day, as international a group of patrons as the cast of the movie makes its way to the place.

At a Sunday evening jazz session, there were Moroccans, tourists from America, Europe and Asia, and local and international people bearing business briefcases and laptops.

“Like the movie, the restaurant is becoming secondary, and what happens inside is what everyone gravitates to,” says Kriger who -- as Rick did in the film -- lives above the restaurant and oversees everything from greeting guests to each day’s menu and wines.

“Casablanca” premiered in New York on November 26, 1942, weeks after the United States landed troops along the Atlantic coast of what was then French Morocco, near Casablanca.

The movie depicted city as a North African haven for refugees, black marketeers, an underground resistance and spies, many of whom turned up at the swank restaurant owned by Rick (Bogart). There, they escaped from the world, played out personal dramas, gambled and drank Champagne.

Morocco’s largest city is now its business capital and an international meeting center, with one of the world’s biggest manmade ports.

Rick’s Cafe will soon mark its fourth anniversary. “The restaurant is a hit,” says Kriger, a native of Portland, Oregon whose work with the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Commercial Service brought her to Casablanca in 1998.

By mid 2001, with her Morocco tour ending, she had decided to return to Japan where she had worked before joining the State department. “Then 9/11 happened,” Kriger says. “I started thinking about leaving the government and staying in Morocco.”

In late 2002, for about $180,000, she bought the building that houses Rick’s Cafe. “It was in terrible condition, but I could see from the arches it was going to be magnificent.”

When it started taking twice as long and costing twice as much as she expected, Kriger sent this e-mail to friends: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world I’d like you to buy into mine.” She wanted $5,000 a piece.

As they stepped up, she started a company for her investors called “The Usual Suspects S.A.”, harkening back to the movie when Police Captain Renault (Claude Rains) tells his staff to “Round up the usual suspects.”

To spur workers, who called her Madame Rick, to completion, Kriger set an opening date for Rick’s Cafe: March 1, 2004, “after 62 years of renovation.”

And then, “Some friends put me in touch with a piano player named Issam Chabaa. I had to have a real Sam,” says Kriger.

Editing by Paul Casciato