Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The people and the places

It has always been this column's mission, if not always its accomplishment, to poke around the city's cultural corners and tell you about the people and the places that share those often-ignored spaces.
We were trying to explain this to out-of-town visitors on Christmas Eve in the lobby of the Drake Hotel and in so doing, as much as we hate to admit it, sounded loftier than we meant to be. This was underscored by our inability to fully satisfy our friends' question: "What sort of people and places do you mean?"
We could recall a few, but not enough to warrant a year's worth of columns. So, in order to jog our own memory we grabbed a pile of Arts sections and decided to revisit Around Town's past. What we learned was that this has been a year of wonderfully quiet events and accomplishments and that we are proud to have chronicled a few of them.
There was Fanny Butcher who, for some 40 years, was the chief literary editor of The Tribune and whose papers found their way to the Newberry Library's estimable collection earlier this year. Butcher had died in 1987, at a ripe and still fiesty 99. In her years at The Tribune, her weekly book page was among the most influential in the nation. No mean accomplishment when one learns that the paper's owner, Col. Robert R. McCormick, thought of book coverage this way: "Readers of The Tribune don't read books."
There was Judith Gries, who was tending bar at a Halsted Street saloon called the Everleigh Club when she told us that what she really wanted to do-and was doing-was to paint furniture with distinctive patterns. She had sold a few of these items when we met her and then, a few months later, we saw her picture in this paper's home section, which called her one of the city's leading practitioners of this relatively new art.
There were John Higgins and Jason Court, painter and actor respectively, who played good samaritans when they chased-and caught-a man who had just stolen a woman's fur from an Ontario Street saloon called Howard's.
There was local filmmaker John McNaughton, who had made a movie called "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," and fought to keep it from being butchered by distributors. He saw the film get its first commercial release this year at the Music Box Theater and saw it land in Dave Kehr's Top Ten Films of 1989 list.
There was local filmmaker Darryl Roberts who, on something less than a shoestring and with little previous movie experience, made his writing/directing/producing debut with "The Perfect Model." The film played in local theaters.
There was the rebirth of Seneca Park, a block west of the Water Tower, thanks to the work of Marc Schulman, who raised more than $300,000 to transform the slice of green into one of the city's most charming spots; a fitting tribute to his late father, Eli, a Chicago original.
There was the Live Bait Theater Company, which, in a novel way to raise funds, wrote letters to famous people asking that they donate their doodles. Amazingly, but encouragingly, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Al Hirschfeld, Whoppi Goldberg, Bill Petersen, Philip Glass and dozens of others did.
. . .we met in the last year
There was Robert Richter, one of the city's most successful makers of television commercials, whose attitude about his generally cutthroat business was wonderfully refreshing: "It's a game. It's just a game. This is really fun to do. This is not like getting a divorce or doing plumbing. These are just, after all, little pieces of fantasy."
There was Jack Kearney, the great sculptor, who has been commissioned to create five huge metal sculptures of dinosaurs that will dot a 40-acre site in West Chicago. The dinosaurs are built from the bumpers of cars of the '50s and '60s.
There was Bill Russell, who quit a secure job at The Tribune to pursue a career as an actor: "I didn't want to wake up at 65 and say, `If only I took the chance in theater."'
There was Holy Family Church, the beautiful, 130-year-old building on the city's Near West Side, that is fighting the good fight to remain the spiritual center of one of the city's most interesting neighborhoods.
There was Elephants, the candy store on Michigan Avenue, that so intrigued famous architect Stanley Tigerman that he and his staff designed the store, creating a 777-square-foot pachyderm palace.
There was Holly Fulger, the local actress who has become a TV star on "Anything But Love"; Skip Griparis, the local comic who got his first film role in "Major League." Faces on Rush Street closed.

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