Citizen Kane and the Civic Opera House

There’s a scene in Citizen Kane when Kane is celebrating his wedding to his new bride, Susan Alexander, whom he’s promised to make into an opera star. “Charlie says if I can’t (sing at the Met) he’ll build me an opera house!” Ssuan squeal. “That won’t be necessary,” Kane laughs. From there, the film immediately cuts to a headline: “Kane Builds Opera House.” She proceeds to flop.

The story gets repeated on a lot of Chicago architecture tours – lots of them claim that utilities kingpin Samuel Insull built the Civic Opera House so that his wife, rejected in New York, would have a place to sing. It’s frequently said  that Insull built it to look like an armchair with its back facing east so he could figuratively turn his back on the big apple out of spite.

Many tour guides will quickly say that this is a myth – Mrs Insull would have been 60 years old in 1929, hardly an ingenue (in some versions of the story he built it for his daughter or girlfriend, though he had no daughters). I’d long assumed that the story was just the result of some tour guide who’d seen Citizen Kane a few too many times. After all, wasn’t it pretty well known that the Susan Alexander part of the plot was based on William Randolph Hearst pushing Marion Davies’ film career?

But on digging in a bit, I found more than meets the eye here – Orson Welles did say that there really was a millionare who built an opera house for the “soprano of his choice,” and that the character of Kane was partly based on Insull (particularly visually; if you look at the cover of Time that Insull graced you can see a certain resemblance to Charles Foster Kane). He apparently denied that Insull’s wife was the soprano, but co-writer Hermnan Mankiewicz did apparently say the the next scene in the movie, in which a reviewer passes out drunk after writing one line of a review calling that soprano “pretty, but hopelessly incompetent,” was based on his own experience reviewing Insull’s wife on stage. In this version of the story, Mrs. Insull appeared on Broadway, and Mankiewicz was outraged to see an old woman playing a teenager in a “production bought for her like a trinket,” in biographer Richard Merryman’s terms.  Herman wrote just one line, calling her “an aging, hopelessly incompetent amateur,” before passing out. This was the incident that worked its way into the screenplay.  Hollywood historian Maurice Zolotow, who worked on the Times at the time, told Pauline Kael that Mankiewicz did in fact pass out from a mixture of booze and rage while trying to write a review of Mrs. Insull’s stage skills about four years before the Civic Opera House went up.

Welles and Mankiewicz may have been stretching the facts here a bit if they said the passing-out scene happened just as it does in the movie, but that wouldn’t be out of character for Orson. There’s a delightful scene in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles in which his assistant describes one of Orson’s stories as “according to Orson, which means it probably isn’t true, but it ought to be.” There is certainly SOME truth behind the story, though the real one doesn’t line up QUITE with the plot of Citizen Kane, or have much of anything to do with the building of the Civic Opera House.

Insull’s wife did appear onstage in 1925 on Broadway, but she was not an opera singer, and wasn’t even really an amateur. As a young woman in the 1890s, she’d been a professional actress under the name Gladys Wallis, retiring around 1900 to become a millionaire’s wife.

But the theatrical bug never left her, and in 1925, at the age of 56, she put together a charity run of performances of Richard Sheridan’s 18th century comedy, The School for Scandal, starring herself as young Lady Teazle, to raise money for a children’s hospital in St. Louis. It was so successful that Mrs. Insull decided to take it Broadway.

And, by all accounts, the production was a reasonably good one; such New York reviews as I could find were very kind (or at least very polite). The Daily News said that “without conscious effort, , she carried it to something very like a legitimate triumph.” About the worst review I could find was in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which gave the production a good review overall, saying only that “Mrs. Insull as an actress is not, to be sure, inspiring. She carries herself well, is not easily abashed, trips smilingly through the comedy without stumbling literally or figuratively and also without anything approaching brilliance. She has a nice manner and is hopeful that manner alone will answer for the many graces and subtleties an actress playing Lady Teazle should be heir to.”  They do seem like they’re being very courteous here, rather than simply saying “she was just okay,” but it’s a far cry from calling her an aging, hopelessly incompetent amateur.

No particularly bad review ever ran in the Times; if Mankiewicz did write a line about her being a hopelessly incompetent amateur, it didn’t run.  Several sources cite the New York Times article in question as one from 1925 entitled “Mrs. Sameul Insull Returns to the Stage,” but that article was a preview, not a review, written several months before she hit New York. The actual review that ran was very polite – Kael called it “a masterpiece of tact” – and said Mrs. Insull’s Lady Teazle was “as pretty as she is diminutive.” To call her an amateur wouldn’t exactly have been fair; she was a retired pro, though if Mankiewicz had some sort of grudge against Insull (and as rich and powerful as Insull was, he might have), one can imagine him being filled with rage over his wife being onstage and feeling any pressure to be tactful in his response. Look at how many people go ballistic when some viral video star gets a TV deal.

The Kane connections don’t quite stop there, but for further events to have inspired the movie, we’d have to use the term “very loosely based.” Insull did not build the opera house just to give his wife (or anyone else) a place to sing, but his wife did fail in the theatrical business in 1926, and Insull did built the opera house around the same time.

After her 1925 Broadway run, Mrs. Insull returned to Chicago for a few more performances that were kindly received by the press (who had no fear of criticizing the Insulls or printing gossip about them). Months later, Samuel leased out the Studebaker Theater, where his wife attempted to start a repertory company (and the Tribune did joke about it just being an excuse to do School for Scandal again), though Mrs. Insull worked mainly behind the scenes as producer, intending only to take a role now and then. The company was a flop, and Mrs. Insull brushed it off with a laugh and a frank admission that it was a waste of money – Chicago, she said, just wasn’t the right town for it.

It was around this same time that Insull started work on getting the Civic Opera building built, though he’d started well before his wife’s stint at the Studebaker went down – in December, two months after the New York run of Scandal, he first laid out his plans for the building. Already deeply involved in the local opera business, he initially wanted a 7.5 million dollar home for the opera – at the time, everyone thought the Auditorium Theater, where operas were usually staged was outdated and would be razed any minute. The plans eventually grew larger, until the new theater became a 20 million dollar building. Office space in the “arms” of the armchair-shaped building was to generate money to cover the costs of the opera, which was not a self-sufficient venture at the time; putting an opera on cost more than ticket sales alone could generate in the smaller Auditorium; there would be more seats in the new theater, but another source of income couldn’t hurt.

The Civic Opera building opened with a performance of Aida on November 4, 1929, only days after the great market crash.  Mrs. Insull never appeared there, and it seems that no one connected to Insull personally did, either, in the brief period between the time when it opened and the time when he lost all his money and fled to Europe. He’d been involved enough in local opera before that he could have gotten a love interest onto the stage without building her an opera house.

It’s generally known that characters and events in Kane are composites of real people, real events, and pure fiction; it’s not impossible that Kane and Mankiewicz were thinking of the Studebaker stint when they wrote about Kane buying his wife an stage, at least a little. Maybe they even noticed that the Civic Opera went up right around this time.

So there are bits of truth behind the connection between Citizen Kane and the Insulls, but the facts appear to have been mixed with other stories and given a fictional gloss, after which a little bit of muddy research turned into a misunderstanding that evolved into the grander urban myth that the Civic Opera building was built so that Insull’s paramour would have a stage on which to perform. All too often, this is how history works!

Al Capone and the Jewelers’ Building

In my gig as a tour director for student groups, I take a lot of other peoples’ boat tours, bus tours, and walking tours. One thing I’m always curious to see is how they’ll tell the story of Al Capone throwing parties in the dome of the Jeweler’s Building at Wabash and Wacker. According to most tales, the dome was once home to the Stratosphere Club, a speakeasy that was either owned or frequented by Al Capone, depending on who’s telling the story. Some are quick to point out that Capone’s connection is just a rumor, others really double-down on saying it was true.

Capone stories almost always fall into the “Not true, but it should be” category of Chicago lore – and that of other cities, as well. I can’t even tell you how many tourists have assumed that I know all about their small town, because it was where Al Capone had his summer home/hideout/warehouse. It seems that there’s hardly a town in the midwest where kids aren’t told that Al Capone used to hang out in town a lot.

The other story of the Jeweler’s Building is that it once housed an elevator for cars, so that jewelry dealers who worked in the building would never have to step out of their car with their valuable stock and into Roaring 20s Chicago, even for a second. Instead, they could drive right into the building and be lifted right up to the floor where their office or showroom was.

Digging into the newspaper archives, it’s quite clear that the elevator story is true: much was made of the car elevator when the place was built; the twenty-three story garage took up about 25% of the total building’s space at the time. A 1924 article in the Tribune said that it would be the tallest garage in the world.  It didn’t totally protect the builders – shortly after it opened (and was quickly renamed The Pure Oil Building), there was a big jewelry robbery there in 1926; three young bandits burst into a gem shop with pistols and made off with $25,000 in jewels.

And the Stratosphere Club in the dome was certainly a real place – but it wasn’t a speakeasy, and there’s no way that Al Capone was ever there.

When the 40-story Jeweler’s Building was first built in the 1920s, the dome seems to have sat empty for some time. In 1932 it was reported in the Tribune that a hawk had taken up residence in the dome and was preying on migratory birds in the loop.  A reference or two in the archives seems to indicate that it was used for storage.

A Stratosphere Club matchbook I picked up on Ebay

A Stratosphere Club matchbook I picked up on Ebay

The creation of the Stratosphere Club was announced in the press in the Jan 10, 1937 Tribune article entitled “City’s Highest Restaurant Being Built.” Owned by Paul Streeter and taking its name from a club that had been in Rockefeller Center in New York, the club was set to open in March, and would cover four floors – a kitchen on the 37th, a regular restaurant on the 38th and 39th, and a cocktail lounge on the 40th, with decorations to make it look as though one was in a hot air balloon. By March of 1937, when it opened, Capone had been in Alcatraz for some time, and liquor was perfectly legal again.

The club was a hit, by most accounts, but my 1954 the space had been converted into a showroom for a commercial artist (and still using the old circular bar at the time); it’s now the showroom of architect Helmut Jahn.

None of the necessarily proves that there wasn’t a speakeasy there in the 1920s, after it was first built, but people were generally pretty open in reminiscing about their favorite speakies in later days, and I’ve never found a reference to indicate that there was one in the dome. It’s one of those Chicago stories that isn’t quite true – but it should be.

Why The Ceres Statue on the Board of Trade Has No Face

Ceres art deco dace (image from wikimedia commons)

Ceres art deco dace (image from wikimedia commons)

When built in 1930, the 600 foot Board of Trade building that anchors LaSalle Street was the tallest building in Chicago – an honor it held for decades. Though now dwarfed by the supertall skyscrapers around it, the art deco building is still stunning to behold, and pointed out by every architecture tour. But if you take a few, you might notice something strange: no two tour guides seem to agree as to why the statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture who stands atop the building, doesn’t have a face. Some say that it’s just an art deco thing, and others say that the sculptor figured that no other, taller building would ever be built nearby, so no one would be able to see the face, anyway. Some say outright that they’ve heard a lot of theories, but nothing totally convincing.

The truth, according to sculptor John Storrs’s own statement in 1930, lies somewhere in between – though the style did keep it in line with the art deco style of the building itself, he also figured that details were less important than outlines, given how far away most people would be from the statue.

Storrs, a Chicagoan himself who spent much of his time in Paris, explained his design and ideas in great detail to the Tribune in their May 4, 1930 issue, about month before the statue was to be put in place:

“When I was given the order to execute a sculptural piece to cap the tall Board of Trade building, I had two major points to consider. First, I wanted my work to be in architectural harmony with the building on which it was to stand. Second, I wanted it to be symbolical of the business which the organization the structure was to house.

“The first point I have accomplished through treating the subject in an extremely modern manner. The vertical lines of the building itself are retained in the lines of the statue. Because of the great height at which it will stand the matter of detail did not have to be taken into consideration. The outline of a woman’s figure is suggested rather than rendered exactly.

Ceres (from Wikimedia Commons)

Ceres (from Wikimedia Commons)

“As to the second point, I borrowed a thought from the classical period. Ceres well symbolizes the activity of the Board of Trade, so I took this goddess sister of Jupiter for my subject. However, while the thought is classical, the treatment is thoroughly modern.

“From the street the statue will appear to pedestrians mostly in silhouette. The hands holding the sheaf of wheat and the sample bag extend from the body abruptly instead of being attached to arms. The face, too, is suggested, inasmuch as there are no regular features.”

He also noted that he considered the top of the Board of Trade to be “one of the most commanding positions for a statue to be found in America.”

Chicagoans were very enthusiastic about the design when it was built. However, there was another reason why ignoring details was probably wise – within just a few weeks of being placed, the statue was completely blackened by soot from smokestacks, and didn’t get a bath for 12 years!


Where Was HH Holmes? A North Side building still standing

Roslyn Place, just above Lincoln Park.

No topic around here keeps my occupied quite like tracing the career of H.H. Holmes, the Devil in the White City guy. Figuring out what really happened and separating fact from fiction is notoriously hard. Lately, I’ve been in the process of organizing all of my data, cataloguing all the stuff from the microfilm room at the library (defunct Chicago papers – you want to stick with Chicago papers for the Chicago stuff), and going through all of the thousand or so papers and articles and making notes of all the locations mentioned in them. I now have a map showing about 60 places in Chicago we can probably trace Holmes to – most of them are businesses in the loop that he’s known to have swindled at various times, and whose names and/or addresses were published in contemporary documents. Four or five are still standing.

One that I just went to check out today was a possible address for Minnie Williams, one of the hardest characters in the saga to figure out. There are/were a LOT of conflicting accounts to what Minnie was like, when she disappeared, whether she was married to Holmes, or what. She seems to have told her sister that they were married, but whether Holmes set up a sham ceremony (it certainly wouldn’t have been a legal one) of if they were both lying is sort of an open question. She may well have been complicit in some of his schemes. I wouldn’t even say with complete confidence that she was actually killed; Holmes’ story that she’d run off to London to go into hiding isn’t quite as far-fetched as some of his other ones.

There are a number of addresses for her that appeared in various papers, and one of them is still standing.

Minnie seems to have come to Chicago around January, 1893, having already met Holmes in some capacity or another. In January, she wrote a few letters to a man in Leadville, Colorado, who later spoke with the Rocky Mountain News. The letters had varying return address; one was the famous “murder castle,” one was on Chicago avenue, and one, dated January 18, was from Roslyn Place, a street just above Lincoln Park (a great many of the Minnie-related locations on the map are in that general vicinity).  After checking the re-numbering guides (the houses were all renumbered in 1909), I found the address, and found that it was still standing. That’s it on the left, just off East of Clark Street. I’m assuming the story in the Rocky Mountain News was accurate on the simple basis that I can’t imagine where they would have pulled the address from if the guy didn’t actually have the letter.

Rosyln Place looks, as you can see in the photo above, just like the kind of street we like to imagine Victorian serial killers stalking, doesn’t it? Whether Holmes ever met with Minnie here is difficult to ascertain, but it’s fairly likely. He seems to have been no stranger to the area; he claimed to have stayed in a hotel on the west side of Clark, opposite Lincoln Park, at one point, and an insurance invesgaot in 1893 found him (and perhaps Minnie) living at the Plaza Hotel, which was just below Lincoln Park, where the Latin School is now.  I wonder if he ever went to check out the Couch Tomb?

Such a neat block! Great for a game of “What Do They Have.” 

Abraham Lincoln in Chicago: Ebenezer Peck’s House

In 1860, just after the election, President-elect Abraham Lincoln came to Chicago, where he’d been a regular visitor for years, to meet Hannibal Hamlin, his running mate, for the first time. They met up at the Tremont House, the hotel at Dearborn and Lake where, a couple of years before, Lincoln had made a version of his “house divided” speech from the balcony. Now, a public reception was held for well-wishers to greet the president elect at the same hotel.

But perhaps the most momentous event of that Chicago stop was the day the party met at “Lake View,” the mansion of Judge Ebenezer Peck, and had a long discussion about who would be in Lincoln’s cabinet. Here’s the mansion:

The house stood at the northeast corner of Clark and Fullerton. It survived the fire, being just a couple of blocks north of where it ended, and was still there as of the early 20th century, but seems to have been torn down some time before 1920. When it was built, it stood on seven acres, through Judge Peck’s daughter noted in 1900 that it was now surrounded by so many buildings that it would be hard to see from the road; this would put it around the spot where the fullerton plaza hotel stood as of 1923.

“They had hardly become seated in the parlor,” Peck’s daughter recalled, “before a curious crowd gathered before the low windows, which reached to the floor. Mr. Lincoln was greatly upset by the people peering at him. He never could beat to keep people waiting…to get out of the difficulty Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Hamlin went to a bedroom in the southeast part of the house on the second floor and there they secured at last a chance for uninterrupted conversation. They were together many hours, and there the first cast of the Cabinet was made up.”

Peck’s daughter saw Lincoln off and on in Washington, where her father moved during Lincoln’s term to be a judge in the U.S. Claims court. One particular night, she said he saw Lincoln at the White House, where he found him walking up and down in the deepest agony, lit by a single gas jet. “This is Friday, hangman’s day,” he said. “I had to sign the death warrants by which five poor boys were shot today.” He paced about, saying “Shoot a farmer’s boy for going to sleep!”  He remarked that the generals said these executions were necessary for military discipline, but “he had and idea that it was a good thing for military discipline to have his own way once in a while about shooting farmer boys for going to sleep.”

I believe that this is as close as Lincoln ever was to what is now Lincoln Park; he probably would have passed by it on Clark en route to Peck house. In 1860, the tower window would have quite likely given you a  view of the green area that would soon bear Lincoln’s name, but which was, at the time, the  City Cemetery. It’s tempting to imagine Lincoln standing in the tower, looking out at the graves and contemplating the Civil War that was looming ahead of him. 

PODCAST: Inside Charlie Chaplin’s Vault

It’s one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets: we invented Hollywood. Full length movies, color movies, mockumentaries, the ratings systems, the first paid movie theatre, and a whole lot more all came out of Chicago between 1893 and the the 1910s. Heck, the first studio in Hollywood was even started by Chicago outfit. For a brief period around the 1910s, Chicago was the film capitol of the world. The north side around Essanay Studios became a sort of prototype for Beverly Hills. Francis X. Bushman, an early matinee idol, would cruise around in a purple limo with a spotlight on the dash so people could see his famous face. Even Chaplin made a movie here.

We knew that Essanay was still standing (though out of business for nearly a century) and Hector and I thought we’d go stand outside it to tell stories about those days for a podcast with our friend Michael Glover Smith of White City Cinema. We found more than we ever DREAMED in the space. Chaplin was only here in a few weeks (they moved him from California to Chicago in the dead of winter, and, well…you can predict the outcome!), but he sure made his mark. Having previously just used stuff from around the Keystone lot, he purchased the first Tramp costume he ever owned right on State Street.

At the time, Uptown was full of great spaces – the Green Mill (in its pre-gangland days), the Aragon Ballroom, the Uptown Theatre (which we mistakenly call The Century in the podcast). People in the neighborhood got used to seeing movie stars around the area and hanging out at Al Sternberg’s for lunch.

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The studio space he and the other Essanay stars (including Broncho Billy, Francis X. Bushman, and Ben Turpin) used is still basically intact (see pictures below) – currently being used by the culinary arts department of St. Augustine College. Meanwhile, down in the basements, the film vaults are still intact, and still recognizably vaults. The films are long gone, but the sign saying “Safety: Film Only” remains on the heavy metal door. We couldn’t believe our luck in getting to see this stuff!

(Update: we now think that Al Sternberg’s, the diner where the casts and crew would hang out for lunch, was at 5000 N Broadway, where the New Saigon restaurant is today. We have this as an address for Albert Sternberg as of 1928. But this isn’t necessarily correct – it was over a decade later and there’s no indication that it was a diner or tavern in the directory. However, having Al Sternberg in a building at exactly the right intersection is a pretty solid clue).

St. Augustine College is looking to secure funding to convert the old studio space into a multimedia cultural center where films and plays can be produced – it’s still a great space for filming! For information, contact Alfredo Calixto, the Vice President for Institutional Advancement. Call 770-eight -seven-eight – 3569, or email . See for more info.


Hector in the studio space

The hallway leading to the auditorium/studio.
You can see by the cut-off arch that the ceiling was
much higher then.

The rising double doors that were used to get scenery and large 
equipment into the studio in Chaplin’s day.

The basement. The furnace-looking equipment
is said to be old film-processing stuff, but exactly
what’s what is a mystery we’re still solving!

The old film vault. Is this cool or what?

Because we knew you’d ask: The inside of the vault! The shelving
is thought to be original.

An upstairs vault with a heavy combination. I noticed
an “escape device” on the inside, so you can’t
be locked in, like this guy I just saw on Columbo.

Here’s Chaplin’s one film made here at Essanay in Chicago, HIS NEW JOB. Click the embedded link below for commentary from Mike!

Mike’s commentary:
Michael Glover Smith on “His New Job” by adamselzer

The Beacon of Progess: A Skyscraper that never was

When preparations were underway for the World’s Fair in 1893, everyone wanted something that would top the Eiffel Tower in Paris. They eventually went with the giant Ferris Wheel (three times the size of the one now at Navy Pier in diameter), but the obvious choice before they landed on that was to simply make a building taller than the Eiffel. Indeed, Eiffel offered to build another tower that was pretty much the same as the one he’d done in Paris, only taller. They turned him down – but the fair as it stood inspired a building concept that could have put Eiffel to shame.

At the right stands The Beacon of Progress, a design created by Constant-Desire Despradelle. It would have had 13 obelisks (representing the original colonies) merging into a single spire 1500 feet tall – a little taller than the Sears Tower / Willis Tower / Big Black Willie. The top – above what you see in the picture – would have looked about like the Washington Monument. The French approved the design and actually made plans to build it in Jackson Park to commemorate the fair seven years after it ended.

Contrary to common misconception, it wasn’t designed FOR the fair – Despradelle simply visited the fair and was so awed by its splendor that he started to work on a design for a giant spire to commemorate it. Most of the drawings weren’t made until a few years later. They’re really works of art in themselves.

In 1900, the Tribune announced that the monument would be built using funds from private subscriptions. However, obviously, nothing came of it – Despradelle’s name doesn’t come up in the Trib again until his death in 1912. In any case, by 1900, traffic at the fairgrounds was basically dead. Enough work went into figuring out what the cost would be etc, was done to show that this was certainly something intended to be built, not just an academic exercise in designing a cool building, but it’s hard to fathom what in the world we’d have done with such a tower in that location is hard to fathom – but the base was to house a massive ampitheatre where, Despradelle suggested, “orators and savants” could inspire crowds. Can you imagine how awesome that would have been as a venue for rock music?

More info from MIT: