The Skull of Del Close at the Goodman Theatre

It’s pretty well established now that the skull in the artistic director’s office at the Goodman wasn’t really the skull of comedian Del Close when he was alive, but it’s his now! He donated his skull to the theatre so that he could play Yorick, and the skull they have serves as his, at least symbolically.  A fundraiser once offered to show it to me if I donated enough cash, and I finally got to see it over the weekend.

 I have an article up today on The Order of the Good Death about it:

THE ORDER OF THE GOOD DEATH
presents
“Wanna See a Famous Skull?”
by Adam Selzer

“Ode to a Bowl of Soup” and other ballads of Bathhouse John

We never had a stranger alderman than Bathhouse John Coughlin, who, with his partner Hinky Dink Kenna, controlled the notorious levee district for two generations beginning in the 1890s. Often seen tromping around in a suit made of green billiard table cloth, Bathouse John was often seen as a sort of affable buffoon.

Though he and Hinky Dink were running protection rackets that allowed people to get away with some awful things, it was hard not to like ol’ Bathhouse, who generally did as he was told as a politician, but was allowed to amuse himself introducing goofy legislation like promoting the annual “Straw Hat Day.” Newspapers showed shots of him practicing putting his hat on like a big boy.

But he may be best remembered as the poet laureate of the first ward. After his first song, “Dear Midnight of Love” (which Herbert Asbury said had all the literary merit of a first grade essay), several “ballads” appeared under his name, with such titles as “She Sleeps at the Side of the Drainage Canal,” “Ode to a Bath Tub,” and “Why Did They Build Lake Michigan So Wide.” Most were actually written by John Kelley, a newspaper reporter, who knew fully well how dumb they were. But if Bathhouse knew, he didn’t say. Rather, he suggested that they might be “too deep” for most people.

A few of his greatest hits:

SHE SLEEPS AT THE SIDE OF THE DRAINAGE CANAL

In her lonely grave she sleeps tonight
at the side of the drainage canal;
Where the whipporwhill calls at the twilight hour
they planted my sweetheart, Sal
Just a mile this side of Willow Springs
not far from the Alton track
there lieth Sal, my dear old pal
But these tears won’t bring her back.

ODE TO A BOWL OF SOUP
O, bowl of soup, to thee I lift my voice in gladsome song
nothing can touch ze spot like what ze French call “booyong.”
I like you as mulligatawny, noodles, or consommé.
It cheers me when I see the sign proclaiming “hot soup all day.”

I care note what they call you, you’re just plain soup to me
I break my bread into the bowl to cool it, don’t you see.
Let those who want to die of gout of richer food partake
But give me a bowl of soup like mother used to make

That little sign “Hot Soup All Day” in front of Hink’s saloon
Brings customers for blocks around, especially at noon.
It’s got fried liver skinned to death, and red hots, too, I trow,
Put up a “feed” of good hot soup, and then you’ll catch the “bo.”

I pride myself on being wise upon this free lunch question
“Potato pancakes 4 to 8” are bad for one’s digestion
Saurkraut with spare ribs, fricandeiles, ox joints and all that group
are not to be considered with a bowl of steaming soup.

“How stew on individual plates” does not appeal to me,
and neither does the “business lunch” (which same costs 15c)
I’d rather have one bowl of soup than all the stew in town,
or goulash cooked Hungarian style, with gravy thick and brown

Clam chowder has its devotees, and I’ll admit it’s fine.
Others are fond of “K and K,” but no corned beef in mine.
Just give to me a bowl of soup, and have it seasoned well,
It’s got them all backed off the boards – I tell you what it’s swell.”


THE HOD CARRIER
Tis not a ladder of fame he climbs
this rugged man of bricks and mortar
The mason gets six for laying the bricks,
While the carrier gets but two and a quarter.


AN ODE TO A BATHTUB:
CANTO I:
Some find enjoyment in travel, others in kodaking views;
some take to automobiling in order themselves to amuse.
But for me there is only one pleasure, although you can call me a “dub” –
There’s nothing to my mind can equal a plunge in a porcelain tub.


CANTO II:
Some go to ball games for pleasure, others go bobbing for eels.
Some find delight making money, especially in real estate deals.
I care not for ball games or fishing, or money unless to buy grub
But I’d walk forty miles before breakfast to roll in the porcelain tub.


CANTO III:
Some take a trolley to Hammond, others the boat to St. Joe
Some can find sport on the golf links with mashies that foosle, I trow.
The trolley and boat and the golf links are not one, two, nine with a  rub;
O, what in the world is finer than a dip in the porcelain tub?


CANTO IV
Some runs  dairy for pleasure, others a violet farm
Some turn their heads to bookbinding, and say it is life dearest charm.
But for dairies or sweet scented posies, or old books I care not a nub;
pass them all up, thank you kindly, for the little old porcelain tub.


UNDER THE TWINKLING STARS
Under the twinkling stars, ‘mid a bower of roses fair
I lost my heart to Gwendolyn that night in June so rare.
We plighted our troth that summer’s eve while gazing up at Mars;
O’, the happiest night of my life was that – under the twinkling stars


She told me that she loved me as I held her hand in mine;
her lips were like to cherries of the Maraschino kind.
I drew her to my bosom, breaking two good cigars
and plucked the cherries from her lips – under the twinkling stars.


Perhaps the least sensible of them all, and Bathhouse’s favorite, was a ballad of a girl (who may have been a lobster, and certainly marries one), who is terribly upset about the width of Lake Michigan for reasons unexplained:


WHY DID THEY BUILD LAKE MICHIGAN SO WIDE?
Twas a balmy day in June, and all nature was attune
that two loving hearts across the lake did go.
Said the youth unto the maid, “Stick to me, don’t be afraid,
and married we will be at old St Joe.”
When the boat approached the dock, it was after 3 o’clock
Then a scramble from the decks to get ashore;
Soon the youthful pair were wed, after which the bride let said:
“Won’t you answer me this question I implore:


“Why did they build Lake Michigan so wide, so awful wide?
Look into mine eyes, dear, am I not your bride?
Answer sweetheart, answer, cast me not aside.
Oh why did they build Lake Michigan so wide, so awful wide?”


To Chicago they returned with money she had earned
a flat was furnished fit for any queen.
Persian rugs upon the floor, sofa pillows by the score
still the bride let weeping tears was often seen
She in silence bore her grief, till one day she sought relief
and confided to his nibs her tale of woe.
“Won’t you answer me, I pray, (O, sweetheart, don’t turn away)
The question that I asked at old St. Joe?


“Why did they build Lake Michigan so wide, so awful wide?
This little boon I ask of you, do not turn aside.
To you I gave my love, my all, and yet you’ve never tried
to find out why Lake Michigan was built so wide, so wide.”


l’envoi:
Stung by the words his bride let spoke, the lobster hung his head
and while the tears rolled down his cheeks to her he slowly said
“You ask me why Lake Michigan was built so wide, so wide
I must decline to answer you because of family pride.”

Bathhouse John is said to have put out a whole collection, Dear Midnight of Love and Other Ballads, but I can’t find  a copy. Perhaps it’s time to bring it into print as an ebook!

Mummies on Erie Street?

Our story last month about the possibility that Hooters – and some house nearby – are/were haunted by ghostly grave-robbers, is far from complete. While the Hooters IS said to be haunted, and the Tribune DID once tell of an old house on Erie being haunted by ghostly grave robbers, the story of grave robbers operating in that vicinity in 1884 doesn’t necessarily solve the puzzle. There are still missing pieces here and there – most notably, we still can’t be sure that’s the block of Erie the Tribune was talking about. I’d go ahead and guess that it was, and there’s certainly no better explanation going around.  But, in the process of looking, I DID find one other possible lead about a surgeon who lived on Erie (where the garage next to The Kerryman is now).

This doctor, Carl H. Von Klein, was a surgeon with a special expertise in the history of medicine – he wrote articles on the history of the office of the coroner and was especially interested in ancient Egyptian medicine, which, he believed, was an era in which surgeons knew secrets that had since been lost to history. With an idea of uncovering those secrets, he learned the ancient Egyptian language. He was the first to produce an English translation of the “Ebers Papyrus,” a papyrus sheet about medicine that had been discovered between the legs of a mummy in 1872, and which was then said to be the oldest medical text in the world.

The paper, it turned out, described several diseases known to modern medicine, along with their treatments. In addition, many prescriptions were found in the papers for hair dyes, cosmetics, and toiletries. It didn’t show a complete understanding of the body, though – it seemed to imply that most bodily fluids were pumped primarily through the heart (including those that really go through the kidneys). Still, it showed that ancient Egyptian surgeons were pretty well organized.

I don’t wish to go around accusing Dr. Klein of anything, but when reading about mummification and ancient coronary practices, did he decide “man, I’ve got to try this!” and arrange for the services of some “resurrection men” to bring him some subjects on which to experiment?

Well, probably not. But, still, it goes to show that there’s hardly a block of Chicago about which we can’t find a gruesome story. The 1875 grave robbing story about Erie west of Wells is probably the closest we’ll get to the 1950s Tribune story about the house on Erie haunted by grave robbers, but that house still really could have been anywhere on Erie.

Von Klein certainly knew a lot about ancient pathology – he even published books on the figures of human bones. He seems to have been a very interesting guy – an expert in a wide range of fields, publishing papers on not just ancient medical history, but a huge variety of modern (for the turn of the 20th century) medical topics. His son caused some scandal when he was accused of marrying multiple women and stealing their jewelry.

Bughouse Square on the UFO Crash at Roswell

In 1947, when the supposed UFO crash at Roswell was still an unfolding story, a couple of small town papers carried an article about the debate about the crash going on in “Bughouse Square,” Chicago’s “free speech park” in which soapbox orators and hecklers would gather every night when the whether was good.  The article is probably the closest thing I’ve seen to a transcript of debates between regulars such as One Armed Charlie and The Cosmic Kid.


“One Armed Chollie” Wendorf was known as “king of the soapboxers.” He had the constitution memorized and could put down a heckler better than anyone – his catch phrase was “if brains were bug juice, you coudn’t drown a gnat!”

He blamed the Roswell UFO sightings on mass hysteria, and said “the terrible thing is, the more water you throw on (mass hysteria), the more it burns.” He stated that these “visions” of flying discs that people were having could be eliminated through healthy living. “And to be healthy,” he said, “you got to eat living things. I eat fifty dandelion blooms a day when they’re in season.”

On the next soapbox over was Herbert “The Cosmic Kid” Shaw, whose style was to take listeners on “philosophic flights of fancy to empyrean realms of thought,” and who would eventually be given a Druid funeral in the park. He took the UFO sightnings a bit more seriously, and believed they were evidence of life on other planets.

“Science,” he said, “now has a wide open view of the possibility that life exists on some planets.” He went on to say that the people of Mars “have an understanding of cosmic process in advance of ours and have a theory that the interpenetration of radition of energy into interstellar space holds the solar systems together…Martians now are making explorations to prove their cosmic theory, and this explains the flying saucers.”

The reporter noted, with awe, that The Cosmic Kid got all of that out in one breath.

Next to the Kid was “Porkchops Charlie,” a “knight of the open road and moutpiece for the Hoboes of America.  He claimed to have witnessed flying saucers many times while riding in boxcars, and said he believed they were moving shadows between the sun and earth that traveled so fast as to play tricks on the eye due to “electric vibration.”  

The most bizarre explanation came from one Ted Moren, who said that “they were plates carrying t-bone steaks because they’re so high.” Or, failing that, he suggest “maybe it’s those ENIACS – you know, those thinking machines invented at Harvard and Princeton that are doing some thinking and inventing on their own…if the machines can almost think it’s reasonable to believe they could think of something like flying saucers that not even our scientists can match.”
The next morning, newspapers would carry the official explanation: it was just a weather balloon.


I’ve collected a ton of material on the park, including some great interviews that I used in the now-defunct Weird Chicago podcast, including interviews about the park with aldermean Leon Dupres and 1960 Beatnik Party “anti-candidate” for Vice President Joffre Stuart. One of these days I’ll re-edit into a Chicago Unbelievable podcast.


Coming Friday: a new podcast to kick off “Grave Robbing Week,” which will be running all next week right here at Chicago Unbelievable!

The Chicken Man Strikes Again

To my knowledge, no other writer has better described Chicago than Daniel Pinkwater, who wrote about a thinly-disguised version of Chicago in The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, The Education of Robert Nifkin, and Lizard Music, which is now available ina gorgeous new hardcover. In honor of that long-overdue reissue, here’s a shot by Jack davis of The Chicken Man doing his thing on Maxwell Street. The Chicken Man appears as a character in several of Pinkwater’s books.

We’ve previous featured a video of the chicken man and a great shot of him on the bus . This guy may not have come to Chicago until he was about 40, but he was truly a Chicago original. He was still performing around town on his 100th birthday.

Some Chicago sites of interest for Pinkwater fans:

-Bughouse Square (alias Washingston Square Park) – Just above Clark and Chicago, this park in which people make speeches appeared under its own name in NIFKIN and as “BLueberry Park” in The Snarkout Boys

– The McCormick Mansion in Old Town. This was The Bateman School from the 1950s-70s, and was said by Daniel to be the place to find the worst kids in the city. It appeared as the Wheaton School in NIfkin

– The Clark Theatre. Hark, Hark, the Clark! Originally standing where the alley is now on the west side of Clark, just below Washington, The Clark, which was open 23 hours per day and showed a different double-feature nightly, served as The Snark Theatre in The Snarkout Boys series.

We should really have entries about all of these things amidst the blood, guts, and gore around here soon!

Whatever Happened to Lillian Collier: Teenage Flapper?

Update, 2014: We’ve had a break in the case!

The facts are these:

Lillian Collier (sometimes spelled Collee, or even Kelly) came to Chicago around 1920 from Greenwich Village, intent on converting Chicagoans to “real life.” Only a teenager by most accounts, her poetry made her the darling of the Dil Pickle Club. Some accounts say she had previously been a circus performer.

On arriving in Chicago, she founded a bohemian tea room called The Wind Blew Inn at Ohio and Michigan (where the Eddie Bauer store is now), where she held open forums, art exhibits, poetry readings, and more. The place was not popular with the neighbors, who complained about the jazz music, or the police, who thought that any tea that cost 75 cents had to have liquor in it (which it surely did), or with local parents, who feared that their children were attending “petting parties” there.

The place was raided by cops, and Collier was forced to put overalls over the Greek nude statues. On the stand in trial, she said there was nothing stronger than hot chocolate served at the place, and that “there is no snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn.” We here at Chicago Unbelievable are trying to bring the term “snugglepupping” back (along with its variants “Snugglepuppy,” a girl who enjoys snugglepupping, and “snugglepup,” the male equivalent.”)

The judge, in what should probably be considered a landmark case, sentenced her and her “aide,” Virginia Harrison (modern commenters generally assume she was her girlfriend) to read a book of fairy tales to cure her of her bohemianism. A month or so later, the Wind Blew Inn caught fire, the victim, Collier was sure, of puritan arsonists.

The place moved to a new, fancier location on LaSalle, but, lacking the grit and charm of the original, it soon tanked.

A few years later, in 1924, Collier was featured in a major national article about flappers in which she stated that flappers were not savages, but pioneers of new freedom for women. In the article, she comes across like a proto-feminist.

But here her trail ends. Various clues to her whereabouts around this period have popped up here and there – she was arrested for embezzling a bit, and may have been considered for a role in a Charlie Chaplin film. Another Wind Blew Inn, which may or may not have been related to the first one, opened for a while in New York.

There were many people named Lillian Collier who showed up in the press therafter – a poetess in Canada, a suffragist in Texas, and a NY socialite who married an Olympic fencer who promptly died in a zeppelin crash (I thought this was the best lead, but the marriage certificate indicates that the NY Lillian Collier was probably too young to be the Chicago one). None seem to be the same Lillian Collier who took Chicago by storm. Actual records of Collier herself are hard to come by, partly because we aren’t at all sure that Collier was really her name (it seems to have been pronounced more like Collee or Colley, in any case).

So we’re putting out an All Points Bulletin on information as to whereabouts of Lillian C after 1924. Was she your grandmother? Your great aunt? Did your mother know her? Was your great grandmother, the old lady in the home who watched a lot of Lawrence Welk and always asked if your crops were in, even though you work at the bank, a snugglepuppy? Let us know! Any leads are appreciated.

Update: some detective work has led us to much more info about Lillian, who died under the name Nellise Rosenfeld in 1981 after a long career as a playwright and mystery novelist.

Cap Streeter’s Funeral

George Wellinging “Cap” Streeter ran his boat ashore n 1888, started charging people money to dump their garbage near the boat, and eventually created a 186 acre landfill that we now know as Streeterville. He spent more than 30 years battling with the city over ownership of his new land, which he claimed as his own country.

We’re finishing up the book now, and I’ve been trying to find a good source on the story that he put a curse on the land on his deathbed. Other than some stories that his last words may have been “damn ye,” I haven’t found much yet. I maintain, in any case, that if he DID put a curse on the land, he must have sucked at cursing things. Sure, there have been some odd deaths in the neighborhood, but no more than in any other neighborhood when you get right down to it. I’m starting to think that the curse is one of those stories that someone made up circa the 1970s – there’re many such stories floating around in the realm of Chicago ghostlore. Most of them are going in the book anyway – people would throw a fit if we left a couple of them out – but we try to flag the stories that we have our doubts on.

However, in my digging, I DID run across this terrific picture of Cap Streeter’s funeral, with his plug hat resting on the coffin:

Snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn

There’s an early 20s slang term I’ve been trying to revive: snugglepupping. It was coined, as far as anyone knows, right here in Chicago, down at the courthouse on Hubbard and Dearborn, by one Miss Lillian Collier.

Here’s Lillian on the right:

Lillian was a teenage flapper when she moved to Chicago, determined to turn the residents of this “hick town” (as she called it) on to high art and convert them to the “gospel of real life.” She ran a “tea shop” at the corner of Ohio and Michigan (where the Eddie Bauer is now, i believe) called The Wind Blew Inn. The strange poetry readings and Greek nude statues made the place a notorious bohemian dive.

But it was rumors of “petting parties” that got Lillian in trouble. One day, the cops raided the place and arrested everyone. Lillian was forced to cover up the statues’ hoo-hoos.

On trial, Lillian testified that “there is no snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn.” Snugglepupping is about like regular snuggling, but more illicit. The judge (get this) sentenced her to read a book of fairy tales to cure her of bohemianism. The Wind Blew Inn was torched a few months later. She re-opened another place, but it flopped.

A few years later, Lillian gave an interview claiming that flappers were the “modern woman” and represented a future in which women would enjoy much more freedom; the article reads like an early feminist manifesto. After that, though, she disappears from the record altogether. I’ve found a few people with her same name – a poet in Canada, a socialite who married an Olympic fencer – but not that I think I are her. The fact that her name was spelled a few different ways (Collier, Kelly, Collee, etc) makes it doubly hard.   (update: we found some more in 2014)