Ed Steiger is sitting in the Upper Avenue Lounge at the Marriott on Michigan Avenue waiting for his singles. Steiger always gets here about an hour before they do, just to make sure everything is OK–that the buffet is hot and fresh, that the bartenders are ready, that the DJ is here with all his gear. Just in case the person who is supposed to collect the $7 a head doesn’t show, Ed picks up his mother on the way over–she can fill in if necessary.

He likes his mother to sit off by the side, though–out of eyeshot of the door. “She’s in her 70s,” says Steiger. “She is well-preserved and hep, but I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. We can’t cater to everyone. Tonight I’m going to have to deny some [older] people. I’ll try to be nice. But I’ll say, ‘You won’t be comfortable here. The music will be too loud.'”

Ed Steiger says that what he does “boils down to a community service,” giving people in their 30s and 40s a place to meet without any hassles. He doesn’t want to give away any trade secrets, for fear of competition. But he will share this: he has developed a 3,000-person mailing list of eligible singles between 30 and 50, and right now he’s working with the Marriott on Sunday nights to accommodate those people’s social needs.

“I started this business with my personal phone book,” he says. “Now I belong to the East Bank Club and go to every social event in town. I know a million people. I can’t give away my hypothesis. Let’s just say the Marriott’s a partner.”

The Upper Avenue Lounge is wood-paneled and clubby, adorned with sports photographs and TV screens, a pool table, and big leather chairs surrounding a lot of small round cocktail tables. It has a nice-sized dance floor.

Steiger calls his part-time business New Places, New Faces. His slogans include “Where the 30s/40s crowd meets the 90s,” and “Remember, we give great party!” He has operated some version of the same business ever since he was in college in Miami. Just slightly too old for one of his own parties, he has also worked at importing, has owned a north-side drugstore, and is currently managing real estate.

It’s only about a half hour before Steiger will be deluged by a crowd of a couple hundred, and he seems a little nervous and distracted. Like Felix Unger he’s sniffling a lot, and keeps hopping up for more Kleenex. He explains that he’s bothered by allergies.

“The majority of bars cater to people in their 20s,” he says. “Like the new hot spots–America’s Bar, Excalibur, and Baja. When you get older, there’s less places that cater to you. People in their 30s can overlap a little with the 20s–but there’s really nothing for people in their 30s and 40s. And people in their 50s and 60s, they can whistle Dixie.”

Steiger was married briefly, to a woman with four children, and recently ended a one-year relationship with a woman he met through a Reader ad. “I’m all business,” he says. “I go out with women [from his parties] if they strike up a conversation with me. Or I’ll see someone I once knew and have a quick rekindling. That’s all. My phone’s too busy for me to get lonely. And I have a sheepdog and two cats. I don’t drink, so I don’t go to bars.”

Steiger leaves to attend to a detail. “Would you like to know about his early childhood?” asks his mother, Marion. “He always loved animals. When he went to school on the bus in Hyde Park, he’d get off of it to rescue an animal or a bird.”

People begin to file into the bar. Some head directly to the buffet, which includes chicken wings, nachos, and won tons filled with cream cheese and crabmeat. Others begin playing billiards. A few carry around reduced-price bottles of beer or big drinks–and check each other out.

Some men are dressed in suits and ties, some in polo shirts and slacks, some in Bermuda shorts. Some of the women are conservatively dressed–with sensible hairdos, shoes, and jewelry. Others wear spandex, huge earrings, and platinum-blond hair. Most appear to be between 30 and 50.

“There are a lot of relationships that start here,” says Steiger. “But I don’t count marriages. I’m not a matchmaker. Sometimes people get mad at me because they meet someone here who didn’t turn out to be the love of their life. They think I’m the cause of their grief. It’s just silliness.

“Some people come here to play. Some are looking for the right person. Some people prefer a sectarian group–but those are stiff-necked, stripes and plaids, your church-social types. This is nonsectarian. I just look for people in their 30s and 40s. There are some in their late 20s and early 50s here–a little falloff either way. But I’ve never had a problem with people getting out of line, like at a bar. I’ve never had a disorderly situation. Maybe someone will get mad because the age group doesn’t suit them exactly–or they’ll see an ex-boyfriend and run out. But that’s all. I’d call this a good chore, wouldn’t you?”

Within an hour, more than 120 people have filled the bar, and Marion Steiger says more will come. Some people have started mixing. But some don’t mix. They just sit and stare. Steiger claims that many people come again and again and really get to know each other. But at most parties he sees at least 25 percent new people–and sometimes he gets up to 100 new individuals. “This isn’t a pickup deal,” he says. “Everything’s logged on my computer. I have a high return rate–and people are always referring their friends.”

A man who appears to be in his 50s asks Mrs. Steiger to dance, but she turns him down. “Someone asked me last time, and I turned him down, too,” she explains to some women at the table.

Mercedes Hele, who is divorced and works for IBM, has come to several of Steiger’s shindigs. Warm and personable, she thinks before she talks–and indicates that by putting her hand on her chin for a few seconds before answering a question. She admits she’s dated some people she met at the parties–but no one she’d like to settle down with. Suddenly she notes the arrival of some seafood pasta–with big chunks of lobster–at the buffet table. “I think they had that five parties ago,” she says, rushing off to get some.

Steiger’s mother points out a beautiful fruit platter so large that the busboy is having trouble balancing it as he places it on the buffet. “The food keeps coming all night,” she says. Then she adds, “Have you ever seen a bald man take out a comb and comb his hair? I just saw that.”

In order to get people up and dancing, Steiger takes over the microphone for a few minutes from the DJ, John Marcopulos, who has been playing requests written on cocktail napkins– tunes from Louis Armstrong to the Drifters to Bette Midler. “My ultimate goal is to get on radio,” says Marcopulos.

Steiger has begun a raffle, using the guests’ registrations as tickets. First he raffles off a party for 100 at America’s Bar. Then he conducts one for two lobster dinners at the Marriott –but only people on the dance floor can win. Later he’ll raffle off more meals and a $45 credit with a “hair artist” on Chestnut. A portrait artist and tarot reader are due to arrive shortly, also to entertain the singles.

A big, good-looking man, Frank Celender, comes by to chat. “I live across the street, and I came last week and I loved it,” says Celender, who is 53, has been divorced three times, and manages a chain of 21 inner-city women’s clothing stores. “There were good dancers here. The music is broken up with different types–although I hate 60s music. And the intermittent prizes keep things lively.

“This is a safe place for women. It’s a chance to come out.” Celender says he hasn’t met anyone special yet, however.

Steiger is running around–to the check-in table to greet people; to the DJ’s mike, where he gives away more prizes; to the buffet table, making sure everything is in tip-top shape; to the cocktail tables, where he chats with people he knows.

Couples are swaying to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”

“They like the slow ones,” says Steiger, adding “This is ongoing social networking.”

His mother, meanwhile, is explaining the mail-order business she runs from her apartment, selling her late husband’s inventions: tissues for absorbing excess facial oil; pieces of cloth to wear around the eyes, at home and while sleeping, which diminish crow’s-feet and laugh lines; and a clasp that holds a woman’s shoulder bag securely, freeing her hands and keeping her purse safe from muggers.

Marion Steiger says she thinks she knows why her son is so good at getting lots of nice middle-aged singles together. “His father was a complete extrovert,” she says. “Ed’s just like him.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.