The Deconstruction of 110 N. Wacker Dr.

I spent a few hours in downtown Chicago on Thursday, and as I was headed toward Union Station to come home, I crossed Wacker Dr. at Washington St. Once upon a time, Morton Salt had its headquarters at 110 N. Wacker on that corner. In fact, the company had a five-story international-style building built for itself in the late 1950s, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White.

By the time I spent much time in the neighborhood — my office was in the Civic Opera Building next door from 2000 to ’05 — Morton Salt had left and General Growth Properties occupied the building. GGP is a REIT that owns malls. Lately that company  left the property too, and here is what I saw today.

If I’d had more time, I might have captured some other angles. The building, which I always thought bland and colorless, has long been dwarfed by taller buildings on Wacker Dr. Soon a 51-story structure will be rising on the site.

Not quite all of the old building is going away. According to the Tribune, “In an unusual deal, the demolished building’s stainless steel panels — an example of Mid-Century Modern architecture, found around the building’s windows — will be preserved in the new tower.”

Gatsby Moving Rubber

So far I haven’t bothered much with grocery store snapshots, as amusing as the labels can be. But not long ago I was in a small, mostly Japanese grocery store in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and I saw something I’d never heard of before.

That’s a great example of a Japanese product’s English name. You think about it for a while, asking yourself, why did the makers pick that name? You think some more and ah ha! No… it made some kind of sense for a moment, and then it didn’t.

According to the product’s English-version web site, “Gatsby” is explicitly after the fictional character. Hair oil for wistfully dreaming of lost loves, I guess.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy

WGN said this morning: “Periods of rain and thundery downpours are to persist into Tuesday evening, maintaining a flood threat across the entire metro area.” Just what we need.

“Chicago lies on the warm side of a front extending from the southern Plains, to lower Michigan. Unseasonable, moisture-rich Gulf air is being focused along this boundary which separates polar air from unusual warmth, more typical of late April. The ground is frozen and where it has melted, soils are saturated.” Yep.

Regrets, I’ve had a few. Here’s one: I could have seen Cab Calloway live. He was still performing in the 1980s, with more vigor than anyone over 80 can expect to have.
But I didn’t seek him out. I’ve got no excuse.

Sometimes, you do the next best thing. I thought of that on Sunday evening when Ann and I went to see Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at the Old Town School of Folk Music in the city. At one point, frontman Scotty Morris and his hoppin’ band did a cover of “Minnie the Moocher.” It wasn’t Cab, it couldn’t be, but it was a gas.

The whole show was a gas: rousing swing revival tunes by enormously talented musicians who’ve been playing together for decades. Loud but not too loud, brassy but leavened by strings, as much of a righteous riff as I’m ever likely to reap. It might be the 21st century, but they’re the cats shall hep ya, even so.

Morris, in his suit and tie and what must be his trademark fedora, sang and alternately picked guitar and banjo, and did a little patter for the audience. Not too much, but he included the fact that the band has been together for 25 years this year.

“Twenty-five years ago, the most famous band in the world was Nirvana,” he said. “I think they had four hit songs that year. So I figured that was the perfect time to start a swing band.”

According to the band’s web site, it “was named Big Bad Voodoo Daddy after Scotty met Texas blues guitar legend Albert Collins at one of the latter’s concerts. ‘He signed my poster “To Scotty, the big bad voodoo daddy.” I thought it was the greatest name I had ever heard on one of the greatest musical nights of my life.’ ”

Morris and eight other men took to the stage and made the music come alive via trumpet, all manor of sax, clarinet, trombone, double bass, keyboard, drums and more, playing and jumping and swinging, while their instruments reflected the variable colored spotlights of the venue. Smoke and the clink of glasses would have added to the ambiance, but we don’t get those in the 21st century (or even earlier: the difference between Preservation Hall in 1981 and 1989 was smoke).

BBVD did an energetic mix of swing standards — “Minnie” with all the call-response Hi-De-Ho you could shake a stick at, but also “Diga Diga Doo,” “Mambo Swing,” “The Jumpin’ Jive,” and “I Wan’na Be like You” — along with tunes of their own. Neo-swing, you might call those, or the commonly used term, electroswing.

Such as “Why Me?”

The video is fun, and I like the recorded version, but it isn’t as much fun as the live version. I suspect it’s their biggest hit, if you can call it that, because they did it during the encore.

Though BBVD has always been a touring band, I think they were also promoting their latest record on this tour, Louie, Louie, Louie. Record indeed, since vinyl copies were for sale in the lobby.

Named, according to Morris, after the three Louies: Armstrong, Jordan and Prima. “We stole a lot from them,” he said. Well, sure. They stole from the best and made it their own.

The Philadelphia Story

We all went to see The Philadelphia Story on Sunday at the movie theater of a nearby mall — a special showing, just like Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Casablanca recently. Oddly enough, Ann suggested we see it. And she wants to see next month’s showing, Vertigo.

That, I told her, is a very different movie from The Philadelphia Story. Truth is, I’ve forgotten most of the details of Vertigo. I’ve only seen it once, in the summer of ’81, and I wasn’t entirely taken with it. I might think differently now. Or not. Guess I’ll find out.

As for The Philadelphia Story, it was as charming as ever. Think this was my third viewing. After it was over — and after Ann discussed the structure of the movie, with some astuteness beyond her years — it occurred to me that “love triangle” isn’t an apt term for the story.

Better would be a love triskelion, with Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) as the focus, and the three men, Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and the stiff and put-upon George Kittredge (John Howard), all connected to her for different reasons.

When I got home, I looked up Virginia Weidler, who memorably played the bubbly younger sister, Dinah Lord. I figured she might be the only named member of the cast to still be alive. But no, she died in 1968 at only 41. Seems that Ruth Hussey survived the longest, dying in her 90s in 2005.

Of course there’s a lot of witty banter in the movie. My favorite line — which I didn’t remember from previous viewings, though I don’t know why not — was by Uncle Willie (Roland Young). Dexter had suggested going off for some of the hair of the dog that bit them. Uncle Willie thinks that’s a fine idea:

“C’malong, Dexter, I know a formula that’s said to pop the pennies off the eyelids of dead Irishmen.”

Presidential Real Estate

“Presidents Day” weekend has rolled around again. Late last week I managed to make professional use of my slight knowledge of the presidency — or more exactly, the various U.S. presidents — to write an article about a selection of their houses. The final title: “The Fabulous Real Estate (And A Few Modest Digs) Of Past Presidents.”

It was a fun article to write. I didn’t want to make it overly long, so of course most of the presidents were left out. But I did have a nice selection from different eras: Madison, Jackson, Van Buren, Wm. Henry Harrison, Lincoln, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Hoover and Lyndon Johnson.

My sources included my own visits in some cases, online information, and two books that I own. One is the bare-bones Presidents, subtitled “Birthplaces, Homes, and Burial Sites,” by Rachel M. Kochman. I can’t quite remember where I got, but it’s the kind of book that sells in national park or national monument or national historic site bookstores. Acquired sometime in the late 1990s probably, since it’s the 1996 edition, with the most recent president covered being Bill Clinton.

Bare bones because while extensively illustrated, all the photos and drawings are black and white. That’s no problem, really, but it’s set in an ugly sans serif. That makes what should be a browsing book less pleasant to browse. Still, the book includes a lot of information on presidential sites.

I also have a coffee table book called Homes of the Presidents by Bill Harris, 1997, so it too ends with Clinton. A remainder table find. The text is a little uneven, but not bad. The pictures are the thing, of course, and they are well selected.

Mid-February Natterings

Remarkably foggy day Thursday.
Above freezing, too, reducing the snow cover and making random puddles.

Reading a book about Lincoln’s assassination puts me in a counterfactural frame of mind. Not so much What If Lincoln Lived — a lot of consideration has been given to that — but what would have happened to Booth had he capped his murderous impulse that day, and not gone through with it? What would have happened to him?

I picture him living into the early 20th century, since he was only in his mid-20s in 1865, a star of the American and European stage in the pre-movie years, so he was mostly forgotten by later generations. He did have a small part as an elderly wise man at the court of Cyrus the Great in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (but nothing in The Birth of a Nation, which was never made). Also, one of Booth’s sons founded Booth Studios in the early 1900s, which was later acquired by MGM.

In his memoir, published in 1899, Booth confessed that he had a strong impulse to murder Lincoln right at the end of the war, and was glad he never acted on it.

Got a form letter from the chancellor of the University of Illinois the other day. Let’s call it a worrywart letter. It seems that the public houses in old Champaign-Urbana are encouraging students, perhaps tacitly, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in a blotto state of mind. The university frowns on such goings-on and wants me to know it will do what it can to educate the students about the perils of demon rum. Or more likely in this context, whisky.

Not that alcohol isn’t a form of poison, with risks. I expect that a handful of students manage to off themselves across the years under its influence, mostly via reckless driving. But do I need a form letter about this?

Space Oddity

I found out that pictures of the Roadster in Space were put into the public domain, and I couldn’t resist.

Wired reported: “SpaceX revealed last weekend that a mannequin wearing the company’s new spacesuit would ride in the driver’s seat of the electric sports car. Nicknamed Starman, the dummy will listen to some tunes on its long and endless journey: David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity.’ ”

I watched the Falcon Heavy launch on my computer after the fact, as one does these days. Aside from the fact that it didn’t explode on the pad, the remarkable thing was the robust cheering from the crowd at launch.

Did Mr. Musk hire a cheering section? Probably not, but it’s a fun thought. Compare with the launch of Apollo 11 — you can hear faint cheering briefly right after liftoff. Maybe the microphones weren’t in position to get much crowd reaction in 1969.

An aside: Jack King, who announced the Apollo 11 liftoff, died only in 2015.

I Promise to Put Hooligans in the Hoosegow

With the Illinois primary only a month or so away, the political ad postcards are rolling in. Very many of them promise to “put criminals behind bars,” as if the candidates would pick them up like Underdog and drop them off in prison without a hint of due process.

Policy considerations aside, the term “criminals behind bars” shows a serious lack of imagination. While I was shoveling snow the other day — and this is the kind of thing I sometimes think of when doing that — I started a little list of synonyms for that tired old phrase. English is such a rich grab bag of words.

Criminals behind bars, or:

Felons in the slammer
Crooks in the pen
Thugs up the river
Blackguards in the stoney lonesome
Outlaws in the jug
Robbers in the lockup
Banditos in the cooler
Perps in the pokey
Hooligans in the hoosegow
Gangsters in the big house
Lawbreakers in the joint
Miscreants in the clink
Convicts inside
Malefactors in the correctional facility
Cons in the brig
Hoods in the bridewell
Delinquents in juvie
Desperados in stir
Culprits in quod

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

On Friday morning, I noticed that I could have watched the opening ceremony to the Winter Olympics via live streaming if I’d gotten up at 5 a.m. Ha, ha. I was busy about then enjoying a dream about something or other. Then I forgot to watch any of the replay on regular TV, maybe because NBC’s treatment is always tiresome.

Considering that today is Lincoln’s birthday, it’s fitting that I picked up a book about him — partly about him — on Saturday at a resale shop, and started reading it as soon as I got home. But I wasn’t thinking about that coincidence when I bought the book. It didn’t occur to me until this morning.

The book is Manhunt, subtitled “The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” by James L. Swanson (2006). I liked it from the beginning, namely “A Note to the Reader,” on page viii.

“This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic. Indeed, all text appearing within quotation marks comes from original sources: letters, manuscripts, affidavits, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books, memoirs, and other documents. What happened in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1865, and in the swamps and rivers, and the forests and fields, of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have ever been made up.”

In a case like this, I’d guess a surfeit of information and sources would be the writer’s challenge, rather than missing puzzle pieces. Among 19th-century crimes, Lincoln’s murder might well be the best documented.

So far Swanson seems up to the challenge. Even though I know a fair amount of the story, and have read other books about the assassination (e.g., The Day Lincoln Was Shot by James Bishop), Manhunt is a page-turner. I spent a fair amount of Saturday night and Sunday morning turning those pages.

Though the book hews close to the facts, that doesn’t keep Swanson from occasional interesting counterfactual musings. Such as a paragraph about what might have happened had Booth’s shot missed — his derringer had only one shot, after all.

“Had Booth missed, Lincoln could have risen from his chair to confront the assassin. At that moment, the president, cornered, with not only his own life in danger but also Mary’s, would almost certainly have fought back. If he did, Booth would have found himself outmatched, facing not kindly Father Abraham, but the aroused fury of the Mississippi River flatboatman who fought off a gang of murderous river pirates in the dead of night, the champion wrestler who, years before, humbled the Clary’s Grove boys in New Salem in a still legendary match, or even the fifty-six-year-old president who could still pick up a long, splitting-axe by his fingertips, raise it, extend his arm out parallel with the ground, and suspend the axe in midair. Lincoln could have choked the life out of the five-foot-eight-inch, 150-pound thespian, or wrestled him over the side of the box, launching Booth on a crippling dive to the stage almost twelve feet below.”

Also intriguing are the walk-on characters. Walk-on from the point of view of the main story, since no one is a walk-on in his or her own life. Such as “John Peanut,” the man — or teen — who worked as a menial at Ford’s Theatre and who held John Wilkes Booth’s horse in the alley behind the theater while the actor went off to become an assassin. Booth had asked Ford’s Theatre carpenter Ned Spangler to do so, but he fobbed the job off on “John Peanut,” who might have been named John or Joseph Burroughs or Burrows.

A little more information about this person is here, for what it’s worth. A Lincoln assassination buff named Roger Norton says, “I believe the best Lincoln assassination researchers in the world tried to find out what became of him, but nobody could succeed. The trail ends with his appearance at the trial. Mike Kauffman has suggested that his name was actually Borrows (sp?). Nobody knows his exact age in 1865 as far as I know, but ‘teens’ is a logical assumption.”

So there’s plenty in Manhunt to keep me interested. It’s become an express train blowing by the other books I’m reading at the moment: Trotsky: Fate of a Revolutionary, The Crossing (Cormac McCarthy) and a collection of Orwell’s essays, which is a re-read after a few decades.

Dog in Snow

Sure enough, a lot of snow fell Thursday night into Friday morning. Maybe a foot. But it was no blizzard, and no big deal. Even the side street on which I live was cleared by Friday afternoon. A little more of the same fell Saturday morning and then much more on Sunday morning. More shoveling and that was cleared too.

For the dog, this much snow means romping around in the back yard.

Every time it snows this much, a truck comes to clear the blacktop next to the school behind the house. Why this was necessary Friday, when school was cancelled, I don’t know, but anyway the dog rushes to the back fence to bark at it. And then along the fence as it drives nearby.

From the point of view of the dog, this must be effective. The truck goes away before long.