Unmistakably of the Place
Chicagoland’s contributions to the popular arts
See Illinois (unpublished)
Most guidebooks to Chicago insist on regaling the reader with the achievements of the Art Institute and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, like a proud trailer park mom who insists on telling all the neighbors about her son who went to Yale. Yet it is not in the fine arts but the popular arts that Chicago has earned the gratitude (if not always the respect) of the rest of the country and the world. Educated foreigners, for example, often do not wish to see second-rate versions of the concerts and museums they have at home. Instead they flock to taste the fruit of Chicago’s popular culture—its jazz, its blues, its comedy clubs.
Of course, pop culture phenomena happen in Chicago that are not necessarily of Chicago. One would be wise to not read too much about the city into the success here of Oprah or Jerry Springer, other than the advantages the nearness to O’Hare Airport offers to national TV producers. Basketball great Michael Jordan did not grow up in or play college ball in Chicago, and as a pro he could have played in any city.
Other of Chicago’s gifts to the world, however—its comedians and pop musicians, its stage and movie actors and radio and TV personalities, its cartoonists and athletes, the toys and games and foods that trace their beginnings to Chicago and its suburbs—are unmistakably of the place.
This catalog is taken from my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. See Publications for more about that project. It comprises some 25,000 words—yes, I know—so get yourself a pot of coffee and a couple of sandwiches before you sit down.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Lyric may reign as the monarchs of Chicago musical arts among the cognoscenti, but the less tutored public knows Chicago as the source of some of the most powerful and inventive popular musics of the past century. The city’s popular, or vernacular music tradition is as rich as the ethnic history from which it springs. In Chicago and environs, popular music was whatever its people brought with them, and thus is as varied as its people are varied. However, it was African music—second and third-hand, admittedly—that put Chicago on the pop music map. Chicago’s contribution to the world of music were gifts of people who were heirs to the folk music of that continent, transformed by the experience of the American South into vibrant new genres—jazz, blues and soul, and gospel.
Oddly, while Chicago today has turned the blues into a tourist icon, little if any attention is paid to the city's role in fostering another indigenous music brought upriver from the South—jazz. In 1917, New Orleans’ red-light district was closed, and the many musicians who had kept the district’s brothels and nightclubs hopping were put out of work. These players looked north for new audiences to conquer. Chicago’s the black South Side was a close match for the French Quarter in every way but the weather. Emigrant players found refuge in the late-night clubs that were the center of what could be called unorganized vice in the Windy City. (“Jazz, it must be remembered, is a by-product of illegality,” wrote Alson J. Smith in his 1953 history of Chicago Bohemianism. “Mothered by madames, it was nurtured to maturity by Syndicate hoodlums.”)
By the early 1920s, there were nearly three dozen black bands from New Orleans working in Chicago. Among them was the Original Creole Jazz Band, whose cornetist was the great Joe “King” Oliver. Another of the masters who came north was clarinet master Jimmy Noone. Guitarist and memoirist Albert "Eddie" Condon was one of several future white jazz greats who attended Noone’s performances at a South Side nightclub called The Nest. Condon recalled the night when composer Maurice Ravel was brought to the club by a flautist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who wanted the Frenchman to hear Noone. “Impossible!” muttered Ravel as he tried to write down some of Noone’s improvisations.
However, it was Louis Armstrong who stands astride this era in Chicago. One of the most gifted musicians in the history of jazz, his most musically inventive years were spent in Chicago, from 1925 to 1929. Armstrong arrived from Louisiana in the summer of 1921 as one of Oliver’s sidemen. Not even another Chicago fire would have produced more excitement among the city’s musicians. “Something as unutterably stirring as that,” Hoagie Carmichael is reported to have said in the summer of 1923, “deserved to be heard by the world.”
Scratchy 10-inch 78 rpm recordings were the medium by which the new music was spread. New York’s Okeh Records issued popular songs and dance music for the nation’s immigrant German, Czech, Polish, Swedish, and Yiddish communities; among the ethnic music thus preserved was that of American blacks such as blues singer Mamie Smith. Eager to expand its roster of “race” artists, Okeh opened a studio in Chicago. In November 1925, Armstrong there to begin what critic Gary Giddens calls “the most influential recording project in jazz, perhaps in American music.” Armstrong put together two small recording bands, generally known as the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, and with them created sixty-five record sides over the next three years.
Giddins is not the only critic who insists that even if Armstrong had done nothing else after this he “he would still be the most eminent figure in jazz history. On such tunes as including “Potato Head Blues,” much of what recognize as jazz—improvised solos rather than group embellishment of a theme, or stating a musical theme patterned on the blues and songs and then essaying variations on it—was invented in that studio.
Giddins calls Louis Armstrong (who left Chicago in 1929) one of the two popular arts geniuses working in America in the 1920s, along with Charlie Chaplin. An indication of Armstrong’s preeminence in 1927 was the appearance of two highly innovative books issued by a Chicago-based music publisher that consisted of transcriptions of his solos: Louis Armstrong’s 125 Jazz Breaks for Cornet and Louis Armstrong’s 50 Hot Choruses for Cornet.
Armstrong was the titan among the early Chicago jazz players but he was not the only innovator. Earl “Fatha” Hines, thought by many to have been the first modern jazz pianist, moved to Chicago in 1923 from Pittsburgh. He met Armstrong in 1926 at the local musician's union hall and the two became friends. Hines worked briefly in one of Armstrong's bands and played with him on the Hot Five and Hot Seven recording sessions; and the two even managed a club together long enough to prove that, as businessmen, they were great musicians. Hines later played with Jimmy Noone and formed his own influential band that performed at the Grand Terrace Café at 3955 South Parkway, performances that were heard nationwide via radio beginning in 1934.
The Grand Terrace was only one of the South Side’s hot spots. Jazz players came to know Lamb’s Café, the Plantation, Kelly’s Stables, the Dreamland, the Panama, the DeLuxe, the Elite, and New Orleans Babes as well as their own rooms. Jazz also was on offer at theaters such as the Vendome, the Big Grand, and the Monogram and dance halls like Lincoln Gardens, where King Oliver played, and Edelweiss Gardens, about which Armstrong would write, “Out of all of the After hour Joints that were running in Chicago at that time (1922–23), I kinda liked [it] the best.”
An automobile garage remodeled in 1921 was transformed into the Sunset Café, one of the first great jazz venues in Chicago. White players such as Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Gene Krupa apprenticed there in after-hours jam sessions; Carroll Dickerson’s house band provided a showcase for Armstrong, Hines, and Johnny Dodds, among other greats. Eddie Condon recalled that when the Sunset closed the musicians went across the street to an upstairs place called the Nest, where they could play until the wee hours.
Oliver, Armstrong, et al paid the rent with jobs in such organizations as Erskine Tate’s 20-piece pit band at the Vendome Theater, a movie house at 31st and State, and Carroll Dickerson’s dance band. Jazz was an after-hours occupation. Armstrong for a time, for example, worked for Tate until 11 PM, then “doubled” by taking an after-hours jobs at the Sunset. Armstrong recalled how his wife of the time, pianist Lil Hardin, played with King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens on 31st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. From 9 P.M. until 2 A.M. “I later found out that Lil was doubling to the Edeiweiss Garden at 41st and State Street. I wondered when she was able to get any sleep.”
In an oft-quoted passage, Armstrong once wrote , “A musician in Chicago in the early twenties were treated and respected just like—some kind of a God.” The neighborhood around 35th and State was “Bohemia of the Colored folks,” the heart of “The Stroll.” Eddie Condon, easily as fluent writing about jazz as these players were at playing it, would later recall life at the height of the jazz boom in Chicago Black Belt ins the '20s: "“Thirty-fifth and Calumet was jacked up every night, with Louis and Oliver and Jimmy all playing within a hundred feet of each other,” he wrote in 1947. “Around midnight you could hold an instrument in the middle of the street and the air would play it."
As years go by, and aficionados gave way to newspaper critics, and lately to historians of jazz, the importance of what happened in Chicago in those years only grows. To some listeners, the music produced in Chicago in those years remains the only pure jazz. Among those traditionalists was English poet Philip Larkin, a serious student of the form, who wrote,
I shall, I suppose, always remember how
The flock of notes those antique negroes blew
Out of Chicago air into
A huge remembering pre-electric horn . . . .
The jazz that King Oliver, Armstrong, and the rest brought to Chicago owed much to minstrelry and ragtime, but these were only two of the musical stream that met and merged in Chicago. Jelly Roll Morton was a ragtime pianist whose playing anticipated jazz. Morton relocated to Chicago in 1923 after a troubador’s life in the South and West. On those travels, notes critic Giddens, Morton heard and absorbed everything from Italian opera and military brass bands to French quadrilles and Latin habaneras and tangos. “He was a walking treasury of the nation’s musical byways,” wrote Giddens, “which he integrated into music of his own.” The popular and influential recordings Morton made with his Red Hot Peppers in 1926 in Victor's Chicago studios featured some of the best New Orleans sidemen of the day and are regarded as classics of 1920s jazz.
The resulting music was stylistically complex; more than a dozen distinct styles from New Orleans alone been cataloged by dutiful critics, distinguished by their varying fidelity to the beat and by the nature of ensemble work. But this was still New Orleans jazz, jazz played in Chicago but not what critics have since come to call Chicago jazz. That was a variation on the New Orleans Dixieland style—not a new genre, merely a new style of an old genre. Still, unlike the New Orleans-style music imported by Armstrong a & Co., Chicago jazz was the city's own, and it was pioneered by its white players.
White guys came to Chicago to play jazz too. Most were from New Orleans, or had contact with New Orleans music which had been exported up and down the Mississippi on river excursion boats. The most influential white band—the equivalent of King Oliver band—was the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, the nucleus of which arrived in Chicago in 1921. The Kings featured such players as clarinetist Leon Rappolo and the legendary Bix Beidebecke on cornet, who had learned the style in Davenport, Iowa. Biederbecke was no mere imitator of the black players he admired; Armstrong, for example, regarded him as a peer. The cornetist had been sent to Lake Forest Academy but—in a story repeated among most of his generation—he spent more time with the horn than the books. In 1922 he flunked out, and took up music and drinking with equal commitment.
In his recounting of the era, critic Richard Sudhalter noted that recordings by the Rhythm Kings —then recording as the Friars' Inn Society Orchestra—excited a bunch of students at the high school in the nearby suburban town of Austin. What became the “Austin High Gang” featured some of the great white players in the idiom—cornetist Jimmy McPartland, saxophonist Bud Freeman, and drummer Dave Tough.
The Austin High gang attracted like-minded kids to them, such as cornetist Francis “Muggsy” Spanier. Another young convert was pianist Art Hodes. Born in Russia, Hodes grew up in Chicago and lived there until his 30s, when he left for New York; a noted writer and editor and teacher as well as player, Hodes lived for years in Park Forest, confounding several of the stereotypes of the jazz musician.
The story of the rise of the Austin High Gang was the story of a thousand young bands in Chicago. Their introduction to their future was, by all accounts, a scene out of a movie: the boys first heard this new music in a jukebox in the West Side drug-store fountain called the Spoon and Straw across the street from the high school. They apprenticed playing for afternoon high school and fraternity dances in the area; as they gained competence and confidence they joined jam sessions with older players like Bix at clubs like The Cellar and the 3 Deuces—the last places nice respectable suburban boys ought to have been hanging out in.
Together these whites were to define the style that became known as Chicago or “hot” jazz. The Chicagoans were joined by players from around the Midwest. Beiderbecke, as noted, was from Davenport. Guitarist Eddie Condon, who led the ensemble that recorded the first Chicago-style jazz records, was an Indianan who grew up in Momence and discovered jazz in Chicago.
The most famous, and arguably most accomplished, of the Chicago-born white jazzmen did not, strictly speaking, play Chicago jazz. Benny Goodman was a broader musician in every way. He was born in 1909 in the Jewish ghetto around Hull House. The future “King of Swing,” had more varied and more formal training than most of his compatriots, including stints in a synagogue orchestra and at a local conservatory; the mature Goodman would perform creditably with the likes of the Budapest String Quartet and commissioned works from Aaron Copeland and Bela Bartok.
Long associated with Goodman was another Chicagoan, Gene Krupa, born in 1909 to a Polish immigrant family on Chicago's South Side. Krupa has been fairly described by critic Scott Yanow as not the most advanced drummer of the 1930s, but in some ways he was the most significant. Krupa had many firsts to his credit. He popularized the drum solo (a dubious legacy) and was one of the first musicians to use a full drum set on records, in 1927.
Experiencing those days through period recordings, it’s hard to get what the excitement was all about. To the parents of that generation—who, if they listened to pop music at all, listened to Rudy Vallee or Bing Crosby or local purveyors of “sweet music” in the respectable dance halls—the new music was too loud, too undisciplined, too salaciously fixed on rhythm and dancing. The jitterbug craze in the 1940s gave a new generation some notion of what “hot” music was all about, but it was not until the advent of rock 'n' roll that the country saw again what respectable Chicago saw, and feared, in the jazz of the 1920s.
Like rock, jazz was the serenade of youth, the music of parties and sex, nightclubs and bars, excursion boats and college dances. Also like rock, it was disseminated by then-new media of records and radio. And jazz was, as rock would be later, linked to drug use. Drug busts and alcoholism were to that founding generation of player what the tax audit and the clogged artery were to their workaday cousins. Hoagie Carmichael first heard Louis Armstrong in Chicago through a marijuana-induced haze, Krupa’s career was crippled by a drug arrest, and Biederbecke died of alcoholism at 28.
Nor were all the hazards of the jazz musician in Chicago self-inflicted. Among the music’s more fervent fans were the city’s gangsters. Al Capone and his entourage frequently showed up at the Friar’s Club, the Dreamland Cafe, Tancils, the Grand Terrace, or the Pekin Cafe. Capone tipped grandly, but many mobsters were as likely to pull guns out of their coats as twenty-dollar bills. “If you were a musician depending on the gangster joints and the taxi-dance halls for a livelihood,” wrote Charles Edward Smith in 1939 about the Chicago white guys, “you didn't think too much of today, much less tomorrow.”
The Austin High gang are often accused of merely imitating (the more aggrieved critics use the word “stealing”) black New Orleans jazz but what came out of their horns was not an exact copy but an interesting hybrid that reflected the players’ own sensibility. The great black musicians from New Orleans never played “Chicago jazz,” they just played jazz—mainly Dixieland jazz—in Chicago. What became known as Chicago-style jazz was Dixieland with a curt, brusque, big-city accent. As critic Sudhalter put it, the Chicago style was "aggressively forward . . . . Nervous and edgy, the records are long on intensity but short on beauty.” Chicago’s aesthetic credo cannot be expressed more succinctly than that; the same words could be used to describe later innovations in Chicago-style blues, theater, and painting.
It was not only what was played but why it was played that separated the Chicago jazz from its New Orleans precursor. The black players made their livings in dance bands or theater orchestras and played jazz for fun after their regular gigs; they were professionals who played jazz. The white Chicagoans, as Sudhalter puts it, had become professional musicians expressly to play hot jazz. While the black mentors were working musicians, the white players became artistes, with effects that often proved pernicious. Critic William H. Youngren wrote about it:
Not having come up through dance bands, they had never had to accommodate the tastes of dancers and other patrons. They were therefore free to indulge in a single-minded idealism about the dignity and high purpose of a jazz musician's life—as opposed to the commercialism of dance musicians.
We have here, I think, the birth of the purism that has disfigured so much historical and critical writing about jazz over the past sixty years — and that is also responsible for the myth that jazz is exotic by nature, standing apart from the rest of American popular dance music in a way that makes it unique and superior.
One cannot discuss any aspect of Chicago life without race, and certainly the development of blues and jazz in the city was shaped by racism. Indeed, some critics assert that racism was the decisive formative influence on jazz. “Segregated from white amusements, blacks pioneered their own,” explains Louis Erenberg in Chicago History. “Their creative revenge was jazz.”
The opinion is general that “true jazz” means black jazz. “Historically,” insisted the revised 1974 edition of Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide, “all true jazz after New Orleans came out of the night spots on the South Side.” That the music was invented and perfected by black players is not in dispute. But many go farther and insist that “real” jazz is playable only by blacks. The 1974 guide to Illinois asserted flatly that no white jazz artist ever played successfully without black musicians. In this seeming praise there is a whiff of what today would be recognized as racism; the first edition of the Guide, published in 1939, insisted that only the African American could play “with the complete dedication, or abandon, that gave jazz and all its successors the real impact.”
The consensus among most of today’s critics is that white players made livings that were denied the music's black originators because of the color bar that the latter out of the city's better clubs, dance hall, concert stages, and recording studios.
That racism infected the music scene in Chicago is not in doubt. In 1922, when local theater impresarios Balaban and Katz began booking jazz into their movie houses, they hired only white bands. Adventuresome whites went to the South Side to hear the best players but African Americans were not welcome in the white clubs of the North Side such as Dreamland and the Friars Inn (the latter was a haunt of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings). Black musicians were excluded from the all-white American Federation of Musicians' Union; as a result, the first black musicians' labor organization in the U.S. was chartered in 1902 in Chicago—the AFM’s Local 208—because it had to be. (Local 208 and Local 10, its white counterpart, didn’t merge until 1964.)
What happened to black jazz pioneers in Chicago presaged what would happen to black pioneers in the blues and rock. In each case, white imitators took the music from its creators and most artful players and repackaged it in blander wrappers. In this reading, Elvis Presley plays the Benny Goodman part, with Junior Parker portraying Louis Armstrong.
The racial dichotomy forced on music by a segregated city was not of the musicians’ making. Jazz has always been one of the sturdier meritocracies in the U.S. Young white players learned their craft from black mentors, and later were tolerated, if not welcomed, to sit in with them; these white players were to freely acknowledge their debts in memoirs that capture the heady days. Black players respected the more accomplished of their white counterparts; Louis Armstrong, as noted, regarded Bix Biederbeck as a peer. Armstrong also recalled an after-hours joint (“very pretty) at 35th and State Street, called the Flume.
The Flume was a Black + Tan place, which means Colored (of course) and they had an All White, Dixieland Combo playing there’ Nightly. Which was Something (at that time) very rare. Of course, there wasn’t, no’ particular reason why’ that I was a little bit surprised to see White Boys, playing music on the South Side of Chicago. It’s just that I had never seen such a beautiful picture before. I had just come up from the South, where there weren’t anything as near beautiful as that happening. White musicians, playing all of that good 'Jump’ music,—making those Colored people (mostly colored) Swing like Mad.”
As musics mixed, so did musicians; Chicago was the scene of several milestones in the slow integration of jazz. When the fabled black pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton sat in on a Rhythm Kings' studio session, it was probably the first racially mixed record date in jazz history; Eddie Condon later facilitated regular integrated recording sessions. Benny Goodman fronted what widely consider the first racially integrated bands when, in 1936, Goodman, Gene Krupa, both white, were joined by Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson, who were not, in performance at the Congress Hotel.
More recently, historians have been able to apply the perspective that players, critics, and fans too often have lacked. (An example is Richard M. Sudhalter's Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915–1945 (Oxford University Press.) It does not detract from the accomplishments of Chicago’s African American jazz greats as the first and the best to admit white musicians into the pantheon.
The demise of classic jazz
Chicago likes to compliment itself as the seedbed of what aficionados remind us is America’s only indigenous art form, but such self-praise gives a misleading impression. Jazz was never appreciated by more than a few Chicagoans in its heyday, indeed was vilified as music fit only for...well, the kind of people who liked jazz. The hot New Orleans players made some money through recordings, but they paid the rent by working in such black “society” bands such as those of Dave Payton and Charles Elgar or in Erskin Tate’s pit band at the Vendome Theater. The music most of white Chicago wanted to hear also was played by “sweet orchestras” that were featured in the best ballrooms.
Nor was the city much more welcoming to white jazz players, who were relegated to a sort of ghetto of their own. “The white jazz musicians’ pursuit of spontaneous, personal freedom in their music was not welcome in the large popular music clubs,” wrote Louis Erenberg in the Chicago Historical Society journal. “Instead, they played the all-male underworld clubs along North Clark Street or the second-rate ballrooms around town.”
So inhospitable was the city to the practice of the craft that, as writer Chris Smith has noted, Chicago jazz “split the Windy City for New York as soon as it got its driver's license.” When the best Chicago players, black and white, got offers from the New York bands, they left. The local recording scene had been largely an outpost of the New York labels; once the top players could be recorded in New York, there was scant reason to keep open studios in Chicago.
As the twenties waned, something like jazz—jazz-inflected pop songs and dance tunes—moved from the low dives of the South Side into the bright lights of the Loop. Chicago theater impresarios added jazz-influenced dance bands to their motley bills; the move broadened the audience for the new music because the movie houses were fitter venues for thousands who wouldn’t be caught dead in dance halls, night clubs, speakeasies—or who were afraid they might be caught dead in one.
But once found wider white audience, pressure inexorably builds to soften, smooth, sweeten; Howard Reich of the Tribune, noted, “Ironically, Chicago jazz by the late 1920s had come to mean a smoothed-down, slightly homogenized white version of the real thing, at least so far as the broad listening public was concerned.”
Of course, jazz—now mainly in the form of swing and bop and other styles imported from New York—continued to be played in Chicago after the 1920s. The city also still produced young talent. The young Nat Cole apprenticed as a piano player at amateur nights in Chicago spots such as the Savoy Ballroom and the Regal Theater. (Coles’ father was a minister at True Light Baptist Church.) Herbie Hancock, famous as a Miles Davis sideman and later an accomplished player, band leader, and composer in his own right, was born in Chicago 1940, grew up on the South Side, and by age 11 he had won a piano competition to play the first movement of a Mozart Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But Chicago no longer offered such players a future. Cole left Chicago in 1937, at age 18; Hancock began his jazz future in New York at the age of 21.
If Chicago no longer produced players it produced audiences, and Chicago was a must-stop city for touring jazz players. Into the 1930s, ‘40s/ and ‘50s every major player appeared in Chicago, and several made Chicago—by then a convenient camping spot for people in all trades who had to travel a lot—their home. In the late 1930s, the busy club-goer could enjoy within a month Wingy None and his band at the Three Deuces on State Street, both Jimmy McPartland and Art Tatum at the Friars, Gene Krupa’s band at the College Inn of the Sherman, Fletcher Henderson at the Grand Terrace, and Bob Crosby’s Bobcats at the Blackhawk Restaurant. The Blackhawk, then at 139 N. Wabash Avenue, had begun featuring jazz-flavored dance bands in 1926, when the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks Orchestra began playing there in performances broadcast on WGN radio. In later years, the best big bands from Benny Goodman to Louis Prima and Les Brown appeared there.
Fan Charles Walton recalled hearing Charlie “Bird” Parker in Chicago:
In 1942, I went to see Jay McShann and his orchestra at the Regal Theater . . . . The band began playing the intro. The next thing I heard was an alto saxophone at the microphone. He played 12 bars of blues like nothing I had ever heard before. It ran chills all through my body. I didn’t learn until later that it was Charlie Parker."
Jazz figured in the memoirs of many University of Chicago students of the 1950s. The great literary critic George Steiner would recall: “At a place called the Beehive, I discovered jazz and Caesar salad. To this day, the two go together.” Those heady days were recalled by Chicago painter Archibald J. Motley, Jr., in his “Nightlife” from 1943, one of a series illustrating Bronzeville’s social life of the day. (The painting is in the collection of the Art Institute, at whose school studied Motley, whose family moved to Chicago from New Orleans when he was a boy.)
By the 1960s jazz—serious jazz—had long ago lost its popular audience in Chicago, just as it had everywhere in the U.S. No longer music for dancing, or even pleasurable listening, jazz became a form of art music, as thorny in its way as other modern art forms. (Indeed, its more adventuresome forms can only be understood as a musical equivalent of abstract expressionism.) Among the mainstays of the ACM was composer-pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. Gary Giddins once professed himself puzzled that Abrams’ work has not more popular, and blamed it on “the unhappily widespread assumption that Abrams’s music requires grants [to subsidize performances] because it flies over the heads of Uncle Charlie and Aunt Gladys”—but Uncle Charlie and Aunt Gladys never listened to jazz anyway.
Chicago audiences were among the first to be confused in the early 1950s by the big band assembled by Sun Ra (Herman Sonny Blount). Many jazz players consider themselves far out but not many claim to be quite as far out as Ra did when he insisted he had been born on another planet. Whether they played “free jazz” or were just unorganized is a matter of fruitful debate for late nights around the stereo; “dance-band rhythms, free-form improvisations, futuristic electronic instrumentation, and ancient African garb.”
Chicago saw a more disciplined attempt to develop free jazz styles in the 1960s when a group of radical jazz men calling themselves the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) began playing on the South Side. The vehicles for their explorations were various ensembles, including the smaller-scaled but no less radical Art Ensemble of Chicago. The AACM was a collective organized to launch bands, promote concerts, make recordings and find audiences—a necessity, since their music was too daunting for conventional audience, which left them outside the usual system for doing such things.
They still play Dixieland to avid audiences in New Orleans but tourists don’t flock to Chicago to hear Chicago-style jazz. That doesn’t mean there isn’t jazz played in Chicago—there is, and much of it is first-rate. Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase as recently as 2003 booked such traditional players as vibraharpist Milt Jackson. The tradition of Helen Morgan and Mel Torme is still alive in the person of younger, edgier jazz-oriented vocalists such as Kurt Elling, Christine Ebersole (the last born in Winnetka), Patricia Barber, and Ann Hampton Callaway.
But for those who fell in love with the music of days past, the scene as the 20th Century ebbed was but a pale shadow of its former self. Poet Dave Etter lamented in “Chicago:”
“What can we do to please a hard case like you?” Old Mother Chicago says to me, shooing the pigeons off the mayor’s limousine. “Well,” I say, “for starters you can bring back the Blue Note and Jazz Limited and make the city a great jazz city again.”
Blues and gospel
Among the baggage carried to Chicago by Southern-born African Americans during the first wave of the Great Migration around World War I were fair number of guitars and harmonicas. The music played on these instruments was the delta blues, essentially a Southern folk music, and it found a ready audience among the Southern émigrés in the city. Once in Chicago, the music was changed by city life as were its performers and fans. And because Chicago was where both the artists and the customers were, the city did a sizable business recording the artists who specialized in this local version of the idiom in the 1930s and '40s.
The “real” Chicago blues was a child of this music that grew up in the late 1940s and early '50s. It was urban music in every sense, louder and meaner and less inhibited than its country cousin. Acoustic guitars could not be heard in the raucous clubs of the Black Belt and so had to be amplified; one didn’t need too fanciful an ear to hear in these new sounds the noises of the city itself, from the screeching brakes in the slide guitar to the bass’s thunder of the el roaring past. Drums were added too, to carry the beat unmistakably, as were pianos and saxophones and, in the in the late '50s and early '60s, full horn sections.
Chicago-style blues is a vast world made up of hundreds of performers, songs, and recordings; woe to anyone who sits next to an expert on the subject on a long plane ride. Any competently assembled roster of the greats will include many a person who lived and worked in Chicago, from Little Walter and Otis, Spann to Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Luther Allison, and Koko Taylor.
The titan of the style, its pre-eminent popularizer, if not its only innovator, was Muddy Waters. Born McKinley Morganfield, Waters was discovered in Mississippi by the blues archivist Alan Lomax in 1941 but it was not until 1943, when Waters began to work in Chicago, that he came to the attention of the world outside the Delta. Waters had a day gig delivering Venetian blinds; nights he played on Chicago's South Side with people like pianist Sunnyland Slim. It was with Slim that Waters recorded his first national R&B hit, in 1948 That side was the first of a string of R&B hits in the ‘50s that included such soon-to-be-standards as “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Got My Mojo Working” Waters records mainly sold to black audiences and to white aficionados, including a new generation of British rockers who would populate bands such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
Waters’ bandmates over the years made up a Who’s Who of blues—mouth harp player Little Walter, pianist Otis Spann, guitarist Buddy Guy, and bassist Willie Dixon. Each was a star in his own right; Dixon for example wrote and arranged many of Chess Records' hits in the 1950s. Waters later bands nurtured younger players as Junior Wells and James Cotton.
Early jazz in Chicago borrowed from minstrelry, ragtime, and marches to make something new; Chicago’s blues players, exposed in the city to more influences than in delta, borrowed too, from jazz, pop, and gospel. The blues was thus stretched into new shapes—boogie woogie, rhythm & blues, and eventually rock ‘n’ roll.
Each style produced its own masters. The musician generally credited with inventing the boogie woogie style of piano playing was Chicago-born Jimmy Yancey. Born in 1898, Yancy by 1913 was making a living in Chicago as a pro baseball player during the day while playing piano at night in clubs and at “rent parties” on the South Side. Music never paid much, however, and in 1925 Yancey became a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox, which job he did for twenty-five years. Yancey was unrecorded in his prime, even though Chicago was then a center for jazz recording, but his many disciples did make records, and they popularized his style. One of these Yancey contemporaries was Clarence "Pinetop" Smith, who wrote the classic “Pinetop's Boogie Woogie” in 1928. In 1929, Pinetop was killed by a stray bullet when a fight broke out in a Chicago dance hall and he forgot to duck.
Blues also informed what became known as soul music. Chicago was never a center of soul music in the ways that Detroit and Memphis were, but it produced some fine performers. Jackie Wilson, Gene Chandler, and Jerry Butler were Chicagoans, as was the influential writer-performer-producer Curtis Mayfield. The Dells had a long career as one of the rare groups to manage the transition from ‘50s doo wop to ‘70s soul, even (briefly) jazz. The Dells formed when high school pals in Harvey formed the El-Rays in 1953; they became the Dells in 1955, and became the famous Dells a year later with the doo wop classic "Oh What a Nite."
Chicago blues parallels in every important aspect the fate of Chicago jazz. Both were imports from the South, both thrived in the black South Side, both had an influence well beyond the city. And both musics were embraced by—some say appropriated by—white people. Just as swing, a popularized version of 1920s hot jazz, pushed its model into the commercial netherworld, so were Chicago-style blues and R&B pushed off the charts in the 1950s by rock played mostly by white imitators of black styles.
White players of this quintessentially black music were many. The Benny Goodman of the blues era was singer and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. Butterfield grew up in Hyde Park; his eponymous band appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 to rave reviews and went on to modest success as recording ad touring band. Elvin Bishop was a self-styled poor white cracker from Iowa and Oklahoma who heard and fell in love with blues on the radio but had never heard or seen a real black blues player until he came to the University of Chicago in 1959 on a National Merit Scholarship; Bishop took up the blues guitar with a fervor he did not match in the classroom, dropped out of college, and went on to a career as a respected player with white bands. Michael Bloomfield was born 1943 in Chicago. At the age of fourteen he began—as the Austin High gang had done some 30 years before him—to visit the music clubs on the South Side. He went to a career as a respected guitarist; as manager of a Chicago folk music club, the Fickle Pickle, and often gave welcome work to aging African American acoustic blues players such as Big Joe Williams.
A few local artists left to make a living in places where the pure blues was still enjoyed; singer-guitarist Luther Allison for example moved to France in 1980, and for much of his career was a bigger star in Europe than in the U.S. But it was through these white players that most of their age-mates came to know of these older black players. Muddy Waters—then 61 years old—was the only performer of color on the bill for the famous farewell concert of The Band. The LP “Fathers and Sons” in 1969 paired teachers Muddy Waters and Otis Spann with students Butterfield and Bloomfield—who had been welcomed in South Side clubs largely because of the protection of Waters—in a musical tribute whose title makes clear the relationship of white blues to black. When British rockers like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds—blues players only the very most generous of definitions—came to Chicago to record at Chess Records in the mid-1960s, it was an act of homage, not of crass imitation. Even now, members of the Rolling stones make it a point to drop by and sit in at Buddy Guy’s Legends when the proprietor is in town.
The whitening of the Chicago blues has been offered by many social critics as a further example of pernicious trend of such standing that it qualified by now as a tradition. That white imitators made money playing blues while so many black innovators did not is usually attributed to racism, although it may owe more to the fact that the bluesmen were illiterate sharecroppers and most of the whites educated children of the middle class who knew more about rights and contracts. (White players also suffer racism, not least at the hands of some white audiences who are not prepared to accept a white player as “authentic.”)
But it is not the white player that has most changed Chicago blues since the 1960s, it is the white audience. For black fans, the blues’ appeal is nostalgic. Southern music born of dislocations of the Great Migration; to most younger blacks, it is old-fashioned music for old people. White people in the 1960s, young whites in particular, heard something different. For them, the blues was new and exciting. The fact that it was played by social outcasts made it an apt soundtrack for their own rebellion; its focus on sex and booze and the good life made it music to ears of kids from too-respectable suburban homes.
The blues had always attracted some white fans to the clubs and to the specialty record stores, as had jazz in the 1920s. A larger white audience, informed by rock, wanted to hear it but who did not want to the places where it was performed. White and mixed-race bands such as the Butterfield Blues Band played real blues in places that white people were happy to visit, such as North Side clubs such as Big John’s. In a small way, these bands did for, or rather to, the blues in Chicago what Elvis Presley did for R&B.
Chicago was a place where the blues and its musical kin were recorded as well as created. Some of the most influential blues and rock n' roll sides, such as Chuck Berry’s "Johnny B. Goode" and "Red Rooster," were cut in Chicago at Chess Records. Chess was owned by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, and between 1957 and 1967 the label cranked out hits for the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson.
The Chess building was on Chicago's Record Row, which extended from 1200 to 2600 South Michigan Avenue. Among the studios there was that of Vee Jay Records. Founded in 1953, Vee Jay—the initials of the company founders—specialized in the then-new R&B and became the largest black-owned record label in the country until the rise of Detroit’s Motown Records. The label was home to 1950s and ‘60s pop hit-makers Jimmy Reed, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Dee Clark, Betty Everett, Gene (Duke of Earl) Chandler, the Dells, Staple Singers, John Lee Hooker, Little Richard, and—yes—the McGuire Sisters. The music business was becoming centralized in New York and Los Angeles, however, and companies like Vee-Jay left Chicago in 1964.
There is still serious blues-playing in Chicago. Buddy Guy’s Legends on Wabash in the South Loop is a club that books the best in national blues acts. The Chicago Blues Festival, staged in Grant Park since 1983, is billed as the world’s largest free-admission blues festival; it attracts three quarters of a million people over four days each June. But the serious blues audience is mostly white college students and suburbanites.
The story of the fabled Checkerboard Lounge at 423 E. 43rd Street makes the point. Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, B. B. King, and Howlin' Wolf once held forth here, but its audience began to disappear in the 1980s. The owner lamented that black people from the city not longer wanted to hear the blues; only the visits by students from the nearby University of Chicago kept the lounge alive. The blues—once the epitome of everything that was dangerous about the city—is now a staple of suburban summer festivals. Organizations such as the Fox Valley Blues Society stage shows in Aurora—on the wild South Side of Kane County—featuring such acts as Howard & the White Boys and a Willie Dixon tribute band. Far from a travesty, it is apt that those archetypical Chicagoans from TV and film created by John Belushi and Dan Akroyd, the blues-loving Blues Brothers, are two ethnic whites.
Any pilgrim who searches for the “real” blues in today’s Chicago, therefore, is likely to be disappointed. In the 2003 book Blue Chicago, University of Chicago-trained sociologist David Grazian explored the city’s blues clubs, and found that the décor, the food, even the jokes of most are contrived to meet white expectations of the “real.” A few relics of the era survive, but the famous blues joints are closed or derelict.
The desire to revive that era is compelling to many people who are motivated variously by racial pride, the need for economic development, or a desire to honor history. City of Chicago plans from the 1980s foresaw 43rd Street as the locus of a blues district appealing to tourists, akin to the Loop’s Theater District that was beginning to take shape at about the same time. The Checkerboard Lounge and the Jukebox Lounge were on 43rd, as was Pepper's Lounge, which was Muddy Waters’ musical headquarters in the 1960st; Waters lived nearby at 43rd and Lake Park. In 1985, a stretch of 43rd Street was christened Muddy Waters Drive, but the hoped-for blues district had not materialized twenty years later.
Like Chicago jazz—an urban version of New Orleans jazz—and Chicago blues—the urbanized delta blues—gospel is the urbanized version of the spiritual. The form mixes the old spiritual with the jazz and blues that Southern African Americans heard when they arrived in the big cities of the North.
The new genre was not invented by Thomas Dorsey, but this composer, publisher, and promoter did more than anyone to popularize it. Dorsey was music director at Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church for 51 years beginning in 1932—a bully pulpit indeed from which to spread the gospel of gospel, as Pilgrim Baptist was one of the largest black churches in the U.S.
The “father of gospel music,” was born in the South in 1899. Dorsey moved to Chicago in 1916, where he published a number of popular songs and performed with Ma Rainey’s blues band as a blues pianist under the stage name “Georgia Tom.” Dorsey got religion, and turned his songwriting skills to an amalgam of blues and spirituals intended, as he put it, to preach the gospel in music.
“Urbanized” in some circles is another word for “corrupt,” and Dorsey’s new “swing spirituals” raised hackles among the staid ministers. But congregations dug it, and by the 1930s many of Dorsey’s some 600 gospel songs had become enormously popular nationally, and not only among black church-goers.
Among the artists with whom Dorsey toured on the gospel circuit was Mahalia Jackson. Jackson’s voice was to gospel what Armstrong trumpet was to jazz or Muddy Waters' slide guitar was to blues. She was an innovator as well as a superstar. Born in New Orleans in 1891, Jackson relocated to Chicago in 1927. Like Dorsey she blended genres—in her case, bringing to spirituals the distinctly un-sanctified sounds of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Jackson left her own gospel group to join Dorsey in the 1930s and became hugely popular on the strength of such hits as her 1947 recording of “Move on Up a Little Higher.”
Jackson was gospel to millions of white Americans, including new President John Kennedy, who invited her to sing at his inaugural ball in 1961. Her singing at the March on Washington for civil rights in 1963 had nearly as much to do as Martin Luther King’s oratory with making that event such a soul-stirring occasion. (At King’s funeral she sang his last request, "Precious Lord.") Unlike so many musical stars she never left Chicagoland, but lived here until she died, in Evergreen Park, in 1972.
Rock ‘n’ roll
Of all the musical spawn of the Chicago blues, the one that most closely resembles its parent is rock ‘n’ roll. Chicago’s style electric blues was rock’s model in everything from instrumentation to attitude. Nearly all the early songs that defined the style were remodeled blues that had been written by Chicago-based composers such as Willie Dixon, and some of the seminal early rock artists such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley made important recordings in Chicago. Many white British rock bands, and a few American ones, built careers on renditions of Chicago blues classics, or constructed their original material around blues riffs from those songs.
Rock ‘n’ roll may have evolved from the kind of blues invented in Chicago, but Chicago rock oddly has produced no figures remotely as important as Muddy Waters or Buddy Guy. The city’s homegrown bands for the first 30 years of the rock era were bland and derivative, more pop than rock. The epitome was the city’s namesake band, Chicago, which began career as the Chicago Transit Authority in 1967. It earned minor stature as an innovator by being the first rock ‘n’ roll band to successfully integrate a horn section. Mainly, Chicago is remembered for selling records; by some measures Chicago is second only to the Beach Boys as the most commercially successful American rock band of all time.
It was not until the 1980s, by most critics’ reckoning, that the city of Chicago began producing rock artists worthy of the name. Indeed, for a while Chicago loomed as a “scene” city. Wicker Park was to indie rock what 35th and Calumet had been to jazz in the 1920s. The neighborhood offered what all incipient bohemias offer—cheap places to live and work, a busy club scene, and neighbors unfussy about quiet or respectability. One veteran of the scene would recall it fondly as “my old dark enclave of weirdness." Today the Wicker Park/Bucktown Chamber of Commerce sells T-shirts that announce, “Wicker Park & Bucktown—The Hippest Place on Earth”—the surest sign that it is not.
Chicago Jazz History
The history of jazz in Chicago survives mainly through the recording made here by its great players, but they are, happily, far from the only record of that fertile time.
The Chicago Jazz Archive was established in 1976 by two University of Chicago teachers who got the idea while listening to a lecture on campus by Benny Goodman. The archive consists of sheet music, photos, and recordings that touch on all the many variants of jazz played in the city, from the original New Orleans style to avant-garde. Added to that in 1982 were oral history interviews with Chicago musicians, memorabilia, and recordings from the annual Chicago Jazz Festival, and the personal collections of players such as Jimmy and Marian McPartland,
The heart of the collection came from collector John Steiner, an industrial chemist by day who haunted the Chicago jazz clubs at night for years. Steiner was one of those erudite fans without whom the history of most popular arts would be scant. Steiner, who died in 2000 at 82, was also a founder of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of jazz.
Steiner’s collection was comprehensive—he reputedly would not blush at the term “pack rat”—and included such ephemera as record catalogs, concert notices, newspaper clippings, photos, posters, programs, tickets. But it was the many tape recording of live performances and interviews with players and club owners who populated the early Chicago jazz scene –around 35,000 of them—that are the meat of the collection.
Charles A. Sengstock, Jr. has since the early 1960s researched and written about the development of jazz in Chicago. In late 1997, Sengstock donated to the Chicago Public Library’s Music Information Center more than 1,200 recordings and other items dealing mainly with Chicago dance bands.
The movement produced the usual coulda-beens and wanna-bes, but only two whose name much recognition outside the indie subculture. Smashing Pumpkins was successful—fairly easy to do for a while—but also durable, which is not. (The Pumpkins played their final show at Chicago's Chicagoland, the concert club at which the group played their first show back in 1988, in 2000.) Liz Phair was a conventional female singer/songwriter but with an attitude; her album 1993 “Exile in Guyville”—the title refers to the city—sold unusually well for an indie rock album but she has since been unable to match either its success or its quality.
The innovative alt.country band Uncle Tupelo spawned other successful bands that ventured into rock. One of them, Wilco with Uncle Tupelo cofounder Jeff Tweedy, announced its presence in 1996; since then the band has gone on to become one of Chicago’s more creative ensembles since the days of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives.
Chicago’s previous musical innovator were immigrants—from the delta in the case of blue players, from New Orleans in the case of jazz—and so too were the kids who made up the post-'80s Chicago rock scene. The far-off lands most hailed from was the suburbs. The Pumpkins’ driving force was singer songwriter guitarist Billy Corgan, a son of a jazz guitarist who grew up in Elk Grove Village and went to high school in Carol Stream. Liz Phair found her way to Wicker Park from Winnetka via New Trier High School. Jeff Tweedy was a genuine foreigner on arrival; he came from the St. Louis suburb of Belleville.
House music was resurrected disco, or rather disco re-imagined and electronically refitted to suit the tastes of hip clubsters of the late 1970s and early ‘80s. More than a few historians of the genre trace its origins to Chicago and a transplanted New York DJ named Frankie Knuckles who was in residence at a downtown club known as the Warehouse. It may be generous to state, as some critics have, that Chicago House is at the core of virtually every kind of modern dance music, or that the music is “as much a part of Chicago's cultural history as the blues.” But it is not exactly inaccurate. Here again, as happened with country and delta blues and New Orleans jazz, we see Chicago musicians not inventing new forms of popular music but reinventing them.
Folk and country
In the 1950s, Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood was a haven for bohemians rather than yuppies. The district was dotted with folk music clubs such as the Quiet Knight. Holstein's, and Earl of Old Town, the last of which was described once by Roger Ebert as “the holy ground of the Chicago folk music renaissance.”
A folk music school was as natural in that part of the city as a pork packing plant is in Pike County. It got one in 1957, during the American folk-music boom, when the Old Town School of Folk Music opened. The Old Town School offers instruction in dance and theater, but it is best known to the wider public as the venue for concerts and seminars on Things Folkish. The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, Bonnie Koloc, and John Prine studied at the school. (Prine once expressed his appreciation for its providing a place where you could learn to play guitar without having to read music.) After a half-century it is no longer just a school but an institution.
The person most associated nationally with Chicago’s folk phase of the early 1970s is Steve Goodman. Goodman was a popular concert- performer, but his own records sold only modestly. His real fame came as a songwriter. Arlo Guthrie, Johnny Cash, and Joan Baez are among the artists who covered Goodman songs. The most famous of these—not actually a folk song, but a pop song in folkish attire—is “City Of New Orleans,” which Kris Kristofferson once praised as “the best damned railroad song ever recorded."
As folk singers do, Goodman sang about what he knew, which is why his oeuvre includes songs about tow truck operators, Mayor Daley the First, and (repeatedly) the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Goodman was born in the city in 1948 but grew up in the suburbs, graduating from Maine Township East High School in Park Ridge. And as folk singers are wont to do, he rambled—in his case out of Chicago, at age 22, to Los Angeles, where he lived until he died at 36 of cancer.
Of course, there are as many folk music communities in Chicago as there are folks. Most emigrant groups, nostalgic for homeland and fretful that their traditions would be lost in the new country, worked fervently to keep alive the old ways in Chicago. It was no accident that some of the best traditional Irish step dancers come not from Ireland but from the northwest side of Chicago. The same dynamic is at work among Chicago’s Mexicans. Sones de México Ensemble Chicago, which blends folk string, percussion, and wind players with singers and dancers, is regarded by many as Chicago’s premier Mexican folk music group. Streetdancer is a jazz group whose compositions feature a combination of Brazilian, jazz and funk rhythms with Lithuanian Folk variations courtesy of founder and bassist Kestutis Stanciauskas.
Chicago police are more famous for playing tunes on people’s heads with nightsticks, but Francis O'Neill, a Cork man who was Chicago’s chief of police at the turn of the previous century, canvassed the memories of the force in compiling O'Neill's Music of Ireland; Ellen Skerrett, the estimable historian of things Irish in Chicago, calls the book still a standard reference work in Ireland and America. Today the city’s famous Irish folk music revivalists include the graduates of the Academy of Irish Music (regular winners of contests in Ireland) and the Trinity Irish Dance Company and Irish dance impresario Michael Flatley, who grew up in Little Flower parish on Chicago's South Side and became a star in the stepdance extravaganza Riverdance.
One of those folk music communities is devoted to country music, which is arguably merely a pop version of the essentially British folk that constitute what most people think of as folk music. Country music is an idiom with long history in Chicago. Southern whites brought their evangelical church and mountain or "hillbilly" music with them when they fled to the industrial cities of the North with black sharecroppers beginning around World War I.
One of the country'ss most popular and longest running programs of the radio era, which lasted for more than 50 years, was a hillbilly variety hour known as the National Barn Dance, which was broadcast not out of Nashville or Memphis but Chicago, via WLS radio; only the Grand Ole Opry it was said, was more influential in the spread of country and western music nationally. The station was then owned by Sears & Roebuck, “the World’s Largest Store,” whose management decided that down-home music did not project the middle-class image the retailer wanted for itself; it sold the station (and the program) to Prairie Farmer Magazine in 1928.
Among the region’s many Southern white immigrants were the parents of musician John Prine, who was born in their Maywood home in 1946. Young Prine spent summers with his relatives in Paradise, Kentucky, an experience that informed his country-tinged cosmopolitan folk songs. It was a performance at the Earl Of Old Town (arranged, as it happened, by Prine's friend Steve Goodman) that earned Prine his first record deal; a complicated career punctuated by Grammy nominations and health problems in equal abundance followed. Prine never forgot his roots; his best-selling 1999 album “In Spite Of Ourselves” consisted of classic country lovin,’ leavin,’ and cheating songs that Prine performed in duets with such stars as Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Loveless.
Chicago never rivaled Nashville as a capital of tradition country music, but it has been the center of one of the periodic artistic rebellions against it. The revivalist movement of the 1990s known as alt-country or alternative country was anti-Nashville, anti-“New Country.” Its purveyors sought to blend rural music with urban sensibility. It was not a new gambit—the blending of country and rock music is at least as old as rockabilly of the 1950s—but these fads were unread history to the 20-somethings that embraced alt-country.
Chicago was home of No Depression magazine, the Down Beat of the movement, and of Bloodshot Records, an important label specializing in alt-country artists. Some of the movement’s better-known artists came from or spent time in Chicago, including Jon Langford and his Waco Brothers, country torch diva Neko Case, and Chris Mills (“another soused, honey-throated cartographer of the heart” sayeth one fan). Originally from Belleville, Uncle Tupelo’s debut album (released in 1990) included a cover version of a song from the 1930s country giants, the Carter Family, plus acoustic country-ish ballads.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Chicago polka artists such as Walter Jagiello (Li'l Wally), regarded by aficionados as the father of Chicago-style polka music, invented a new style of polka. As popularized by Jagiello and Marion Lush and Eddie Blazonczyk, the new Chicago sound—trumpet (usually two now), concertina, accordion, drums and bass, and optional clarinet and fiddle—became the national sound of Polish American polka music, in the judgment of music scholar David J. Jackson.
Each of these “new” sounds were kin to another movement in the 1920s and ‘30s when another “pure’ folk music from the rural South—delta blues—moved to Chicago, where the old music mixed with other influences to produce a new genre. As was true of the old blues players, many of the young alt-country players are musically untrained and express a similar do-it-yourself philosophy shared by many punk bands. Here again Chicago embraced the untutored, the unsanctioned, the raw to create an idiom that places authenticity of feeling—soul, generously defined—over popularity and polish.
Singin’ and hoofin’
Twenties tunesmith and native son Milton Ager, who co-wrote “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Happy Days Are Here Again,” was a one-man Tin Pan Alley—really. But if the city gave the world few classic pop songs, it made up for it by serving as the birthplace or the training ground for many a cabaret and jazz singer capable of interpreting them.
Chanteuese Helen Morgan was born in Downstate Danville in 1900 but grew up in Chicago. She dropped out of Crane Technical High School; determined to make it in show biz, she used the money she made packing crackers and doing nails on singing and dancing lessons. She apprenticed in Chicago speak-easies but found stardom in NYC as a torch singer in the 20s she also starred in some of the classic musicals of the day— Jerome Kern’s Show Boat (1927-1928), the Kern-Hammerstein musical of 1929, Sweet Adeline, the Ziegfeld Follies (1931) and George White’s Scandals (1936). Over time her pioneering singing style was so widely copied that audiences no longer needed the real thing. She died back in Chicago while on tour in 1941, only 41 years old, of complications from drink. Hollywood paid her the compliment of making a movie of her life.
Mel “Velvet Fog” Torme— Grammy-winning “scat” singer, crooner, writer, drummer, and actor—was born in 1925 in Chicago and graduated from Hyde Park High School. Torme was a precocious entertainer. When Mel Torme was four, he was such a smash when he sang "You’re Driving Me Crazy!" with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra at the Blackhawk on Wabash that he was booked as a Monday night regular, and he wrote a Hit Parade Top Ten song when he was fifteen.
For decades popular live theater productions came to Chicago in the form of touring companies. Of late, that traffic has been reversed. Chicago not only has become a try-out city for Broadway productions, it has sent many of its own original productions to the Big Apple.
The pull of the musical stage has always been irresistible to Chicagoans on both sides of the footlights. Ruth Page, for example, was an early crossover artist who crossed from the ballet stage to the popular musical, in Irving Berlin’s 1920s “Music Box Revue.” Northwestern University provided early training for singer Carol Lawrence, the original Maria in Broadway’s "West Side Story,” and Jerry Orbach, star of the "42nd Street," which opened in 1980 for an eight-and-half-year run. Richard Kiley the actor who for many will forever be the Man of La Mancha, was originally a man of Chicago, being born here in 1922. Kiley got his first taste of music theater in a high school production of The Mikado, attended Loyola University and a local drama school, and later worked in Chicago-based soaps before heading east.
Chicago also was the hometown of a choreographer/director whose perhaps most significant work will be forever associated with the city. Bob Fosse was born 1927 in Chicago. He apprenticed in local vaudeville stages and clubs beginning at age thirteen; upon graduation from high school he left Chicago, a city to which he would return only to work. However, Fosse returned his hometown creatively in the Broadway show Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville, that opened in 1975, Fosse choreographed and co-wrote the book for the show, which is based on two sensational Chicago murder trials from 1924. Chicago, which of late has been routinely praised as perhaps the best U.S. musical of past 40 years, was rejected by its original audience. What was too dark to Americans in 1975 seemed quite normal thirty years later, and it was, unusually, a smash hit in revival. (An accomplished 2002 film version won it more converts.)
Popular dance of another sort—folk dancing—thrives in Chicago. The Mexican Folkloric Dance Company of Chicago is only one of many quality ethnic troupes. Chicago’s preeminent ambassadors of dance is the Chicago/Milwaukee-based Trinity Academy of Irish dance, noted previously. Trinity is the largest Irish dance school in the world, and since it began in 1990 on Chicago’s Northwest Side has trained the winner of gold medals for the U.S. at the annual World Championships of Irish Dance in the old country. To give its graduates a chance to dance professionally, the school in 1990 formed Trinity Irish Dance Company, which calls itself the birthplace of progressive Irish dance of the sort showcased in the surprising smash hit, Riverdance.
It has been a long time since Middle America has been a trend-setter in any of the popular arts. The big pop culture factories of New York City and LA of late treat Chicago as Chicago industrialists used to treat the forests of Wisconsin or the plains ore fields of Minnesota, as a source of raw material to be stripped and carted off. That raw material is likely to be imported to the region, as it always has been, by its immigrant citizens. If Chicago is again to produce popular music that will have the rest of the nation humming along, it will do it as it has always done it—as a hybridizer of music invented elsewhere. The next jazz and blues, the next country, the next house might well be some variation in the Mexican styles being played in Chicago, perhaps merging mariachi/ranchera music from Guadalajara, pop-oriented Grupo, and Mexican folk with elements of—who knows?
Comics and comedians
The roster of Illinois humorists include an impressive number of cartoonists. By ”cartoonist” we do not mean editorial cartoonists, who use humor to make what are ultimately polemical points. Nor do we include the practitioners of the newer art of the comic novel. (Chicago has connections to two acknowledged masters of this new genre in the persons of Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes.) When we say “cartoonist,” we mean the author of comic strips and drawings.
Chicago in the decades bracketing 1900 had as many newspapers as it has television stations today. Cartoonists flocked to the city the way pickpockets flock to state fairs. Frank Willard, born in 1893 and raised in Anna at the other end of Illinois, apprenticed at the old Chicago Herald in the pre-World War I years; Willard found fame in New York City with the Moon Mullins comic strip, which at its peak appeared in 250 newspapers read by 15 million people. H. T. Webster, the cartoonist-creator of Caspar Milquetoast, also spent his early years in Chicago before moving to New York City.
Cartoonist Edgar "Abe" Martin was the author of Boots and Her Buddies, a popular newspaper strip in the early 1900s detailing the exploits of a popular coed and her classmates in a fictional college town based closely on Monmouth, Illinois and Monmouth College, Martin’s alma mater. Another strip of that ilk that is more familiar to today’s readers is Blondie, a strip created by Chicago-born Murat Bernard “Chic” Young. Young grew up in St. Louis; after graduating from high school, he returned to his native Chicago where he attended night classes at the Art Institute before leaving in 1921 for Cleveland and then New York to do strips for the Newspaper Enterprises Association (NEA). One of them, Blondie (1930) became perhaps the most successful comic strip of all time. (When the U.S. Postal Service wanted a cartoon character to grace a new postage stamp commemorating the 1995 centennial of the American newspaper comic strip, it chose Blondie.)
Helen E. Hokinson graduated from Mendota High School in 1913, and went on to publish some 1,700 cartoons in The New Yorker, usually featuring befuddled dowager-types. (Typical Hokinson woman at a club meeting: “I just want to say that I’m perfectly willing to serve as treasurer, provided every penny doesn’t have to come out exactly even.”) Another notable magazine cartoonist was E. Simms Campbell, the first African American cartoonist and illustrator to receive national recognition in mainstream publications. St. Louisan Campbell moved to Chicago as a teenager when his mother died. Like many black artists in the city, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the few art schools in the U.S. that admitted black students. He left Chicago, eventually landing in New York City, where he was hired by Esquire, where his first byline appeared in 1933. In addition to illustrations—he created the magazine’s mascot, among other assignments—he did cartoons. (Campbell’s all-white harems are examples of what one critic called “working in whiteface.”) Upon leaving Esquire, he became the first black cartoonist to be nationally syndicated.
The hard-boiled detective Dick Tracy was the creation of Chester Gould. An Oklahoman, he moved to Chicago in 1921. A 1923 graduate of Northwestern University, Gould was hired as a cartoonist by the Chicago Tribune, in which paper his flamboyant villains and improbably adept hero debuted. Improbably, the violent strip was created in sylvan Woodstock, where Gould lived for 46 years.
In 1924, "Little Orphan Annie" was born, with the catchphrase "Leapin' Lizards!" in her mouth and no irises in her eyes. Her home was the Tribune, her creator Harold Gray, who through Annie and her capitalist protector Daddy Warbucks gave the world a second cartoon version of objectivism, after that provided by its creator Ayn Rand.
Pre-eminent in influence if not is talent is Walter Elias Disney, the man who gave the world Donald Duck and Goofy, Dumbo and Bambi, Snow White and Cinderella, and, of course, Mickey Mouse. Disney was born in Chicago, in 1901, and after a youth in Kansas came back to study at McKinley High School and (at night) at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. While he gave up drawing early in his career, Walt Disney deserves mention for his innovations in the art of the animated cartoon.
John Tinney McCutcheon, the "Dean of American Cartoonists," was born in 1870, on the verge of the one of the great eras in Chicago newspapering. Like one of his collaborators, George Ade, McCutcheon was an Indianan, but Chicago was where the jobs and the stories were. He worked at the Chicago Morning News (later called the Chicago Record), but it was at the Chicago Tribune that he secured his reputation with work from 1903 until his retirement in 1946. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Cartoons in 1932.
Political cartoonists’ names and reputations usually don’t last much longer than the controversies they comment upon, but McCutcheon’s did—but not for any of his drawn commentaries. In 1907 he did a drawing depicting an old-timer and a youngster as they gazed on a field as wispy smokes rose from the dying fires of fall leaves. The old man recalls how the sight had always stirred him to imagine Native Americans braves dancing around their campfires. “Injun Summer” was instantly popular, and it appeared each fall in the Tribune for 80 years. The paper, which had never withdrawn a cartoon because Presidents or generals or tycoons objected to them, dropped it after 1992 because of complaints that the title phrase, if not the sentiment, offends Native Americans.
Among contemporary humorists who draw, several Illinois artists stand out. Chicago Tribune cartoonist Jeff MacNelly died in 2000 at 53. Best known as an editorial cartoonist—he won the Pulitzer Prize for work in that genre in 1972, 1978, and 1985—MacNelly also illustrated humorist Dave Barry's syndicated column and wrote the daily comic strip Shoe beginning in 1977; the latter made working at a newspaper seem much funnier than it is, which is one reason why it appeared in more than 1,000 newspapers.
Among the more highly regarded among mainstream practitioners is Pat Brady, who lives in Sycamore. Several times nominated as "Cartoonist of the Year" by the National Cartoonists Society, Brady is the author of the syndicated strip Rose is Rose, a sort of Peanuts for the 1990s which chronicles the exploits of the Gumbo family in more than 600 newspapers.
Nicole Hollander is the author of Sylvia, which in 1979 introduced the world to he bathtub philosopher who first pointed out that a world without men would feature "No crime and lots of happy, fat women." Hollander is one of the still-few women whose work graces the newspaper comic pages. She grew up in Chicago, returning there to live after studying art at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. More than a dozen collections of Sylvia strips have been published, along with dolls and calendars and, in 1991, a musical play, Sylvia's Real Good Advice, which Hollander co-wrote.
Brady and Hollander are unusual in that they maintain national careers from the Chicago area, unlike so many of their predecessors at the drawing table, who trained or apprenticed in Chicago but had to move to New York to make their livings. Another contemporary cartoonist who stayed put is Lynda Barry, author of the Ernie Pook comic strip and the novel-turned-play The Good Times Are Killing Me. Barry was born in a small Wisconsin town. She got her start in Chicago in the late 1970s when the Chicago Reader began picking up her cartoons. Her audience is now national, made up of fans of “alternative” cartooning that is not always about jokes, indeed often isn’t meant to be funny.
Many performers came to Chicago to perform in the days when the city was a center of vaudeville and later, of television. The Marx family, for example, moved to Chicago from New York in late 1909 or so, looking for a place they could subject new audiences to what had become tired routines. They lived at 4512 Grand Boulevard (now King Drive) and performed as the Four Nightingales and the Six Mascots before becoming what the world knows as the Marx Brothers. It was at Chicago’s Windsor Theater, in 1914, that the group debuted one of their seminal early shows, and the filmed version of their touring show Animal Crackers, now a classic, had it national premiere in Chicago in 1930.
Illinois nurtured the man who was arguably America’s Lincoln of comedy—radio and TV star Jack Benny. Benny was an innovator of comedy formats; The Jack Benny Program on radio—sketch comedy with a repertory company that poked fun at pop culture—was the forerunner of “Saturday Night Live” in everything but manners. Unlike the Illinois comics of later generations, Benny did not write his own material; he was however a performer with brilliant timing and taste. It was Benny who elicited from Ed Wynn that essential distinction between a comedian, “meaning a man [like Benny] who says things funny, as opposed to a comic, who says funny things."
Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago in 1894 but grew up in Waukegan, where his father owned a saloon and later a dry-goods store. He began playing the violin for money at 15, in the pit orchestra of a local theater; his habit of skipping afternoon classes to make matinee curtains caused his school to expel him at 17. After a few years on the vaudeville circuit as a violinist, Benny discovered he could make people laugh—also in Illinois, as it happened, at the nearby Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1918 where, as a Navy enlistee, he wowed ‘em in a base revue.
Chicago was the birthplace of another star of the 1930s and ‘40s—rather two stars, in the persons of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (born Bergren) and his dummy companion Charlie McCarthy. Bergen was born in 1903 in Chicago, where his Swedish parents had a retail dairy; Charlie McCarthy had Chicago parentage too, having been modeled upon a tough Irish newsboy Bergen knew. Like many boys Bergen was fascinated by sleight-of-hand tricks and sleight-of-voice tricks alike; he was tutored in the latter by traveling ventriloquist Harry Lester. Bergen began to work his way part through college at Northwestern University, but learned more doing a magic/ventriloquism act at parties, and left school for vaudeville.
WGN radio staffers Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll in 1928 the pair debuted as “Amos ‘n’ Andy” on WMAQ in the Daily News Building. The show was based on an earlier program of theirs, “Sam ‘n’ Henry.” Their broad dialect comedy consisting of verbal blackface skits was broadcast 15 minutes every day. It was as phenomenally popular in its day as it has become phenomenally controversial in this one. The program was broadcast nationwide from the network’s studios in the Merchandise Mart from 1931 until 1938, when the pair moved the show to Hollywood.
New media—recording, films, and especially television—opened opportunities for a new generation of Illinois satirists, clowns, and comics after World War II. Steve Allen grew up partly in Chicago, with his Irish in-laws, with whom his vaudevillian mother left him while she was on the road. It was there, he explained later, that he honed his skills at repartee that stood him in such good stead as the host of the original “Tonight Show,” where he virtually invented the late-night talk show.
Another TV pioneer was “Lonesome George” Gobel, whose award-winning variety shows were a staple of the broadcast lineups in the 1950s and ‘60s. Gobel was born in Chicago in 1920. The first room he worked was his father's grocery, where he imitated the customers; at 11 he made his debut singing (accompanying himself on guitar) on Chicago radio, on the WLS Barn Dance, and had a bit part of the old “Tom Mix Show.”
Gobel’s leisurely delivery led many revved-up city folks to mistake him as slow-witted. He once complained of being misunderstood as a yokel, saying that he was "really a city boy at heart." But there was always a hint of country in Gobel. His adult apprenticeship was not the big-city vaudeville circuit but radio stations in places like Chattanooga and St. Louis. On screen he was the comic embodiment of the de-ethnicized white small-town American washed up on the nation’s cities and their suburbs by a rising tide of postwar affluence. That new world left Gobel no less dazzled than his countrymen; as he put it in 1954, “If it weren't for electricity, we'd all be watching television by candlelight."
Yokels were not what the critics thought of when they first heard the work of The Second City troupe. An offshoot of a University of Chicago theater group known as the Compass Players, Second City began offering improvisational comedy with a satirical edge in a Wells Street club in 1959 and was still going strong 32 years later. Second City did for a new generation of satirically-inclined actors and writers—the familiar Chicago wise guy, only now with a college education—what vaudeville had done for their punch-line-oriented forebears. It gave bright but inexperienced talents a place where they could hone their skills—a place, in short, they needed to be bad in so they could become good.
Through the 1970s, Second City produced some of the era’s best-known club comedians and comedic actors. A partial list includes Alan Arkin, Ed Asner, Shelley Berman (who invented the style of comedy that Bob Newhart would later perfect), Barbara Harris, Linda Lavin, Mike Nichols, Elaine May (the last two forever famous as Nichols and May), Paul Mazursky, Jerry Stiller Anne Meara (best known from the team of Stiller & Meara), Paul Sand, Joan Rivers, Avery Schreiber, David Steinberg, Robert Klein, Fred Willard, Peter Boyle, Harold Ramis, John Belushi, and Bill Murray. Among Chicago institutions of learning, only the University of Chicago can boast of such accomplished alumni.
While Second City was improvising a different future of American comedy on Wells Street, two other local performers were expanding the possibilities of stand-up comedy. Bob Newhart was born in Chicago in 1928. After Army service he came back to the city to work as an accountant and then as an advertising copywriter. Unease at the corporate culture coalesced with vague theatrical ambitions in the routines that filled the record album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. The release by the almost perfectly unknown Newhart outsold Elvis and “Sound of Music” in 1960. This was a remarkable achievement at the time, and one that seems more remarkable with each passing year.
Dick Gregory, a Missouran who attended Southern Illinois University, found his way to stardom by a similarly circuitous route. No club owners would take a chance on his unproven talent, so he opened his own nightclub, the Apex, in suburban Robbins; after it folded he tried again, in 1959, when he rented the Roberts Show Club on Chicago’s South Side. Two years later Gregory got his break when he was asked to appear uptown, at the Chicago’s Playboy Club. Successful recordings and club appearances followed. Gregory, with Bill Cosby, did for black comedy what Chuck Berry did for rhythm and blues, which was to clean it up for white audiences. Wry and politically alert, Gregory was a black angry man rather than an angry black man; in this he was a model for such socially conscious Chicago comics of color in the 1990s as Aaron Freeman.
The early Gregory was in some respects the closest thing the ‘60s had to Will Rogers. During the 1960s, Gregory began to devote himself to civil rights issues on the streets as well as the stage. Gregory was a hit among white liberals, but Mayor Richard J. Daley did not find him funny. (In a 1963 performance, Gregory ad libbed to a Chicago audience, “In most places voting is a privilege. Here it’s a sport.”) In 1966, Gregory ran for mayor—not the first funny person to do that, although probably the first candidate who was knowingly funny.
Thanks to such artists, the 1950s and ‘60s were a golden Age for comedy in Chicago. The city was open to new talents, as is evidenced by the fact that so many important comedians of the 1960s—performers such as Nichols and May, Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters—made it big in Chicago before the rest of the country discovered them. In an interview, Newhart observed that club audiences in San Francisco and New York tended to laugh at what they think they should laugh at, while people in Chicago only laugh if they think something is funny. In effect, Chicago’s provincialism made it a good place for new acts, because audiences didn’t know enough to know what they were supposed to like.
Illinois has produced its share of comic actors, a class of performers distinct from comedians who also acted. On this crowded list are Joan Cusack and John Cusack of Evanston, and (probably the standout of this generation) Second City grad Bill Murray. The list could be extended. Rock Hudson (born Roy Scherer, Jr.) was born in 1925 in Winnetka and graduated from New Trier High School there. He returned to Winnetka after his discharge from the Navy in 1946, and worked for a time as a piano mover and a mail carrier until, bitten bye the acting bug, he went to Hollywood. Cast in many types of roles and absurd in most of them, Hudson was only really persuasive in light comedies of the sort that he made famous in the 1960s with such costars as Doris Day.
Birth in suburban Chicago is the only thing that Rock Hudson and John Belushi have in common. Belushi, one of the more successful of the latter Second City alums, was born the son of immigrants in 1949 in Wheaton, which is invariably described as uptight or conservative, depending on the views of the describer regarding alcohol and Bible colleges. A hyperactive kid, Belushi grew up to be voted his high school homecoming king—a turn as weird as any sketch he ever did. Belushi will be most widely remembered for his performance in the film Animal House as John "Bluto" Blutarsky—the repressed Protestant id made flesh.
One of the signal comedic creations of the TV era, Homer Simpson, owes much to the voicings of Oak Park native Dan Castellaneta. A devotee of the work of such Second City elders as Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, and Nichols and May, Castellaneta studied art at Northern Illinois University before joining the Second City troupe in 1983 for a four-year hitch.
Thanks to its gifted merry-makers, Illinois is a minor landmarks in the sprawling geography of the postwar comedy. Among Newhart’s stage routines is the one about working at the Illinois State Unemployment Compensation Board where he was paid $60 a week and clients then received $55—“and they only had to come in once a week.” Another Newhart classic is the sketch in which a public relations expert wrangles with the President over revisions to a draft of the Gettysburg Address. (“Abe, will ya just give the speech the way Charlie wrote it?”)
Two of Belushi’s characterizations owed to his Illinois experience. Joliet Jake Blues who with his brother Elwood Blues were raised at the Rock Island City Orphanage and grew up on the streets of Calumet City. Their exploits were the basis of a recurring “Saturday Night Live” skit that was inflated into The Blue Brothers. Belushi’s performance also made "Cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger” a national catchphrase; it occurred in a recurring sketch about short order cook based on Sam Sianis, proprietor of the Billy Goat Tavern on Michigan Avenue as conceived by writer Don Novello, who was a regular at the Billy Goat when he worked as an advertising copywriter in Chicago in the late '60s.
The decades since the ‘70s have not been golden years for humor in Illinois. The educated may weep when they consider the descending curve from the original Second City troupe to "Wayne's World." Mike Myers starred in the recurring TV skit (and subsequent films) about the latter—a parody of local access cable TV shows originating from the paneled basement room of Wayne’s parents’ house in Aurora. For the time being, Chicago comedy has become like its architecture and blues, a fine heritage that attracts mainly tourists who come there to see what used to be.
During the years when radio was inventing itself as an entertainment medium, production was more decentralized. Much programming was create by the local stations in the nation’s regional capitals. (National networks in their familiar form did not form until 1926.) A number of programs from radio’s golden age originated in Chicago, or featured players or formats that were invented or perfected in Chicago.
Beginning in 1932, for example, Chicago could be considered Chicago was America’s radio soap opera capital. Here originated such popular programs as “Just Plain Bill,” “The Road to Life,” “The Guiding Light,” and “As The World Turns.” (A legend of that era was Irna Phillips creator of WGN’s Painted Dreams, which is often described as the first-ever soap opera, could—as humorist H. Allen Smith put it—“keep five different soap operas going on the radio without missing a meal.” At one point she was writing simultaneously three of the nation’s hits of the genre—The Edge of Night, As the World Turns, and Guiding Light, the last destined to become the longest-running soap opera in any broadcast medium.)
NBC's Midwest operations has maintained studios in the Merchandise Mart since 1931. In that time the place has been the scene of many a radio and TV first—radio's first daytime serial (the mystery Lights Out which premiered in 1937), the first overseas news report, the first station (in 1956) to broadcast all local live programs in color.
New stations looked to old models for the new medium. Many of the productions that were fed onto the networks from Chicago—especially NBC’s—during the late 1940s and early 1950s were unique in form and style. Take drama. New York stations filled their schedules with live theater performances staged in the studio; Los Angeles productions borrowed from movies, and were highly scripted. Chicago, with neither Broadway nor Hollywood to draw on, had to invent material unique to the medium. “It was in the play especially written for radio that Chicago had its greatest national influence,” explained critic Arch Oboler in Theatre Arts. “There was created, by trial and many errors . . . [a] new type of play written for the ear and the listener's imagination alone.”
As for style, local producers favored—or perhaps were tolerant of—shows based on flexible concepts (often adapted to broadcast personalities) and scripts that were loosely written if not improvised. The result was known as the Chicago School of Television, which hints at an intention and formality that it did not possess. The Chicago Style of Television may be a more apt phrase.
The programs that defined the genre included, Mr. Wizard, Studs Terkel's Studs' Place, and Kukla, Fran and Ollie; Burr Tillstrom, puppeteer of the “Kuklapolitan players,” got his early education as Senn High School and the University of Chicago and early experience in his craft at the WPA-Chicago Park District Theatre and Marshall Field’s. Ding Dong School an early essay in instructional TV aimed at pre-schoolers –and indirectly at critics of TV—featured the matronly Dr. Frances Horwich, TV’s first Mr. Rogers. The show began its local run on local affiliate WNBQ; and NBC added it to its national lineup in 1952, and broadcast it from Chicago until 1955, when it, inevitably, left.
The informal koffee klatch-type variety show also had its beginnings in Chicago. Among the principal innovators in the form was Dave Garroway, one of the first of the genuine TV hosts (as compared to the radio and vaudeville performers who of necessity, fulled the ranks in early days,) New Yorker Garroway in 1939 joined the announcing staff at NBC-Chicago's WMAQ radio outlet; his popularity as a late-night jazz host led to networks shows and after that TV, whose producers were desperate for new talent and program ideas. Garroway at Large premiered in 1949 in Chicago and originated from there until 1951 after which Garroway went on to become first host of NBC's Today show.
The Mighty B-3
Laurens Hammond in 1934 patented an electronic organ, and his namesake company manufactured the machine at the Hammond riverfront factory at 2915 N. Western (now 2911). The modern model B-3 was introduced in 1954 and stayed in production until 1974. It was known as the King of Beasts as much for its size as for its sound. Popular as a poor man’s church organ, the Hammond machine was quickly adopted for use by jazz and rockers. Its unmistakable sound was essential to early Santana, Spencer Davis, Booker T And the MGs, Procul Harum, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and the Allman Brothers Band, to name only a few.
These days computers do what the cunning but cumbersome innards of Hammonds do, and newer and lighter machines are preferred by players save for a few diehards with strong backs. The Hammond Organ Company went out of business in 1986 and its name was sold to a Japanese competitor (which offers a line of digital imitators) and the old Hammond factory was converted to condos.
Garroway was not the first of those curious creatures of radio and TV, the host, which seemed to thrive in Chicago air. Not a performer in the usual sense, the host needs mainly to be an affable type with whom audiences can identify. Don McNeil was the host of the Chicago-produced “Breakfast Club,” which ran for 35 years after its premier in 1933, making it radio's longest-lived network show. Breakfast Club was a prototype of the now-ubiquitous TV morning talk show; one historian of the show described it neatly as a cross between Oprah, David Letterman, The Today Show, and the Prairie Home Companion. Virginia Graham, who hosted popular daytime talk shows in the 1950s, was born in Chicago. She was a cub reporter for the Tribune and local radio and studied at Northwestern until marriage took her to New York. Hugh Downs, one of Garroway’s successors on Today and a man who by some reckonings logged more hours on TV than anyone, began his career as a staff announcer for NBC Chicago from 1943 to 1954. Popular daytime host Mike Douglas got his start in 1953 as host of WGN radio’s “Hi, Ladies.” Oprah Winfrey was co-host of the morning show of A.M. Chicago in 1984 before launching, in 1986, the self-named chat show that had made her a household name.
As happened in other industries, Chicago’s history-making moment in radio and TV was brief. The opening of the coast-to-coast network cable in 1953 meant that the whole nation cold be served from New York and Los Angeles and within two years Chicago ceased to be a source of any national programming.
The history of radio and TV did not cease in Chicago in the 1950s, of course. In 1956, WTTW became the first station in the country to televise college courses for credit. It clearly was an idea whose time had come; within five hours, 15,000 students had enrolled. WTTW also claims to have produced the first movie review series in the country—”Sneak Previews.”
Most recent achievements, alas, do not bring such credit to the city. The city is a center for the production of syndicated talk shows that range from the inane to the vulgar. The Jerry Springer Program is a daily test in the limits of free speech. (The host earned a law degree from Northwestern University, which discredits the notion that education is improving.) More respectable if not more edifying is Oprah Winfrey, a broadcast phenomenon of the era, whose shows have been likened by one critic to a new age revival tent. guidebooks include directions to the studio—Harpo Studios, aty 1058 West Washington—and to “Oprah’s hotel” on Michigan Avenue where her guests stay.
Several hit TV sitcoms have been set in Chicago. The 1970s show Good Times, was set in a public housing high-rise on Chicago’s South Side at the same time that The Bob Newhart Show depicted the life of a Chicago psychologist as lived in his North Michigan Avenue office and Near North high-rise—the twin poles of Chicago’s social spectrum. Both shows were hits more or less to the extent that neither realistically portrayed their milieu; in any event, no series has captured the comic essence of the city the way that “Seinfeld” captured New York City’s.
Movies are the popular art form whose historical associations with Chicago are the richest. In some ways Chicago was a natural as a place to make movies, because of the wealth of experienced stage actors, producers, and technicians available here at the time when the new medium first broke onto the scene. William Selig, a magician interested in projections, built what some consider the world’s first movie studio in 1897, in Rogers Park; within ten years, the Selig Polyscope Company’s studio, by then at Irving Park Road and Western Avenue, was the largest in the country.
George Spoor founded the Essanay Studios—“S” and “A”—in Chicago, the “S” standing for Spoor, the “A” for Maxwell Anderson, better known to millions as cinema's first cowboy hero, "Bronco Billy." Essanay’s studio on the North Side cranked out one-reelers that starred such not-yet greats as Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson—a Chicago girl—to the screen—unforgettable performers in very forgettable movies. Also on the payroll was the young Charlie Chaplin, who made one movie there, His New Job, which first teamed the Little Tramp with comic Ben Turpin.
The Chicago movie-making firms were successful because they were the first, not because they were the best; newer firms quickly outdid them. So did other movie-producing states; once movies began to be shot in California, whose weather allowed scenes to be shot outdoors all year, Chicago’s future began to dim. Essanay gradually abandoned Chicago, Chaplin abandoned Essanay, and the company was defunct by 1917.
If Chicago wasn’t a very good place to make movies, Chicagoans proved aces at selling, showing, producing, writing, and acting in them and inventing the gadgets needed to make and show them. For example, Waukeganites Edward Amet and Essanay's George Spoor in 1894 refined the crude projectors used in peep shows into a slightly less crude motion picture projector they called a magnascope. The first successful sound system for the movie industry was developed at Western Electric Co.’s Hawthorne Works in suburban Cicero. Chicago was the home of the first film production companies in the U.S. owned and run by African Americans. Among them were Foster Photoplay Company and Ebony Pictures, which made “race films” in the silent era that catered to black movie-goers ignored by the white entertainment industry.
Chicago’s central location and excellent train connections gave it the same advantages in the distribution of commercial films that Hollywood’s weather gave that town in the filming of them. Between World War I and Vietnam, a “Film Row” flourished along Wabash Avenue between 8th and 12th streets, where were located a half-dozen major studio distribution offices, theater equipment firms, movie poster shops, and concessionaires.
Showing movies is a branch of the retailing business, and Chicagoans at the turn of the 20th Century knew how to sell something. The product then was not specific films so much as it was the idea of going to the movies, as the medium had not quite escaped its peep show reputation. No one was better at this than Barney Balaban. Born in Chicago of immigrant parents, Balaban began, with his four brothers, as a local movie exhibitor, but soon the Balaban brothers bought (and later built) their own movie houses. Balaban, as part of the firm of Balaban and Katz, opened the first of the ornate movie “palaces.” The firm eventually built the largest theater chain in the studio era. Balaban & Katz operated in affiliation (as all chains were then affiliated) with a major studio, in this case Paramount Pictures, of which Balaban was made president in 1936. Balaban & Katz thrived for 30 years, until antitrust rulings forced the big studios to shed their theaters.
The number of movie people of note with connections to Chicagoland is vast. The roster includes movie producers of several eras, from Mike Todd, whom West Siders knew as the boy Avron Hirsch Goldenbogen; Todd was known as a showman”—meaning a vulgar promoter—who pioneered such dubious advances as wide-screen films and star cameos (all of which accomplishments are overshadowed by his being Mr. Elizabeth Taylor for a time.) Sherry Lansing, who in 1980 broke ground by becoming a female head of a major studio (first 20th Century Fox, later Paramount) was born 1944 in Chicago and graduated from Northwestern University.
Ben Hecht was one of Hollywood's most sought after and highly-paid screenwriters who was ultimately responsible, in whole or in part, for the scripts of about seventy films, including nominees or winners of a half dozen Academy Awards. Twentieth Century, a 1934 film script that Hecht co-wrote with Charles MacArthur from the play of that name, helped define the Hollywood screwball film. Hecht also had a hand in Design for Living and Viva Villa, Spellbound and Notorious, Gunga Din, the Oscar-nominated Wuthering Heights, and the Oscar winner The Scoundrel. Hecht’s place in the pantheon would be guaranteed had he written only his script for the 1937 film Nothing Sacred, which one distinguished film critic has praised as Hollywood’s most bitter and hilarious satire.
Some of Hecht’s best work in Hollywood owed to his experience in Chicago. He co-wrote the script for Scarface, the first and most lurid of the gangster flicks, blending the story of the real-life Al Capone with that of the Florentine Borgias. A Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play, The Front Page—a stage hit in 1928 that they also adapted for the screen in 1931—inspired one of the finest antic comedies of the period, 1940’s His Girl Friday; its characters were modeled on people the two men knew as reporters in Chicago.
Hecht and MacArthur’s example was followed by a new generation in the form of the Goldman brothers. James Goldman was born in Chicago in 1927 and was educated at the University of Chicago. Like Hecht and MacArthur he wrote plays—They Might Be Giants (1961) and Follies (1971), a one-act musical for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics. Goldman’s screenplay for his own 1966 play, The Lion in Winter, won several honors including the American Screenwriters Award, the British Screenwriters Award, and the Academy Award. Younger brother William was the man behind the words spoken in such popular films of 1970s as The Stepford Wives and All the President’s Men; he won Academy Awards for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1970 and for the Marathon Man in 1977.
Another Chicago who wrote for both stage and screen is David Mamet. He is best known for the former—see elsewhere this section—but Mamet also was a successful screen writer. He adapted his own play Glengarry Glen Ross to the screen and wrote the script for that quintessential Chicago story, The Untouchables (1987); his Wag the Dog (1997) earned Mamet an Oscar co-nomination for Best Adaptation.
Not a few of the films by the best of Chicago’s screenwriters—Front Page, His Girl Friday, The Untouchables, Scarface—were set in Chicago. The city has long been a favorite setting for slice-of-life dramas both fictional and real. Knock on Any Door with Humprey Bogart and John Derek (the movie that gave us the motto, "Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse") was a 1949 movie based on Willard Motley’s not-very-good book about street life around Maxwell Street; like so many writers, Motley felt the film was not as good as the book, although critics agreed that it was the other way around. The 1961 movie version of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was set here, as was Hoop Dreams, a 1994 feature documentary about two inner-city Chicago teens.
Much of the what America knows of Chicago history—indeed, much of what Chicagoans know about Chicago history—comes from the movies. The silver screen’s rendition of Prohibition-era Chicago is especially vivid. Of what many regard as the three best all-time gangster films of the pre-Godfather era—Little Caesar (1931), Scarface (1932) and The Public Enemy— two were based on the life of Al Capone and the third was based on real-life Chicago gangster Earl "Hymie" Weiss. as would The Untouchables (1987) and Chicago, the musical. The era was played for laughs in Some Like It Hot.
Indeed, crime is what Chicago is known for, at least the Chicago that exists on film. Knock On Any Door was set in motion by crimes, as was Call Northside 777. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a crime caper in suburban terms, the crime being playing hooky. Scandals such as the Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924 have inspired Hollywood movie makers (or least excited them); the best-known screen treatment of that sordid affair was Compulsion from 1959. Eight Men Out (1988) tells the story of the Chicago White Sox players who conspired with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series.
It is Chicago’s suburbs, oddly, that feature more often in recent films of note. In a case of life imitating art imitating life, an annual festival is held in Woodstock in late winter featuring events from A Groundhog Day; the 1993 film was shot in that McHenry County town, which also starred, doing a plausible imitation of Puxatawney, Pennsylvania. Caddyshack’s script was Bill and Brian Doyle Murrays’ version of life at Indian Hills Country Club in their home town of Winnetka, where they caddied as youths. Ordinary People, a 1980 melodrama of upper-middle-class angst, was shot on the North Shore, mainly in Lake Forest; the movie was perhaps a more accurate depiction of life in that part of Chicagoland than some locals might have found comfortable.
The analogy will offend, but acting is not unlike the old meat packing business, which also drew in raw material from the hinterland, packaged it, then sent it out of Chicago to be enjoyed by the rest of the country. A lot of the people who are familiar from movie and TV screens were born or raised or apprenticed as actors here. Even a list limited to performers for whom Chicagoland was important in the development of their craft will be a long one.
As for film directors, two of the greatest had ties to Chicagolandia. The most famous alumnus of Woodstock’s Todd School for Boys is Orson Welles. He of course direct Citizen Kane, which many fil;m buffs regard as the greatest movie ever made, and cerytaonly is the greatest movie about Orson Welles ever made.
Chicago can claim another film writer/director whose contribution to comedy is unsurpassed—Preston Sturges. Actually, Chicago can only claim half of Sturges; he was born in the city, in 1898, but split his boyhood between the Chicago of his stepfather—a stockbroker and champion cyclist of Illinois—and the Paris of his mother. As writer and director, Sturges created some of the most amiably eccentric screen comedies Hollywood ever produced, including Lady Eve, Palm Beach Story, and Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. There is virtually nothing that is recognizably Chicagoan in Sturges’s work, unless one counts the political machine rendered hilariously in The Great McGinty. But when critic David Thomson notes that Sturges’s cinematic view was “deeply rooted in a merry, corrupt, but absurd America,” it is hard not to think that a few of those roots reach back to pre-Depression Chicago.
A rival for the claim to be the Sturges of his generation is Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis combines special effects with good story to produce such fairy tales for the age as Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Back to the Future. Zemeckis was born in 1952 in Chicago and raised on the South Side; his early film-making experience—he shot 8-millimeter movies—came here in high school and later at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, from which he transferred to film school in Los Angeles.
John Hughes has set (and shoots) most of his popular teen-age comedies on Chicago’s posh North Shore, where he has lived most of his life since seventh grade. Hughes is to Chicago what Woody Allen is to New York. His Ferris Bueller’s Day Off conveys something of the excitement that a foray into the city offers to suburban kids, and in the process did more for Chicago tourism than a thousand cute TV ads. (Indeed, the movie resembles a cute TV ad.)
David Mamet, while better known as playwright, has been a middling success at directing films from his own scripts. Mike Nichols, went from Hyde Park sketch comedy to Hollywood and stage direction; he won Academy Awards for the direction of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967). Larry and Andy Wachowski, whose Matrix series made much money, ran a carpentry business in Chicago while creating comic books in their free time.
Standing just outside the velvet ropes are critics and gossip columnists. Chicago’s best-known critic is Roger Ebert, long time Sun-Times movie critic whose career includes a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, a popular nationally-syndicated TV review show, and his very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And among the gossip columnists who ruled in old Hollywood was a Chicagoan. The “First Lady of Hollywood,” Louella Parsons, was born in Freeport and got experience as a reporter growing up in Dixon. She came to Chicago to make her way after a divorce, where she wrote scripts for Essanay Studios and, more importantly, began writing the nation’s first movie gossip column, in 1914, for the Chicago Record-Herald. When the column was canceled she left Chicago and found fame.
Newspapers and magazines
Beginning in the 1870s and for a further half century or so thereafter, Chicago newspapers were the 24-hour cable news channels, the talk radio, the gossip magazines of their day. The city was large enough and readership varied enough to sustain a lot of papers—eight general-circulation dailies plus uncountable ethnic and other specialty papers. Many a fine reporter and even more colorful ones came out of that era. Sadly, the names and work of most of them—the Nellie Revels, the George Kibbe Turners, the Gilson Gardners—are as unfamiliar today as those of the aldermen or second-basemen they wrote about.
There was lots of work to be had, and lots of stories. One doesn’t get to use the word “rollicking” much anymore, but rollicking describes the Chicago of the first quarter of the 20th century as recalled by its newspapermen. This from Ben Hecht, in his Letters from Bohemia:
We interviewed thieves, swindlers, murderers, lunatics, fire bugs, bigamists, gangsters, and innumerable sobbing ladies who had taken successful potshots at their married lovers . . . . Hangings, death beds, 4-11 fires, protracted gun battles between cops and loonies, mysterious corpses popping out of river and swamp, courtrooms and jail cells loud with deviltries, were a sort of picnic ground for [us].
Local readers made stars out of reporters and columnists whose national reputations endure, from Ring Lardner to Mr. Dooley. Several street-smart Chicago wise guys in their off hours also were the poets and novelists and playwrights of the Chicago renaissance. During the 1880s and 1890s most of the city’s literary elite apprenticed on newspapers, from the aforementioned Lardner, Hecht, and Dunne to George Ade and Eugene Field, Brand Whitlock, Carl Sandburg, and Theodore Dreiser to Floyd Dell. Most were male, but the list includes Elia Peattie, known today as novelists even though she began her writing career as the first "girl reporter" on the Chicago Tribune.
Only a few of those names are likely to ring bells with today’s younger readers but a few of the more recent ones are more widely known. Herbert Block, the famed editorial cartoonist, was born in Chicago in 1909 and attended classes at the Art Institute beginning at age twelve. After a stint at Lake Forest College, Block went to work for the old Chicago Daily News, taking the pen name “Her-block.” He worked for that newspaper for four years before going into national syndication and eventually a post at the Washington Post where he enjoyed a career during which Block won most awards worth winning and a few that weren’t. In more recent days the alums of Chicago’s journalism school include Mike Royko and the Leperer sisters , Dear Abby and Ann Landers, who were the Brontes of the advice columnists.
A Ben Hecht would find plenty to write about in today’s Chicago, but he wouldn’t be likely to find a publisher willing to print it. Newspaper columnists no less than poets need great audiences, and the popular audience for writing has drifted off to talk radio and TV.
Reading one newspaper every day, much less a couple, is as a rare a habit among Americans as taking snuff. The city struggles to support even two dailies. Of these, the Tribune—now a part of a media conglomerate—has become corporate, responsible, and dull. (If the Trib was a TV series it would air on PBS.) The smaller Sun-Times tends toward the shrill and facile. The suburban press is increasingly run by chains, and thus losing much of its local personality, which was often its only virtue. The Wednesday Journal in Oak Park is a hometown weekly in the best style, but most of its cousins confirm, fairly or not, the suburbs’ reputation as a featureless landscape in social terms. The Daily Herald, based in Arlington Heights, is the Chicagoland's Trib, but a fine suburban paper is still a suburban paper.
Chicagoland is home to one of the nation’s more respectable journalism schools—Medill at Northwestern University, named after a Trib publisher—but the real journalism school was City News Bureau of Chicago. It was founded as the City Press Association of Chicago in 1890 by of the city’s then ten dailies as a cooperative news bureau and training school. Renamed City News Bureau in 1910, the agency ran out of shabby offices near Randolph and Clark in the Loop. Its wet-behind-the-ears reporters covered the stories that the dailies disdained—the routine court cases, the routine fires, the routine deaths. (In Chicago then and now, many even violent deaths don’t make the papers.) Writing for it was a grueling education in old-style journalism at the hands of irritable cops, impatient clerks, and rewrite men whose working maxims included the now- famous maxim, "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."
As the number of dailies dwindled, so did financial support for the City News Bureau. Before it was closed down in 1999, the bureau had apprenticed hundreds of reporters. Playwright Charles MacArthur, co-author of the play The Front Page, was a former City Press reporter. Cartoonist Herbert Block spent formative time there, as did investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and future New York Times columnist David Brooks. Among the local lights were Herman Kogan, Jack Mabley, Anne Keegan, and, conspicuously, columnist Mike Royko. Royko spoke like a true City Press vet when he said in a 1997 interview, "If we nailed a politician, nobody wanted him to go to jail. We nailed him. We got a story. Throw him back. It's like a fish. We'll catch him again later."
Not all the Bureau’s grads became famous as reporters. Actor Melvyn Douglas once worked there, as did sculptor Claes Oldenburg. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who worked there in the late 1940s, would later say, “I could do at City News what I can't do now, which is walk into any part of town anywhere and start talking to people about their lives.”
Because of its location, Chicago was a natural place to produce magazines and other journals of all types intended for national distribution. Several were significant in the day and in their field; a listing of the best-known ones make clear the antic variety of the local industry—Prairie Farmer, the Dial (for a time the nation's leading literary magazine, in a day when such a thing still existed) and Poetry, Esquire, Ebony, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Playboy.
The city was in the later decades of the 1800s the nation’s center for political thought from the radical left. Alarm; A Socialistic Weekly, which in the 1870s and ‘80s was to English-reading political radicals what Martha Stewart is to a later era’s hostesses, was produced in Chicago by Albert R. Parsons, one of the Haymarket anarchists; more doctrinaire socialism was espoused from Chicago offices by the International Socialist Review (1900–1918) until World War I.
As cataloged by Richard Junger in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, the city nurtured several notable successes in the medium. The first widely-read national children's magazine (Little Corporal, 1865–1875) was published here, as was one of the most popular humor magazines, Arkansaw Traveler (1887 to 1916). The city also published a handful of literary magazines in the early 1900s that had important national audiences, such as the aforementioned Dial, Poetry, and the Little Review.
Not remotely the Chicago Tribune’s equal in wealth, but for a time its equal in national influence, was the Chicago Defender. Its founder and publisher was Robert Sengstacke Abbott, and under him The Defender became one of the largest and most influential African American publications in U.S. history. (For a while, two-thirds of its readers lived outside Chicagoland.) Because Abbott's paper tirelessly campaigned among its Southern black readers to leave the South for places like Chicago, this Moses had an enormous influence in shaping the 20th century city socially. Alas, changing times, estate taxes on the death of Abbott’s successor publisher, and squabbles among heirs have left the Defender a shadow of its former self in every way.
If Playboy undertook to instruct its readers on how to become a cosmopolitan male of educated tastes, Esquire assumed they already were. Esquire debuted in 1933 thanks to Arnold Gingrich and Alfred Smart. It was naughty enough to be banned by the U.S. Post Office during World War II, which action led the U.S. Supreme Court to curtail postal censorship. Anticipating Playboy, it published serious writers of the day such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, although instead of Hefner’s photographed centerfolds, Esquire offered the pen-and-ink Vargas girls. It renewed itself in the 1960s as a platform for the New Journalism by authors such as Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe.
Playboy, a magazine aimed at the single American male, first appeared in December of 1953. It was the creation of twenty-seven-year-old Hugh Hefner. Hefner, a University of Illinois grad who delved into sociology as a post-graduate at Northwestern, was a quintessential Midwesterner. His magazine was the Esquire of a new generation (Hefner worked for time at Esquire), the difference between them being the differences between the 1930s of the Hays Code and the 1950s of the Kinsey Report.
Playboy quickly overtook the suddenly staid Esquire in the mid-1950s. Hefner argued the sexual revolution in his page as fervently as Col. Robert McCormick argued against Communism, and with more success. In the late 1970s, Playboy's readership of about six million ranked it among the top ten U.S. magazines in circulation. Hefner made a lot of money, and became that rarest kind of celebrity, the publisher-as-sex-symbol. While the cultural influence of Playboy can be debated—did it foment the sexual revolution, or was it merely its happy beneficiary?—and while it no longer wields the cultural influence it did (indeed is rather staid by the standard of today’s men’s magazines) the magazine’s success as a business cannot; it is now a multimedia company with interests in cable TV and the Web.
City and magazine were linked in its early years, and gave Chicago a reputation for style that was as novel as it was undeserved. The first Playboy Club, the string of gentlemen’s clubs opened to capitalize on the lifestyle espoused in the magazine, opened in 1960 in Chicago. The first Playboy mansion was in Chicago too; as a site of sybaritic goings on wholly at odds with the neighborhood—Chicago’s Roman Catholic Archbishop lived two and a half blocks up the street—the neighbors no doubt were relieved when Hefner decamped for California in the early 1970s.
Arkansan John H. Johnson in 1942 began to publish Negro Digest, a sort of African American Reader's Digest. In 1945, Johnson introduced a black version of Life called Ebony, which during the 1970s would enjoy a circulation of one million. Ebony was merely the most successful of a stable of magazines aimed at the African American reader, which together were read by an estimated half of all black adults in the U.S. in recent years.
It was fitting that the University of Chicago, where occurred the first controlled fission of atoms that led to the atomic bomb, was the birthplace of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It was started in 1945 by University of Chicago professors appalled by the post-World War II nuclear arms race, after conversations at the Stineway Drugstore on 57th Street. For years the magazine’s “Doomsday Clock” tracked the planet’s movement toward and then away from nuclear Armageddon. The Bulletin has steadfastly supported international cooperation and open government, although neither international cooperation nor open government is much more common today than it was in 1945.
As in radical politics, so in religion. Christian Century, which usually described as the preeminent voice of mainline Protestantism, and Christianity Today, the equally listened-to voice of evangelical Protestantism, are based in Chicago and Carol Stream, respectively.
It must be noted that Chicago’s brighter magazines, like so many of its brighter people, often leave the city for livelier parts. In 1918 The Dial left Chicago for New York, but it might be said that Chicago has left The Dial long before then; publisher Henry Regnery has noted that while people from Chicago were inclined to boast about the fact that the most distinguished literary magazine in the country was published in their city, the publication may have had far more subscribers in New York than in Chicago. Esquire left, for New York City; so did Playboy, for California in the 1970s; the signal battles in the sex revolution were then being fought on the western front, not in the Midwest. By the 1970s Chicago had long since ceased to be the trading center of the agricultural Midwest, and after more than a century and a quarter The Prairie Farmer relocated to Decatur.
Apart from Poetry, magazines devoted to the fine arts have been too delicate for Chicago’s brutal climate. (The TriQuarterly, nestled as it is in the campus of Northwestern University, is an exception, and in any event is more a national journal published in Chicagoland than a Chicagoland journal.) The New Art Examiner lasted nearly 30 years after its founding in 1973, but while it at least stooped to mention Chicago art and artists—other national magazines did not—it did not champion them either; it closed in 2002 after long decline, and nothing has taken its place.
Fun fairs, fun playthings, and fun food
It is not only in the popular arts that Chicago has made contributions to a grateful nation. Several of America’s more popular pastimes, even many of its popular foods were created or perfected in Chicagoland.
To celebrate the discovery of the New World by Columbus 400 years earlier, Chicago undertook to build an amusement park for the whole world. That is not quite the official rationale for the World Columbian Exposition. But while the World’s Fair in Chicago had an enduring influence on architecture and urban planning, it made a bigger splash in pop culture.
The fair was two fairs in one—one, the White City of legend, was a demonstration of technology and commerce meant to celebrate American-style progress; its appeal was instruction, which millions found amusing. The other was centered on the Midway next door; its appeal was amusement, which millions found instructional. Each fair became a model for others that would follow it. The White City for example, lives on in DisneyWorld’s Epcot Center and, on a smaller scale, Chicago’s own Museum of Science and Industry.
But it was the Midway, the fair’s back room, that had the most immediate impact on the ways Americans amused themselves. In contrast to the high toned culture offered in the expo proper, the Midway offered titillation—Sally Rand introduced the belly dance at the Little Egypt theater—and thrills. The last were supplied by hot air balloon ride and, most spectacularly, the massive Ferris wheel that proved to be the fair’s most popular attraction.
The Midway’s combination of carnival hooey, mechanical rides, exotic foods, and musical and theatrical entertainment became the template for the modern amusement park. For example, what some claim as the world's first commercial amusement park of the new kind was opened by Capt. Paul Boyton at 63rd and Drexel in 1894, a mere eight months after its inspiration closed. His amusement park would be yet another show that tried out in Chicago before being taken to New York City; Boyton’s success in Chicago persuaded him that the concept was viable, and in 1895 he opened the legendary Coney Island.
Early amusement parks had been were more park than amusement. By the turn of the 20th century, Chicagoans were not only urban but urbanized. Rather than the bucolic pleasures of the picnic groves, they sought out mechanical rides that mimicked the clangy, zooming experience of the mechanized city. The fame of the Midway’s spawn would depend on the imagination with which the proprietors devised new kinds of manufactured thrills. Boyton drew them in with his water chutes, the forerunner of today’s ubiquitous water parks.
A more enduring attraction on the south side was White City at 63rd Street and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive). Opened in 1905, White City—the name was borrowed from the World’s Fair—offered several roller coasters and two ballrooms.
But Chicago’s most popular (as measured by years in operation) was on the North Side. Riverview Amusement Park from 1904 to 1967 sprawled across more than 140 acres Riverview Park at Western and Belmont Avenues next to the Chicago River. It claimed to be the world’s largest amusement park, and for a time it might have been. It certainly was the biggest most of Chicagoans ever been to. The place begun as a hunting preserve by local Germans; to divert the families of shooters, owners commissioned a massive carousel with 70 horses that was augmented over the years by water rides, roller coasters (as many as six at once), parachute drops (the Midway’s old one was reinstalled there), fun houses, a tunnel-of-love, water chutes, a carousel, a miniature railway, a ballroom and roller rink. Hugh Hefner, writing in 1999, described the original Playboy Mansion at 1340 N. State as “my own Aladdin's Castle, a childhood memory from Riverview Park.”
Chicagoland’s contribution to the amusement park did not stop with the Midway. Stan Barker, the aptly named Gibbons of Chicago’s organized fun scene, credits Art Fritz's pony-ride enterprise in Melrose Park in 1929 as the progenitor of the first “kiddieland.” In 1975, in Bolingbrook, Old Chicago became the world's first completely enclosed amusement park and shopping center. It consisted of a mammoth shed—490,000 square feet under one roof—crammed with rides and other attractions (the "Old Chicago Fairgrounds") surrounded by shops. It offered two roller coasters, a Ferris wheel, water ride, circus, and a vaudeville theater; the debt owed Old Chicago by Minnesota’s Mall Of America is unmistakable.
Nor was Boyton’s water chute the last of the rides pioneered in Chicagoland. Riverview had the world's first suspended roller coaster, a tradition that continues at Six Flags of Gurnee, whose Raging Bull is billed as the world's first “hyper-twister” roller coaster. And Six Flags’ new water park, Hurricane Harbor, in 2005 debuted what it calls “the World's Largest Interactive Waterplay Structure.”
The urban amusement park looked dead by the 1970s. It did not die, however, it just moved to the suburbs like everything else. By the 1990s urban amusement parks had a new audience in a generation that had never known them. An upscale version was built on Navy Pier as part of that facility‘s rebirth in the 1990s, offering mainly tourists a climbing cliff, miniature golf, a fun maze, an old-fashioned swing ride, and a 36-animal musical carousel designed exclusively for Navy Pier that recalls a predecessor from the 1920s, during the pier’s first incarnation as a fun spot. (The hand-painted rounding boards at the top of the 44-foot carousel depict scenes of Navy Pier's history.)
The centerpiece of Navy Pier Park, and a new downtown landmark, is a 148-foot Ferris Wheel modeled after the very first one built for the World’s Fair a century earlier. Operating year-around, the new one boasts 40 gondolas seating six passengers each. Such attractions drawn more than 8 million visitors a year since the Pier’s re-opening in 1994.
Toy-making was one of the industries that flourished in Chicagoland in the century after the Civil War. Several famous brand names of today—Playskool and Beanie Babies, to name only two—are shipped out of Chicagoland. And here was invented several of the toys that adorned the American childhood.
Young children played with the painted embossed wooden blocks, decorated with pictures and letters of the alphabet that were made by Chicago toymaker Halsam Co. Tinker Toys, the popular plaything for the thinking child, were invented in 1914 by a local stonemason named Charles Pajeau, who designed his first set in his garage; the company that manufactured Tinker Toys was based in Evanston until 1976. Lincoln Logs were invented in 1917 by John Lloyd Wright, son of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed wooden toys for Marshall Field & Co.; John Lloyd Wright was born and raised in Oak Park, and as an adult lived there intermittently until the 1920s.
In 1917 a young Italian immigrant named Antonio Pasin made wooden wagons at night and sold them on the street by day. Within a decade his company was the nation's largest manufacturer of toy wagons. In 1930 he introduced the world's first steel wagon. It became the nation’s most famous manufacture in 1930 when Pasin introduced the painted little red wagon he called the "Radio Flyer. Marketing pizzazz is essential when one is selling things that people don’t really need, and Pasin’s firm has it. the company built a 45-foot tall Radio Flyer for the 1933 World's Fair. For its 80th anniversary, the company built one nine times the size of the original—it took 6 tons of steel and 100 gallons of red paint—and parked it at the entrance to Navy Pier.
As befits a national transportation center, Chicago made toy cars and trains. Chicago’s Dowst and Company produced the world's first miniature (2-inch) die-cast toy car, under the brand name Tootsietoy, in 1911. The firm specialized in faithful miniature reproductions of popular cars and trucks from the Model T Ford to the Mack Truck. The American Flyer wind-up toy train was invented in Chicago by William Hafner; by the 1930s, Hafner and Company ranked with Lionel at the top of the nation’s toy train game.
Engineer Ignaz Schwinn and meat packer Adolph Arnold opened the Schwinn bicycle factory in 1895 on Chicago's West Side. Bikes were a craze, and there already about a hundred makers in the city that then made one of every four bikes sold in the U.S. By the 1950s, its was Arnold, Schwinn & Co. that was making that many alone.
Most firms begin with a new product idea; it was not until four decades after its founding that (later simply Schwinn Bicycle) unveiled the first of a series of innovations that was to make “Schwinn” the name for cool among American kids. Schwinn introduced the balloon tire and “streamlined” styling (imitative of such great Chicago trains as the Burling Zephyr), the grandfather of today's mountain bikes, and in 1963 the 20-inch high-handled-barred Sting-Ray that inspired the BMX craze.
The old Schwinns were the Detroit cars of two-wheel machines—comfy but heavy and clumsy. The trend in the 1990s toward 10-speed road bikes caught the firm unawares, as the fuel-efficient compacts from Japan had surprised Detroit. The company also failed to realize the proto-mountain bikes that lurked inside many of its own models, and so missed that fad too. The company HQ in Chicago at 217 N. Jefferson was closed when the firm when bankrupt in 1992. (Other investors bought the name.)
Grownups like to play too, and Chicago has not neglected their needs. The first pinball machine was made in Chicago, in 1932—a model called the Ballyhoo, made by a subsidiary of Chicago-based Lion Manufacturing Corporation known as Bally Manufacturing Co. Bally managed the transition from mechanical to electronic games and is a factor in the video game industry; the firm created the best-selling arcade games of the latter 20th century: Space Invaders and Pac-Man.
Thanks to Bally, Chicago also has been the Detroit of slot machine manufacturing. Beginning in the 1930s, the firm developed the slot machines that have enlivened the retirements of so many seniors over the years. At one point in the 1960s, Bally made nine of every ten slots sold in the world. Bally in the 1980s branched out into health clubs and amusement parks and casinos into a multibillion fun firm; only the health clubs are still run out of Chicago.
A favorite toy for children of a special kind is the "Lava Lite," one of the accoutrements of the hippie pads of the 1960s and ‘70s, and today a kitsch classic. All of the novelty lamps sold in the U.S. are made in Chicago, under license to the English inventor, in a factory at 2321 N. Keystone.
Much of Chicago’s early fame was as a meat processor. But Chicago did not invent beef and pork, merely more efficient ways to butcher and ship it. The Chicago region did invent several snacks and fast foods that, for better or worse, have become staples of the American diet.
The foods to which Chicago’s name is attached are not new concoctions, however, but local variations on old American favorites. The “Italian beef” sandwich—made of sliced roasted beef infused with Italian seasonings dipped in an au jus and garnished with the Italian pepper known as the giardiniera—was invented in Chicago, in Little Italy on the West Side. Credit is usually given to Pasquale Scala, an Italian immigrant, who peddled meats out of the Lucca Bakery on Western Avenue. From that grew (in 1925) the Scala Packing Company on West Harrison Street. Slicing the beef thin was an innovation borne of Depression necessity; it enabled the meat at catered weddings and banquets to go farther.
The hot dog was not invented in Chicago, although Chicago helped make it a national favorite by introducing it to the hordes who gathered in 1893 at the World Columbian Exposition. Chicagoans so load the hot dog with what the Downstater would call “fixin’s—dill pickle, jalapeños, relish, mustard, sliced tomatoes, chopped onions, and celery salt—that the prudent tourist will don a bib before attempting to eat one in public. By the end of the 1990s, the major purveyor of hot dogs in Chicago, the Vienna Sausage Manufacturing Company, was a business with some $98 million in annual sales.
About the only thing pizza-like about Chicago-style or “deep dish” pizza is the name. The dish was invented in 1943 at the Pizzeria Uno at Ohio Street and Wabash Avenue in the district now known as River North by Ike Sewell, who was one of the founding partners. Chicagoans who venture from the lake shore often report missing their deep dish pizza, as few cities serve anything quite like it. Pizzeria Uno is still in business, and the dish is copied by national franchise restaurants eager to offer novelties to jaded palates.
The Chicago-style pizza and the Chicago-style hot dog have elements in common. Each owes its success to excess. The Chicago-style deep dish pizza is no longer a pizza but a casserole; the Chicago-style hot dog is so larded with toppings that it is no longer a hot dog but a salad with a weiner condiment.
Not for nothing was the classic blues song titled, “Sweet Home Chicago.” For a century beginning in the waning years of the 19th century, Chicago was the largest producer of candy in the United States. Typical was the Curtiss Candy Company. Founded in Chicago in 1916 by Otto Schnering, Curtiss Candy built itself into a national giant with its “Baby Ruth” (introduced in 1921), “Butterfinger” (1923), and “Polar Bar” candy bars. Historians have argued for years whether the Baby Ruth was named for slugger Babe Ruth, for President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland's daughter, or for the granddaughter of the president of the company that came up with the recipe; candy lovers don’t seem to care. Curtiss was bought out in 1964 by a conglomerate.
The Williamson Candy Co. won fame and fortune with its Oh Henry! bar, which it introduced in 1920; it was named for a local swain who was constantly importuned by shop girls in the company’s store to do this or that with calls of “Oh Henry!”
German immigrant brothers F. W. and Louis Rueckheim in 1872 opened a small candy and popcorn shop, the specialty of which was a molasses-coated popcorn sold under the “Cracker Jack” brand name. (The Cracker Jack trademarks are young Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo, modeled on F. W.’s grandson and the boy’s dog.) The snack was introduced to a wider audience at the World Columbia Exposition in 1893. Sales were boosted by its mention in the song “Take Me Out To the Ballgame.” (The song became the anthem of Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray, who led the crowd in a verse during the 7th inning stretch at each home game.) It really took off in 1912 when the form began putting tiny toy into each box; many an American child bought many a box of Cracker Jack for the prizes and never actually tasted the stuff.
Cracker Jack was made at a succession of factories on the West Side. At one time the firm employed a thousand people. As happened to most Chicago area candy makers, it was sold to a succession of big national food producers, beginning in 1964.
Salesman William Wrigley Jr. started by giving away chewing gum as a premium to sellers of his family’s soaps and baking powder. The sound of eager chewing suggested that people might enjoy it enough to pay for it, and he began to sell gum under his own name. The familiar Juicy Fruit and Spearmint gums were introduced in 1893 and 1894 respectively. Unusually for a Chicago confectioner, Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., remains locally owned, and is still based in the city, headquartered in the building that become one of the icons of the city at Michigan Avenue and the Chicago river. As part of a company drive to think advanced thoughts on the subject of chewing gum, Wrigley spent more than $80 million to build a high-tech research campus on what used to be the heavy industry enclave of Goose Island. It is hard to think of a more vivid illustration of the changes that have reshaped Chicago industry.
As the story goes, Leo Stefanos, the owner of a South Side candy store, often would worry about his two sons as they would run off chasing the local ice cream truck. To keep his sons safe, he decided to create his very own ice cream bar. Seldom has parental anxiety produced anything so tasty as the Dove Bar. But it remained a local treat until the Zacahrias brothers, financiers who had their first Dove Bars at a Deerfield country club, joined the Stefanos family in a national distribution deal. (To introduce the ice-cream bar to New York City, the team released 50 live doves outside the United Nations building.) Dove Bar was eventually bought by Mars, maker of M&Ms, in 1986.
In 1930, the manager of the Hostess bakery in in Schiller Park was faced by the classic manager’s dilemma: the company’s popular shortbread cake could only be sold during the short strawberry season. He sought and found a way in 1930 to keep the machines busy all year by making a version using banana, and later vanilla cream filling. On its 70th birthday in 2000, Hostess used 20,000 Twinkies to construct the world's largest Twinkie birthday cake at Navy Pier. The Schiller Park bakery at 9555 W. Soreng Avenue still makes them at rates up to 1,000 a minute, and Chicago is still the top Twinkie-eating town in the U.S.—a fact that owes less to patriotism than to the fact that to a Chicagoan, a Twinkie is my kinda snack. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
Politics & government
Arts & culture