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“Remember that MGM musical with Judy Garland and Van Johnson working in a music shop on Wabash?” said Lois Weisberg, head of the Department of Cultural Affairs, to Brad Thacker one day in April. “Isn’t it called Good Old Summertime? They sing from sheet music, don’t they? We should celebrate that.”

She knew she had a receptive audience. Thacker, a project administrator at the DCA, has been collecting sheet music from the 1930s and ’40s–flyer-size pop scores arranged mostly for piano and voice–since 1984, when he mounted a dinner theater revue called Sentimental Journey in Bloomington, Illinois. “It took me a while to find an original,” he says of the title song, “one that has Doris Day on the cover.” Since then, he’s bought some 800 music sheets at “rummage sales, estate auctions, you name it. The fun is in the search. I seldom go on eBay, however. I want to touch the sheets, inspect the cover art, hum the music.”

Thacker, a native of downstate Pontiac, says, “My dad had wanted to be a singer but ended up a prison engineer. So he had us kids listening to 78s of Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Jo Stafford, and he’d sing along.” His grandmother–“an Auntie Mame type who crooned just about everything”–was another early influence. “She introduced me to Meet Me in St. Louis, bless her.”

Last month, after hatching the idea for an exhibit with Weisberg, Thacker took a quarter of his collection out of the “big old trunks” he keeps it in and lent it to the show, which is part of the citywide, summerlong “Music Everywhere” program.

The gallery across Randolph from the Cultural Center was vacant after “Here Is New York,” a touring show of photographs from September 11, packed up in March, but the long overhead wires from which the photographs had hung were still in place. Thacker decorated the gallery as a parlor, complete with player piano and period furniture, and hung the sheet music from the wires. To supplement his own contributions, Thacker asked several other collectors to participate, including Tim Samuelson, the city’s recently appointed cultural historian.

Most of Samuelson’s pieces document Chicago’s music history. “During the 1910s and ’20s,” he says, “Randolph between Dearborn and Clark was the local Tin Pan Alley. You could hear music spilling out of every building. Publishers sold their sheets in shops on Wabash, and ‘song pluggers’ like Garland and Johnson in the movie sang for interested customers, trying out the wares, so to speak.”

Back then music sheets had elaborate covers that often featured a portrait of the composer or the performer who’d made the song famous. “The practice started before the Civil War,” says Samuelson. “During that war, the industry got a boost from songs about battles and patriotism.” Stephen Foster made (then lost) a fortune through sales of his popular tunes. (One of Samuelson’s prized possessions is a fragile sheet of Foster’s “Nellie Was a Lady.”) Decades later Irving Berlin and Cole Porter profited from sheets that bore their names and images, and star singers got a cut for similar endorsements. Since the 40s, however, sheet music has become less and less of a cultural force, and the art has declined as a result. “Blue cover with the title is what we get these days,” sighs Thacker.

Thacker and Samuelson keep their most precious sheets wrapped in acid-free sleeves and they seldom touch them. The ones on display are protected like old masters. But some less valuable copies are out on a table for perusal. “One was ‘In the Good Old Summertime,’ the movie’s title song,” Thacker says. “I bought it on eBay. Then it was gone, stolen.” He can sympathize with the urge, though. “I open my trunks sometimes to look at mine the way people linger over vintage family photos. Let’s face it, sheet music is all about nostalgia.”

“Good Old Summertime: Music by Request” runs through late September at the Chicago Tourism Center, 72 E. Randolph, in conjunction with “Matinee Idols and Movie Queens,” an exhibit of Beatrice Socoloff’s oil portraits of Hollywood legends. It’s free; hours are 11 to 6 daily, with live performances every day between 11:30 and 2:30 by Audrey Morris, Joe Vito, and other local pianists. Call 312-744-6630.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.