Breaking Away

The Chicago film industry may be in lousy health–with the economy in the dumps and so much of the work going to Toronto–but from a distance it looks terrific. Any business that can support two slick trade magazines must be booming.

We’ll see how long the illusion lasts. The new magazine, Chicago Imaging & Sound, was founded by alumni of the old magazine, Screen, who thought Screen was dead and they could build from its ashes. They underestimated Screen’s publisher, Ruth Ratny.

When I looked in on her last March her prospects seemed hopeless. Commercial making in Chicago had virtually disappeared thanks to a long actors’ strike; she’d cut back publication of Screen–which she’d launched in 1979 as a newsletter–from weekly to biweekly; she was laying off employees; and she sounded more than ready to get out. “I run a small trade publication for a shrinking industry in a city that ranks maybe fourth or fifth in the U.S., and we’ve been struggling to keep this industry alive for years,” she told me. “Would I sell this magazine if I had an offer? Yes.”

On top of everything else, Ratny, who’s in her early 70s, still hadn’t recovered from a fall last autumn into the elevator shaft of her brownstone on West Erie. There was only one good reason to believe she might stick it out–friends said she was too ornery to quit.

And she didn’t. But Michael Lundbom, a trade-magazine veteran, believed Ratny was history when he began raising money for Chicago Imaging & Sound and pulling together a staff. Lundbom had worked for Ratny and had discussed buying the magazine from her, and he was still listed on Screen’s masthead as “special projects manager.” He thought he knew her mind. Lundbom recruited Jane Burek, who’d written a column for Ratny until she quit last December, and reporter Lisa Hemminger, who left at the same time. “In December Ruth told everybody, ‘That’s it, folks. The show’s over,'” Burek recalls. “So I really thought the show was over.” Lundbom also signed up reporter Carl Kozlowski, who stuck with Ratny until she laid him off in March.

Kozlowski is a stand-up comedian on the side, and Hemminger is a poet who hosts Yammer Zone, an evening of spoken-word performance art every Wednesday at the Joy-Blue bar. That’s why Lundbom named Burek editor. “The only one who could really devote herself full-time is Jane,” he says.

For her part, Burek has a script she’d like to sell to Hollywood, but she put that ambition aside. “Let’s just say I’m quite devoted to my current position, and it’s very consuming in a positive way,” she says. “We are all really interested in our jobs these days because we all have a stake in it. It’s nice being at a job where what you say matters.”

Also a biweekly, Chicago Imaging & Sound began publishing in August. In mid-September, Lewis Lazare wrote a column for the Sun-Times that made it sound as if Ratny had finally folded her tent. Screen’s fate was “unclear,” he reported, as “calls to the magazine office were met with a message that indicated the phone had been disconnected. No forwarding number was provided.” Lazare talked to a couple of Screen contributors who said they had no idea what was going on. One writer said Ratny owed him for two articles.

Lazare’s column “caused us an enormous amount of dislocation and grief,” Ratny says. She devoted her next column in Screen to setting the record straight. “In the midst of our national tragedy while we, like all of you, were coping with the terrorist attacks, our phones were killed due to a compounding of goofs by our service provider,” she wrote. “Somehow, a newspaper advertising columnist, who has assiduously avoided any mention of us in the past, caught wind of this and, to paraphrase Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated the news of our demise.” She’d finally connected with Lazare, but too late to stop his column.

“SO LET ME ASSURE YOU, AS WE ASSURED HIM,” she went on in capital letters, “WE ARE STILL IN BUSINESS.” And that’s despite “telephone screw-ups, clone publications that pose as SCREEN, recessions, labor strikes, and all the other routine challenges of running a small business….I survived a fall down the elevator shaft, didn’t I?”

Lazare promptly announced at the top of his next column that Ratny was still publishing. But he went on to say that putting out Screen “isn’t going to get any easier with the launch of a new competitor,” and the rest of the column was devoted to Chicago Imaging & Sound. Lazare reported that it was aimed at Screen’s audience but would offer more regional coverage. Says Burek, “We go beyond the boundaries of Chicago, because it seemed that for Chicago production companies to be healthy and strong they have to go beyond the borders of Chicago.”

Lundbom adds, “I think we’re broader. We open the pages up to a lot of perspective and opinion–we have a column called ‘Other Voices.’ We’re really kind of a forum. We invite other people to speak out through our magazine.”

No one’s more pleased to see two magazines banging heads than Ron Ver Kuilen, managing director of the Illinois Film Office. “Can this community support two magazines of the same ilk?” he wonders. “My feeling is, absolutely. People have just got to open their wallets a little and support them.” Ver Kuilen observes that “two magazines going out and showcasing our markets make us look bigger”–bigger than the industry actually is. He hopes perception will dictate reality.

But he wishes Chicago Imaging & Sound were a little more different from Screen. “Ruth calls it a clone, and it is kind of a clone, even in the want ads and things like that. I think it would be in their best interests to break away from the model and find their own niche, their own look and format. They’ve written nice stories. People take them seriously.”

If only one magazine can make it, “you’ve got to go with the incumbent,” he says. “Ruth has been there 20 years.” I remind him that just a few months ago she was talking about getting out. “She’s been talking about it for five to eight years,” he says. “Her magazine’s still good. It’s a nice piece of work.”

City on the Makeover

Sometimes a piece of writing is so fine that just reading it isn’t enough. When you’re done you want to lay claim to it somehow, by reviewing it, by teaching it, by adopting the outlook of the author–whatever it takes to assert proprietorship. Two Chicago educators just took that impulse to its limit: after years of tilling the rich earth that is Chicago: City on the Make, they’ve added their bylines to Nelson Algren’s.

The names of David Schmittgens and Bill Savage are modestly placed on the back cover of their annotated edition of Algren’s prose poem, which was recently published by the University of Chicago Press. “There’s a big difference between annotating something and writing something,” says Schmittgens. Savage adds, “Our editor apologized because our names are on the back. Our names belonged on the back. But every time I see it in the bookstore I want to grab somebody and say, ‘Here! Buy this!’ even though we got paid a flat rate and don’t get a percentage.”

Flat rate?

“Six figures, if you count the two to the right of the decimal point. No, five figures if you count the two to the right of the decimal point. You don’t do this kind of thing for money. You do it for the love of Chicago.”

Schmittgens, who teaches City on the Make at Saint Ignatius College Prep (my daughter’s in his class), started annotating Algren’s book a few years ago for students bewildered by some of the things Algren was talking about. After all, it’s been half a century since a version of the book appeared in an all-Chicago issue of Holiday magazine. “I don’t think everyone knows who Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John were,” says Schmittgens, adding that a surprising number of his students do.

Savage–who enjoys a modest celebrity among his students as the brother of the Reader’s syndicated sex-advice columnist, Dan Savage–teaches City on the Make at Northwestern University. Four years ago a student of his mentioned finding a Web site with notes on the book. Savage investigated the site, and it turned out the notes were Schmittgens’s. That’s how they met. A couple of years ago Schmittgens began working on an annotated edition, and when he saw how big a job it would be he asked Savage to help him.

“Chicago wanted to keep the price low, so we had a word limit,” says Savage. “The hardest thing I had to write in my life was one paragraph on the Haymarket riot. It took days. How do you boil that mess”–labor turmoil, violent death, public hysteria, flagrant injustice, a governor who ruined his career trying to correct injustice–“down to five or six sentences?”

Schmittgens keeps copies of the October 1951 issue of Holiday. It’s a remarkable historical document. Carl Sandburg wrote the introduction; Irv Kupcinet contributed a piece on nightlife, “Babes and Blues”; Robert M. Hutchins touted his own University of Chicago in “Battlefield of Learning”; and Robert R. McCormick, the Colonel, the publisher of the Tribune, contributed an essay that began, “Chicago is, and has been since its beginning, the center of Americanism in the United States.”

Then there was Algren’s dark piece, which Schmittgens says wasn’t what the editors of Holiday had in mind. The differences between what Holiday published and Algren’s text as it would soon appear in book form suggest that Holiday’s editors rolled up their sleeves and whacked away.

For example, the book says, “Town of the great international clowns, where the transcontinental Barnum-and-Bailey buffoons stand on their heads for a picture on the sports page, a round of applause, a wardful of votes, a dividend or a friendly smile: Big Bill Thompson, King Levinsky, Yellow Kid Weil, Gorgeous George, Sewell Avery, Elizabeth Dilling, Joe Beauharnais, Sam Insull, Botsy Connors, Shipwreck Kelly, The Great I Am, and Oliver J. Dragon. And, of course, the Only-One-on-Earth, the inventor of modern warfare, our very own dime-store Napoleon, Colonel McGooseneck.”

If nothing else, it’s a passage that begs to be annotated. Imagine the consternation as Holiday’s Philadelphia editors read through this list, and then their horror as Algren closes with a snicker at Colonel McCormick. In the magazine, the corresponding passage concludes: “Big Bill Thompson, Shipwreck Kelly, Gorgeous George and all the rest.”

Schmittgens says the book got generally rave reviews. The Chicago Daily News critic, Van Allen Bradley, began: “By all means get a first edition of this book; it is certain to be a collector’s item. It is Nelson Algren’s vision of Chicago. Though it is a distorted one and has its imperfections, it nevertheless is a work of genius and absolutely the greatest piece of writing contemporary Chicago has produced.”

The Tribune reviewer disagreed. Accommodating the views of “Colonel McGooseneck” on spelling and most likely on literature too, Alfred C. Ames asserted, “This one is thoroly unpleasant, unlikely to please any who are not masochists….A more distorted, partial, unenviable slant was never taken by a man pretending to cover the Chicago story.”

News Bites

The Reader made the mistake of approaching Ruth Ratny about the possibility of taking her picture to illustrate the lead story in this column.

Ratny might simply have said no. She promptly faxed us a letter that said: “For the record, you do not have my permission to use the likeness of SCREEN magazine or any picture of Ruth L Ratny in connection with Michael Miner’s story.

“No quotes from Ruth L Ratny may be used other than that there is no comment other than the statement that was given to Mike Miner previously.

“For the record: SCREEN has been around for 22 years and we anticipate being around for many more, bigger and better than ever. Our ad revenues are up and subscriptions have increased. We continue to provide the market that we singularly forged in 1979 with the most pertinent and timely news to serve our loyal readership.”

She sent a copy of the letter to her attorney.

This is the force that Michael Lundbom is up against.

Last Sunday, under the headline “Real men are back,” the Sun-Times chose to reprint a giddy essay by columnist Elizabeth Nickson of Canada’s National Post. September 11 had summoned these men, said Nickson, and in her eyes they were standing tall. “It’s wonderful to see one sound swift decision after another. It is a vast relief to see men act on principle.”

Men–or possibly supermen? “We are experiencing some of the best boy-watching in my lifetime,” wrote Nickson, who allowed that she can’t bear to turn off her television. “These are the kind of men who, when they take a vow, are dead serious, and when they love something or someone, it’s forever. It is a wonderful, wonderful thing.” These are men, she explained, who’d been marginalized by the war against sexism. “The old-fashioned male–strong, principled, rational, faithful to one woman and one family–seemingly only perpetuated the old bad status quo. Public opinion vitiated against anything that smacked of the militarist male so hated by feminism.”

Who knows which impressed the Sun-Times more: Nickson’s vision of real men, or her only slightly less explicit vision of real women. The author, at any rate, is a lively writer who’s willing to sound a little silly, a quality missed by the Sun-Times’s Nietzschean headline but not by the original headline in the National Post, “Tuned in and turned on.”

Second thoughts on last week’s item about “beat down,” the black idiom for “ready to kick ass” that a Sun-Times editor going over Kup’s column a couple of weeks ago unilaterally changed to the nonsensical, in context, “beaten down.” A couple of Hot Type readers, one of them black, agreed with me that the editor should have asked Kup’s assistant, Stella Foster, what she intended. But they fault Foster, who’s black, for larding Kup’s column with language most readers–and editors, and probably Kup himself–wouldn’t understand.

I take their point. I didn’t know what “beat down” meant either.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe/Billy Logan.