Driving around the city on tours, there are a handful of Jawas (which is what Ken and I call the wandering junk mechants) that we see regularly – the most recognizable of the bunch is probably the one I call Fagin, a sleazy-looking gent who’s always trying to sell me a watch, necklace, or other such shiny thing. I just know the guy has a whole army of street urchins picking pockets for him.
But wandering performers and junk merchants are a dying breed in Chicago. The flute-playing guy who plays Star Wars music (and not just the main title, either; I’ve heard the guy bust into “Yoda’s Theme” and “Luke and Leia”) is far and away my favorite today, but none of them hold a candle to the late, great Chicken Man, alias Chicken Charlie, who was seen so often all over the city than people wondered if there were more than one of him. He’d show up at Bughouse Square, on Maxwell Street, on the El…everywhere.
His act was simple – he had a trained chicken that would ride around on his head. Sometimes the chicken would dance, and sometimes he’d have it walk across a tightrope. Decades after his prime he became a character in several Daniel Pinkwater books, including The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, my favorite book of all time, which also introduced me to two other nearly-forgotten Chicago landmarks: Bughouse Square and The Clark Theatre. I’ll cover those in other posts, of course.
Thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can now see The Chicken Man for yourself – it’s even stranger, and more wonderful, than I imagined it would be!
There’s also this one, which starts out with a minute or so of footage from another aspect of Chicago life that is lost and gone forever – Maxwell Street: