When Jim Nadeau got a call from the village of Rosemont asking for his company to carve two 1,800 pound roses from six blocks of ice for the town’s 50th anniversary party, he did not even bat an eyelash.
After all, just last week he was prepared to head for Detroit for the unveiling of the newest model of Chevrolet Camero. The project, which would have required his company, Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures, Inc. to carve a model of the car from 600 ice blocks, was cancelled at the last minute due to the warm weather.
Still, even that would not have compared to some of the company’s all time most memorable projects ” an 84-ton ice train filled with Oreo cookies for Nabisco’s employee holiday party, for instance, or an “ice-max theatre” for multibillionaire Realtor Sam Zell’s birthday party. Images from Disney’s The Lion King were projected and caught in the ice as Elton John played the piano at the 2004 celebration.
Nadeau started his company just over 25 years ago, renting space in various locations before finally settling into its current space at 7623 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Forest Park in 1989. He started carving ice while working as a chef for Marriott Hotels in the mid-1970s.
“When I first started in 1980 there was not one single ice carving company in the United States,” he said. “People told me I was crazy, but I honestly thought there was a market.”
It took years to develop a firm clientele, as convincing hotels and convention centers that hiring an outside company instead of carving their own ice was a profitable decision proved to be a difficult task. For several years, Nadeau, a resident of LaGrange Park, tended bar and painted homes to supplement the scant profits he made from his ice-carving endeavors.
His big break came when he volunteered to donate an ice sculpture of the entire Chicago Symphony to a downtown festival organized by then Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne.
“I got exceedingly lucky ” it never got below freezing that whole week, and I became the news story for the weather portion of that broadcast every week for every station,” he said. Viewers watched to see how long the “Symphony on Ice” could resist the unseasonable heat, and word of Nadeau’s business spread.
“That was the most cost effective thing I ever did”I donated the ice and my time, and got millions of dollars worth of publicity,” he recalled.
The company then experienced several years of consecutive growth, sculpting for everything from weddings and Bar Mitzvahs to sets of Hollywood films being shot in Chicago including “The Fugitive” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” The company even conducts live ice-sculpting demonstrations every year at the Lincoln Park Zoo each night from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.
“When ice beer came out, God, we went crazy. That was a great year,” said Nadeau.
Over the years, Nadeau has also watched other ice sculpting companies pop up around the country.
He estimates that there are now 300 such companies nationwide, about three of which are in the Chicagoland area, though he said his company still holds the lion’s share of the local market.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, Nadeau saw his previously booming business virtually come to a halt. “You don’t even realize the implications for just a small ice cutting company, but we do a large share of our business for downtown hotels and conventions, and they had been struggling since that event,” he said.
In 2005, the company celebrated its 25th anniversary with its first successful year since the attacks, and Nadeau is hopeful that the prosperity will continue.
The company currently employs four sculptors, recruited from art schools as well as professions such as landscaping and the culinary arts.
Former chef Nate Johnson, for example, quit cooking in 1989, and has been carving ice ever since. “I’m not going back,” he said. “This is what I do now.”
Some of Nadeau’s company’s work can be seen at the Village of Rosemont’s 50th anniversary celebration, which begins Friday at 4 p.m. at the Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Road.