CASABLANCA — Four years into her job as Commercial Attache of the U.S. Embassy in Morocco, Kathy Kriger decided her heart was in Casablanca and this is where she wanted to stay. That was not all. She wanted to create a famous restaurant that never existed — Rick’s Cafe, the setting of the 1942 film classic Casablanca.
For several generations of Americans, the film was the city. Moroccans she talked with, on the other hand, had never heard of it. The film was a Hollywood product, shot entirely on the Warner Brothers lot, with the possible exception of the final scene, which may have been shot at the Burbank Airport. In that scene, hard-boiled Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), gives up his chance to leave with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) so that she and her freedom-fighter husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) can go to Lisbon and avoid the clutches of the Nazis.
A vivacious brunette originally from Portland, Oregon, Kathy had made many friends in the Morocco business community. She resigned her government job in July 2002 and set about finding a site and getting financing. The building was a rundown large house, built in 1930 as a pied-a-terre weekend retreat by a wealthy Marrakech businessman. When Kathy found it the house was divided into three units. The site was good, just off a main boulevard several blocks from downtown Casablanca. It was ripe for preservation and restoration.
Then came the slow, laborious process of getting a loan. The bankers were puzzled. Why would someone — especially a woman — want to restore an old house and turn it into a restaurant that looked like a movie set? One bank officer told her they had steered clear of preservation and restoration because “it’s so messy.”
She was holding back tears as she left the loan officer when the bank president asked her to into his office. He wanted her to describe the project. He learned that the movie was supposed to have taken place in the Medina, the old walled city. As a boy he had happy memories of spending a season with an aunt in the Medina while his parents were traveling. His nostalgia overruled the loan committee’s skepticism and she got her loan.
Paired with the loan was a pool of investor money from 43 of her friends, 32 Americans and 11 Moroccans. For their money they all got shares in The Usual Suspects, Inc. Kathy got the name from the line in the final scene of the film when, after Rick had dispatched the evil Nazi officer, Claude Rains, as the French police captain, ordered his lieutenant to “round up the usual suspects.”
Kathi asked Bill Willis, a popular American interior designer who had lived in Morocco for years, to design the restaurant. The result is not a precise duplication of the movie cafe, but an inspired evocation of it that would make any film buff feel right at home. The second floor serves as a u-shaped balcony. At one end of it there is a comfortable lounge where Casablanca is always playing on a large screen quietly, with the dialogue in subtitles.
The film’s piano player, Sam, frequently played the theme song, “As Time Goes By.” So does Issam, the real cafe’s piano player. He, a bass player and a flutist-trombonist make up Rick’s Jazz Trio.
Rick’s Cafe is now a little over three years old and a solid success. Casablancans have taken to the restaurant and its movie theme with gusto and have dubbed Kathy, “Madame Rick.” Visiting Americans almost expect to see the film’s characters walk by at any moment.
Rick’s has an eclectic clientele. “Recently we had the Harley-Davidson Club of Warsaw, Poland here,” Kathy says. “A large Japanese group comes every year and we have many Spanish visitors.” One evening last week, long-time Reaganite (and Rick’s Cafe investor) Nancy Reynolds and two dozen of her friends took over the restaurant to celebrate her 80th birthday. The dinner was delicious and all danced the night away, swept up in nostalgia.
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