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.






Cemeteries and Chicago and History and Music and Outside Chicago and Southwest Suburbs/Chicago24 Apr 2016 07:10 pm

By Dan Kelly

Steve Salter praises forgotten men.

For some 20 years the Michigan resident has made a mission to provide headstones for deceased bluesmen with unmarked graves. Blazing a thin trail through the Midwest, the sixtyish blues fan has helped mark the last resting places of performers like Otis Spann, Big Maceo Merriweather, “Hound Dog Taylor“, Washboard Sam, Charley Jordan, and others. But for every one commemorated, more remain, still laying unknown in the earth. Salter wants to rectify that by leaving markers at all his musical heroes’ gravesites.

“I just want to see that they get proper recognition,” he explains by phone. “Lying in an unmarked grave is not proper recognition.”


Death and the blues are inextricably linked. Within every blues musician’s repertoire—amidst the howls, growls, notes, and chords about wicked women, bad booze, life’s cruelty, and more—lurks the Grim Reaper. But no matter how bad a bluesman was (or how bad he claimed to be), many begged that their mortal remains be treated kindly. Supposed satanic soul-seller Robert Johnson pled to be buried by the highway, allowing his “old evil spirit” to catch a Greyhound bus. Blind Willie McTell’s rounder in “Dying Crap-Shooter’s Blues” requested that his grave be dug with the ace of spades, a deck of cards serving as his tombstone. Down in Texas, Blind Lemon Jefferson plaintively asked that his grave be kept clean. As it stands, Lemon’s and others’ pots have yet to be located, much less maintained. All the more reason why Salter and kindred spirits have made it their business to find and mark those we do know about.

Music looms large in Salter’s life. He shared one particularly sharp childhood memory of falling asleep while listening to his “grandfather’s old radio with the green eye.” First experiencing the blues the way most white Baby Boomers did—the British Invasion—he followed a liner note trail and discovered names like Willie Dixon, Sunnyland Slim, and Muddy Waters. Record store excavations led to new discoveries, and soon he was hooked. After years of  ollecting music and attending shows, Salter founded Killer Blues, selling CDs and t-shirts on the blues festival circuit, while maintaining his day job designing parts for an car factory in Whitehall, MI.

A 1997 road trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival inspired the gravestone project. Salter took the scenic route, stopping in Chicago to pay homage to his favorite performers who’d passed on. Visiting a pre-scandal Burr Oak Cemetery—last resting place of Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Dinah Washington, Emmet Till, and other African-Americans of note—he was shocked to discover Spann’s grave unmarked.

“I couldn’t understand how somebody who I thought was huge in the blues wouldn’t have a headstone,” Salter told me by phone. That same day he drove a short distance west to Restvale, another black cemetery housing the remains of Muddy Waters, “Hound Dog” Taylor, Magic Sam, and others. Waters’ modest gravestone—a simple granite marker bearing his real name, McKinley Morganfield, and a picture of a guitar—surprised him, but he was more disturbed at the absence of any memorial for Taylor, an idol of his. Salter made his way to New Orleans, pondering what he’d seen. After the festival, he returned home to Whitehall and fired off a letter to Blues Review magazine about Spann’s lack of a marker. Blues Review’s readers and editors agreed it was an onerous omission. Money flowed in from across the globe, and a stone was purchased, etched with a keyboard and sporting the epitaph:

“Otis played the deepest blues we ever heard

He’ll play forever in our hearts”


They held a ceremony and a marker was laid, and for many of the participants that was that. But not for Salter:

“I couldn’t stop. I found too many guys who didn’t have markers, and so I vowed to do something.”

Salter’s next honoree was “Hound Dog” Taylor. A fixture on Maxwell Street and in West Side blues clubs during the 50s through the 70s, the Hound played slide on cheap Japanese electric guitars, and had an extra finger on his left hand to boot. He passed in 1975. While not a household name, he was one of Salter’s idols, and he called the guitarist’s label, Alligator Records, reaching owner Bruce Iglauer.

“[Iglauer] thought that there was a stone, and apparently it never got placed. And so we talked back and forth and Hound Dog eventually did get his headstone.” No ceremony was involved this time.


The more contemporary a performer, the easier it is to find his last resting place. The Internet, of course, has simplified the lives of tombstone tourists—people who enjoy visiting cemeteries—through sites like Find a Grave and Dead Blues Guys. But not every blues performer has been located and marked. Records have been lost, memories have grown fuzzy, friends and family members have died themselves, and oftentimes a bluesman was simply planted in a potter’s field or old churchyard and forgotten. Word of mouth in the music community powers Salter’s searches. Salter cites Chicago piano player Erwin Helfer as a source. The two met some time ago when Salter sent him a letter asking about drummer Odie Payne.

“Whenever I meet any musician, especially in Chicago, the first thing I do is ask him, ‘Do you know where this guy is buried?’ Erwin doesn’t have an e-mail. He has a Web site but he doesn’t have an e-mail. So, the only way you can communicate with him is via snail mail. So I sent him one of my calendars and a short little letter saying who I was and [does he] know where any of these individuals are located?”

Three months later, Helfer wrote back. He wanted to help but didn’t know where any of Salter’s subjects were, though he did know Payne’s daughter. He passed along her phone number. Salter called over the course of a month, eventually reached her, and outlined his intentions to honor her father. She appreciated the gesture, but explained that Payne already had a headstone, and directed him to where it was located.

“That’s very rewarding too,” says Salter. “Here’s another guy that’s no longer lost. At least, to me he was lost, because there didn’t seem to be any information out there that I could get a hold of… I was there last week at the cemetery and took a photograph of the headstone.” Mr. Payne rests at Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago’s South Side, in good musical company with Little Brother Montgomery, Junior Wells, and Georgia Tom Dorsey.

Big Maceo Merriweather’s grave was his first challenge. The WWII era singer and pianist passed away in 1953, seven years after a stroke ended his career at age 48. Salter located Merriweather in Detroit Memorial Cemetery in Warren, MI. Salter took a methodical approach that he sticks with to this day. On a cemetery expedition he’ll befriend the groundskeepers and office workers, asking if they’re aware of a performer’s location. Speaking with the Detroit Memorial Cemetery people about setting up a gravestone, but a new concern arose.

“It always can be a touchy thing because I’m not family… First we have to see if we can find family, and I have yet to find family for any of the ones that I’ve purchased stones for.”

Usually, he’s asked to sign a waiver stating that if a family member appears and objects to a marker, the stone has to go. “I’m fine with that,” said Salter, adding, “It hasn’t happened yet.”

After two years of work and negotiations, Salter was permitted to place Big Maceo’s headstone. During that time he searched and traveled further. More turned up. In Chicago there was Walter Vinson of the Mississippi Sheiks at Holy Sepulcher in Hillside, IL; Luther Tucker, back in Restvale Cemetery; and so on. The project continued to grow. Killer Blues switched from being a small-time business to a nonprofit foundation in 2005. Alongside getting familial and cemetery officials’ approval, the project faces another ongoing challenge: raising money. One way to raise dough is a yearly calendar featuring gravestone photos sold on the Killer Blues site. Salter also brings in cash by hosting blues shows in his hometown, starring local performers. The project has done well enough to place 53 markers in the past dozen years

Once permission is acquired, creating and placing the stone is a collaborative process with the cemetery personnel. With Washboard Sam, buried in Washington Memory Gardens Cemetery in Homewood, IL, followed the pattern. First, found it was best to buy locally.

“Most often the cemetery has a connection to someone who makes stones,” he explains. “I ask them who would they prefer that I use for this stone. And they’ll go, ‘Oh, we deal with this person,’ and I say, ‘Okay, then that’s who I will deal with.'”

The stones lack frills, sticking to a basic combination of name, birth and death dates, either a nickname or the designation “BLUESMAN,” and an appropriate graphic. Most get guitars or keyboards. Johnny “Daddy Stovepipe” Watson, and “Stagger Lee” inspiration/murderer “Stag”  Lee Shelton received their trademark chapeaus—Watson a top hat, and Shelton a Stetson. Robert “Washboard Sam” Brown got a washboard topped by…a round thing.

“Generally, I have a design in mind. With Washboard Sam—if you’ve seen any of the one or two pictures of him out there—he’s holding a washboard that has a circle on it. I don’t know if it’s some kind of a resonator or what, but I wanted that washboard on his headstone. So, I presented a hand drawing and said this is kind of what I want.”

He refers to the stones as “entry-level.” Flat, modest, granite, and a uniform size of 12 inches by 24 inches by 4 inches thick, Salter guesstimates a typical cost of about $800. Washboard Sam’s was $835.16. When the stones are placed, Salter does it with little fanfare. He’ll drive a stone to a cemetery, but usually doesn’t stay to see it placed. While celebrating performers, he has no interest in the limelight.

The first time we spoke, I asked Salter if he knew of anybody else doing this kind of work, and if he interacted with them. No. For many years it was just him, his wife, and a few friends.

“I did talk with people from the Detroit Blues Society, because there’s a number of blues artists in the Detroit area that don’t have headstones. One of them was Calvin Frazier. I’ve talked to them about that and they’ve taken it upon themselves to have a fundraiser to get a headstone for him.” (The stone has since been placed).

There are others. For example, Arlo Leach of Portland, OR, a website designer and jug band performer aficionado. Leach raised money with benefits at the Old Town School of Folk Music for gravestones for Will Shade (Shelby County Cemetery in Memphis, TN) and the McCoy brothers, Papa Charlie and Kansas Joe, (resting in Restvale Cemetery under their newly provided stones).

Like Salter, I have a mania for visiting  graves, and 10 years ago I made a road trip to the Deep South for barbecue and dead blues performers. Throughout the Delta I saw several stones arranged by the Mount Zion Memorial Fund. Formed by Skip Henderson in 1989 to prevent foreclosure on the Mount Zion Church in Morgan City, MS, and to raise a cenotaph to Robert Johnson (supposedly buried there, but no one knows for sure), the fund has gone on to provide markers for Charley Patton, Elmore James, Memphis Minnie, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Tommy Johnson, and others. The fund isn’t just about grave markers. It’s about preserving southern African-American culture and history. Over the decades, black churches and their graveyards were slowly appropriated by surrounding white landowners, plucked of stones, then plowed under or paved over. On my own expedition through the Mississippi Delta, my favorite prewar  bluesmen required some roadwork to reach. With Charley Patton’s grave (kindly paid for with a donation from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty) I found myself standing in a dusty field, stripped of crops and wispy with red soil and dry grass. A few ordinary basic and homemade stones surrounded Patton’s taller one, which simply indicated he was buried around there…somewhere. The Mount Zion Memorial Fund and its gravestones make a sharp point on the cultural landscape as well, reminding people about what’s been lost and who’s been ignored, even as the modern world profited from the music generated by the region.


Compared with Salter’s honorees, Patton, Johnson, and the other original Delta bluesmen are untouchable historical wraiths floating through Greil Marcus’ Old, Weird America (a phrase I think I’m required by law to mention in an article like this)—real-life, tall-tale figures on par with Johnny Appleseed and John Henry. Salter’s subjects are different. He deals not with legendary revenants, but rather post-Great Migration performers. Semi-famous musicians’ musicians and respected sidemen who played night clubs and worked day jobs, with life stories noticeably lacking in satanic pacts.

With the exception of Burr Oak—one deeply hopes—urban and suburban blues performers’ graves, whether marked or unmarked, remain intact and undisturbed. Compared with the Delta, they’re more accessible too, concentrated in the city’s South Side and southwestern suburbs. Still, it’s doubtful  they’re tourist draws for anyone but the most devoted fan. My son and I made a trip to Washboard Sam’s grave several years ago on a chill bastard of a winter’s day when he was two years young. We arrived and I snapped my shots, and within a minute he asked in begging, broken toddler language, “Back in car now?” I agreed. Our tribute was brief, but it was something. Which seems to be Salter’s goal.


Do the bluesmen appreciate Salter’s work and sacrifice? Don’t be ridiculous—they’re dead. Do their families appreciate it? The few living descendants Salter has encountered have been amenable, but most performers without markers invariably had no families to mourn and memorialize them, and probably lacked the funds. Salter’s work is for fans like himself. Gratitude motivates Salter, though he worries that he might be seen as putting on airs, or shaming those who might have provided stones, but didn’t.

“My goal’s not to embarrass anybody or to put anybody down for what they’re not doing. And somehow it calls attention, at least in my mind, that…there’s a lot of Chicago blues guys that don’t have stones. And there’s a lot of Chicago people making money off the blues that could easily do this. But…” He pauses. “I don’t try to judge why other people aren’t doing what they’re doing, or doing what they are, I’m just trying to do what I’m doing.”

“I’ve been pretty fortunate in my life and this is a way for me to give something back. It makes me feel good and I tell people that I do that and I suggest that they find a way to give something back in their life. Irregardless of what the purpose is, but find a way to give something back. Make the world a better place for all of us.”

Note: My apologies to Steve for the unconscionably long delay in writing this. I had some writer’s block issues these past few years. That’s an essay all by itself.

Chicago and Crime and History and Museums and Old Town09 Jul 2013 07:17 pm


The long-gone Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum on Wells Street was my first direct exposure to humanity’s heart of weirdness. I’m not exaggerating when I describe my visits to the place as transformative.

From an early age I’ve always liked strangeness. If it’s scary, unexpected, or bizarre, I’m fascinated by it. Some kids were jocks, others were nerds. I was a weirdo. Over time, it reflected itself in my readings, writings, and collections, giving pause to peers and family members who practiced normalcy. Whenever my father questioned my peculiar interests though, Mom would level her gaze and answer, “Well, Berni, he came by it honestly. ”

Too true. On the surface, Dad is a respected businessman and public servant, but from an early age he’d introduced me to plenty of oddness through the personal library he maintained in his basement den. Among the sci-fi and apocalypse-themed fiction, comic strip collections, coffee table editions of old-time Hollywood and horror films, and books covering disaster, war, and other fun stuff, he favored books about the strange and anomalous. We’ve never discussed why, but we really should. It may explain why, during my formative  years, I never indulged in the more obvious rebellions like funny haircuts, confrontational fashion, or substance abuse. Unusual was my normal. I assumed everyone’s dad was like mine—an intelligent and benign weirdo. Like father, like son.

Among Dad’s books were several paperbacks reprinting the cartoons of Robert L. Ripley. I pored over them during my most gullible childhood years, when Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, and King Tut’s curse seemed utterly plausible. I was likewise fueled by readings of DC, Marvel, Charlton, and Gold Key horror comics—through which the Ripley Company published a terrifying (if you’re nine years old) collection of “real” ghost stories. Really, my parents should have known better.

How appropriate then that Dad accompanied me on one of my only two trips to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum on Wells Street, toward the tail-end of the 70s. Some dads took their kids to ball games. My dad took me to Ripley’s. I recently asked him if he remembered our visit. Yes, he did, but he couldn’t provide any specifics. No doubt he simply stood back and let me delightedly run from exhibit to exhibit, agog at the displays of shrunken heads, creepy wax figures, brutal weaponry, and other esoterica. I remember every step. I revisit the museum in my dreams.

And I thank him for it.

Perhaps I exaggerate. Back then, a visit to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum wasn’t too out of the ordinary. If you’re a Chicago kid, there are certain inevitabilities. You liked the Cubs or the White Sox (or, in my case, could care less). You eat your hot dogs with ketchup until age six, before city ordinance banishes the condiment from your red hots forever. And through parental visit or school outing, you end up taking field trips to several locations. The Museum of Science and Industry, for which most Chicagoans my age (45) have fond, fearful memories of the older, darker place, featuring the futuristically gloomy “Hooray for Petroleum!” exhibit/ride, the grim yet loud coal mine, and the giant, walk-through fiberglass heart. Lincoln Park Zoo is another destination, though you may have—as in my southwest suburban case—ended up at Brookfield Zoo more often because parking was easier. The Field Museum is dinosaur bone Mecca for Chicago kidlings, and a trip to the nose-bleeding summits of the John Hancock and Sears Tower were always de rigueur. Some places are no longer with us. As my parents remember Riverview, so I recall Kiddieland, Old Chicago, and Santa’s Village. Gone, gone, gone.

Such was the case with the Ripley’s Museum, another faded field trip memory. Not to be overly dramatic, but it was an experience today’s kids can’t have without mixing a hodgepodge of disturbing exhibits from the MSI, Field Museum, and International Museum of Surgical Sciences, with a few haunted house props and sideshow  and tropes thrown in.

Or, you know, visiting one of the several other Ripley’s museums across the world.

But, dammit, this one was ours.


rlr2 copy

The Man

If you haven’t read the newspaper comics section or seen the TV shows, LeRoy Robert Ripley was a cartoonist, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! was the oddly popular comic strip that brought him fame and fortune. Supposedly born on Christmas Day 1890, in Santa Rosa, CA, Ripley had to grow up quickly after his father died. Peripatetic in employment from age 12 on, he took jobs as they came: unloading vegetable wagons, painting houses, polishing gravestones, and other scut work. Art and sports became abiding interests, and eventually he combined the two, pitching semipro baseball and painting posters to advertise the games. At age 14, he sold his first cartoon to LIFE magazine, and by 16 he joined the staff at the San Francisco Bulletin. Injured while trying out for the NY Giants in 1913, Ripley’s baseball dreams ended, but his illustration career took off.

After working for several newspapers, Ripley became the sports cartoonist at the New York Globe. Working against a deadline in December 1918, and scrambling for ideas, he gathered unusual sports trivia about high jumpers, backwards runners, three-legged racers, and the like; illustrated the piece; and dubbed it “Champs and Chumps.” A year later he revisited the idea, but wisely ditched the “Champs and Chumps” title and coined the snappier “Believe It or Not!”. The strip caught on and was syndicated by William Randolph Hearst’s King Features Syndicate. Eventually, Ripley was flush enough to buy a mansion—on his own island no less—and travel the globe, collecting weird stories and knickknacks like a freakier Charles Foster Kane (appropriately, his perambulations were also sponsored by Mr. Hearst).

With the help of his multilingual and wonderfully named research assistant Norbert Pearlroth, a staff of fact-checkers, and the many stories and photos sent to him by fans, Ripley presented bizarro trivia in illustrated form weekly, showing how commonplace oddness could be. How much of it was true? All of it according to the talented Mr. Ripley. But therein lay the brilliance of his catchphrase. You had the choice to believe it…or not.

Ripley lived weirdly and well before dying of a heart attack May 27, 1949, at age 58. He’d amassed and illustrated oddities for years  (though other artists took over the drawing duties), and by his reckoning, he’d traveled to more than 200 countries, playing the role of the eccentric explorer to the hilt by favoring pith helmets and bat-shaped ties. He was Indiana Jones without the doctorate or sex appeal (though his buck teeth and dumpy frame didn’t prevent him from maintaining a string of exotic girlfriends, with several living at the Ripley manse at a time).

The comic was different from most sequential art in the funny pages, with neither a narrative nor a punchline. Just historical, scientific, and anthropological trivia accompanied by an extremely basic illustration. I’d also note that the strip addressed subjects usually off-limits on the comics page—death, war, disaster, murder, the occult, mental illness, extreme body modification, and more. Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson once joked about the absence of human skulls from the comics, but Ripley’s Believe It or Not! had posed corpses between Peanuts an Doonesbury for decades.

The strip was educational in that it taught you things you didn’t know, but its knowledge was mostly applicable to barroom and playground conversations. Perhaps Robert Leroy Ripley never grew up, retaining a view of the world colored by pulp fiction, adventure yarns, and fairy tales. Small wonder then that the museums reflected this aesthetic.



The Museum

The Chicago Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum—indeed most Ripley’s museums—was the sort of place a kid might curate: a weird kid fascinated by the extremes of humanity, nature, and existence. Before he died, Ripley started to move out of newsprint and publishing (with a few Vitaphone forays into film) and into the new medium of television. The new show, hosted by Ripley, didn’t last, because neither did Robert L. Ripley. He collapsed on the set while filming his 13th show (one imagines he’d have appreciated the numerology) and died of a heart attack not long after. I don’t know if he planned to open a chain of museums, but it’s a fact that he didn’t open any himself.

Chicago’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum wasn’t the first. A year after Robert L. died, the first museum opened in St. Augustine, FL. By the time the Chicago museum opened its doors at 1500 N. Wells in 1968, Ripley Entertainment Inc. had already set up two others in Niagara Falls, Ont. and San Francisco, CA.

Chicago does have the distinction of hosting Ripley’s first “Odditorium” exhibit at the 1934 Century of Progress Fair on Northerly Island. If postcards and other ephemera from the exhibit are any indication, the Odditorium was a literal freak show, featuring pieces from Ripley’s collections, as well as living exhibits like Betty Lou Williams and her parasitical twin sister and Freda Pushnik, “The Little Half Girl Born without Arms or Legs.” Other human odds and ends included Hadji Ali, a professional regurgitator; Andrew A. Gawley—who showed how easily he could feed himself with his artificial limbs; and “Ossified Harry,” a “stone man” and likely sufferer of Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (all can be viewed here). Indeed, it was a different time.


1967 postcard of Old Town. Ripley's would have been on the right side several doors down.

1967 postcard of Old Town. Ripley’s would have been on the right side several doors down.

Another view, farther north, near North Ave.

Another view, farther north, near North Ave.

Jumping ahead 30 years, the Chicago Ripley’s museum—to use real estate lingo—perfectly fit Old Town’s “funky” “vibe,””man.” I wasn’t there in the 60s, of course, but most accounts concede that the neighborhood was Chicago’s answer to both Haight and Ashbury and Castro Street. The neighborhood was a folkie and jazz hangout, artists’ haven, and proto-Boystown. Long before Portland and Austin kept it weird, Old Town already was. Eventually, the area became a strange amalgam of adult entertainment businesses, hippie hangouts, tourist traps, and the like. When the Ripley’s Museum opened, Second City had been in business up the street at 1616 N Wells St. for nine years. Everyone from Steve Goodman to Janis Joplin to Miles Davis played the clubs up and down Wells. Down the street one found quirky shops, boites, and entertainment spots like the Royal London Wax Museum, Crate and Barrel’s first store, the Bijou Theater, and the Old Town School of Folk Music back when it was an Old Town folk music school.

Old Town by night. Note the picture of the wax museum. http://chuckmancollectionvolume13.blogspot.com/2012/10/postcard-chicago-old-town-district-4.html

Old Town by night. Note the picture of the wax museum.


The museum fit right in, standing out amidst a sea of roadside glitz. Modern Ripley’s museums like to look weird. They feature “collapsing” facades, “crashed” airplanes, sharks sticking out of the walls, and whatnot. The Chicago Ripley’s went for a cooler, darker look. The facade was extremely basic, yet striking as hell, fronted by a large illuminated sign of smoked glass and backlit images of the treasures to be found within: Weng the human unicorn; glowering Loo Min, the double-eyed man; an Ecuadoran shrunken head; the White House “made” of dimes; Grimaldi, the saddest of sad clowns; and more glowed luridly onto Wells Street. Slight changes were made to the signage over the years, as testified by the postcard up top and the screen capture below from, of all things, a Wilford Brimley movie: The End of the Line (now appearing on YouTube and, if you can find it, VHS).

The museum opened with a party on the evening of November 21, 1968. Reportedly, more than 500 people showed up. The Trib article covering the gala opened with the memorable optical illusion that greeted thousands of visitors in the lobby for the next 19 years: a giant floating faucet (see photo, snapped by Mr. Bill Rebel in 1976, and graciously donated to this piece). Seemingly suspended in mid-air, the faucet spilled out a thick and endless flow of water into a pebbly pond. It was a simple illusion. A tall, transparent pipe held the faucet in place by the nozzle, blasting water upwards that immediately gushed back down the sides, covering the pipe. As a special effect, it was pretty neat. My classmates and I gaped, trying to find the source of the flow. We knew it was a trick, but we suspended our disbelief even higher than that faucet.


The Trib’s party report provided a familiar litany of attractions mentioned in future articles. The 5.5 inch violin (that plays!); the grain of rice—inscribed with the alphabet!; a miniature gun!; a life-size mahogany statue of a headhunter!; the largest pair of women’s shoes in the whole wide world!; and (gasp!) a two-leaded pencil!. Tenth century Chinese politico Lie Ch’ung (aka Loo Min) the man with two sets of eyes stood by, doubly glaring and rendered in creepy wax form. Slight mention is made of the Ripley Catacombs, the lower area where Ripley’s spookier paraphernalia—the execution and torture devices, the graveyard of wacky epitaphs, and shrunken heads—were kept.

Thanks to Ted Okuda for contributing the Earl of Old Town business card and Loo Min ad.

Opening night was a hit, and the museum did presumably well enough with the locals and tourists over the next year to draw the attention of the local hoodlums. Things got exciting on July 14, 1969, when two men forced assistant manager Pat Tiemann to open the museum safe and stole a thousand bucks. After that, news items about the museum over the next few years are surprisingly unremarkable. On October 11, 1969, the Youth Guidance Council held a party in the Catacombs… to discuss plans for another party. Amidst the styrofoam gravestones for John Yeast (“Pardon Me for Not Rising”) and an Atheist (“All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go”), the council decided to invite Al Hirt to play their “Mardis Gras Carnival” at another famed Chicago weird spot, the Medinah Temple. The social column provided no specifics about the nature of the event, other than that Hirt’s poster was tacked to the wall near the grave of Lester Moore (“Here lies Lester Moore, Four Slugs from a .44, No Les, No Moore”).

A few years passed before the museum popped up in the news again. By the mid-70s, it’d become an off-the-beaten-track place—a weird, kitschy alternative to the usual family excursions and a spot for thrill-seekers. At the same time, management took pains to avoid looking cheesy and/or sleazy. For instance, the November 1, 1973 Trib ran an unusually promotional, not to mention defensive, piece titled “Ripley’s Business Is Booming.” We are informed that:

“Ripley’s officials are sensitive to any implication that they adversely affect an area, or contribute to a ‘honky-tonk’ atmosphere.”


“They note that Ripley’s left…Times Square because of a changed nature there.” (they’ve since returned, ever since the area experienced another nature change by transforming from a tawdry hellhole to a Disneyfied heckhole. It’s a telling article, marking a shift in the nature of the neighborhood and the surrounding area. It certainly wasn’t fair to criticize Ripley’s for turning Old Town into a somewhat musty/seedy gathering of porn shops and triple-X theaters. Old Town did that all by its lonesome.

Following that, my most distinct memory of my first visit was of a giant showgirl painted alongside, I assume, the building at 1447 N. Wells St.—tassels, g-string, top hat, and not much else. As we arrived and parked outside the museum, the boys of St. Damian caught sight of the two-story sexpot and went wild. Myself—less sexually mature than my fellows—I was more startled by the museum itself.

It seemed large to me, but I was smaller then. A skinny Irish-Catholic-American lad from the southwest burbs. The angel-food of my childish innocence was marbled by a chocolate streak of sadistic curiosity. I didn’t blast toads with firecrackers like the nasty kids down the block, but I still stood amazed at that which was gross, scary, and evil. I think Catholicism primes you for it.

I recall a hurried experience. Probably because there were 50 or more of us. I don’t remember which teachers took us or, certainly, why they took us there. Maybe the teachers and principal were as sick of the MSI and Field museums as we were. The trips I best remember were the out-of-the-ordinary ones. Ripley’s; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park home and studio; a tour of Hyde Park culminating in a stop by Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time and Muhammad Ali’s mansion, the bus driver joking that the Champ said he could stop by any time, but, unfortunately, no one was home that day. Darn. We didn’t see or hear-tell of such things in our post-war, organization-man suburb.

I don’t remember the exact dates I first visited the museum. I’m pretty sure both visits happened in 1979 or 1980. The first time was a school trip; the second time my dad drove us up to Old Town after I begged him to take me again. Here’s how I remember my visit.

(Note: I still have a museum guidebook in my possession. Foxing and falling apart everytime I open it, it’s a cheap little print job—filled with black and white photos. A photocopied 90s zine would have better quality pix, but unless a family album filled with Instamatic prints or Polaroids turns up, it’s the best visual record of the Chicago Ripley’s museum we have left. I’ve shared a few here.)

I recall the museum wasn’t made for meandering. You ascended a set of stairs, turned, and then headed left at the first entrance. The path past the exhibits (most stationed behind glass, set in the walls trophy case style) zigged and zagged and turned, but mostly you walked in one direction from entrance to exit.

The first display was a wax statue of Mr. Ripley, sitting at his desk, poring over stacks of letters and photographs. As I recall, it looked nothing like the man. I still found it fascinating—this balding, anachronistically dressed fellow—taxidermied and propped up like the extinct beasts at the Field Museum. The statue was accompanied by a more sanitized version of the Ripley bio I provided above.

crooked copy

After Mr. Ripley you came to the Crooked Lane section (I think; something tells me the Circus Sideshow section came first…but that’s just conjecture). The Crooked Lane confused me. The guidebook claimed “our street is…crooked, but straight” (meaning true). My schoolmates and I wondered if, through trickery, the jagged path before us was some kind of optical illusion. Neither irony nor subtleties of language had come to Oak Forest yet. In memory, I think I’ve conflated the Crooked Lane with the Museum of Science and Industry’s Yesterday’s Main Street exhibit. I suspect the resurrection of yesteryear through Ye Olde shop fronts was a museum trend at the time—they pop up in museums more often than you might imagine. The Crooked Lane’s exhibits were presented through similar old-timey shop windows, on a cobbled street shrouded in simulated gaslight.

Most of the museum’s non-creepy exhibits were on display here, though the occasional horror crept in. The Boot ‘n’ Shoe shop displayed “Scandinavian peasant’s slippers made out of tree bark”; Henry VIII’s nausea-inducing “gout shoes”; the aforementioned size 28 ladies shoes; and a “sabot,” a wooden shoe supposedly useful for destroying machinery (hence, “sabotage”; someone contact Mythbusters). One memorable exhibit was the $50,000 shoe. Made from the shredded remains of old US bank notes, it was a testimony to Ripley’s status as a weirdness/useless crap magnet. Employees at the US Treasury Department took the shredded remans of old bills, presumably glued them into shoe form, and sent it to him—for some damn reason. I remember it sitting under a single light, presented like the Hope Diamond. Truthfully, it looked like a baby shoe that ended up in a dog’s mouth. More than anything else in the museum, this exhibit made me ask “Why?” Did the Treasury frequently make greenback shoes? Have they made more since? To quote Robert Ripley, “I have found no greater oddity than man!” In the case of the frivolousness and vapidity of the $50,000 show you have to sit back and wonder what the hell its creators was thinking.

Yup, a skull bowl.

The music shop featured the world’s smallest violin, not sarcastically playing its sorrows for you. It seems Ripley’s Entertainment Inc. has an even smaller one now, measuring at a centimeter in length. Moving on, Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe brought the thunder. Displays included the katar, a knife resembling a psychotic set of triple-bladed garden shears that one would fold up, stick in the victim, and let spring open to release a geyser of human giblets. Then there was the Tibetan human skull bowl (“made from the skull of a saint”!), and a human skin mask from the Ekoi tribe of Nigeria. Yikes. Ripley collected such things back in the days when importation and customs laws were more relaxed. According to Wikipedia, shrunken head importation has been illegal since 1940. Sorry, I don’t feel like calling US Customs to confirm that, but their site indicates they’ve been asked before.


Not every exhibit was yucky. In fact, Ripley had an eye for banal wonders. The museum held “A Shoemaker’s Hammer, used continuously for 37 years.” Want more cow bell? The museum held Ripley’s prized humongous Indian oxen bell, which he used as a dinner gong. Out of the ordinary but hardly earth-shattering was the aforementioned “Pencil with Two Leads.” Truly messed-up was his collection of miscellaneous metallic crap found in cows’ stomachs by two earnest Nebraskan abattoir employees. For an extra touch of strange, the collection of “Bullet shells, pins, keys, bottles, screws, nails, buttons, wires, chains, coins…” were arranged in cow-shape on a piece of metal sheeting, and held up by the industrial magnets used to clear cow guts of such scrap metal. Finally, the easily nauseated may have wished they’d avoided the alleged world’s largest hairball: weighing five pounds and change and measuring 30 1/4 inches around. Educational!

As you turned the corner you found the Weird Arts Gallery, repository of common and now (perhaps justifiably) lost and/or unsettling arts and crafts once in the skill set of every homemaker. For example, the 19th and 20th Century human hair wreaths, woven by ladies of the day in commemoration of weddings and funerals. I was drawn to the miniature guillotine, a hideous, primitive, foot-high tiny instrument of death. Built by Devil’s Island prisoner Eugene Roby out of scraps from the prison workshop, it was supposedly sharp enough to amputate a finger. You first.

Folk art got a fair showing at the museum, with apple-headed dolls, beef bone carvings, paintings made of cancelled stamps, a violin and ukulele constructed of spent matchsticks (yet playable!), and chains carved from blocks of wood. Along one wall were displayed several typewriter paintings—pictures made from typing with different color ribbons. Richard Guetl, a Chicagoan, contributed a truly amazing replica of the Columbian Exposition ferris wheel, made of liquid cement, ball bearings, and 14,000 toothpicks. Our ancestors enjoyed copious free time and fewer distractions.


The deeper you went the more sinister things became. The World of Mother Goose and Circus Sideshow exhibits were inhabited by memorably freaky wax statues. Double-eyed Loo Min (aka Lie Ch’ung), “Governor of Shansi and Minister of State in 995 AD” hung out here. Loo Min’s statue was a captivating if horrifying wonder in itself. Modern versions of the Chinese minister in other museums have a more benign and goofy countenance. The Chicago Loo Min was the personification of the Yellow Peril. Moreover, he became a kind of ambassador for the museum, turning up on their trifold brochure, business cards, and at least one comic book cover.


Loo Min occupied space with another Ripley’s notable, the presumably non-wax two-headed calf. I’m convinced I saw the two-headed calf in a Lincoln Avenue antique store in the 90s, and my wife tells me she saw it during a house-walk in Logan Square, but I have no corroboration on that. Loo and the double-headed calf were joined by Grimaldi, the funniest, most depressed clown alive; Simon Pure (real name Simon P. Crone), a sorry bastard who’d never (in 1935) “seen an airplane, ship, wedding, ballgame, or a building more than four stories high…smoked, drank, gambled, danced, played cards, been married, engaged, had a sweetheart or been kissed in his life”; Demetrio Ortiz, who could spin 360° at the waist; Charles Charlesworth, the boy who died of old age at seven years old (likely progeria, except the statue and story presented the young/old Mr. Charlesworth as bearded); and Mother Biddy Cassels, who sat on a hundred chicken eggs until they hatched. A tape-recorded carnival barker yelped overhead, cracking wise about Loo Min “keeping an eye on the competition.” Yeah, that level of humor.

sideshow copy


As you moved on to the Catacombs, I recall the path taking a slight dip, or perhaps a trip down the stairs. Either way a descent was suitable. The Ripley catacombs reminded me of my sneak peeks at the works of Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, S. Gross, and other “sick” cartoonists in the off-limits section of my dad’s comic strip collection. Gahan Wilson wrote and illustrated an account of a visit to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum’s Chamber of Horrors for Playboy, describing the gore and grue there with horror and delight.


I wanted me some of that, and the Ripley’s Catacombs provided a smattering of waxy terror. The area was creepy as hell. Dark and populated by weirdoes and murderers even more disturbing than the sideshow freaks upstairs. Catacomb inhabitants consisted of grim, murderous, or body-punishing dungeon-dwellers. Like the “Sun Worshipper,” a dude Ripley saw and drew in the Magar Pir leper colony at Karachi. The Sun Worshipper knelt and stared at the sun for a hour every day. I still recall his mustachioed statue, a square of projected light beamed across its face from his slitted cell window. Then there was Chang T’ung the mummified monk/human sconce whose corpse served as a candle holder in his temple for 300 years after his death. I remember being particularly unnerved by Mr. T’ung’s positioning at the end of a short hallway, off to the side. Elsewhere, Ripley loved the hell out of Indian fakirs: the museum had a fellow named Bhumi astride a bed of nails. A year shy of learning about the horrors of John Wayne Gacy’s crawlspace, I recall being numbed at the story and image of Buhram (Behram), member of the Thuggee sect and purported strangler of 931 men. Another eye-opener was Ripley’s personal replica of the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg. Recent scholarship suggests that the Iron Maiden is just the product of active 19th century imaginations, but the quintuple-penetrated victim seen through the slightly opened door of the device was repulsively convincing to my young mind.

One odd prisoner was Alypius, the 17 1/2″ dwarf who was imprisoned in a bird cage, and looking as happy about it as you can imagine. Nearby was the horrifyingly cramped Cell of Little Ease in the Tower of London, just “four foot high, two feet wide, and 16 inches deep,” leaving no room to sit, stand, or lie down. Per the Ripley literature, this was where Gunpowder Plot conspirator and future V for Vendetta/Anonymous/Occupy Wall Street icon was stashed for a time. Fawkes’ wax simulacrum looked like he was performing a very literal mime routine.


And then there were the shrunken heads—set in their own case like Tiffany jewels, I believe. Ah, the shrunken heads. Ripley loved ’em, and managed to gather up a few before the US forbade further importation. Despite this, the man still got laid. We boys gathered around the tsantsa. I don’t know what the girls did. Probably waited their turns. Mummies and grandparents excluded, I hadn’t seen many cadavers on display before then, never you mind preserved parts. As I recall they seemed entirely fake, though maybe that was a psychological shield thrown up by my brain. What I really remember is that they looked dusty, desiccated, and monstrous. Relics of a pulpier time.

In the April 29, 1979 issue of the Trib, we find a rare mention of a more poorly recorded areas of the museum—the utterly nuts Witchcraft Gallery. As it turns out, Ripley’s bought British Wiccan Gerald Gardner’s collection of witchcraft paraphernalia from his high priestess, Monique Wilson, back in 1973, and displayed it at their San Francisco and Gatlinburg, TN, museums. When local religious groups complained about the Gatlinburg “Museum of Witchcraft and Magic,” it was quickly renamed “World of the Unexplained.” I don’t think Chicago got the wax statue of a “skyclad” witch Gatlinburg had, but it was still memorable.

My guidebook makes no mention of the Witchcraft Gallery, which leads me to believe it was a much later addition. Nevertheless, the gallery sticks out in my mind more than any other section. I especially remember its electronic music soundtrack by electronic music composer Richard Kitaeff (no further information available, though a Google search leads me to believe he’s running an oriental medicine clinic now) composed of chants, clings, clangs, crashes, beeps, buzzes, whirrs, and chirps. As my fellow Catholic kids and I entered the room—catercorner to the aforementioned indoor graveyard of quippy gravestones—I remember seeing two long display cases and dozens of objects that resembled props from a 70s Italian horror flick or Night Stalker episode. Here, to my goggling chump’s eyes were “real” voodoo dolls, “real” curse-flinging devices, “real” lucky charms, and the like. It was like sitting in Lucifer’s armory, where he slips into his flak jacket and ass-kicking boots while attaching guns, grenades, and crossbow bolts to his belts with a loud, satisfying “chi-chink” sound. Man, did the nuns rush us out of there. Dad, bless him, let me linger.

Note: The gallery trapped a certain indelible image in my head forever, but that’s another story.

Passing through the graveyard, it seemed like my visit to the museum was over before it began. Unless my memory is faulty, it ended ala Barnum with a sign advertising “This Way to the Egress.” A fitting and appropriately humbuggy way to end a trip to Ripley’s.




“We do deliver a legitimate museum,” former Chicago Ripley’s Museum manager Joseph Long told the Trib. Well, it wasn’t the Smithsonian, but they tried. Aside from the tourists and daytrippers, the clientele reportedly was half school groups like my own, on “educational trips.” That, however, was a mushy description. What the hell kind of educational value did the two-headed calf deliver? What lesson did we learn from Behram? Stay in school? Don’t do drugs? Avoid Kali? Perhaps it wasn’t disingenuous for the museum to claim it had educational value so much as an attempt to distance itself from its increasingly sketchy surroundings.

By 1979, Old Town had become less “quirky” and “funky” and more “skid-rowey.” In an August 3, 1979 column, Aaron Gold of the Trib’s Tower Ticker gossip column reported on the Old Town I remember, its fringes descending into a skeezy strip of sex stores, junkies, and closed businesses. But Chicago always finds a way… to make money. The 80s saw a resurgence, Yuppie dough turned Old Town into the genteel, gentrified area it is today. At the time, the museum still had seven years left to it, though, per Gold, 11 “x-rated bars and bookstores” had recently closed.

By this point, museum mentions had diminished to short blurbs in the Trib’s summer fun and spoooooooooky things to do on Halloween lists. In 1979, one such section promised both “thrills” and “chills” for a pretty reasonable $1.50 for adults/75 cents for kids 12 and under admission. Later on, current arts and jazz critic for the Tribune, Howard Reich wrote a survey piece, the headline of which asked “What’s so Eerie about Chicago?” It covered the usual flapdoodle about Windy City specters like Resurrection Mary and bellowing phantom circus elephants from hell or whatever, at Forest Park’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Aside from the tragic and unsolved murders of the Grimes sisters, the only true horrors were Ripley’s “shrunken heads, mummies, and instruments of torture” which caused “spines to tingle on a daily basis.”

Reich returned February 6, 1981, with a piece on wacky outings with a focus on unusual local museums. For fans of freaky forgotten Chicago, it’s heart-breaking. Once again, Reich recalls Ripley fan favorites like the two-headed calf, the world’s smallest violin, the White House made of 6,057 dimes, the “circus room,” the Catacombs, and the toothpick ferris wheel. Prices had jumped, but you still got your fair share of eccentricity at Ripley’s at $3 for adults, and $1.75 for kids. Reich mentioned other, long-gone Chicago roadside wonders as well. Svoboda’s Nickelodeon Tavern was a south side pub stocked with coin-operated pianos, calliopes, orchestrions, and the like (more info at the links, if you’re a depression-seeking antiquarian). To my black heart’s grief I missed out on the Royal London Wax Museum down the street from Ripley’s at 1419 N. Wells. This tourist trap featured waxen idols of historical figures, 60s–70s celebrities (Burt Reynolds in his Cosmopolitan centerfold pose is mentioned), royalty, and a slew of goons for their own Chamber of Horrors. If the Chicago Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum is poorly commemorated, the wax museum is even more so. One Trib magazine article provides tantalizing and grainy images of Frankenstein’s monster, Al Capone, and others. Alas.

In 1985, Ripley’s Entertainment Inc. was bought by James Pattison (the current owners of Ripley Entertainment Inc.). At the time,  Ripley’s had more than 6,000 employees, sales totaled at $1 billion, and the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! TV show (hosted by Jack Palance and his daughter Holly) had been on the air for three years. By the mid-eighties, the museum was reportedly still doing okay, but the tourists had tapered off. Old Town was gentrifying into a neat and clean yuppie haven, with the head shops, folk bars, porn palaces, and weirdo attractions vanishing fast. Crate and Barrel, Piper’s Alley, Barbara’s Bookstore, Up Down Tobacco Shop, The Fudge Pot, That Steak Joynt, and other local businesses that had grown up with the area, were still in business, but probably not with the aid of mummified monks or voodoo exhibits. It seems the Bijou theater is the only remnant of the old weird Old Town, but having a specialized clientele has probably helped.

Suddenly, after just 19 years in business, the museum owners—the Canadian firm of (then-called) Ripley’s International in Toronto—wanted see if anyone was in the market for an odditorium, putting the place up for sale for $649,000. A Trib piece explained that their reasons were twofold, citing “the increasing demand for commercial property in the area, and quoting vice president of operations Norman Deska: “It gets harder and harder to find strange things that amaze people… There are only so many shrunken heads in the world.” By July 29, Ripley’s found a buyer—The Chicago Clock Company (now The Chicago Clock Company & Gifts). Formerly located on Michigan Ave., they planned to turn the building into a clock store/upstairs nightclub. I’m not sure how that worked out for them, but they no longer occupy the property.

Unlike most stories of lost Chicago, the museum’s tale isn’t punctuated by a wrecking ball. Instead its contents were scattered to the four corners of the earth its progenitor knew so well. The final show was the Ripley’s auction, which took place Thursday, August 20, 1987. Imagine a yard sale of the Id. The shrunken heads weren’t on the block—so to speak—nor were the other one-of-a-kind curios, like Cleopatra’s pastry barge, the toothpick ferris wheel, and the biggest educational hairball in the world. These were packed up and shipped off for storage at the Ripley’s Museum in St. Augustine, FL, before (assumedly) being sent to other Ripley’s museums. What remained up for bid were mostly props, decorations, and some shopworn exhibits.

Trib interviews with auction participants reveal a happy, lively bunch of aficionados of the bizarre. Edward Allard dropped $220 on John Yeast’s gravestone, and the mannequin victim of the museum’s authentically fake iron maiden. A photograph accompanying the article shows a chipper Mr. Allard toting his new roommate—whom he referred to as “the gory chick”—down Wells. He picked up a few of the glass panels from the outside sign as well. I was unsuccessful in my attempts to contact Mr. Allard; hopefully, he’ll stumble across this article and share his stories. However, one auction participant did turn up online and agreed to an interview.

In 1987, Chicago musician Mark J. Panick (@markpanick) was assistant art director at the Limelight nightclub (formerly known as Excalibur; recently relaunched as The Castle; but once known as the Chicago Historical Society’s original location). The auction article describes Mr. Panick and his former boss, Limelight art director Tim Chapman purchasing several statues, including (in his words) “the fat man, the Chinese midget, and the 7-year-old who died of old age,” intending to use them for ambience at the two-year-old Limelight. I asked him to fill me in on his experience.


Had you been to the Ripley’s Museum on Wells Street before? Any memories of the place or Old Town at the time?

I remember going there as a kid. It was a cool creepy place. I recall thinking the figures were actual bodies covered in wax…which made it more appealing somehow.

What brought you to the auction? What do you remember about that day?

Wild Bill, the manager for Limelight (mine and Tim’s boss at the time), read about the auction and he and Peter Gatien decided that we should go and buy up as much cool and freaky (stuff) as we could get out mitts on.

According to the Trib article, you and Tim Chapman purchased 10 wax figures, including “the fat man, the Chinese midget, and the 7-year-old who died of old age.” Did you go there with the intent of purchasing those specific pieces?

No, in those days we were always competing with the set dressers for films that were being shot in town and we were often outspent. So we went with the notion that we’d take what we could get. I personally purchased the smallest pick pocket who was some Middle Eastern person who was supposedly imprisoned in a bird cage. I really wanted the bird cage as well but was outbid.

All those wax figures were constructed by an old Italian artisan—they had glass eyes, were very detailed, and the costumes were outstanding. The oddest thing I remember is how every time we placed one of these figures in the glass cases in the club, some drunken frat boy would either smash the glass to get at the figure or attempt to destroy them. We stopped displaying them because of this. There was a theory put forth that somehow they were cursed.

I have to tell you strange things went on in that Limelight, especially at night when everyone was gone. A lot of dead bodies were stored there temporarily after the Eastland disaster and a few people also died in the club. When I took my little figure (which I affectionately called Achmed) home he sat on a shelf. One day I came home to find him clear on the other side of the room with his head smashed open, just like what happened to most of the figures we had in the club. Only this seemed self-inflicted somehow. It creeped the hell out of me and most of my visiting friends as well. I glued him back together and built a little coffin for him and displayed him that way for years. I no longer have him, he was lost in the great Panick diaspora.

Do you remember the others you bought? Of special interest to me, did you get Lie Ch’ung the double-pupiled man?

We also purchased the fattest man and the Chinese cat with the horn, and a few others I cannot remember now.

What did you do with them? How were they displayed?

Limelight had big glass display cases we would decorate in some theme like Childhood (a kid’s bedroom, a dentist office, etc.) And the club would hire the unemployable artist collectives like “The Family Plan,” to populate the cases and “act”—usually stream of consciousness hilarity ensued. We just injected these items/creatures into the life stream of the installations. Not always with continuity but always weirdness.

Did you pick up any other pieces at the auction?

Just the wax figures. A lot of the set type pieces we were outbid on.

Do you remember who you dealt with at Ripley’s? What was the clientele like? Did you know/do you still know, any of the patrons who bought stuff that day?

No, we really didn’t know the other bidders/buyers and I no longer recall who we dealt with regarding the purchases.

Do you think Excalibur still has those wax figures somewhere? If not, do you know what happened to them?

I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of the bodies still exist somewhere up in that attic that we used as art direction offices. Most, if not all, of the heads sadly were systematically smashed by drunken clientele. The only one that survived intact was the Chinese horned man, as I recall.


I knew it was a false hope, but I prayed to the ghost of Robert LeRoy Ripley that I’d be confronted with one of the former Ripley’s Museum waxworks in Excalibur’s basement or attic. How wonderful a bookend it would be for this piece, standing eye to eye to eye to eye to eye to eye with Loo Min in some cobwebby corner. But an e-mail to Castle management told me there were no statues to be found there. A shame.



The museum’s building still stands. They’ve retained the name of the “Believe It or Not Building”, but that’s as interesting as it gets. Stripped of its exhibits, it’s a bland and unremarkable space. Its 7,259 square feet were adjusted to house small businesses like the hair and nail salons and insurance agents currently conducting business there. While I’ve taken shots of the exterior, I’ve yet to go inside. I imagine it would be disappointingly unrecognizable absent the faucet, graves, and wax works.


I Wanted to Believe

Perhaps the Chicago Ripley’s museum’s closing was a mercy killing.

If there weren’t enough shrunken heads in the world to bring in the marks and rubes in the late 80s, how would the museum have fared in the Internet age? Most of the museum’s shocks and wonders in 1987 would be positively anticlimactic today. Seeing a potato chip shaped like a treble clef was quite something in 1968. Now Jesus, Mary, and Elvis are turning up in foodstuffs everywhere. The longest chain of gum wrappers (90 feet, 2,500 wrappers, started by Bruce Kidd age 12 in 1967, and finished by his good friend John Collen when Kidd died of cystic fibrosis in 1968) was something else. But while Collen’s 300 hours of work are touching, they’re pathetically brief beside the current record-holder, Gary Duschl’s 71,000 feet (and extending) gum wrapper serpent. Cleopatra’s pastry barge seems old hat to any any viewer of Ace of Cakes. Berhram and other human monsters of the Catacombs may have had the (unverified) kill counts, but pale beside boogeymen of recent memory like Jeffrey Dahmer or Anders Breivik. Moreover, Ripley hired fact-checkers, but one suspects a good story usually won out over veracity. Captain Savain, the supercentarian who allegedly died in a Russian jail at the age of 144 was undoubtedly a fraud. What’s more, he was put to shame by the verifiably venerable Jeanne Louise Calment, 122 years and 164 days.

And a 90-year-old orange and double-leaded pencil? What, and furthermore, why?

Was the museum so very remarkable? Perhaps only to my suburban kid’s eyes. At age 11 or 12, my life had already achieved a sameness and commonality of occurrence, and the weirdness of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum was a revelation. I knew what each day would bring, and while life had its wonders, let us admit to ourselves that we can’t feel awe at the mundane and familiar without trying too hard. Perhaps we can see God’s face in a child’s smile, a rainbow’s colors, or a flower’s bloom—but when you think about it, that’s a whole lot of God faces. Sometimes we don’t want to see God’s face. Sometimes we want to see the Devil’s. Strengthen my belief (or not), oh ghost of Robert L. Ripley. Bring me shrunken heads and mummified oranges, however indistinguishable they may be from one another. Fetch hither the poly-occular Chinese ambassador and iron maidens. Send in the suicidal clowns.

Note: Comments and memories of the museum are encouraged, but I’ve shut off the comments feature due to spam. please contact me at chicagosteppes@mrdankelly.com.

by Dan Kelly

rlr1 copy

Chicago and Crime and History22 Mar 2013 06:32 pm

Another offering from the Chicago Daily News Almanac and Yearbook for 1908, the impressively corrupt Mayor Fred Busse and fellow city officials. Looks like facial hair was on the way out.


Chicago and History and Loop20 Mar 2013 05:07 am


I love this ad, it’s so mysterious. I believe the controls were intended for printers, but perhaps they manufactured remote control devices for Bond villains on the side. Haven’t found much online about the Kohler Brothers, except a few more ads they placed with the Chicago Daily News Almanac and Yearbook. I’ll dig a little more in the Trib archives. I like that they had offices in the lovely Fisher Building.

Chicago and History and Loop and Louis Sullivan and Old Photos and Preservation and The Hidden07 Mar 2013 05:56 am

Here’s an ad cribbed from a badly battered copy of the Chicago Daily News Almanac and Yearbook for 1908 I recovered from a friend’s trash. I’ll be running a few other interesting scans from the book in the coming week.


E.W. Blatchford Co., for a very long time, made lead shot at the Clinton address. The building once had a distinctive shot tower that can be seen on this package. It was, apparently, quite the eye-catching landmark back in the day.


Obviously, it was not a giant rook, despite what their logo would have you believe.

Of special note, after the factory suffered a fire in 1889, the firm of Adler and Sullivan was commissioned to redesign the interior. Today it’s a condo. See what it looks like today and learn more about this and other Adler and Sullivan fragments at my site.

By the way, the E.W. stood for the amazing first and second name of Eliphalet Wickes.

Architecture and Englewood and History and Old Photos06 Mar 2013 12:20 am

Another picture from the same book.


Art and Chicago and Crime and History and Humboldt Park and Lincoln Park and Statues31 Aug 2012 06:24 pm

Why does Chicago hate statues?

Not all of them, of course. The Picasso in Daley Plaza (dedicated August 15, 1967, to hoots and howls of derision) stuck around and endeared itself into becoming a city symbol. Eastwards, the branding scheme that is “The Bean” (aka Clod Bait) is bucking for its job. But many, smaller Chicago idols have been less-blessed, drawing neither tourists nor public sympathy when either defiled, dumped, or disappeared.

Trib writer Donald Yabushi wrote an August 17, 1972 piece about the louts, thieves, and vandals who’d destroyed the Park District’s priceless collection of statuary through the previous century. The article, noting that the PD’s collection totaled about 79 pieces at the time, included a seething quote from Chicago city architect Charles H. Dornbusch:

“It’s a damn shame that these morons and goons can’t find anything better to do than mutilate statues.”

While I completely agree, it should be specified that the morons and goons’ motivations have varied.

Chicago hasn’t always mistreated its statuary. The city experienced a monument boom during the 1890s and 1930s, placing bronzed portrayals of various personages in its parks, on its streets, and elsewhere. Statues tended to be raised through the efforts of four different groups:

  1. Rich benefactors wanting to give something back to the community (along with their names, usually listed somewhere on the monument);
  2. Childrens’ groups who saved their pennies;
  3. Social societies, most often from particular European backgrounds who wanted to display a little ethnic pride; and
  4. Veteran’s groups, who presented the usual men of war.

With such respectable civic pedigrees, you’d think there’d be greater sympathy toward Chicago’s marble and metal citizens. But, as in any urban environment, if it stands for too long in one place, it’ll be either tagged, damaged, or otherwise vanished by the city’s louts. Yet, the reasoning—if you can call it that—behind such acts differs, running from kicks to politics to profit, and in one case to an act of God.

I’ll just say it: Chicago hates statues. Consider the following as evidence.



The Haymarket Police Memorial is the granddaddy of Chicago statue damage. Certainly, it’s its biggest survivor. Targeted for destruction by the actual forces of anarchy since its 1889 dedication, where other idols have fallen, the bronze cop remains standing like a bronze Rasputin.

The Haymarket Affair remains an open sore in Chicago history, offering a chance to wave the bloody shirt for both left and right, Labor and Capital. On May 4, 1886, 1,000 protesters (mostly workers from the McCormick Harvester plant) gathered in Haymarket Square (on South Desplaines Street, between Lake and Randolph) to demand an eight-hour work day. Someone in the crowd had a different idea, as well as a bomb.

Several speakers addressed the crowd from a wagon set up at the corner, including labor activist and anarchist Samuel Fielden. As he finished the police arrived—180 cops in all, headed by Captain William Ward and Police Inspector “Black Jack” John Bonfield. Ward reportedly held up his hand and said:

“In the name of the people of the state of Illinois, I command peace.”

Though another account claims he declared:

“I command you [Fielden] in the name of the law to desist and you [the crowd] to disperse.”

However, the cap’n might possibly have said:

“In the name of the people of the State of Illinois, quietly and peaceably disperse.” 

Who knows? Accounts vary, and anyway his words were soon drowned out.

As Fielden stepped off the wagon, someone threw a dynamite-filled, lead bomb at the police. The bomb exploded, fragging Officer Mathias Degnan with the initial blast, and peppering several others who died later. The cops began shooting. Some reports claim the protesters instigated a gun battle, while others said no, that wasn’t the case. As it stood, Degnan died on the scene, six other cops died of their injuries later, 60 policemen were injured, and an estimated 76 civilians were wounded (Fielden himself took a shot). It’s unclear how many civilians died during the shooting.


The trial quickly followed, and several anarchists (including Fielden)—some present at Haymarket Square, others not—were found guilty of conspiracy and murder. All were sentenced to hang, though two had their  sentences commuted to life by Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby. One other, Louis Lingg, literally blew his head off with a blasting cap smuggled into his cell the night before his execution. The four remaining men (Spies, Parsons, Fischer, and Engel) were hanged at the Cook County Jail on November 11, 1887. Frustratingly, the bomber’s identity remains unknown. The entire story of the Haymarket Affair is too large and fractious to be adequately covered here, so I advise a visit to the Chicago Historical Society’s site for greater detail.

Shortly thereafter, it was decided that it was necessary to commemorate the events at Haymarket. Before it even existed, the statue brewed controversy when the Chicago Tribune held a contest to design it. A committee of 25 local businessmen—cleverly called the Committee of Twenty-Five—was established to determine how to best consecrate the shadowed ground. No anarchists or laborers, we may assume, were consulted.

Danish-American artist Johannes Sophus Gelert got the commission. Mr. Gelert is perhaps best-known for sculpting the Herald statue that crowned the now-demolished Herald Building at 165 W. Washington St. (the statue is now located in St. Ignatius College Prep’s architectural fragment garden at 1076 W. Roosevelt Rd.) and the large medallions bearing the heads of Wagner, Haydn, Shakespeare, and Demosthenes hanging in the theater of Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Building.

On April 14, 1888, Gelert showed off his model to the 25 in his Art Institute studio. It was scarcely a good gig for Gelert. He had to cover all materials, transportation, casting, and remaining expenses with no more than $4,000 in his budget.

As explained in the article, the statue was designed to feature “a forum, a pedestal and the statue of the officer in full uniform with helmet hat.” Being a product of the reliably conservative Tribune, the article snippily states:

“The forum is so constructed that it can be used as a place for public speaking, therein giving a complete answer to the charge of the Anarchists that free speech is forbidden.”

The irony that the statue’s “right hand is raised to enjoin obedience” was lost on the writer, as was the presence of a billy club at the police officer’s side. “Black Jack” John Bonfield earned his nickname, you see, by keeping the peace with his nightstick—particularly striking strikers..

Not so with the editorialist who wrote a later op-ed piece suggesting the statue established the officer not as the law’s agent, but rather its enforcer—a “monarch” towering over the people he was meant to protect. Feeling saucy, the writer sarcastically asked if the copper-based cop shouldn’t be more of an action figure:

“Shall the action be hitting a head? Shall it be running after a thief? Shall it be handing ladies over a crossing? Shall his sugar scoop helmet be on his head according to regulations?”

More seriously and succinctly, the writer demanded the statue show “that it is law, not the hickory club that is sovereign in Chicago.”

The unveiling took place May 4, 1889, the third anniversary of the riot. A parade of cops, bands, and singers were present. Mr. R. T. Crane of the Committee of Twenty Five presented the statue to Mayor DeWitt Clinton Cregier, while the Hon. Leonard Swett—Abe Lincoln pal, attorney to the Haymarket defendants, and a participant in the commitment of Mary Todd Lincoln to the insane asylum—gave a speech. Chiseled beneath the statue was Captain Ward’s default phrase: “In the name of the people of the state of Illinois, I command peace.”

Anarchists, workers, and citizens injured or otherwise affected by the bombing and shoot-out were perturbed by the highlighting of cops over non-cops, and emotions over the executions of Spies, Parsons, Fischer, and Engel remained raw for the next hundred years.

In seven short years the statue looked shabby. The iron fence surrounding it was “bent and twisted” from constant side-swiping by passing wagons. Public works took half-assed action, placing granite blocks around the base, which interfered even more with  traffic (many wondered why the statue was placed, among all possible locations, in the middle of the intersection; the cop’s outstretched hand did nothing to stem traffic). Mud, fruits, vegetables, bricks, and tin cans, spattered and surrounded the pedestal, heaved not by hecklers, but instead escaped from the carts of the costermongers who set up their wagons nearby. The statue was relocated to Union Park, near the elbow of Ogden and Randolph.

Despite the move the bronze cop continued to be brutalized. May 4, 1927, on the 41st anniversary of the riot, a street car carrying 20 passengers hopped the tracks and smashed into the statue. Motorman William Schultz broke his ankle and several passengers were treated for slighter injuries. Luckily, it was the first year since 1886 that the surviving cops (only 23 left by that point) hadn’t assembled to commemorate the event. Local lore claims that Schultz was sick of seeing the Haymarket policemen standing there day in and day out as he trolleyed by, but this seems apocryphal. Per the papers, the trolley’s air brakes  failed. The cop was none the worse for wear—and resting comfortably on the ground—but while his pedestal required repair, he was otherwise undamaged and soon restored.

Across the 20th Century, the Haymarket cop was moved thrice, from Haymarket Square to Randolph and Ogden; then to Warren and Ogden in Union Park; then back to Haymarket Square near Randolph and Des Plaines, though 200 feet west of original site. He was also given a brand-new pedestal. On June 2, 1957, the cop was relocated to its original site at the northeast corner of Randolph and Union Streets. Speeches were made, but by this time most of the original participants in the Haymarket Affair were deceased. The last cop standing, Police Captain Frank P. Tyrrell, died 10 years before, but was represented by his son. The rededication couldn’t keep the bronze cop on his new beat though. A year later he was removed to the Randolph Street overpass, commanding peace over the newly built Kennedy Expressway. Later, in 1965, it was designated an historical landmark, but the quiet days (save the occasional tomato or trolley-jostling) were over.

Former statue location over the Kennedy.


Dynamite exploded between the cop’s legs on October 5, 1969, toppling it from its pedestal, shattering  100 nearby windows, and showering the Kennedy with debris. History repeated itself, and the new Haymarket bomber remained unknown. Unlike the original bombing, however, no one died.

A year later, to the day, the statue was again dynamited from its pedestal, but this time an individual identifying himself as “Mr. Weatherman” called the papers, and claimed credit for the Weather Underground. Mr. Weatherman declared that the statue was blown into two large chunks “to show allegiance to our brothers in the New York prisons and our black brothers everywhere.” Days later, another story emerged when an unidentified woman wrote to the Chicago Free Press, claiming she’d participated in the bombing, intending it to be a signal for further explosions. “Blowing up the pig statue was easy,” she said, stating that months before a Weatherman cut his hair and took a job in southern Illinois as a construction company watchman to pilfer the required dynamite.

Original recipe Mayor Richard Daley was livid, and ordered 24/7 police protection for the cop. This prompted a peculiar letter to the Trib from one “S.J. Mirecki.” Mirecki calculated that the round-the-clock guardianship of the Haymarket cop was running about 50 grand a year (the Tribune says it was $68 grand), and suggested instead that the natural bronze police be covered by a plastic bubble, “television replay cameras,” and “bulletproof floodlights” (Mr./Ms. Mirecki apparently didn’t calculate what such hi-tech surveillance/containment might run). The idea went unheard, and the statue was once again moved elsewhere.

Deciding the best defense was a building of cops, the peace-commanding officer received a transfer to Police HQ. After a thorough cleaning, it was briefly stored before the move. But he wasn’t done moving yet. Four years later, the Haymarket cop went undercover after being moved to the Chicago Police Academy’s courtyard (1300 W. Jackson), away from public view.

"In the name of the people of Illinois... I SAID, 'IN THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE OF ILLINOIS...'"


In 2007, the statue was re-rededicated at its current location, the newish police headquarters building at 3510 S. Michigan. The statue is once more on public display, in that you can see it if you stand on the 35th Street sidewalk. I wasn’t feeling courageous enough to ask the nice officer in the booth if I could approach the statue. The “Police Access Only” sign on the parking lot gate seemed to answer my question.

By the way, the police-commemorating Haymarket Monument isn’t the sole memorial to the tragedy. A semi-abstract, labor-friendlier monument bearing faceless Playmobil-like figures propped around and atop a wagon has stood at the original site since 2004. And way back in 1893, a monument to the anarchists was set up in Forest Park’s German Waldheim Cemetery. Standing above Lingg, Spies, Fischer, Engel, and Parsons’ graves is an heroic Albert Weinert statue of Lady Justice—laying a laurel on a dead worker’s head while drawing her sword.

General John A. Logan’s monument in Grant Park has seen considerably less abuse, though it may be more recognizable to outsiders. The general was a Civil War hero and politician, and was instrumental in the creation of Memorial Day. His monument, however, is best known for being infested by yippies during the 1968 Democratic Convention. When not being crawled upon by young revolutionaries, however, the General regularly had his sword snapped off by souvenir-seeking idiots. By 1972 the General had been symbolically castrated no less than four times, each sword costing 400 bucks (1970s money) to replace.

DN-0050248, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.


While most statue damage can be attributed to kicks-seeking idiots, some statue defilers  apparently consider themselves art and social critics. The Weathermen editorialized with dynamite, but some vandals prefer mixed media. Naturally, taggers and other graffiti-scribbling doofuses have always been with us (a photo from Yabushi’s article shows the base of Lincoln Park’s Lincoln monument scrawled with the peculiar graffito “MICKEY MOUSE”), but their defilement, motivated by brainless self-promotion, is rarely directed at the work itself. Art-hating vandals, however, have presented their criticisms via color-coded commentary.

The Goethe statue, in Lincoln Park took its share of anti-Germanic sentiment during WWI. The fact that German immigrants loyal to the US had helped build (and rebuild) Chicago in the previous century, and dedicated other, less-attacked monuments across the city (including ones for Beethoven, Schiller, Alexander Von Humboldt, and others, was irrelevant. Sculpted by Herman Hahn and dedicated in 1913, the not-the-least-bit-homoerotic statue can be found saucily thrusting out his hip and derriere while proudly showing off his pet eagle at N. Sheridan Rd. and W. Diversey Pkwy. The statue doesn’t depict Goethe himself—in his later years he somewhat resembled Geoffrey Rush—but instead represents his art, ideals, and status as (per the inscription) “The Master Mind of the German People.”

On the evening of May 7, 1918, two bravely anonymous individuals splattered the statue with yellow paint. Individuals unpossessed of climbing or hurling ability, it appeared, since the statue was only yellow from the knees down. They left a note explaining their art action and revealing the country had a more literate brand of jingo back then.

I'm too sexy for this pedestal.


“An empathic protest from a free people against the retention of what has always been an offense against art, and now is a challenge to loyalty. Shall this park, named for the illustrious Lincoln, continue to harbor such an enormity or will the people of Chicago insist on its immediate removal? [signed] TWO AMERICANS”

Very likely the statue’s massiveness and the comparatively small stature of the two Americans led to nothing more than spattered shins and a sticky paint puddle near the statue’s base. The US flag’s colors may not run, but the anonymous paint-vandals and their pigment did.

Per the papers of the day, other anonymous threats were made to toss the “enormity” into Lake Michigan. Such individuals were likely unaware that the statue weighs several tons. Admittedly, witnessing an angry mob hoisting and toting it lakeside would have been something to see.

The Goethe statue’s fiercest critic was Mother Nature. On the rainy morning of September 14, 1951, local residents were shaken awake by an enormous thunderclap. After the storm the Goethe and its base were found ridden with cracks and “twisted.” The nastiest spot of damage, however, was its left foot, now splayed wide open. In all likelihood, the statue was smote with a lightning bolt, which exited through its body and out the furthest limb.

The police cordoned off the area, and the Goethe statue was left to stand on its sore foot for two years before being removed for repairs. Chicago sculptor Fred Torrey cast a new bronze foot from the original model. Torrey’s other local work includes the bas-reliefs adorning 333 N. Michigan Avenue, and the memorial plaque of the capture of the U-505 Submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry. By July 14, 1954, the Goethe was reshod, cleaned, polished, and set aright on its pedestal.

333 N. Michigan Avenue

Decades later, Joan Miró’s sculpture Chicago (originally titled The Sun, the Moon, and One Star) had been nestled between the Cook County Administration Building and the Chicago Temple—stuck in an eternal face-off with the Picasso across the way—for a few bare days. Then on May 1, 1981, art student Crister Nyholm beheld it, frowned, and returned home to pour red paint into an orange juice container. Returning to the Miró, he hurled paint at it, then sat down and waited for the police, telling the officer he did it because…he didn’t like the statue. In a later TV interview, Nyholm presented a better, if more bizarre, art statement, claiming that 20th Century art “disgusted” him, and the statue reminded him of a “dead body,” Conservators from the Art Insititute used a “paraffin-based solvent” to strip the paint without harming the monument’s porous concrete. Meanwhile, the judge sentenced Nyholm to 30 months felony probation, the cleaning bill ($17,037.21), and perhaps anonymity, since I have yet to turn up anything else about his post-Miró molestation life.

And the paint keeps flying. Last year the dreadfully irrelevant and thankfully now-absent statue of Marilyn Monroe that stood in Pioneer Court was splashed up to her bloomers with red paint (just a month after having her legs tagged). It seemed to be the capper after months of complaints by local art critics and aficionados, and a parade of unimaginative tourists snapping shots of themselves looking up her skirt.

For rampant statue carnage, nothing beats the forgotten American Bronze Works fire of 1901. Located at 73rd and Woodlawn, the plant cast historical figures and other monuments for Chicago’s parks and elsewhere. Previous examples of their artistry include the Haymarket Square cop and the Art Institute Lions. On the morning of February 10, a fire broke out, doing $5,000 in damage and melting and scorching several statues in progress. A sketch accompanying the article shows the resulting rubble, with girders and machinery sticking out of piles of bricks, interspersed with busts, swords, and the odd horse leg. Fallen idols included a group of “Battle Creek soldiers,” and a bronze statue of Speaker of the Indianan House of Representatives William H. English. But, seriously, the hell with that guy and his statue. Look upon his works and despair.


Vandalism is, of course, costly, offensive, and unsightly, but there is the tiny blessing of having a statue to repair. Not so with several statues that vanished some dark evening. The crime was usually covered up for days (or more) by the invisibility of familiarity, until someone stopped, looked, and said, “Something’s missing here.”

Historically, statue-erecting takes place during periods of prosperity, when discretionary income can satisfy the urge to immortalize (it’s surprising how many children’s groups could afford to pay for statues, stained glass widows, and similar fripperies throughout the 1880s and 1920s). Likewise, statue theft occurs during leaner years. Motivated by metallurgy rather than aesthetics, the thieves topple idols and cart them off for scrap. Statues costing thousands of dollars ended up melted down for a pocketful of bills. For example, up in Lincolnwood last January, the scrap collectors showed they don’t care a fig about dead autistic children, so long as they could clear a few bucks in the sale of the bronze—which the statue wasn’t made of anyway.


Not many people know a bust of Beethoven once occupied a spot in Lincoln Park’s Grandmother’s Garden near (Stockton and Webster), not far from the Schiller statue’s gaze. Schiller remains, but Ludwig is long gone. The bust, another work by Johannes Gelert, was dedicated on June 19, 1897, and donated by Chicago concert pianist and early, ardent CSO supporter Carl Wolfsohn—lover of lovely, lovely Ludwig Van. Asked to say a few words, Wolfsohn trumpeted the the deaf composer’s legacy:

“…when the hundreds and thousands that seek rest and recreation in our park pass this beautiful spot, standing before this monument, ask who is this, let the answer be given: ‘Ludwig Von Beethoven, the greatest musician and greatest benefactor of mankind.'”

Perhaps many did—the bust sat there for 74 years—though no media mention is made about it until 65 years passed when complaints were lodged about the bust’s increasingly shabby appearance. Park District officials investigated and declared that Beethoven was supposed to look greenish, because that’s what bronze does outdoors. However, vandals had slathered the composer’s face with a “black substance.” Easily fixed, the offending ink/paint was buffed away without disturbing the aforementioned patina. Eight more years passed before the bust was heard from, or rather not heard from, again.

Sometime before April 26, 1971, some rube with a truck pulled down the composer of the “Moonlight Sonata” and Ninth Symphony, and likely toted him off to be sold for scrap. Police found no clues other than the abandoned rope. A part of the base remains in Grandmother’s Garden, easily overlooked by passersby.

The original inspiration for this article came from a reference in the WPA Guide to Illinois, created by the Federal Writers’ Project. One itinerary advised that tourists visit the Emanuel Swedenborg bust on Simmons Island. Never having heard of either monument or island (though I was partially familiar with Swedenborg the man), I looked up both, only to discover that while the island remained, the bust did not.

Emanuel Swedenborg is an intriguing figure; certainly one unexpected to show up in bronze form in Chicago. The man was a scientist turned theologian/Christian mystic, and his religious notions (achieved through visions) served as the seeds for a branch of Christianity appropriately named Swedenborgianism. As a scientist, he was a true man of the Enlightenment, studying mathematics, metallurgy, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and other disciplines. As an example of what his big 18th Century brain was capable of, he developed interesting theories about the operation of the nervous system and pituitary gland.

As a mystic, well… the man claimed to talk to angels and pay visits to heaven, hell, and all the planets (yet-to-be-discovered Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto were somehow omitted) to speak with the spirits living there. The man’s legend is also borne anecdotally by stories of supposed psychic talents: predicting fires, reading minds, and whatnot. Don’t be hasty to judge: Swedenborg may or may not have been nuttier than a granola bar, but he wasn’t a bad guy. He preached (strictly through his writings; he had a speech impediment and never started a church himself) the usual messages of peace, love, understanding, and a theory of “usefulness,” and he inspired people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and city planner/architect Daniel Burnham (who was a Swedenborgian), Back then and today, he has his share of admirers and supporters.

Mr. and Mrs. L. Bracken Bishop donated the bust, finding it in Upsala, Sweden, and paying a grand to cast it in bronze. The Bishops considered giving it to the city of Washington, DC, but Mrs. Bishop preferred Chicago and its sizable Swedish population (more on Chicago Scandinavians can be found here). Sculpted by Swedish artist Adolph Jonsson, an early press kit notes he was a stickler for details, employing “studies of Swedenborg’s skull” to achieve the perfect likeness. Incidentally, while rich folk money bought the bust, the pedestal was purchased with pennies, nickels, and dimes donated by hordes of Swedish kidlings.

The statue was unveiled and dedicated on June 28, 1924, with several thousand Swedes, Chicagoans, and Swedish-Chicagoans in attendance. A “white-capped” chorus of 1,200 Swedish singers (coincidentally, in town for convention) and a Viking ship float crewed by ladies dressed as Valkyries sang that stirring old Viking battle hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Mayor William Dever accepted the bust on behalf of the city; a congratulatory letter from President Calvin Coolidge was read; and for extra Svenska goodness, Swedish Minister to the US Axel Wallenberg gave a speech. To Chicago’s Swedes, the bust was a big deal—though Swedenborg wasn’t alone. Other Scandinavians immortalized in bronze around town include Leif Ericson in Humboldt Park, and, as a neighbor to Emanuel, the botanist/zoologist Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus’ statue, before being moved to its current Hyde Park location, had its own problems, when, in 1972, its arms were snapped off. Coolidge’s letter and other encomiums praised Swedenborg the scientist but skirted Swedenborg the astronaut ghost whisperer, save for professor C. G. Wallenius, who described his predecessor as first “a great investigator and scientist,” and later “the picture of a supernatural prophet and seer.”


Swedenborg’s bust remained on Simmons Island for the next 52 years, quietly mulling the secrets of the universe and making mental day trips to Alpha Centauri. Easily overlooked, thousands of people drove past it on Lake Shore Drive for years, either never taking notice or wondering what Benjamin Franklin was doing there.

And one unknown day, in January/February of 1976, it vanished—just like that. Made of bronze and weighing several hundred pounds, the only logical explanation for its disappearance was that it ascended into the heavens…or perhaps some goon and his jackass buddy pulled it down and loaded it into their van. The metallurgist’s bust fell victim to scrap collectors. The cops put the value of the metal at around 10 grand, which seems a bit high, though the country was experiencing a recession. For the next 34 years, Swedenborg’s bust was replaced by a squat pyramid, and in 2009 the pedestal was struck by a car and badly damaged, though later repaired. Finally, in 2010, a new bust was recast and the site was rededicated to the erstwhile religious rocketeer. Godspeed you to Venus, Commander Swedenborg.

In another utterly tacky case of statue abduction, on October 1, 1941, Chicago Postmaster Ernest Kruetgen reported that the bronze statue decorating his family mausoleum at Graceland Cemetery was missing (conveniently, here’s a picture of it on eBay). Kruetgen imported the statue from Germany in 1918; weighing in excess of 750 pounds, it cost the former postmaster about $1,500. It stood at the mausoleum’s door for decades, until Mssrs. Alexander Stazhurski and Theodore Brzozowski drove into Graceland one morning and threw it into their car. Yes, in the morning. Statue snatchers are rarely criminal masterminds, getting away with it mostly by plying their trade at night and finding places to cash in that won’t lead the cops to their door.


But Alexander and Theodore were neither careful nor connoisseurs. Plainly, they hadn’t thought things through. No scrap or junk dealer would touch an obviously hot statue. Not one that was intact anyway. So the Philistines armed themselves with hammers and went to work on it, shattering it into unrecognizable chunks and paying some ragamuffin a dollar to sell it at a North Avenue junkyard. For all their work, they netted just $31.50. Or rather $30.50 after they paid aforementioned ragamuffin. But the chunks weren’t unrecognizable enough, and the dealer called the cops. Once nicked, Stazhurski and Brzozowski confessed to everything. Kruetgen, as a recent visit to Graceland showed, never bothered to replace the statue. Its base remains bare.

Like Kruetgen’s grave babe, some statuary is more stolen than others. An original Paul Gauguin statuette titled “Woman with Parasol” was snatched from the Main Street Bookstore formerly at 742 N. Michigan. The nine inch knickknack had a sale price of $1,500, and apparently was never recovered. Across town, on October 17, 1957, catering hall owner Mario Conti had five statues stolen from him during his new hall’s construction (located at 5609 North Ave., the building was the former Ferrara Manor Theater. The lot is currently occupied by a Walgreens). The purloined statues were itemized as four “females” and a fountain topped by Roman ocean god Neptune. Newly arrived from Italy, the statues were five feet tall, 250 pounds each, and coincidentally priced at $1,500 apiece. The account is sparse, and the record remains silent on their eventual fate, making me envision a yet-to-be-discovered secret apartment or home decorated in a Neptunian theme.


Luckily, not all statues stolen in Chicago are destined for oblivion. On January 8, 1978, a Thai Buddhist church official (no name available) spent his Sunday at the old Maxwell Street Market. Amid the blues and bric-a-brac were several Buddhas—one large and two small—sitting amidst peddler Cornelius Coleman’s wares. The Thai gentleman recognized the statues’ exquisite antiquity—500 years old and valued at $50,000—and status as contraband, having been stolen en route from Thailand to Denver months earlier. The official informed the police. As it turned out, Mr. Coleman worked as a ramp man for Flying Tigers Airfreight Worldwide. Coleman was charged with theft of stolen or mislaid property. He’d priced the statues at $500. A true steal.

Nothing was sacred for Old St. Patrick’s Church either. On December 26, 1970, 18 of the statues in its 40-year-old creche were snatched. The Trib listed the abducted: three wise men, three shepherds, one camel, one lamb, and Mary, Joseph, and Lil’ Baby Jesus. I’m not sure about the frequency of crèche theft (holy cradle robbing?) before 1970, but the story seemed uncommon enough to report on. Mr. Willie Brown, 31, was arrested, the police’s suspicions raised as he sauntered down Adams Street with a holy parent under each arm. The rest were discovered later on by local printer Roy Hobby, stuffed in a pile of crates in a parking lot near Lou Mitchell’s.

Daniel Chester French is probably the most recognizable sculptor in this essay—by reputation if not name. Roundabout March 15, 1986, French and his student Edward Potter’s “Bulls World’s Fair Models”—a pair of, yes, bulls, attended by two maidens: togaed Ceres, Roman goddess of commerce and grain, and a “Native American goddess of corn”—stood guard in Garfield Park since 1909, before thieves filched the bull and his Native American lady friend.

As a matter of trivia, French made the goddesses while Potter sculpted the bulls. French is best known for his statue of Abraham Lincoln—the great big one in Washington, DC—the Concord, MA Minute Man statue; and the Pulitzer Prize Medal. Potter, by the way, made the lions standing guard outside the New York Public Library. The Indian maid and her bull weren’t masterpieces, but they were remnants of the Columbian Exposition, and thus precious to a city enamored of its first moment in the world’s spotlight. Originally, the statues were plaster, and stood at the World Fair’s livestock exhibit. Afterward they were transported to Garfield Park, where they proved popular, were eventually cast in bronze, and placed outside the Conservatory.

Bolted to two-foot-high granite slabs and weighing at least a ton, the bull and maiden couldn’t have been easy to steal. A crane and truck were probably used, and according to a September 12, 2010 article by Mary Schmich, rumor was it was an inside job—though there’s no way to prove it. The thieves attempted to take Ceres and her bovine pal as well it seems, since the Roman god-maiden was missing an arm and the bull its tail. The case of the bulls suggests the thieves were men of taste, rather than just greed, anarchy, or excessive doobage. Though one wonders why the arm and tail of the other pair were snatched as well. Perhaps the initial intent was to sell the statues for scrap, but the dealer had a good eye and the right connections to find a nice rich person to sell it to. The CPD posted an award for $1,000, but no one claimed it, and the statue was designated missing/assumed melted. In 2003, the CPD hired art restorer Andrzej Dajnowski to repair Ceres and her bull and to replicate the other statue, which is currently on display. Previously, Dajnowski restored Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time in Hyde Park

Then in February 2010, Chicago Park District historian Julia Bachrach received an e-mail from a New York auction house. They’d come across a certain statue, found on the estate of a recently deceased Virginian. Were they missing any bulls or maidens? Little more information was revealed as to the statue’s provenance (the Virginian’s name was suppressed, per a legal agreement with his family, though they said he was only the third owner). Plans are afoot to restore the original bull and Indian maiden, though they are currently in storage.

In a June 18, 1976 article, Trib writer Paul Gapp interviewed Friends of the Parks president and former Chicago Park District commissioner Cindy Mitchell about the abuse and neglect of our town’s statues. The piece makes intriguing mention of several long-missing figures that seemingly went poof, temporarily or permanently. Such as the massive 20-foot, 14-ton statue of Christopher Columbus, set up in Grant park in the 1890s (the current Columbus statue in Grant Park went up in 1933). Accounts state that the previous Columbus was removed owing to the prevalence of “loiterers” in the area—use your imagination as to why they were loitering, I guess—and stored away. Mitchell learned that in 1903 it was melted down and remade into a monument to America’s third assassinated president William McKinley—now standing in  McKinley Park at 38th and Western. Ms. Mitchell also found out that Chicago was down two Minutemen—one in Lincoln Park and one in Garfield Park—and a sylphic young miss named Fountain Girl (aka, The Little Cold Fountain Girl).

DN-0056947, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.


Another idol built with urchin allowances ($3,000 paid to sculptor George Wade in 1893), Fountain Girl was the brain child of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The ladies wanted to provide an alternative to hootch on the street. Originally stationed near the WCTU’s booth at the Columbian Exposition, FG was later moved to LaSalle and Monroe, near the Women’s Temple (built by Burnham and Root in 1891-92; demolished in 1926; look closely at the postcards here—I think you can just make out the statue at right). She ended up in Lincoln Park near Lake Shore Drive and North Avenue, until LSD construction led to her being put in storage. In the 1940s she was placed near the W. LaSalle Dr. underpass before being snatched sometime in the 1950s. But 21st Century enemies of Demon Rum can take heart. Turns out there were at least three copies made of the statue, placed in the cities of London, Detroit, and Portland, ME. According to the parks site, a new casting is being made of Portland’s Fountain Girl, and she may well end up back on her empty stone perch before long.

The missing Fountain Girl and bull-maidens raise one other interesting point. Chicago has few to no statues of actual women. In Ver Meulen’s aforementioned article, there is brief mention of one of Chicago’s very few statues of an historical woman (that is, a real woman, rather than an abstract concept like the Picasso (possibly inspired by artist’s model Sylvette David/Lydia Corbett) or a mythological babe like the creepily faceless statue of Ceres atop the Chicago Board of Trade). Once upon a time, a Joan of Arc bust rested at 5801 N. Natoma Ave. in Norwood Park. Eventually it didn’t. It remains unknown if it was lost, stolen, or stored away and forgotten. One hopes it wasn’t subjected to the smelter’s scorching heat. Considering its namesake’s fate, that would be entirely too weird.


Why does Chicago hate statues? Perhaps it doesn’t, as shown by current efforts to replace many of the busts, monuments, and other idols lost and fallen over the years. But the true proof rests in whether the city’s citizens are willing to make a greater effort to appreciate its statuary.

Consider visiting some of the overlooked monuments in your neighborhood and elsewhere. Enjoy the history and grandeur of these idealized metal men and women. Concentrate on the details: from the iguana resting at William Humboldt’s feet (Humboldt Park); to the box of cigars resting behind Sam Gompers (Gompers Park); to the impressive bronzed boobs on Joseph Rosenberg’s fountain for thirsty newsboys (Grant Park). Ponder how General Logan might have avoided hippie infestation by being located in Logan Square, and wonder why General Grant guards Lincoln Park instead. Above all, take notice of them today, because the evidence bears out they might not be there—in whole, in part, or even unmarked—tomorrow.

—Dan Kelly

Architecture and Art and Chicago and Churches and Crime and Disaster and Film and History and Irving Park and Mayfair and Portage Park and The Hidden and Theaters and Why!?!30 Mar 2012 06:46 pm

Cross-posted from my Gentleman Unafraid blog.

Note: I’m currently working on a Gapers Block piece about the Portage Theater (4050 N. Milwaukee) and efforts to prevent its purchase by the Chicago Tabernacle Church. Some passages and sentiments may carry over to that article, but the GB article will be more history-heavy. Just FYI.

Monday night I attended the Save the Portage Theater rally. Appropriately, it was held at the theater itself. I’ve visited the Portage twice, first to take my son to a mini-comicon (where we took a picture with chubby, purplish Batman—a photo I hope he cherishes in his later years), and the second time to see Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with my friend Pat. Both experiences were a tad cheesy, yes, but rare and sweetly enjoyable owing to their surroundings: a classic, old-school movie palace. But experiences like will be harder to come by, if a certain church buys the place, modifies it, and declares an end to the variety of programming the Portage offers to the community.

The Portage has been around in one form or another since 1920, starting out as a transitional theater (between the small vaudeville/silent film theaters and the later movie palaces) before being purchased and modified by the Balaban and Katz theater chain in the forties. Originally designed to reflect the poufy Beaux Arts/Neoclassical design favored at the time, Balaban and Katz brought a sleek, spare Art Moderne influence to the marquee and interior. Palatial doesn’t begin to describe it. Dream-like comes closer.

I arrived early, signed in at the reception tables, and—after bumping into my father in law, a transplanted Irving Parker—walked into the auditorium. As before, and despite what the potential owners might think, the place is glorious. The auditorium is dark and cavernous, but also lush, golden, and warm. As with most buildings its age and older, you can practically touch the history and life of the place. I could easily imagine the audiences filling the seats for everything from early silent movies to 70s Kung-fu flicks to modern art-house fare.

The evening was pleasant, informative, and ably led by Old Irving Park Association Vice President Anna Sobor. I believe I met Ms. Sobor a couple of years ago, when I conducted tours of my church during the annual Old Irving Park House Walk. But before she walked onstage and got things rolling, we enjoyed the organ-playing of Mr. Dennis Wolkowicz, motivating force behind the theater’s restoration. As he ran through a familiar (and not so familiar) back catalog of songs on the theater’s original Kimball organ—placed on mechanical riser to awesomely cool effect—the place filled up with hipsters, senior citizens, Chicago neighborhood types, and members of the local cultural aristocracy. A lot of bearded guys with big guts were present too. I think I recognized them from the comic show and horror fests. In the dimness and darkness I could see a hundred blogs, tweets, and updates being typed out as one.

Not every seat was filled, but at least half were. For a 1,300-seat theater that’s not bad. Illuminated thank-yous were projected on the screen, especially to preservationist ringleaders like alderman John Arena, the Portage Park Neighborhood Association, the Six Corners Association, and others. Digital cameras flashed every which way, and, appropriately, amateur and professional cinematographers shot electronic footage of the proceedings with their cameras and iPhones.

In closing, Mr. Wolkowicz led the audience in a muted version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” I got the feeling not everyone learned the lyrics in Boy Scouts, like I did. Still, all respectfully rose up, and made a game effort to be melodically patriotic. After all, that was the reason why we were there. We’re Americans, dammit, and we’re mad as hell someone’s trying to take our stuff. Rise up, my darlings, rise up. You have nothing to lose but your theater chains.

Mr. Wolkowicz concluded his set, but was informed that folks were still signing up outside. So, he returned to the keys, and vamped out a little “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” On the northwest side, the audience clearly root-root-roots for the Cubs.

A little perspective on the size of the stage and screen.

At last, Ms. Sobor took the stage, and thanked Mr. Wolkowicz and all dignitaries present. Alderman John Arena—prime instigator of the Portage campaign—was present, looking casually fashionable in a windbreaker and “SAVE THE PORTAGE” t-shirt. His colleague Alderman Tim Cullerton of the 38th ward sat nearby, appearing firmly entrenched in his suit and tie.

Ms. Sobor wasted no time, asking the audience to keep a civil tongue, and stressing that the biggest goal of the campaign was to support local businesses and let them know they’re being “patronized” by Portage supporters. As I later learned, the Chicago Tabernacle folks have given similar instructions to their throng—as a tax-free group I assume they’re attempting to sound financially lucrative. Sobor then introduced Arena, who, if the applause was any indication, needn’t worry about several hundred votes in 2016.

The man is a decent speaker, and he reminded me that one of the reasons I voted for him is his approach to pragmatic preservation. Protecting pretty buildings is fine, but they need a reason to exist and a healthy local economy to persist. The folks behind the Portage’s restoration have done as much, and the theater is viewed as an anchor for the Six Corners shopping district. Once upon a time, this was the greatest and busiest place to shop, eat, drink, and see a flick outside the Loop. For the past several years, before he was even an alderman, Arena and others have tried to give the slightly shabby Six Corners a economic shot in the arm. Thus far things have been looking up.

Then the Chicago Tabernacle Church approached him last September, asking for his support as they sought to buy the theater and convert it into a church. Arena asked for a write-up of their intentions for the property, and what they presented to the zoning board was (in my words) horrifying.

CTC’s plans included removing the snazzy marquee outside (not sure if this includes the original terra cotta PORTAGE PARK THEATER marquee out front as well as the flashy electric one; I hope not), get rid of the businesses currently occupying the storefronts, and convert the auditorium and apartments inside into classrooms. Arena said um, no thank you, but welcomed them to the area and suggested several local properties that would better suit their and the community’s purposes. The church’s subsequent lack of response showed they weren’t interested, and have proceeded to push for ownership of the building and their proposed changes.

Despite public outcry, the CTC folks are displaying a, in my opinion, weird obsessiveness about purchasing the building, and a predictable disinterest in allowing the place to be used for the silent, classic, and (naturally) horror film festivals already taking place there. Speaking in a Tribune article about the Portage kerfuffle, church leader Al Toledo offered the following bit of aesthetic blindness:

“We happen to have a choir that people come listen to. We do a number of dramatic presentations. We have an Easter presentation coming up. So we have art that we bring forth as well, and I don’t think that should be minimized.”

Minimized? Not really. More like irrelevant. Chicago is surfeit with churches, religious choirs, and Easter presentations, but lacking in classic movie palaces and independent film venues. Eleven churches of varying sizes are within walking distance of the Six Corners district; but only two movie theaters (including the newly restored Patio Theater, which continues to exist by the skin of its teeth) currently operate thereabouts. Whether the 11 churches (not to mention the nearby Islamic center and Buddhist temple) are the right kind of churches according to Mr. Toledo… Well, let’s not touch that point just yet. Fans of the theater have been called on to grit their teeth and echo alderman Arena’s point that the church is welcome to the community (because, sure, we could always use more tax-free soul-winners who believe the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could come galloping down Milwaukee Ave. at any moment), and thus far everyone’s played nice. Thus far.

Back to the rally… Arena made the solid point that preserving the Portage is all about economic recovery. Four restaurant proposals have been made for the area, but not a one would be able to get a liquor license if the church opened shop at the theater. So, it’s not just a matter of keeping the nerd cinephiles from their celluloid fantasies, or even about protecting an, admittedly, gaudy old queen of a theater from being ravished and violated. It’s about money. A short-term windfall for the theater’s current owners won’t translate into income for Portage Park, the surrounding neighborhoods, or Chicago in general. Church folks have promised to buy stuff at the local businesses, but that remains to be seen. Will the church-goers bussed in to the church really be picking up their groceries at Jewel and their steel-toed boots at Rasenicks? Hmmmm…

When Arena finished speaking, Ms. Sobor took over again. Prepared to deliver a PowerPoint presentation, equipment failure spared the audience from the sight of hastily created pie charts. Thinking on her feet, Sobor provided all the necessary URLs and procedures for making your voice heard. Why, here’s that very information:

The Save the Portage Theater site.

Save the Portage Theater Facebook page.

Alderman Arena’ post on Everyblock.

Arena’s site.

Periodically, a few of the burly bearded fellows emitted approving howls of “Wooooooooo!” whenever they found favor with Ms. Sobor’s statements, and one seeming non sequitur about “No Brooklyn theaters!” This was answered by Ms. Sobor with another curious statement about Irving Park being founded by four New York carpetbaggers. Hah? No illumination was provided, but I later discovered that the Tabernacle folks have done this before, to the former Lowes Metropolitan in Brooklyn, NY. Before and after restoration photos on the net aren’t heartening:

Our next to last speaker was Mike Edwards, creator of the Save the Portage Facebook page, who provided the quote of the night: “Where else can you see West Side Story one week and Dawn of the Dead the next?” Edwards led the gathering in a mass cell phone contact list updating, providing the number for the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals: (312) 744-5822

Again, that’s (312) 744-5822.

Dennis Wolkowicz, the organist and one of the prime movers on the restoration of the theater several years ago, closed the meeting, dubbing it a “community explosion.” He shared a bit of Portage trivia, explaining that back in the 80s the theater was sliced down the middle by a wall that’s since been removed. The seats reflected a curious and unwitting division of political proportions by having red seats on one side and blue ones on the other. This was rectified when director Michael Mann shot Public Enemies with Johnny Depp there in 2008, using the theater as a stand-in for the Biograph Theater on Lincoln Ave. Red and blue seats wouldn’t do, so the film company sprang for blue cushions across the board. No comment.

The meeting closed with reminders that letters to the ZBA could be returned in the lobby, and that various spokespersons would be available for interviews. I needed to get home, and after running into a workmate and my church’s pastor, I headed out to spread the word. I hope you do likewise, dear reader. Check out the above links and take action.

Come on. I’ve got kids who need to see Frankenstein on the big screen!

Architecture and Art and Chicago and George Grant Elmslie and Hegewisch and History and Louis Sullivan and The Hidden19 Mar 2012 07:06 pm

Hegewisch has the distinction of being Chicago’s southeastern terminus. Once you reach the neighborhood, that’s it. You’ve run out of Chicago.

Words fail when describing Hegewisch itself. It feels like a quintessential Chicago working-class neighborhood, with a hint of small-town America. Then again, it’s neither. Pinning down any sort of local character is refreshingly impossible.

If their site is any indication, the people seem to like living there. Founded in 1883, the area was intended to be a company town (ala the Pullman District) for Mr. Adolph Hegewisch’s United States Rolling Stock Company, builders of railroad cars. Pullman eventually blew Mr. Hegewisch out of the water, and by the 1910s US Rolling Stock Co. became the Western Steel Car & Foundry. In 1889 Chicago annexed the town, and the Hegewischians became Chicagoans.

No offense to the residents, but at first glance Hegewisch doesn’t have much to recommend for the casual visitor. However, it earns points for two things. First, its snazzy signs, which are more visually interesting than the average neighborhood lamppost banner. Secondly, it was once home to a interesting slice of architectural history.

Occasionally, I use the “The Hidden” tag in my posts. I’m not referring to the 80s Kyle Maclachlan scifi/thriller (enjoyable cinematic cheese, by the way). Rather I mean those little bits of history and ornamentation that linger in the city’s blind spots. Few people have probably made the northwestern trek to view the memorial to the Old Treaty Elm, for example. I never would have noticed it if I hadn’t made a wrong turn in Sauganash.

A variation on the Hidden involves the appropriation of ornamentation from demolished buildings for use in others. I wouldn’t call it cannibalism—more like headhunting—though it would be pleasant to imagine a demolition expert with a heart of gold deciding, “You know, that part is just too pretty to bust up. Let’s recycle it instead.” Whether it’s more moral to pry off a piece of ornament and stick it on another building (Pro: it remains on public display; Con: it’s viewed out of context and is subject to everyday wear and tear) versus displaying it on a museum wall (Pro: public display and protection; Con: still out of context, perpetuating the idea that decoration can represent a lost building in its gestalt), I leave to the comments section.

Travel to 13310 Baltimore Ave. in Hegewisch, stand across the street, and look up. You’ll see a familiar hand in the building’s ornamentation. Sullivanesque? Very nearly.

The address is the former location of architect Parker Noble Berry’s Interstate National Bank, and the ornament is all that remains of that edifice. Even if you’ve never heard of Mr. Berry, you likely know his boss. Louis Henri Sullivan hired Berry as a draftsman from 1909 to 1918. While not as seasoned as Sullivan’s former chief draftsman George Grant Elmslie, Berry was a bright, talented young man—one of those individuals presumably destined for greatness.

And such promise he showed. Mr. Berry assisted Sullivan with projects like the Henry C. Adams building in Algona, IA, one of Sullivan’s famed “jewel box” banks. Interestingly, Mr. Berry may have had a greater hand in designing that particular structure, if Berry’s 1915 First State Bank building in Manlius, IL, (still standing and currently being restored by the Manlius Historical Society after being used as a storage space for many years) is any indication. Side note: the First State Bank of Manlius, IL, was built by Berry’s father, a Princeton, IL, contractor.

In 1917, Berry was approached by Lawrence Cox, president of Hegewisch’s Interstate National Bank, and asked to create a new building on Baltimore Ave. Contemporary photos show a smart-looking structure that built on the ideas of the First State Bank and Henry C. Adams building. Shots of the interior show a simple elegance, and all the ways Berry communicated and mused upon his former mentor’s philosophy. Sadly, the bank failed and was torn down in the 30s. For better or worse, the facade’s ornamentation was chipped off and slapped onto the front of the store taking its place.

Previously printed in The Prairie School Review

Sullivan, already struggling during his final decade, couldn’t pay Berry enough, and so the young architect supplemented his income with jobs in Manlius and his hometown of Princeton, IL. Years before, Sullivan had sacked another former employee, Frank Lloyd Wright, for designing homes on the side, but he apparently looked the other way on Berry’s commissions. At least until Berry built the Adeline Prouty Old Ladies Home (yes, that was the name; it was a more politically incorrect time) in 1917. According to Berry’s brother Roger, that was the last straw. Sullivan let Berry go. Despite various health problems, Berry probably would have done well enough afterward, and perhaps might have made a name for himself. He’d gotten married and was courted by the architectural firm of Purcell and Elmslie for years—though he’d turned them down for the opportunity to learn from Sullivan and advance in the trade. Opening an office down in Hyde Park, he began work on commissions for another bank and a hospital.

But Parker Noble Berry wasn’t long for this world. Already sickly, in December 1918, he traveled from Chicago to Princeton to attend his father-in-law’s funeral. Contracting what he imagined was just a bad cold, he refused medical attention. Soon after, Parker Berry became another young victim of the 1918 flu pandemic (aka: “Spanish Flu”). He suffered for eight days before succumbing on December 16, all of 30 years old.

—Dan Kelly

[Writer’s Note: I am currently at work on a long-form essay about Parker Berry. If any relatives of his (or anyone with information to share about him) read this, please contact me at dan [at] mrdankelly [dot] com!]

Next Page »