A round bald man spent the morning in a crouch, repeatedly inflating a bicycle tire that kept going flat before its rider could pedal 50 feet. The man was from the Schwinn History Center, the bicycle from 1894; both were part of a Chicago Historical Society effort to reinvent the past.
Some 30 people hovered all day long in front of the Hotel Florence in the historic Pullman district, participating in a production that launched the Historical Society into the age of docudrama. The recently opened exhibit “A City Comes of Age: Chicago in the 1890s” is the first in the society’s history to employ fictional video in a central role.
In the 1890s a million strangers arrived in Chicago–most by train–turning the city into the metropolis of what was then the west. With New York City not yet having incorporated all five boroughs, some Chicagoans hoped their city might become the most populated in the country. “A City Comes of Age” is one Chicago institution’s answer to the question of why so many other institutions were established during that heady decade.
The first part of the new exhibit offers six slices of Chicago life. Visitors enter by way of a mock railroad car and promptly sit down in front of a TV set. On the tube they see a contemporary scene taking place in front of the Hotel Florence. Two refrigerator deliverymen are arguing about who is doing the most work. When the fellow named McBride boasts of being “fourth generation refrigeration,” the scene shifts: suddenly that big red-brick Victorian hotel fades to black-and-white and we’re in 1890s Chicago, where great-grandfather McBride, a gabby iceman who feels secure knowing “people are always going to need ice,” introduces us to six characters who historians say typified life here a century ago: a German wood-carver, an Irish servant girl, a Polish meat trimmer, a black day laborer, an Italian newsboy-bootblack, and WASP industrialist George Pullman. On the way out of the railroad car, visitors pick up a card filled with fun facts about one of the six. Then they walk through a series of exhibits displaying, among other things, the work spaces of the six characters. After another encounter with the video image of Mr. McBride, it’s on to the Art Institute, the Columbian Exposition, and other “Visions of a Better Chicago.”
This McBride character was dreamed up by an ad agency and a video producer who figured an iceman would be a suitable guide because he might have come in contact with all strata of society. Historical researchers determined that icemen actually worked specific neighborhoods and were thus unlikely to encounter Italians, Poles, blacks, and George Pullman all in a day’s work, but the video producers reasoned that McBride could have known all these characters from having worked different routes in the past.
The use of video dramatization marks something of a turning point for the 134-year-old Historical Society. Through most of the electrified-icebox age, this was an elitist institution wallowing in the glorious past of chandeliers, ball gowns, and Mrs. Potter Palmer’s jewelry. The museum used the TV set occasionally, but mainly as a sideshow, relying on traditional documentary techniques to display artifacts. But in the 1980s, with nonprofit institutions struggling for an increasingly tiny sliver of the metropolitan attention span, the Historical Society started thinking about box office and rewrote its charter to include history for the masses. Half of the museum’s annual attendance–which has doubled to 200,000 since the 1988 reopening–are school kids on tours. To grab their attention, the curators of this new exhibit took the plunge into fictionalized video.
Society staffers feel they must embrace TV because it has become the culture’s main vehicle for learning, yet they worry about overdoing it in a place where artifacts have always spoken for themselves. Mary Janzen, assistant to Historical Society president Ellsworth Brown, says historical museums all over the country are trying to figure out how to communicate to their audiences without distorting the way things really were. Speaking to fellow archivists on this subject at a recent conference in Seattle, she noted the danger of audiovisual bombardment “interfering with the very experience that the museum alone can supply: providing a setting for the imagination to experience the ‘real things’ of history.”
“The power of video is such that it’s easy to misuse,” says Janzen; she adds, though, that its judicious use can help convey the story of history, especially to today’s nonreading audiences.
So what was it like making a video in the 1990s about what it was like in the 1890s? Slightly inconvenient for the patrons of the Hotel Florence restaurant, since nobody was allowed to exit through the front door. “Back in the 1990s,” an eyewitness may one day recall, “we did things over 14 times to get history right.” That century-old bicycle tire got pumped up 14 times. Two horses on leave from their night jobs pulling nostalgia buggies on the near north side moved a pair of rickety wagons forward and backward through 14 takes. The shoot gave new meaning to the old saw about history repeating itself.
Just before the cameras began rolling, executive producer John Davies (now an independent, he created Wild Chicago while at WTTW) looked over the set at a dozen people and two horses that would burst into action the second he gave the call. Turning to the fellow who would be in the frame as shooting began, he asked: “Could you do something with the horse, maybe stroke him? It looks like you’re waiting for a scene to begin.
“Hey, quiet on the porch, please!” Davies shouted to the
actors standing beneath the green canopy by the hotel’s locked front door. He had no such power over the traffic rumbling through the nearby intersection of 111th and Forrestville Street. The most he could do there was schedule the 1890s scenes between rush hours to minimize the intrusion of contemporary sounds like honking horns, screeching brakes, and the acceleration of Oldsmobile V-8s.
“How are you holding out Jim?” shouted producer Chris Mayer toward the bicycle starting line. She got a nod from Jim Hurd, the Schwinn man, and so began video reality’s eternally present tense:
A husband, wife, and child descend the hotel steps. The man gestures to a pair of workers who load the family’s baggage onto the wagon, then tips his hat to a woman sitting on a park bench as the first of two bicyclists passes. Meanwhile, the camera dollies in on a rail, stopping just short of the spot where the Knickerbocker Ice wagon pulls up, its back end filling part of the frame. The iceman, sporting 1890s garb and a handlebar mustache, walks on.
“Well, hello there,” says Joe Liss, a Second City-trained actor who prepared this guy-from-the-past schtick by watching Jimmy Cagney movies. A half dozen people stand just behind camera, acting as if some extraordinary act of nature is revealing itself to them for the first time. “McBride’s the name. Been delivering ice for 11 years…”
As if on cue, all eyes, including those of Liss and the other actors on the set, turn simultaneously toward 111th Street, where a flatbed truck badly in need of a muffler rumbles by. On the back, standing amid stacks of concrete forms, a fat white woman and a thin black man peer at the vans and the lights and the oddly costumed people in front of the Hotel Florence, unaware, no doubt, that they are watching history in the making.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tony Maine.