Chicago at War (12-7-1941)

Chicago was warm on December 7, 1941—warm for December, with a high of 39 degrees.  It was Sunday.  With the stores closed, people had a chance to take a day off from Christmas shopping.  Maybe they were heading out to Comiskey Park to watch the Cardinals battle the Bears.

The news hit the city shortly after noon.  The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor—where’s that?  And Chicagoans looked at their maps, and found out it was in Hawaii, and realized that their country was now at war.

The old Kickapoo Inn (1601 E. 79th St.)---where my dad heard the news

The old Kickapoo Inn (1601 E. 79th St.)—where my Dad heard the news

Little more than a year ago, 40,000 people had gathered at Grant Park to hear Charles Lindbergh tell them that the U.S. must stay out of foreign wars.  The Tribune had been sounding the same message.  But thing were different now.  We had been attacked.  We would stand together as Americans.

Suddenly, all Chicago was in motion.  In some places, the quiet Sunday afternoon looked like Friday evening rush hour.  Municipal Airport and the city’s six railroad terminals were jammed with travelers whose plans had abruptly changed—soldiers and sailors returning to their units, senators and reps passing through on their way to Washington, private citizens just wanting to get home.  There were crowds gathering at the churches, too.

People hauled out American flags and hung them on their porches.  Neighbors who hadn’t spoken in years exchanged greetings.  Everyone wondered what would happen next.  Newspapers printed extra editions, and they were immediately scooped up.  The Chicago Sun, which had begun publishing only three days earlier, sold out its entire run.

"Chicago Sun"---December 8, 1941

“Chicago Sun”—December 8, 1941

On Madison Street, four windows were smashed at the Oriental Trading Company.  Other than that, no violence against local Japanese was reported.  At the Japanese Consulate, employees were seen burning records.

Mayor Edward Kelly announced the police and fire departments would receive training on how to prevent sabotage.  The mayor also said he would ask the City Council for money to hire more public safety personnel. “Those godless gangsters have stopped their bluffing to start their bombing,” he thundered.  Chicago had to be ready for anything.

Already lines were forming outside military recruiting offices.  The country needed men for the coming fight.  At the Warren Avenue police station, an army deserter from Texas turned himself in.  “I want to go back and do my part,” he said.

Chicago was at war.  It would not know peace for 1351 days.



Then and Now, Clark-Diversey

1958--Clark Street @ Diversey Parkway, view northwest

1958–Clark Street @ Diversey Parkway, view northwest

2016--the same location

2016–the same location

This is the heart of East Lakeview.  Here an old trail to the north split into two parts.  The western branch continued on as Clark Street.  The eastern branch became Evanston Avenue, and later, Broadway—note the bus peeking out at the right side of the older photo.

For a while in the 1970s and ’80s, local merchants here tried rebranding their community as New Town, an obvious attempt to cash in on the popularity of Old Town.  During that time, the old building at the top of the intersection was torn down.  Its modern replacement has since housed a giant Ace Hardware, a Border’s Bookstore, a Walgreen’s, and perhaps other businesses I’ve forgotten.


Original Carl’s Red Hots

Carl's Red Hots (1975)

Original Carl’s Red Hots (1975)

Carl’s Red Hots opened on the northeast corner of 83rd Street and Jeffery Boulevard in 1954.  I’m from the Northwest Side, so I didn’t stumble upon it until twenty years later.  I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and I’d often drive down to Carl’s when I had a few hours between classes.  The little shack reminded me of the original Tast-e Hast-e in my old neighborhood.  And in 1974, 45 cents was a cheap price for a Vienna dog with fries.

In 1981 the church next door bought the property for an expansion project.  Carl’s moved across the intersection to a new building, and it’s still in business there.  But I miss that old shack.


“A Christmas Story”—Ralphie’s Real Home

It’s the holiday season, time for the annual broadcasts of A Christmas Story.

If you’ve somehow missed this movie, it’s a tale set a fictitious Midwestern city, in an unspecified year around 1940, centered around the everyday adventures of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker. The hook is Ralphie’s ongoing yearning for a particular Christmas present, namely an Official Red Ryder Carbine Action Two-Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle.

Radio raconteur Jean Shepherd’s short stories are the inspiration for the movie.  When filming began in 1983, Shepherd scouted out locations that reminded him of his boyhood in Hammond, and settled on a house in Cleveland.  A few years ago that house was purchased by an enterprising entrepreneur, who converted it into the Christmas Story Museum. Across the street is a gift shop that sells such artifacts as bunny playsuits and electric-sex leg lamps.

Jean Shepherd's cameo in "A Christmas Story"

Jean Shepherd’s cameo in “A Christmas Story”

But if you’re looking for a closer connection to the real events behind the story, you can join the fans who make a drive-by pilgrimage past Shepherd’s boyhood home. The frame bungalow still stands at 2907 Cleveland Street, just off Kennedy Avenue in Hammond.

Jean Parker Shepherd Jr. was born on Chicago’s South Side in 1921—about ten years before Ralphie Parker—the son of a dairy clerk. He grew up in Hammond, attending Warren G. Harding Elementary School, and graduated from Hammond High School in 1939. During World War II he served stateside in the U.S. Army.

After the war Shepherd began his career as a radio broadcaster in Hammond. He moved up through several larger markets, finally landing in New York in 1955. All the while he was establishing himself as a storyteller, gentle yet biting. Before there was Garrison Keillor, there was Jean Shepherd.

Shepherd also began writing short stories for magazines. The first collection of his tales, titled In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, appeared in 1966. Many of the incidents in the movie are drawn from this book. At various times he hosted different idiosyncratic series on public TV, most memorably Jean Shepherd’s America. By the 1980s he had a nationwide cult following.

 Jean Shepherd's Hammond home

Jean Shepherd’s Hammond home

But it was A Christmas Story that introduced Shepherd to the greater population. Though he continued to churn out stories and do the occasional radio or TV gig, the movie’s popularity fixed his reputation. When he died in 1999, the lede sentence of his obituaries usually referred to him as the “author and narrator of the beloved holiday film . . .”

The Shepherd family lived in various places around Hammond during the 1930s. They moved into the house at 2907 Cleveland Street in 1935. A carving in the attic contains the autographs “17 yrs. old. Jean Shepherd. 2/18/39” and “15 yrs. old. Randall Shepherd. 2/28/39.”

Unlike the museum in Cleveland, this is a private residence, and does not welcome visitors. However, the City of Hammond does recognize its favorite son with the Jean Shepherd Community Center a few blocks away in Dowling Park.


Then and Now, Monroe-Canal

1948--Monroe Street @ Canal, view east

1948–Monroe Street @ Canal Street, view east

2015--the same location

2016–the same location

In 1948 Monroe was still a two-way street, and streetcars still ran on it.  A viaduct carried Monroe over the open-air approach tracks to Union Station.  The neighborhood was dirty and rundown.

Six decades later, nearly everything in the earlier picture looks different—even the bridge house has been painted white.  The buildings of South Riverside Plaza now line the west bank of the river.  But at ground level, trains still run to and from Union Station.


Galloping Ghost Snagged by Bears! (11-22-1925)

Harold Grange—Red Grange, Old #77, the Wheaton Iceman, the Galloping Ghost—signed a contract to play pro football for the Chicago Bears today.  And that was front page news.

Grange at work

Grange at work

In 1925 college football was the only football that mattered.  The play-for-pay version was casually referred to as “post-graduate” football.  The NFL was struggling through its sixth season.  Though a big college game could attract 70,000 spectators, the pros usually played before a few hundred.

Grange was the most famous football player in the land.  He had rewritten the record book during his three years as a University of Illinois halfback.  In one game against a tough Michigan squad, he’d scored four touchdowns in the first twelve minutes.

Normally, after the football schedule was over, Grange would have returned to campus, gone back to class, and finished up his undergrad studies.  Then he might use his fame to get started in business.  Or if he wanted to stay in touch with football, he could look for a coaching job.

Grange at rest

Grange at rest

Most pro football players earned less than $100 a game.  A promoter named C.C. Pyle convinced Grange he could do much better.  Grange played his final college game against Ohio State on November 21, 1925.  The next day he came to Chicago and signed with the Bears.

George Halas, coach and part-owner of the Bears, immediately arranged a 19-game, coast-to-coast barnstorming tour.  Grange was paid a guarantee plus a percentage of the gate.  Newspapers speculated he might earn as much as $60,000—about what Babe Ruth got from the Yankees.

That figure was too low.  The tour drew so many people Grange pocketed over $100,000.  And the NFL had gained $100,000,000 worth of publicity.

In 1926 Grange and Pyle tried to start their own league.  When that venture failed, the Galloping Ghost returned to the Bears.  He retired from active play in 1934.

Even a half-century later, George Halas always declared that Red Grange was the greatest football player he’d ever seen.  In 1975 an interviewer asked Halas how many yards Grange might run up in an NFL season today. “Oh, about 750 or 800,” Halas replied.

“That’s not so much,” the interviewer interrupted.

“Well, you’ve got to remember one thing,” Halas said.  “Today, Red Grange is over 70 years old!”


Then and Now, Halsted-35th Place

1934--Halsted Street @ 35th Place, view north

1934–Halsted Street @ 35th Place, view north

2015--the same location

2016–the same location

In 1934 this strip of Halsted Street was already long-established as the heart of the Bridgeport community.  The 1500-seat Ramova Theatre had opened a few years before, a twin to the North Side’s Music Box Theatre.  Edward J. Kelly had just become Mayor of Chicago, the first mayor from Bridgeport—but not the last.

Once a mostly Irish enclave, the Bridgeport Community Area is now ranked as one of Chicago’s most diverse neighborhoods.  New construction is visible along Halsted Street.  Though the Ramova has sat vacant for over thirty years, a local group is trying to restore it.