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Uptown in the News  

February 28, 2007
Hollywood has nothing on Uptown
Site tracks show business roots
By Lorraine Swanson

Long before “The Curly Shuffle,” Uptown was a hotbed of show-biz history.

Tents covered the “Sheridan Drive” prairie along a glistening shoreline, ragtime rose from sunken gardens, silent-movie cowboys tied up their horses in front of the Green Mill, bobby-soxers swarmed Lawrence Avenue looking for Sinatra, and if you parted the haze, you could catch Led Zeppelin for just five bucks at The Kinetic Playground.

These little known nuggets of Uptown’s entertainment history have been compiled into one big, glorious virtual museum on the Magnolia-Malden Neighbors’ Web site by Sheridan Park resident David Stratis.

“One of the reasons why I moved to the neighborhood was because of its rich architectural history,” Stratis explained.

“There wasn’t much on the Internet about the history of Uptown, so I started collecting bits and pieces from different Web sites and I’d think, “whoa, this is interesting.” The more I learned about Uptown’s history, the more I realized what an incredible thing I had stumbled upon,” said Stratis, who describes himself as “a guy who works downtown in an office.”

Stratis’ labor of love and gift to his community grew into five hours of animated history depicting Uptown’s rise and fall during the 20th century This animated history can be viewed at http://magnoliamaldenneighbors.com.

Set in 01 acts, each lasting about 30 minutes, the animated history, “Uptown: The Cradle of Entertainment” kicks off with the development of Sheridan Drive. Land due north of Graceland Cemetery considered as a possible site for the 1893 Columbian World Exposition was subdivided in 1891 for homes.

“That’s how housing got its start here. It established people living in the Uptown area, and that’s where the entertainment started,” Stratis said.

Uptown was a frequent stopping point for the Redpath Chicago Chatauqua, a summer tent show at the turn of the 20th century that featured such movers and shakers as Susan B. Anthony, P.T. Barnum, Henry Ward Beecher and Mark Twain, along with entertainment with more mass appeal, like acrobats, wizards and military bands.

The motion picture industry also got its start in Uptown, when a couple of entertainment pioneers named George K. Spoor and Bronco Billy Anderson merged the photograph and theatrical play with motion, launching the legendary “S and A” Studios in 1907, which eventually morphed into “Essanay”.

“Four out of five movies seen in the United States at that time were made in Chicago, with Spoor and Anderson producing about 80 percent of them,” Stratis said.

“They hired Charlie Chaplin for his first gig, and Bronco Billy Anderson, who later went on to star in “The Great Train Robbery,” got his initial start as a movie star at ‘S and A’”, Stratis added.

Located at 1345 W. Argyle Street (St. Augustine College is now housed in the original studios), Spoor and Anderson are also credited with producing one of the world’s first newsreels, the 1896 inauguration of President William McKinley. Two years later, after Anderson was denied entry into Cuba to film U.S. troops fighting the Spanish-American War, Spoor and Anderson filmed their own “fake” newsreel, eliciting the help of their Sheridan Park neighbors in reenacting the Battle of San Juan Hill.

Other acts highlight the birthplace of the Jazz Age, Chicago’s notorious gangster history, the great movie palaces, live concerts and stage shows, and sports history all centered against the alternately glittering and gritty backdrop of Uptown.

The Uptown Theatre featured a 30-piece orchestra and live stage shows built around the theme of the featured motion picture, long before New York City’s Radio City Music Hall was born. Thanks to an innovator named David B. Wallerstein, once described by Walt Disney as one of “America’s greatest showmen” (the other being P.T. Barnum), the Uptown was the first movie theater in the country to offer butter on popcorn and ice in soft drinks.

“The first African-American tap dancer to get a movie contract, Jeni LeGon, performed in a Cab Calloway show at the Uptown, with Vincente Minnelli designing the costumes,” Stratis explained.

Opening in 1907 as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse, the “Mill” was a regular stopping place for mourners on their way to St. Boniface Cemetery. In 1910, new owners had converted the roadhouse into the Green Mill Gardens, complete with lantern-lit dancing and drinking areas, and featuring such jazz headliners as Al Jolsen, Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker.

Also figuring prominently in Stratis’ animated history is the Rainbo Ballroom at 4813 North Clark Street, once the world’s largest ballroom. With his Russian dance and violin act, a young Rainbo comedian named Larry Fine caught the eye of a couple of wise guys named Moe Howard and Ted Healy, who asked him to join the Three Stooges.

The Rainbo ended its life as a popular neighborhood roller-skating rink and was razed a few years ago.

The stories mentioned here are just the tip of the ice berg in Stratis’ richly documented animated history of Uptown and the entertainment industry.

“Uptown’s entertainment history is the one thing that has been consistent over time. There has been development and decay, but the entertainment vitality and creativity has remained strong.” Stratis said.

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