Opera Notorious (11-25-1910)

Today we think of opera as staid, civilized, and old-fashioned.  That wasn’t the reaction of Chicago 105 years ago, the day “Salome” hit town.

In the Christian Bible, Salome is the teenage step-daughter King Herod Antipas.  The king has imprisoned John the Baptist.  Then Herod has a birthday party.  Salome dances for the guests, and Herod offers her anything she wants.  Salome asks for John’s head on a platter.  Against his better judgment, Herod has the prophet executed, and gives Salome her trophy.

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss

A play based on the Salome story was written by Oscar Wilde in 1891.  Richard Strauss, the “bold, bad man” of German music, took Wilde’s play and transformed it into an opera.  Strauss’s work premiered in 1905.

From the start, “Salome” the opera was controversial.  Strauss’s music was said to be too modern, the title character’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” too sensual.  The biggest shocker was the final scene—not in the Bible—in which Salome kisses John’s severed head.

Still, the opera had played to critical acclaim and sold-out houses in Europe and America.  The new Chicago production starred soprano Mary Garden.  She had already played the title role in Paris, New York, and Philadelphia without incident.

Opening night drew the usual Social Register crowd.  The next day, the papers were full of “Salome.”  A few people thought Strauss’s work was a masterpiece.  Many more considered it obscene.  The Tribune called the opera “the most artistic piece of indecency” performed on any stage. Another critic said it was “a great degenerator of public morals.”

Police chief Roy Steward attended the performance.  Though he did not order “Salome” shut down, Chief Steward was still shocked.  He said Mary Garden’s dancing was disgusting—that she “wallowed around like a cat on a bed of catnip.”

Mary Garden as Salome

Mary Garden as Salome

To this, Garden replied with a non-reply: “I always bow down to the ignorant and try to make them understand.  But I ignore the illiterate.”

The debate flashed back and forth for days.  Then “Salome” finished its Chicago run, and the uproar died down.

Mary Garden later became the first lady of Chicago opera.  Richard Strauss made enough money from his notorious opera to build a vacation villa.  Today, “Salome” is part of the standard repertoire.


Then and Now, Madison-Clinton

1946--Madison Street @ Clinton, view east

1946–Madison Street @ Clinton, view east

2015--the same location

2015–the same location

The pillared Chicago & North Western Railway terminal dominates the older photo—when it opened in 1911, this was the second-biggest train station in the country.  Beyond it is the high-rise headquarters building of the Chicago Daily News.  Streetcars run on both Madison and Clinton, with a repair crew in the foreground, fixing the overhead wire.

In 2015 the Ogilvie Transportation Center has replaced the C&NW terminal, the Daily News headquarters is an office building, and the streetcars are gone.  But another repair crew is busy at the intersection!


Jack London Commits Matrimony (11-19-1905)

Jack London was known for writing adventure stories.  He’d also led an adventurous life.  His 1905 Chicago adventure was particularly momentous.

Jack and Charmian in Hawaii, 1915

Jack and Charmian in Hawaii, 1915

In November of that year London was in the city on a lecture tour.  Back in San Francisco, his wife Bessie was divorcing him.  London was eager to marry Charmian Kittredge.

On the evening of November 18th, Jack received word that the divorce was final.  Charmian was in Newton, Iowa.  Jack telegraphed her that they could now get married.  Next morning, Charmian boarded the first train east.

While Charmian was racing to meet him, Jack scurried around Chicago, preparing the legal formalities for a quick wedding.  It would have to be on this day, November 19, because Jack was traveling on that lecture tour.  But it was now Sunday, and all the government offices were closed.

Somehow, Jack located the license clerk, and got him to City Hall to fill out the paper work.  Then Jack was off to North Western Station to meet Charmian when she arrived on the 5:15 train.  Meanwhile, the license clerk had talked Judge Grant into coming in to work on his own day off to perform the ceremony.

That evening, at 10 p.m., Jack and Charmian were married.  They were still married when Jack died in 1916.


Return of That Great Street (11-15-1996)

This was one of those rare days.  Our rulers admitted they’d been wrong.  State Street was re-opened to traffic.

In the 1970s the center of Chicago was dying.  The crowds had gone.  A few more years of this, and it might be too late to turn things around.  Urban experts were called in.  They said that the problem was the automobile.

Look at Europe.  The great cities there had flourished for centuries without cars!  Yes, those places were pedestrian friendly.  We in America could learn something from the greater wisdom of those more civilized cultures.

State Street Mall under construction

State Street Mall under construction

It seemed to make sense.  Besides, with OPEC boosting the price of oil every six months, the automobile was on the way out.  Desperate to bring people back downtown, many American cities began converting their main streets into pedestrian malls.

In 1979 Chicago joined the movement.  Mayor Jane Byrne oversaw the closing of State Street between Wacker and Congress.  The Loop’s main thoroughfare became a lovely, linear park.

Well, sort of.

The mall wasn’t continuous—it was broken every block by the east-west cross streets.  CTA busses still rumbled and belched down the middle of everything—plans to return electric streetcars were dropped as too expensive.  To top it all off, the landscaping and street furniture were sterile.

This was the State Street Mall.  It was a hundred-foot-wide hybrid of highway and plaza, which combined the worst features of each.

October 29, 1979–State Street Mall Dedication

When the project was finished, most of the public had doubts about the new State Street.  But the Powerful People backed the project.  Therefore, the mall was going to stay—we’d have to get used to it.  Though Chicago went through some pretty contentious politics in the 1980s, the State Street Mall never became an issue.

During the 1990s, a new demographic emerged.  People were coming back to the center of Chicago.  They were working, shopping, being entertained, and even settling down in apartments and condos.  The streets were coming alive again.

It was clear that making State Street a mall had nothing to do with this trend.  And with auto traffic getting heavy, closing off a major street didn’t make sense.

Early in 1996, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced that State Street would be restored to its original state (pun intended).  The work was completed on November 15, just in time for the Christmas shopping season.  The public applauded.  And the mall was now just a bad memory.


A Queen in Chicago (11-13-1926)

Guest post from The Oldest Chicagoan

Americans make such a big deal about royalty.  Remember Princess Diana?  But before her, there was Queen Marie of Romania.  She made a tour of the United States in 1926, and it was front-page news every place she went.

Marie wasn’t Romanian.  She was part of the British royal family and was married to the king of Romania.  He was kind of a cipher.  Queen Marie ran things.  Remember, in those days, in most countries, women didn’t even vote.

Chicago Tribune cartoon

Chicago Tribune cartoon

Today, we would call Marie a “hottie.”   When she came to America, her reputation preceded her.  She’d had some well-publicized love affairs, so people wanted to get a look at this powerful, notorious woman.

She arrived in Chicago, and it was the usual circus.  Mayor Dever was at the train station, along with a few million spectators and a few million reporters taking pictures.  Then Marie moved on to the Drake for dinner with some of the Important People.  She smoked a few cigarettes—which showed she was a “liberated” woman—and told stories, and joked around, and charmed everybody.

Queen Marie with her husband, King Ferdinand

Queen Marie with her husband, King Ferdinand

The next day, they took her on a tour.  She visited some sights and had tea with more Important People.  At Lincoln Park, she got out of her car and chatted with some Romanian women, which put the whole tour way behind schedule.  She did a radio broadcast.  That night there was another banquet.  The third day was more of the same, and then she left.

Queen Marie never came back to Chicago.  Her husband died, and her son turned out to be a disaster as king.  She died in 1938.

Marie wasn’t like other royalty of those days.  She seemed down-to-earth, and she knew how to make the right gesture for the right occasion.

I’m thinking about the photographers here.  When she got to Chicago, she very sweetly asked them not to take flash photos of her when she was walking down stairs, because it blinded her and she was afraid of falling.  That was reasonable, so the photographers honored her request.

Now, many Important People would have just let it go at that.  Not Marie.  At the closing banquet at the Blackstone, she was called on to make a toast.  So she stood up, raised her glass, and said “To the Chicago newspaper photographers!”

That was Queen Marie for you.


Then and Now, 63rd-Blackstone

1948--63rd Street @ Blackstone, view west

1948–63rd Street @ Blackstone, view west

2015--the same location

2015–the same location

Our location is just west of Stony Island Avenue.  In 1892 Chicago’s first ‘L’ was built over this stretch of 63rd Street, in anticipation of the next year’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park.  The Illinois Central Railroad had a station here, and the new University of Chicago was a few blocks to the north.  A busy commercial district developed along 63rd.

Woodlawn went into decline during the 1950s.  Businesses left, and much of the old housing stock was demolished.  In a controversial 1996 action, CTA cut the ‘L’ line back to a terminal at Cottage Grove.  Today parts of the neighborhood are being redeveloped.


Mr. Selfridge in Chicago

Evanston’s own Jeremy Piven has been starring in the TV series “Mr. Selfridge,” the story of the American expat who founded the icon London department store a century ago. The show occasionally mentions Selfridge’s years “back in Chicago.” Let’s look at those.

Born in 1858, Harry Gordon Selfridge grew up in Jackson, Michigan. His father abandoned the family a few years later, and Harry left school at 14. He worked in a bank, in a furniture factory, in an insurance agency. Always he impressed his bosses with his energy, his intelligence, and his imagination.

Harry Gordon Selfridge

Harry Gordon Selfridge

He came to Chicago in 1879 with a letter of introduction to merchant prince Marshall Field. Field put him to work as a stock boy at $10 a week. By 1883 he’d moved up to a junior executive position in the retail department.

Almost immediately, Selfridge clashed with the store’s traditionalists. Rather than merely supplying a product, his idea was to make shopping a recreational experience—what we today call “retail therapy.” That meant aggressive marketing and all-out promotion. Field himself was naturally conservative, but Selfridge convinced the big boss to give his methods a try.

Selfridge increased advertising five-fold and launched a series of “special sales.” Merchandise was hauled out from behind high counters and placed on tables for easy browsing. Window displays became elaborate. A bargain basement was opened. Then came a ladies’ tearoom.

There was always something new. Selfridge could usually be found on the sales floor, checking every little thing, or lending his ear to the shoppers. He worked his staff hard, but he worked himself harder. When he had criticize a subordinate, he did so privately, and that was appreciated.

And since most of the innovations worked, Field was pleased. In 1887 he made Selfridge retail general manager. Two years later, “Mile-a-Minute Harry” became a junior partner.

Marshall Field's in the 1880s

Marshall Field’s in the 1880s

Selfridge wore his prosperity well. Always immaculately dressed, he changed clothes two or three times a day. Most mornings a barber came to his office to groom him. He brought his mother to town from Michigan, installing her in his posh North Side apartment.

In 1890 he married Rosalie Buckingham, a society debutante from the Buckingham Fountain family. The ceremony was held at the Central Music Hall, with a fifty-voice chorus providing the music. The couple later built a vacation villa on Lake Geneva.

Marshall Field sales continue to grow during the 1890s. Though the later part of the decade saw a severe recession, the economy rebounded. Now annual profits passed $1.5 million.

Still, Harry Selfridge was restless. He’d always wanted to run his own store. In May 1904 he cashed in his $1 million of company stock, rounded up backing for another $4 million, and bought the Schlesinger & Mayer store on the southeast corner of State and Madison, a block south of Field’s.

Mr. Field himself was not thrilled by Selfridge’s departure. He wished Harry luck in a perfunctory manner, then went about his business. Afterward he grumbled, “Now we’ll have to get another office boy.”

H.G. Selfridge & Co. staged a lavish grand opening in June. By the middle of July Harry realized he’d bitten off more than he could chew. He was severely undercapitalized. Fortunately, Samuel Pirie of Carson Pirie Scott was looking for a State Street location, and Selfridge sold the building to them—at a nice profit, too.

Harry spent the next few years playing golf. In 1909 he opened his London store. From that point on, we’ll turn it back to Jeremy Piven.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 137 other followers