Architecture and Disaster and History and Irving Park and Signs and The Hidden and Theaters24 Apr 2016 08:01 pm

I ran this on my regular blog, Gentleman Unafraid, a few years ago and realized it’s perfect Steppes of Chicago fodder. So, here it is.

Built in 1909, the Grayland Theater (3940 N. Cicero) was one of several small silent age movie houses in Chicago. Calledneighborhood theaters (according to the fascinating Jazz Age Chicago site), these tiny showplaces skimped on fripperies like balconies, pillars, and ornamentation, and were strictly built to hold a hundred (or fewer) people for an evening at the flicks. When the gloriously decorated, multi-seated movie palaces rose up not so long after, they drained away customers, leaving the neighborhood theaters to wither away. Eventually, most closed their doors. Yet, when compared to the palaces—which have, with the exception of a lucky restored few, been left to crumble or fall before the wrecking ball—an impressive number of neighborhood theaters survived—albeit in slightly mutilated form. Most, in fact, have been remodeled and re-purposed, usually serving as churches or stores.

The Grayland is one semi-survivor. Situated in Irving Park’s Six Corners shopping district, and currently housing Rasenick’s, a work and outdoor wear clothing store, the building doesn’t betray its cinematic past at first glance. Up close, the elements kind of come together. Notice the sedately ornate cornice (a familiar Chicago combo of egg and dart and dentil molding), the former marquee (I’m guessing), and some nice grillwork framing the front window and door. Well, that might not be original, but it still looks pretty cool). The building is, otherwise, in no way outstanding, but it has its Chicago working-class charm. It was built to serve a purpose, not win architectural awards. I came across an account stating that the building was designed by architect William Ohlhaber, who was also responsible for the insane Hermann Weinhardt house in Wicker Park, but that remains to be seen. The theater doesn’t show up on any notable building sites, but while Ohlhaber wasn’t in the league of Sullivan, Burnham, or Wright, he’s still interesting, designing a number of buildings and owning land in West Palm Beach, where he frequently summered.

A few Saturdays ago my friend Pat and I went to watch a Universal monster film festival at the Portage Theater (which, I’m guessing, didn’t help the Grayland’s business back in the day) a block north on Milwaukee. I asked Pat if he’d mind if we stopped by the Grayland. He had no problem with that and mentioned he might even be in the market for some work wear. Entering the store, we walked up an inclined entryway into a large room stuffed with coveralls, safety shoes, and various shades of plaid. As I figured, very little of the original interior remained. A drop ceiling had been installed, and the walls were (if I recollect) wood paneled. A fellow who had worked at the store since 1978 (I think his name was Rich), and who knew a bit about its past, told me the screen was most likely originally located at the front of the store, but the wall had long since been removed. He showed us around a bit, pointing out places where the drop ceiling panels had been removed, revealing a typical, charmingly patterned tin ceiling. I got the name of the store and building owners, so stay tuned for more information. Maybe they’ll let me crawl around a little.

Trolling through the Tribune’s archives, I turned up a few small but juicy chunks of history about the theater. The only record of a film shown at the theater I’ve come across are a series of ads for a whaling film called Down to the Sea in Ships. It starred a young Clara Bow and a little-known silent age honey named Marguerite Courtot. An early blockbuster, Down to the Sea in Ships was heavily promoted not only at the Grayland but also the Rivoli theater on Elston (currently the Muslim Community Center).

What I discovered next, however, is a perfect example of why I love research as much as I love writing. It’s the little surprises; the things that never occur to you; the unexpected tales that pop up during a humdrum review of microfilm or, in this case, online scans. While I’m positive I’m breaking a cardinal rule of journalism by extrapolating from a single article, I’m not sure what else I can do. An afternoon at the library might turn up more information, but I somehow doubt it. The local neighborhood newspaper has only been in business since the 40s, so no luck there either. Maybe I’ll try the store owner and a few local oldsters too, but… Well, heck, let’s get on with the story.

Albert Schmidt was unhappy with his recent purchase.

It was October 26, 1926, and he’d just called the previous owner of the Grayland Theater, Samuel Wertheimer, telling him to get over to the place as soon as possible that night. He was having a problem with the ventilation system, and he needed Wertheimer to come over and explain the cockamamie—or whatever expression they used back then—thing to him.

Wertheimer, we must assume, was wary. Schmidt purchased the Grayland only a week before for $4,000. While business was reportedly good—a film was showing when the two men met that day, shortly after 3 p.m.—it wasn’t paying off fast enough. Whether he truly thought he’d recoup the money in that short a timeframe is open to debate, but according to Wertheimer, Schmidt quickly got cold feet and had asked him twice already to back out of the deal. “Nuts to that banana oil, pally! 23 skidoo!” we can only assume Wertheimer said.

It seems Wertheimer cared enough to answer a few questions about the ventilation system’s operation, though. So maybe the bad blood flowed only on one side. Wertheimer showed up in the Grayland’s lobby, then followed Schmidt to the basement. Schmidt indicated the vents, which Wertheimer inspected closely before turning to see… Schmidt standing there with a revolver.

As Wertheimer tells it—and we only have his word for it—Schmidt drew a bead and shot him twice as he tried to run away. Maybe it was dark down there or maybe Schmidt was just a piss-poor shot, but the reluctant theater owner only managed to wing his target, putting a bullet apiece in Wertheimer’s arm and leg. An assumedly distraught, or at the least stressed, Schmidt shot himself, didn’t miss, and died.

Fueled by adrenalin and fear, Wertheimer ran up the stairs, out of the theater, down Cicero Ave. to a local doctor, who bandaged him up while he waited for the cops to arrive.

But that’s not where the story ends.

During the movie, a number of patrons heard the shots, and ran out of the theater (without running into Wertheimer, I suppose). One called the cops. As so often happens during stressful situations, the person making the call got the facts wrong, and instead of reporting a shooting/suicide, this nameless individual reported a riot. Two people had been shot by an unknown assailant, he or she said, and the gunman had barricaded himself in the basement. Seven squads of cops mounted up, armed for rioting bears with guns and “tear bombs,” piled into their cars and headed for Grayland. Some of the cops made it to the theater to discover the cooling corpse of Albert Schmidt.

Others did not.

One of the squads headed west on Addison, sirens howling and lights blazing. Meanwhile, Cecil Chapel, his wife, and and two kids were heading north on Lincoln, probably returning to their northwest side home on Kedvale. Both, according the article, got the yellow light, and both continued driving through the intersection. They collided, adding a bit more blood and broken bodies to the story. Officer Walter Riley, 28, was critically injured and died on his way to the hospital. Meanwhile Chapel and his family, as well as officers Thomas Alcock and George Hennesy were seriously injured. No further details on what became of them, though an accompanying photo made it clear things didn’t look good for Alcock (“AUTO VICTIM. Sergt. Tom Alcock, near death from injuries received in crash”). Ripples expanding outwards from a central pebble of violence cast by Albert Schmidt (listed in his obituary a few days later as having “died suddenly”).

Is anyone else thinking of the opening sequence in Magnolia?

Sadly, the Grayland’s basement was filled in during rehab back in the 50s—at least that’s what the Rasenick person told me. On a more amusing note, the aforementioned 1920s article referred to the theater as being built in “the old style.” Times change.

More info to come, if I come across it.






Edgebrook and Ghost Signs and Neon and Signs07 Apr 2013 09:27 pm

The Edgebrook Television building (not sure if it has another name) looks like it’s been around since Uncle Miltie. Located at 6416 N Central Ave, and standing on a corner that appears frozen in the 1950s (note Happy Foods across the way and the nifty steel-letter address for Sixty-Four Thirty North Central across the way on Googlemaps’ Street View) it boasts some of the most nicely composed neon I’ve ever seen. The Trib archives don’t show more than plenty of display ads listing Edgebrook TV as a dealer in GE products since about 1956. It seems they moved a few times before settling at the current location.

It doesn’t look like the lights are in working order. In fact, I don’t remember the signage ever being on in the past eight years I’ve lived in the area. According to the sign below, announcing the death of the owner, I doubt it’ll ever come online again. So, just in case the current occupants decide to take it all down, I snapped a few pix.

Further info on the store or sign is welcome!











Art and Ghost Signs and Signs and The Hidden20 Mar 2013 04:58 am

Wish I could remember where I saw this. I was visiting Prairie School Style homes with a friend last January and came across it. This requires research!


Architecture and Chicago and Old Photos and Signs and Uptown06 Mar 2013 12:17 am

Found in a 1980 book about layout and design. Highly inaccurate caption (those cars look 70s to me), but I’d love to know if this is Uptown and when. It might be somewhere along Milwaukee Ave. Click to embiggen? Great signage!


Chicago and Crime and Disaster and Film and Fraternal Orders and Humboldt Park and Signs and Theaters24 Feb 2012 07:56 pm

I’m omitting the last names of several of this entry’s dramatis personae because the subject matter is rather sensitive. The Steppes of Chicago blog has been a great success in that we’ve received many interesting comments from folks who either live or lived in the neighborhoods we cover. Long-time Chicagoans tend to be entrenched (my own family’s lived in the region for over a century), and it’s likely the boy mentioned in this piece still has relatives in the area. Nothing can really be gained by putting his family name back in the public eye after 66 years, I think. At least in this instance. Agree? Disagree? Comment away!

If Frank T_________, age 13, was looking for a little attention, 1946 gave him more than he expected. Living with his mom and three younger sisters at 3838 Grand Ave. (still standing, though the former ground-floor tavern is now a Vienna Beef hot dog joint), Frank knew tragedy early on. The previous year his father Anthony was killed at 4207 North Ave. Mistaking the apartment for his sister-in-law’s place, Anthony was shotgunned by Mr. Edgar B_____ and died the exceedingly young age of 34. Left to raise four kids, Lillian T________, 33, presumably did the best she could. However, a subsequent series of Tribune articles from that year reveal that young Frank wasn’t always operating under adult supervision.

His first appearance is a lark, or at least a schoolboy prank (interestingly, he was a schoolboy at  Our Lady of the Angels School, though many years before the fire). On March 15, 1946, Frank and his buddies decided to break in and skulk around the abandoned New Apollo Theater at 1536 N. Pulaski. One can completely understand why the place would be irresistible to adventurously stupid young boys. Built in 1913, it closed after 20 years and was left to rot. One reporter’s account describes a cavernous, ramshackle deathtrap, complete with collapsing walls, drooping floors, trapdoors, and copious cobwebs straight out of a Universal monster flick. What preteen lad with more curiosity than brains wouldn’t want to explore it?

"Hey, Dewey! Do you think we'll find pirate treasure down ther...AGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!"

Eight years before Frank and his friends showed up, Dewey B_______, 14—who lived next door—and Donald J______, also 14, tried to enter the place on August 17. Accessing the roof—perhaps from Dewey’s building—they chose a ventilator shaft as their point of entry. Undoubtedly surprised when the shaft door beneath them collapsed, they soared straight down. God loved fools and children even then, because Dewey and Donald (Huey and Louie were likely elsewhere) fell only 15 to 20 feet to the rafters, rather than farther down to the theater floor. Donald broke a leg, while Dewey broke his right arm, making him the obvious choice to crawl out and seek assistance. Finding his way out, he called for help, and firemen arrived to rescue the two early urban explorers from the theater and themselves.

That the theater remained standing until Frank’s prepubescence is remarkable. At a guess, the place acquired a taboo cachet ever since Dewey and Donald’s misadventure. Likely, many others entered the place before and after, but Frank’s is the only trip (besides the other boys’) that’s on the record.

As Frank and his buddies walked the aisles, a local flatfoot grew wise, entered, and ordered them out. His friends scattered, and our young hero ducked under a stage trapdoor, closed it, and discovered a tunnel about 3 1/2 by 3 1/2 foot high. As with many a boy before him, “tunnel” equaled “adventure,” and Frank crawled on, apparently not bothered by the ickiness and vermin one would expect in the innermost recesses of an abandoned movie house. Apropos to the occasion, the tunnel, Frank reported, ended in a  four foot by four foot room littered with business cards, crumpled rags, a derby with a hole through it, and your standard human skeleton.

With only two short articles covering the story, the sequence of events grows murky, so bear with me.

When he saw the bones, Frank claimed he yelled in terror and crawled back out. I picture him yammering like Lou Costello about the sk-sk-sk-skeleton down there to the cop who told him to scram.

Later on, he gathered his courage in the presence of the cops and reporters and went back into the tunnel, emerging with the battered hat and stack of cards. A photograph accompanying the Trib story shows him holding A hat, sticking his index finger through A hole, but you have to wonder why the cops were letting him handle potential evidence. Perhaps a photographer or reporter found an old chapeau and said, “Hey, kid. Hold this for minute, willya?” Certainly not.

The stack of cards was interesting. It contained two fraternal order membership cards (which organization wasn’t specified) for Messrs. Karl H. Weis and H. Austenmueller, and numerous “theater cards”—presumably advertisements for various shows. The cards came from the days that were considered the “good old days” even in 1946. The cops traced them to Mr. Weis, who ran a bakery at 1744 W. 35th St. Weis remembered having the cards, said he had Mr. Austenmueller’s card after paying his membership fee, and further stated he’d lost the cards while changing a tire on Elston Avenue back in 1919. As to how they ended up under the New Apollo Theater, he had no idea. A likely story.

This is a 1902 photo from the Oriental Institute at U of C. But you get the idea.Cite as: DN-0000217, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

Actually, it was an irrelevant story. There was still the little matter of retrieving the skeleton. When the cops went to recover it, they found two feet of water in the tunnel Frank failed to mention. The fire department planned to pump it out, but now Frank claimed that when he went back in, he found a note stating: “You will not find the cave or the body. I toke (sic) it with me.”
Without perusing the entire March 15, 1946 Tribune, the evidence suggests it was either a slow news day, or Col. McCormick didn’t have competent fact-checkers on the payroll. The next day the entire affair was revealed to be a hoax. Austin Police Captain Thomas Duffy took Frank aside and suggested he ‘fess up. The kid crumbled and said “I was only fooling, captain.”, and claimed he got the idea for the prank after seeing skeletons on display at the [Field] Natural History Museum the week before. The ventilated hat came to him after seeing “a moving picture murder mystery,” which just goes to show that movies and museums promote juvenile delinquency. Rather than booking him, the cops took Frank home. No foul play, no harm.

Frank’s next bout with fame wasn’t so amusing. On June 27, he was lighting fire crackers in a lot beside his house while his little sister Delores, 12, stood back and watched. Fireworks have long been illegal in Illinois—the first of many laws passed in 1941—prompting our more law-aborting citizens to drive to Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Missouri for their Fourth of July an New Year’s fix. Frank shopped locally, purchasing his firecrackers from an “big boy” up north in a Niles forest preserve. Unwisely setting them off in a metal Christmas tree stand, the pyrotechnics went without incident until Frank reached the grand finale. The final firecracker must have been huge, chock full of black powder, because the resulting blast cracked windows in three nearby buildings. The tree stand blew all to hell, flinging a chunk of steel 100 feet toward Delores, gouging her left side. She was taken to now-closed Walther Memorial Hospital and stitched up. While the Trib took the opportunity to address the issue of firework safety and legislation, nothing more was said about what happened to Frank and Delores. Yet another photo of Frank accompanies the article, the handsome lad holding shards of the shattered tree stand, looking a bit dazed.

In a turn, Frank’s last appearance in the paper was heroic, but tragic. On the evening of October 6—two days before the 75th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire—flames broke out in his younger sisters’ room. Waking up to billows of smoke, little Rose, 6, and Shirley, 7, crawled out of their room and hid in another (one news source says the bathroom, another says it was the bedroom next door). Smoke continued to fill the building as Frank ran through the place, frantically searching for his sisters. He was soon joined by Chicago Fire Captain Frank J. Kubek, who saw the smoke pouring out on his way to work. The two Franks met and searched for the girls, but became separated. Kubek found his way out again and attempted re-entry from the rear door, but as he passed the side of the house he looked up to see the boy dangling from a window ledge, forced out by the flames. Telling Frank to let go, the captain caught him, severely injuring his back in the process.

3838 Grand Ave.

During this time a neighbor, Henry Sandel (perhaps Sandei—the grittiness of the microfilm scan makes it difficult to determine), set off the fire alarm before heading into the flames to help. He was able to rescue mother Lillian and daughter Delores, guiding them out before rushing back in to help Kubek.

The two men thought they heard screams coming from the bathroom, and tried to kick in the door, but the fire forced them back, searing Sandel’s  face, arms, and hands. Kubek found his way out, but Sandel had to exit a second-story window, smashing through the glass, grabbing hold of the tavern sign hanging outside, and dropping to the sidewalk without further damage. Horrifically, the sisters had suffocated by this point. Frank’s final Tribune photograph is a study in grief, he and his surviving sister Delores resting their heads against their mother’s sagging shoulders.

For us, perhaps charitably, that’s everything we know about young Frank T______, though there’s likely a family history somewhere that goes further. With hope he led a quieter life. A single family genealogy site reveals that he died in California in 1992. After a quick mental calculation, I realized that if he’d lived to the present day, Frank would be as old as my own father (living on the South Side the same time rank was living in Humboldt Park) today.

Irving Park and Murals and Signs and The Hidden20 Jan 2012 04:15 am

Ghost sign off Addison for the long-departed Toots ice cream, etc. stand that once stood at Central and Montrose (probably best known for its painted sign featuring a lascivious ice cream cone saying “LICK ME.”

Architecture and Chicago and Mayfair and Signs11 Jan 2012 06:17 pm

Building names always seem a bit gloomy for me—particularly when they’re etched in stone. Undoubtedly intended to display the affluence and influence a wooden sign could never convey, most only cement (no pun intended) their original owners’ anonymity, inspiring the modern passerby to look up and comment, “Who the hell is that?”

In Mayfair, one such mysterious appellation is chiseled into the limestone-faced storefront at 4407 N. Elston Ave. Calmly regal, whoever designed the building back in 1899-1900 knew what he was doing, especially in the creation of the sign on top, which strikingly states “TRYON & DAVIS.”

But who were Tryon and Davis? I wish I could say. Beyond discovering that Tryon is a British name and Davis a Welsh one, information is spotty about the two (assumed) men. A review of historical newspapers and Google Books suggests that T&D was a real estate agency, and probably a developer as well, owing to occasional references on real estate sites to a “Tryon & Davis subdivision” located near Lawrence and Pulaski.

Obviously, T&D were successful enough to construct their own office building, but otherwise they made little impact on Chicago history. All I’ve turned up are two meager references to plumbing work being done for several single-story dwellings near 2345 W. Roosevelt Road (apparently demolished) in 1921, and the management of a property at 118 N. LaSalle St. (also gone, but now occupied by Murphy/Jahn’s 120 N. LaSalle building—the one with the whacky Daedalus and Icarus mosaic).

The firm later listed an address in the 1915 edition of Polk’s Real Estate Register and Directory of the United States and Canada at 4601 N. Crawford (now Pulaski Rd.), which is currently occupied by a Citgo gas station. Did T&D move there from their Elston digs? Did they expand? Without a day’s visit to the history museum or library, I can’t say. I’ve sent an inquiry letter to the building’s current resident, a lawyer, and I’ll provide an update if I find out anything else.

Loop and Signs and The Hidden28 Oct 2011 02:48 am

Quick research reveals that the Union Special Machine Company was, and still is, a manufacturer of sewing machines. The big industrial kind, I’m guessing. I’ll look into it a bit more in the future. Until then, check out this lovely sign. I was on a stroll and didn’t note the location, but I believe it’s near Orleans Street.