Bill Willis visits Rick's Café

Wednesday, August 04 2004, 00:00:00

Those of you who've visited Rick's, literally and vitrually, can appreciate the fine decorative and architectural details that make Rick's such a special place. When I found the house I took one look and said, "This is it." I could see in the arches, columns and balustrades as structures similar to the film. But who, other than another American, would be able to take the structure and add magical creative details to go beyond celluloid and make a legendary myth a reality. So I turned to my friend Bill Willis for advice and counsel. Bill has lived in Marrakech since the 60's and through his use of Morocco's artisanal techniques in palatial, oppulent settings and designs, has built an international reputation. I was lucky, as Bill loved the film "Casablanca," and the idea of actually creating a real Rick's Café excited him and he agreed to help. I have hundreds of anecdotes about working with Bill on this project - I'll share two for now. One of the first things we agreed upon was there had to be a beaded lamp on each table, like the film. In the movie you see the lamps on the tables, and even the cords in some cases.but here we were going to have tables in the middle of rooms and not always near a wall socket. One day I said to him, "Bill, I have a bit of a worry about the table lamps." Reading my mind, he cut me off and said, "Don't worry my dear.we'll use batteries." Well these lamps are still a work in progress, but we are using flashlights in the battery-powered lamps and hope to eventually use LED lights in flashlight holders. The lamp, by the way is a Marrakech artisanat rendition of a lamp Bill had with him when he first arrived in Morocco and we're really pleased with them. The other anecdote takes place a bit further into the project. Bill's trips to Casablanca were not numerous, thus very intense, and usually fraught with a bad hotel experience the night before. Plus Bill was creating some very special elements, making me quite excited and pleased. The sub-contractors were not quite as happy, certainly weren't perfectionists, and tended to resist "pushing the envelope". Bill designed lovely palms behind the bar, intending they be carved from wood. Finding this would be an extraordinary long and expensive process, it was suggested the palms be made of plaster. Our plasterer made a small model and mounted it on the concrete wall, for Bill to approve on a visit. Bill had not liked the idea of plaster, finding it too fragile. He and his assistant Soulimane and I were standing looking at the sample, when Bill got a mischievous smile on his face.

He asked Soulimane to hand him a piece of wood from the floor, and we both knew what was going to happen. He casually tossed the piece of wood at the palm, and of course the frond chipped off.and back to the drawing boards it was. The palms were eventually made with polyester (we didn't tell Bill until they were done) and painted with a special gold paint.and they are incredible. There are many, many more stories, but you get the idea. He's a genius and I decided early on to back him 100%. His last visit to the "chantier" had been in September and we opened March 1. Friends of his from Marrakech would visit and we'd send pictures back to Bill. I'd call him from time to time to tell him how happy I was and how everyone was raving about the place. We'd talk about him visiting, but the days, weeks and months went by. Finally, while talking to him on his birthday in August he said he was ready to make the trip. All of a sudden I was petrified. What if he didn't like the palms? And what would he say about my lamp purchases and the lampshades I'd commissioned in Casablanca? And the food..I'd just fired the chef and was putting a lot of energy into revising the menu. As usual I got too busy to really obsess about it, and when he walked in the door I could see that he was pleased. And he loved the palms, the lights, the lampshades. What did he comment on - put Mauritanian reed mats in the VIP room instead of carpets, reduce the height of the banquettes and he chided me for wearing a blouse under my tuxedo jacket! I felt like I'd passed my PhD oral exam! We have a "We've been there" picture of Bill, Soulimane and me at the bar. Bill said he looked austere - I said it was his fault for not smiling! He came for lunch the next day and we passed the "light of day" test too. It was a great thrill to work with Bill and really gratifying to see his inspiration in every nook and cranny - he's put his soul into this as I have.