Saturday, July 08, 2006

No more blogs about buildings and food

Doesn't it seem like every other blog is all about restaurant reviews and what people made for dinner? I like to eat and I like to cook, and sometimes I enjoy reading people's blogs about food, but ... I think there's more than enough.

And buildings. It seems like at least once a week, all of the major Chicago-oriented blogs and/or online mags degenerate into flame wars over condo conversions and the latest developments in the blandification of the city's architecture. I ... don't even wanna express an opinion. Although I don't make enough money to buy a place in this neighborhood -- whether you call it Andersonville, or Andersonville Terrace, or Andersonville SoFo (South of Foster -- yes, I have heard people call it that), or good old Uptown -- I'm sure I play some role in the gentrification process somehow and can't afford to throw stones about it. And once at the Hopleaf Bar, a German economist pressed a pretty spirited (if, in my opinion, unconvincing) argument that I am, in fact, a "yuppie." So I try not to gripe about the buildings.

But I haven't yet promised that I wouldn't write about any. So here's an attempt at a brief tour of a few of my favorite local landmarks.

Changes are happening fast in Uptown and Edgewater -- not just teardowns but gut rehabs aplenty -- the Goldblatt's Building's conversion into a Borders, for instance. And of course there's the famous old theaters and night spots, some still operating -- like the Riv and the Aragon -- and some not -- like the Uptown. I think the world itself would stop rotating on its axis if the Green Mill went away. And perhaps my favorite Uptown building of all, in terms of sheer good looks, the Uptown National Bank (now Bridgeport Bank) at Broadway and Lawrence, seems like it will last a good while. (If you've never been inside that building, go in. It's beautiful.)

Some places are gone. For example, the Rainbo on Clark Street, which spent its last several years as a seedy roller rink before being razed for a condo development, but lived lives as a nightclub, casino, vaudeville house, and rock venue before that -- nothing but a construction zone now. John Dillinger celebrated his 31st birthday there. And Larry Fine was hired as a member of the Three Stooges there.

Enough said about the famous places. The three buildings I want to blog about now are a little more obscure. Nothing dramatically arcane (if I had the energy and resources, I might do a survey of the locations used in Haskell Wexler's outstanding picture, "Medium Cool," much of which was filmed in Uptown, but that's another post for another time), but maybe you don't know them yet.

1. Essanay Studios

I don't know how famous my first stop on the tour actually is, but to me, it's a major, major landmark. The first stop on the tour is the Essanay Studios building at 1345 W. Argyle Street, just a couple blocks from the CBRAT headquarters. The building houses St. Augustine College now, but for a few years in the nineteen-teens, it was a major motion picture production facility. Wikipedia has a decent entry on Essanay Studios, so I won't go into the basics, but what I can't help but mention is that Charlie Chaplin filmed a few movies there before moving to Hollywood, and he used to hang out at the Green Mill after work. Sometimes when I'm walking to the post office or something, which (if I take a slightly circuitous route, as I usually do) takes me past both Essanay and the Mill, I like to imagine the Little Tramp heading out for a drink after a long day under the lights.

Also, I feel a slight personal connection to Essanay. The studio was started by a man named George Spoor, who used to work in the vaudeville biz at a theater up in Waukegan, my sorta home town. He teamed up with an inventor named Edward Amet to build a device called the Magniscope -- which some say was the first practical 35-millimeter movie projector. I can't find definite evidence, but I've been told that they used to film early Western flicks (Tom Mix movies, allegedly) on the sand dunes at what is now Illinois Beach State Park in nearby Zion. The pair parted company, and Spoor moved to Chicago to start Essanay Studios with Bronco Billy Anderson.

I call it a personal connection, because the Amet and Spoor story was featured heavily in an unfinished novel I worked on between 1994 and 2000, which was set in Waukegan. When I moved to this neighborhood, in 1998, and stumbled on the Essanay building quite by accident, I was thrilled pink. And I'm still excited about it.

Essanay Studios, check it out sometime if you're in the vicinity. There's not much to see anymore, but the historically preserved entryway is kind of neat. I have a foto of it that I took myself someplace in my archives, but for simplicity's sake, here's a similar shot stolen rudely from Wikipedia.

2. Bob Hartley's House

Moving north up Sheridan Road, up at the far end of Kathy Osterman Beach is another of my favorites -- not for its intrinsic beauty, but for its pop-culture geek appeal. The Thorndale Beach Apartments, 5901-5855 N. Sheridan Road, were used in exterior shots to represent Bob & Emily Hartley's apartment building in the old Bob Newhart Show, which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1978, and in reruns forever.

The Bob Newhart Show is probably my favorite TV show, and, for better or worse, watching it as a little kid formed a lot of my ideas about "being an adult." Little did I know that I'd turn out not to be like Bob, but more like Howard Borden, the addle-headed divorced neighbor, but I'll take it. Howard lived here, too!

This is really not a remarkable looking building at all -- there are dozens of high-rises on Sheridan Road that look just like it. But now that I know where it is, I can hardly go anyplace on the Far North Side without thinking about Bob, Emily, and Howard.

I can't find a picture of it right now, so instead here's a picture I took at the dedication ceremony in 2004 for the TV Land Bob Newhart statue (careful CBRAT readers will notice a TV Land statue trend to this blog) downtown, which was held next to the building on "Boule Mich" that they used for the exterior shots for Bob's office building. (Bob's being interviewed by the Today Show in this picture, remotely. By the way, if you don't blink, I'm visible in a few of the crowd shots in the special that TV Land made about the ceremony. Yeah, I know, big deal.)

3. Ken Nordine's House

I don't have a picture of this one either, and if I did, I don't think I'd post it, because I don't think it'd be cool to post a foto of an actual guy's actual house. But, yes, I have found this place, and have made one or two pilgrimages there on marathon walks up to Rogers Park. I include it only because Ken Nordine is one of my favorite artists, and I've always really enjoyed the fact that he lives nearby.

You know Ken Nordine, right? I figure most people reading this blog are familiar with Word Jazz, and anyone who watched TV or listened to radio at any time over about four decades has heard his voice, whether or not they knew it, in about a million commercial voice-overs. Ken Nordine has the best voice on earth. I could listen to the guy read actuarial tables and have a good time. A few years ago I went to see him present some of his short video pieces at the Siskel Center, and while standing in line to get in, I heard a conversation taking place behind me, and shivered at an instantly recognizable tone. Ken Nordine and his wife were waiting in line right behind me. I just about came, I tell you what.

Anyway, Ken Nordine's house is way up on Kenmore Ave. not far from Loyola University, on a stretch of the street that's ceremonially named after Ken (Ken Nordine Place, if I recall correctly). Here's a nice description of the house that I'll just lift (because that's what the Internet is for, dammit) from here

Nordine refers to his home as a "big old yesterday house," and the description is apt. It is three stories tall, 94 years old and very brown. It squats in a block of bland apartments in a working-class section of Edgewater. The front porch reveals a slate of mailboxes and buzzers with all the names removed save two: Ken Nordine and Beryl Vaughan, husband and wife of 50 years. When they were younger, they rented off some of the big old yesterday house to bring in extra money. But Nordine has done well for himself over the years and now the house, all 17 rooms of it, is theirs alone.

So that's my personal tour of some of my very favorite Uptown and Edgewater buildings. If anyone has any more to add, mi comments section es tu comments section. Thanks.

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