Song of Ourselves

Estella Johnson-Hunt has spent 14 years singing the praises of our fair city, and it has finally paid off. “Hail to Thee, Chicago,” a song she’s been working on since 1982, has become Chicago’s official anthem by proclamation of the City Council.

Now Johnson-Hunt is looking forward to the Democratic National Convention in late August, when her song may be performed by the Chicago Children’s Choir before millions of television viewers. For Johnson-Hunt, it could be a sweet payoff after years of dogged determination to get city officials to take note of her gripping tune.

It all started when former mayor Jane Byrne announced a contest to find an official song for Chicago. Johnson-Hunt, a Bellwood junior high teacher who had previously published a book of poems and recorded an album of gospel music, sat down and penned both the words and music for an early version of “Hail to Thee, Chicago.” But Byrne lost her reelection bid, and the contest was dropped by the new administration.

Yet Johnson-Hunt wouldn’t call it quits. “I kept writing letters and lobbying Harold Washington, trying to get more feedback,” she recalls. Eventually she received a polite, noncommittal letter from Washington that praised her song’s lyrics for being “so appropriate for our great city.”

In 1988 “Hail to Thee, Chicago” was substantially revised. Through her brother, Johnson-Hunt met composer John E. King, who offered to write a new melody for the lyrics. Not happy with his initial efforts, King went back to the piano and ultimately came up with the song’s upbeat melody.

Johnson-Hunt’s original lyrics did not go untouched either. She revised the words three times between 1982 and 1991. Her final lyrics must have stirred something deep inside the government officials: “From a hall on LaSalle Street, the mayor and council try / With the aldermen and -women, to keep this city alive.” She also pays tribute to big business and culture: “Your industries support us / Your museums and parks do sport us.” And Johnson-Hunt’s words offer her own sentimental assessment of the spell the city casts on its residents: “You’re called the Windy City, a mighty work of art! / Though your winds may chill our bones, you warm us in your heart.”

With her song in its polished form, Johnson-Hunt renewed her efforts to get the composition recognized by the city. This time she and her husband zeroed in on aldermen. Johnson-Hunt’s husband visited all the aldermanic field offices with letters and information about the song. “We got to know the aldermen and their assistants, and we started getting results,” says Johnson-Hunt. In particular, 15th Ward alderman Virgil Jones personally pushed for formal recognition of the song. Eventually 31 aldermen signed a petition to make “Hail to Thee, Chicago” the city’s anthem, and this year it became official.

A born promoter, Johnson-Hunt is looking to give her song the widest possible exposure. She intends to send copies to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Grant Park Symphony, and to every public school in the city. “I want them all to have it.” She has already produced a cassette tape and sheet music, and there’s also been talk of a compact disc and maybe even a music video.

Quasimodo Quibble

The new stage musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame being developed by Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals has hit a snag with the departure of director Susan Schulman, perhaps best known for her work on the Broadway musical The Secret Garden. Schulman was brought in to oversee a workshop production last March, but she evidently had creative differences with the musical’s composer, Dennis DeYoung, former singer in the rock band Styx. “Someone had to go, and in this case it was Susan,” says Leavitt, who wouldn’t say whether the search for a new director would delay the show’s opening, which was scheduled for next fall in Saint Louis. The musical, tentatively titled Q-Modo, was then supposed to travel to Chicago before heading for Broadway.

Drabinsky-Oriental Deal Stalled

Epeaking of snags: the city and Garth Drabinsky have suffered a setback in their plan to restore the Oriental Theater. The city is due in court later this month to get legal authorization to acquire the Oliver Building on Dearborn, adjacent to the Oriental. The city’s plans call for the Oriental’s stage to be extended into the space now occupied by the Oliver Building, but the Oliver’s owners have so far been unable to come to terms with the city on a price for the property. A City Hall spokesperson claims the court proceedings will not delay the project. But Drabinsky says construction and restoration will take 18 months once all the property has been acquired. Though he had initially talked about the Oriental reopening in early 1998, he’s now shooting for the fall of 1998. Among the shows under consideration for the Oriental’s reopening are Frank Galati’s staging of a new musical version of Ragtime and a Harold Prince musical called I Love a Parade.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Estella Johnson-Hunt by Armando Villa.