Sound and Blight

A show bringing Lincoln's capitol to life dies

at the box office

Illinois Times

February 10, 1978

Folks in the Springfield area have been trying to make the Lincoln era come alive since the 1930s, when New Salem was built. Later we got docents at Lincolns' home dressed up as their neighbors and, in 2005, a Lincoln robot at the new Presidential library. In between tourists were given a high-tech sound-and-light show that would use flashing lights and music and portentous prose to make bored tourists feel as if they were in 1850s Springfield, when all they really wanted was to be in a restaurant in 1970s St. Louis.

 

The show bombed. When I wrote about it again in 1981 it lingered embarrassingly, leaving Springfield's Lincoln-minded elites resembling the family that can't quite bring themselves to pull the plug on a decrepit aunt. The show was kept alive by artificial means in the form of state money, playing to ever-dwindling crowds; so inconspicuous a presence did it become that no one quite remembers when it was finally shut down.

 

There are some things you can't get people to watch even when they're free. City council meetings are one, the summer sound and light show at the Old State Capitol apparently is another. The trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library, which runs both the old statehouse and the sound and light show which plays there, are considering paring the schedule of performances for the half-hour electronic display from seven to four nights a week—partly, they say, because they haven't enough money and partly because not enough people are showing up to watch it.

 

These are the facts: In its premier season the show attracted 41,000 people; in 1977 it attracted only 15,000, an average of 126 people per performance; the ISHL was allocated $22,700 to run the show, but library officials transferred all but $9,500 of it into a reserve fund; the remaining $9,500 is enough only for an abbreviated four-shows-a-week schedule.

 

The report makes discouraging reading for backers of the project, who were infused with an almost giddy optimism in 1974 when the idea was first made public. The program, for those who haven't seen it (which apparently means just about everybody) uses exterior lighting and taped narration and sound effects to create "optical and mental illusion" in illustrating the history of the old statehouse. It was promoted by the Abraham Lincoln Association and the Illinois Bicentennial Commission with the enthusiastic connivance of the historical library, which hoped to see the Old State Capitol of which it is a part lifted to a place beside Lincoln's home and tomb at the head of the list of important Illinois tourist spots.

 

The whole thing cost some $585,000, 85 percent of which came out of the pockets of Illinois taxpayers. (This last fact made the IBCs claim that the show was a "Bicentennial gift to the people of Illinois" sound pretty silly, even for an agency that specialized in expensive silliness. A gift from whom?) James Myers, then a trustee of the library, reportedly told the press in late 1974, "This will be the most important sound and light show in the western hemisphere." That extravagant prediction was echoed by the reporter who speculated that the show "may be the showcase of the nation's Bicentennial”—thus proving that, although journalists are obliged to report what people tell them, they shouldn't always believe it.

 

Nothing, save the resurrection of the Great Emancipator himself during the performance, could live up to that kind of build-up. The 15,000 total attendance in 1976 (a period in which 229,964 people toured Lincoln's home five blocks away) was cruel news. It is interesting if unproductive to speculate about the reasons for the low turnout. One answer was provided by several local attendees, who found the show a bore. Though admiring of the technical virtuosity that went into its production, most of them found it dull, all sound and fury (borrowing a phrase) signifying nothing. It seems probable that the first-year attendance figures were inflated by such curious locals by the second year Springfieldians had been forewarned and no longer took friends, kids, and visiting relatives to see it, and the figures dropped.

 

Then, too, is the possibility that most tourists simply don 't think a program about the old statehouse, no matter how vividly done, is worth an expensive overnight stay. The need for people to stay over to see it—mentioned to the city as one good reason for the program, because it would thus increase tourist spending—may in fact be its undoing. The Old State Capitol, though undeniably handsome, is nevertheless only a reconstruction. Further, it has neither the intimacy of Lincoln's home, the cold awesomeness of the tomb, or the charm of New Salem. My guess is that most of those 15,000 who saw it last year had planned to stay overnight in Springfield anyway and took in the show as a welcome alternative to staying in their motel rooms while the twelve-year-olds watched "Welcome Back Kotter.”

 

I argued against the project several times in print in 1976, but never, I have to admit, because I thought it would be unpopular. Indeed, my fear was that it would prove to be exactly what the touring public wanted, and that sound-and-light shows would become as necessary an adjunct to our historic sites as free toilets; I envisioned a future in which half the country would be set to whirring and clicking every summer's eve.

 

That possibility now seems remote. But from the other aspect of the project I found distasteful we are not yet relieved. The banks of loudspeakers and spotlights used to create the program are hung from four tall black poles mounted on the south side of the old capitol mall. That's the side from which most tourists approach it, and the poles spoil what is otherwise an enchanting view. The poles are an abomination—ugly, inappropriate, obtrusive. State Historian William Alderfer, speaking to the city council two years ago, said of the poles, "People won't see them unless they look right at them”—which, considering their size and location, is hard to avoid. Alan Anderson, then editor of this paper, was more accurate when he punningly called them "a pall on the mall."

 

I have a suggestion. Cancel the show. Tear down the light poles. Forget the $600,000 spent on the show so far. Chalk the whole fiasco up to experience. Nobody will mind. Illinoisans are used to the idea of the state wasting their money. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

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.

Illinois Great Places

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.

McLean County Museum

of History

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.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

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."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

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 Illinois State Museum

 

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

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

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." 

Illinois Labor History Society

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. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

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.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

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. 

Illinois Center for the Book

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.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated