The Greatest Magician of the Early 20th Century Wasn’t Houdini

A few months ago I was looking for vintage magic images to use in my collages. I stumbled upon wonderful posters for a magician named Howard Thurston. Well, you know how one things lead to another – I soon found myself engrossed in a superb book about said magician and the early history of magic in America. The Last Greatest Magician in the World by Jim Steinmeyer sheds light on the greatest magician of the early 20th century who essentially faded into oblivion. Unless you’re a magician, magic aficionado, or collector, you likely haven’t heard about this guy. Everybody has heard of Harry Houdini, but as Steinmeyer points out, while he was a great escape artist, Houdini wasn’t all that impressive when it came to card tricks and illusions. Thurston was five years older and four inches taller than his peer and oft adversary Houdini. Early Beginnings Born on July 20, 1869 in Columbus, Ohio, Thurston had four siblings – May (Myrtle) the eldest was born in 1865, followed by Charles, Howard, Harry (who figures prominently in this story), and William. Their father’s carriage business collapsed in 1873 and he subsequently tinkered with making a wide array of inventions, none of which were successful. Unable to support his family, his father had a mild nervous breakdown and started spending a lot of time at the corner saloon. By all accounts, he was a wretched and abusive father and husband who regularly beat his children and wife. Other than Harry, the only mention of the other siblings in the book is when Charles was murdered in February 1920 while working as a railroad detective in Columbus. The murderer escaped after pumping eight bullet holes into Charles’ back. When he was just 12, Thurston started earned money selling newspapers on trains between…

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Majestic and Delicious – Memories, Chicago Style

What started out as a blog solely about Wimpy restaurants morphed into a broader blog when I discovered the above photos. What a shame it would be to not write about the Shubert Theatre and other businesses captured in these great photos. Wimpy Restaurants Originally called Wimpy Grills, the Wimpy brand was incorporated on September 12, 1934 by Edward V. Gold, with its first location in Bloomington, Indiana. The name was inspired by the hamburger-loving character J. Wellington Wimpy from Popeye, created by E. C. Segar. Gold opened the first Chicago area restaurant in 1936, after opening grills in five other Midwestern cities. The restaurant on the Northeast corner of Randolph St. and Wabash Ave. was the 10th Wimpy Grill in Chicago and the 25th in the U.S. when it opened in 1940. I don’t know when the location opened on the northeast corner of Clark and Madison, but these photos date back to 1955 and 1958. I wonder how many people grabbed a bite at Wimpy or the Bamboo Inn before going to the renowned Blue Note Jazz Club next door!   In the 1950s, Gold closed most of the U.S. locations and expanded his operation to Europe, working with J. Lyons & Co., a British catering company. In 1967, he sold the European operations to Lyons, which had more than 1,500 restaurants at that time, while retaining the U.S. restaurants. United Business acquired the UK restaurants in July 1977 and in February 2007, Famous Brands, owner of the Wimpy franchise in South Africa bought out Wimpy UK. As of 2011, Famous Brands operated 509 Wimpy restaurants in South Africa, making it the largest Wimpy franchise. When Gold died in October 1977 at the age of 70, nine Wimpy restaurants in the Chicago area were still in business, including…

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Tribute to Pamela Smith Simpson – Creator of the Rawhide Sculptures

  Thanks to Lana, granddaughter of Pamela Smith Simpson, for solving the mystery about the Rawhide sculptures! I’m thankful she found my 2014 blog and contacted me. Lana sent me wonderful photos and information about her talented maternal grandmother, making this follow-up blog possible! A Brit and Londoner, Pamela was born August 6, 1932 and passed away April 6, 2017. She graduated from Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (now called Camberwell College of Arts) in 1952, with a degree in Sculpture and Design. At Camberwell, she won many awards, taught as a student assistant, and attained professorship at age 20! Several of her sculptures were in the art school garden, but were moved after the school transitioned to modernism. The family doesn’t know where these early sculptures currently reside. Pamela immigrated to the U.S. in 1954 after meeting and falling in love with her first husband, an American GI. She found work in commercial art and design, including at the Knickerbocker Toy Company, where she designed boxes for toys. After the marriage ended, she moved out west, settling in Simi Valley, California, not far from the movie studios. And that’s where she met and married Lana’s grandfather. Pamela had two daughters (one is Lana’s mother) and two grandchildren, one from each daughter. She was divorced from Lana’s grandfather, who is still living and remarried. The Famous Rawhide Sculptures Pamela was commissioned by the studio to create the Rawhide sculptures. The commission came about through a talent agency of sorts that helped businesses find artists for jobs, such as set design. The actors modeled for her, which must have been quite an experience for a young sculptor! I wonder how she felt being in such close proximity to Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood! These sessions are captured in the extraordinary photos…

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Get Your Skee-Ball On

Outdoor Skee Ball

When I was a kid, I was particularly good at Skee Ball. I remember one family vacation to N.J. to visit my Aunt Ella, stopping at some run-down arcade with Skee-Ball and rolling a high score. This talent continued through my teen years and early adulthood. When I visited NYC in the mid- to-late 1970s, I always made it a point to stop at the Playland at 1565 or 1580 Broadway and play Skee-Ball. As I recall, I accumulated enough tickets to win a metal Statue of Liberty souvenir. Back then, every neighborhood carnival seemed to have a few Skee-Ball lanes, but these dwindled over the years until you could no longer find them. Skee Ball was relegated to a a few old school game arcades and later to party venues like Chuck E. Cheese, GameWorks, Dave & Buster’s, and the like. The balls at GameWorks are made of cheap white plastic and simply don’t have the same “roll” as the originals or well-made new balls. Furthermore, one game costs four credits which is $1.00!

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That Great Street – Not State Street – Randolph, Once Upon a Time

Vivian Maier 1961 Chicago

  The summer after 8th grade, I went downtown a few times a week to take classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Young Artist’s Studio program. The photo silk screening class was in the Pakula building at 218 S. Wabash. The painting class was in a studio on the campus building behind the Art Institute. On occasion, I would shop at the Woolworth’s on State Street and the Stop & Shop at 16 W. Washington. When I was about 18, I summoned the courage to walk into an X-rated book store located on Dearborn at Randolph, if memory serves me right. I hightailed it out of there when a freaky guy in a trench coat leered at me. Perhaps he would have flashed me, or my vivid imagination got the better of me. I was fascinated by Randolph Street, in particular the block between State and Dearborn. It had a similar kind of sleazy charm as Times Square in the 1970s, albeit on a tiny scale. The photographs featured in this blog provided inspiration for businesses to include and a search for materials such as matchbooks, postcards, and menus. This ephemera offers a glimpse at a street that was once vibrant and thriving with an incredibly cool and eclectic array of businesses. Sadly, by the time I ventured downtown, most of these businesses were long gone or had lost their luster. I primarily researched businesses between State and Randolph, west to LaSalle. Of course the beautiful Chicago Cultural Center’s north lobby is on Randolph at Michigan.

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Creativity Rules in the Lives of These Renaissance Celebs

There have been many short articles about celebrities who also happen to dabble in the visual arts. But I have to say, with the risk of sounding like an art critic, that many of these folks are not very good visual artists. Come to think of it, some of them are considered mediocre at their primary pursuit – whether politics (guess who?) or acting, while others are considered pure genius. In either case, the best of their fine art would be considered the work of somewhat talented amateur hobbyists by anyone who is a trained fine artist or art critic. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is wonderful for anyone to pursue the visual arts – what I object to is when famous people who are art hacks gain renown for mediocre work simply because of their celebrity status. The purpose of this article is to shed light on a few special celebrities who have not been heralded as much for their visual art, but in my opinion, deserve to be. Viggo Mortensen This strikingly handsome actor who made many hearts melt as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is quite the Renaissance man. In 2002, Viggo Mortensen founded the Perceval Press to publish the works of little-known artists and authors. In addition to being a talented actor, Mortensen is a gifted photographer, painter, jazz musician, and poet. As far as I can ascertain, he is self-trained in the fine arts. This site has a lovely description of his visual art talents.

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Spectacular Moves in Winter Olympics Elicit Awe and Lead to Inevitable Injuries

As I watch some of the events in the 2014 Winter Olympics, I am amazed at the moves that these athletes attempt and master. Olympic events that are new additions, or relatively new, have spawned unbelievable feats of grace and athleticism, while other sports have progressed so much that one has to wonder if this generation of athletes is genetically modified. I find myself gasping at the jumps and lifts in pairs figure skating, and incredible flips and moves in events such as slopestyle skiing and snowboarding, aerial skiing, and snowboarding half-pipe. And let’s not forget the great speed in skeleton and luge and the brutal impact freestyle moguls must have on knees and other body parts. If you have been watching, you know that quite a few athletes have already been injured, while others have taken nasty spills, but seemingly are alright. Somehow I think that more than their egos are bruised.

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The Many Faces of NYC – Ever So Fleeting

It’s a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. That is what one of the many intriguing characters I met in NYC during my 10-day trip said about Chicago. I guess I feel the same way about NYC, but I have to say, it is easier to engage in discussion with people in the Big Apple. Everybody wants to tell you his or her story. This makes for great conversation and good memories, but is ever so fleeting. You could be talking to somebody really interesting on the subway … and a few seconds later, poof – they are gone without even a goodbye. John and Alfred How delighted I was upon returning from a day uptown on the first Monday of my stay, when my daughter said, “There’s John Lithgow with some other guy walking down the street in our direction.” Of course she always sees celebrities, including Hugh Jackman, who goes to her health club, but for me this was a treat. Turns out they were shooting scenes for Love is Strange starring Lithgow, Alfred Molina, and Marisa Tomei, who unfortunately was not in these scenes. This shoot literally took place half a block away from my daughter’s apartment. After we went back to her apartment, I dropped off my stuff and went back out to shoot pictures with the other gawkers gathered on Seventh Avenue. The actors seemed bemused by all of this and I got some good shots.

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Rockin’ Out with Bret Michaels at Frontier Days – No Kidding

When I told Jeff three weeks ago that I wanted to go see Bret Michaels at Frontier Days, an annual local festival in Arlington Heights, he was a bit dumbfounded. So was I, quite frankly, because my musical taste, while eclectic, is more closely aligned with the likes of Regina Spektor, The Lumineers, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground … you get the idea. In any case, I think I was curious because Bret Michaels is above all a gutsy survivor. Regardless of the cheesy Rock of Love with Bret Michaels reality show or how one feels about his music, it is undeniable that this guy is scrappy. So what if I was the lone person (with hubby in tow) out of 22,000 folks who wasn’t there that night to rock out, get drunk, and boogie down. I wanted to see firsthand this cool country cat who must have been blessed with nine lives. If you don’t know Michaels’ story, I urge you to read on. In addition to coping with juvenile diabetes, a series of life-threatening medical events turned Michaels’ life upside down starting in April 2010. On April 12, 2010, Michaels was admitted to the hospital with intense stomach pains that led to an emergency appendectomy. About 10 days later, Michaels was rushed to the hospital with an excruciating headache. Doctors discovered that he had suffered a massive subarachnoid hemorrhage – or cerebral aneurysm. Only 30 percent of patients survive such incidents and many are left with permanent deficits. Miraculously, just 2 weeks later, his neurosurgeon Joseph Zabramski of Barrow Neurosurgical Associates, announced that Michaels was indeed one of the lucky few to survive and he would make a full recovery. However, he wasn’t out of the woods yet.

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Matchbooks Strike Memories of Shuttered Windy City Businesses

This article is dedicated to Linda W., a generous collector who donated her entire matchbook collection to me after reading my previous blog on this subject: Matchbooks Spark The Unearthing of Long Forgotten Histories. The matches in this blog were selected from her collection – some for their visual appeal and others for the sagas that accompany the now shuttered establishments. I had no idea that Carson Pirie Scott had restaurants at O’Hare Airport until I looked at this matchbook. In fact, Carson Pirie Scott operated two restaurants at O’Hare Airport. They were both located in a building that connected Terminals 2 and 3. The formal restaurant, Seven Continents, was located on the building’s upper level and the casual cafeteria called the Tartan Tray was on the main level.

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