In his poem “Chicago,” Carl Sandburg wrote of our great city’s mirthful denizens, “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” This particular line of Sandburg’s rapturous ode came to mind as I watched the three short documentaries that comprise “Chicago Memories,” a program screening Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers.
Coproduced by Harvey Moshman and longtime Wild Chicago host Will Clinger, these short television documentaries, part of a series called Wild Chronicles, which dates from the 1990s to the early 2000s, are not only enjoyable; they illuminate the very idiosyncrasies that make the City of Big Shoulders worthy of being panegyrized both on the page and on the screen.
Who else was “alive and coarse” if not Chicago comedian Del Close? The aptly titled The Legend of Del Close (2000) is a concise portrait of the renowned eccentric, but, ironically, because Close’s peculiarities are widely known, this is perhaps the least enlightening of the three. Legend covers Close’s mysterious origins (it’s revealed that he faked his own death as a teenager); his contentious, albeit illustrious career; and, finally, his death and the party he threw at the hospital the day before. Much like the party, the segment is a star-studded affair: Bill Murray makes an appearance, as do Harold Ramis, Amy Poehler, and Dave Pasquesi, but Close—who is shown in old interviews and film and television clips—strikes the most formidable presence.
The recipient of a Midwest Emmy, Vanishing Act (1996) goes back to the days of vaudeville, when Chicago was second only to New York in terms of prestige. Clinger interviews several vaudeville stars who lived and worked in Chicago during that era, and their stories are fascinating. The subjects (among them singers, dancers, magicians, acrobats, talking-dog trainers, etc.) reflect the range of talents one typically found in vaudeville shows. Clinger also makes a point of featuring Black performers—Maceo Anderson of the Four Step Brothers is one such interviewee—and examines the problematic use of blackface within the practice.
My favorite of the three, Bleacher Bums: Rabid Fans Of Wrigley Field (1998), profiles storied Cubs fans. Clinger seeks out the original bums, though, as with the beginning of any great thing, there’s some dispute over who originated the fabled pastime. The episode is centered around the Cubs’ 1969 season, when the team came closest to winning the pennant than they had since 1908; the Bleacher Bums rose to prominence that year, as their antics made the team’s strong season seem that much more convivial. Above all, they helped to engender feelings of pride in our city, alive, coarse, strong, and cunning as it’s shown to be in all three of these “Chicago Memories.” v