Skokie, as it is known today was incorporated as Niles Centre in 1888. Around 1910, the spelling was Americanized to Niles Center. A village-renaming campaign began in the 1930s and residents chose the Indian name Skokie over Devonshire in a November 15, 1940 referendum. Its population today hovers around 65,000, but it’s been higher. In the mid-1960s, 58% of the population was Jewish, the largest percentage of any Chicago suburb. An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 pf those residents were Holocaust survivors who started life anew after suffering immeasurable pain.
In a November 27, 1934 shootout dubbed the Battle of Barrington, infamous bank robber Baby Face Nelson and his gang killed two FBI agents. Nelson was severely injured and his body was brought to Winnetka where he died. According to history, his accomplices either dumped his bullet-riddled body at the north end of St. Paul Lutheran Church Cemetery on Harms Road or in a ditch adjacent to St. Peter Catholic Cemetery in downtown Skokie.
In 1977, a neo-Nazi group led by Frank Collin announced plans to march in Skokie. The news set off a rhetorical firestorm and residents filed a court order to prevent this on the grounds it would “incite or promote hatred against persons of Jewish faith or ancestry.” This Skokie controversy triggered a rare, remarkable moment in American history when citizens throughout the nation vigorously debated the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union represented the First Amendment rights of the neo-Nazi group. The Supreme Court ruling on June 14, 1977 stated the group could march wearing uniforms with swastikas under the constitutional protections of freedom of speech and assembly. Ultimately, they decided to march in Chicago, which was met by derision and little turnout. In the summer of 1978, in response to the Supreme Court decision, some Holocaust survivors set up a museum to commemorate those who died in concentration camps. The 1981 television film Skokie starring Danny Kaye, Eli Wallach, and Carl Reiner dramatized these events.
Skokie played an integral role in my education. I started nursery school at age 5 at the Niles Township JCC at 4017 Church Street and graduated from Niles West in January 1976. In between, I was schooled at Todd Hall, Rutledge Hall, and Lincoln Hall in Lincolnwood. I hated nursery school and remember holding on for dear life to the front screen door because I didn’t want to leave my mama. My only fond memory is drinking grape juice on Fridays. When we were naughty, the teachers locked us in a dark storage closet. This is not a false memory because it was corroborated by two childhood friends when we were much older.
When I was little, I always looked forward to my mom driving north on Cicero to Skokie Blvd, under the train track viaducts north of Howard, because I could see the high diving board at the old Oakton Park pool from the car. Jewel-Osco on the north side of Touhy at Laramie was our primary grocery store. We shopped frequently in downtown Skokie, Old Orchard, on Dempster Street and Main Street. My older sister went to her first dance lessons at a little studio on the south side of Main a few blocks west of Crawford. There was a small toy store in the same block as the dance studio and my mom bought me an odd toy while we were waiting for dance class to conclude. It was a magnetic board with colorful plastic faces and hats (with magnets) that you could rearrange on the board – I was about 3 years-old. This would definitely not be considered a safe toy by today’s standards! My dad ordered prescriptions at Musket and Hendrickson on the northeast corner of Main and Crawford, and he also loved a little independent hardware store on the northwest side of the street.
I could not believe my eyes when I found the above photo of Circus Vargas elephants marching down Oakton Street in 1975. Yes, that alone is a remarkable sight, but that’s not why. The blonde young man in the foreground is Mike Schiller, a Skokie resident and Niles West classmate who I thought was cute. In the background, you can see Wolke & Shack, which was a small, old-fashioned ma and pa department store. I remember their clothes were pretty dowdy and my mom preferred Crawford’s and Howard Juvenile.
My mom bought me a pair of rust-colored jeans at Rich’s Britches around 1975, which sold interesting but relatively expensive casual clothing. Amazingly, the store is still in business – in this picture, the R fell off Britches. I remember seeing this myself – hey, if Rich cared, you’d think this would have been quickly remedied. If I recall correctly, Rich’s elderly mother was born in France. You can see Spire shoes in the top photo, but we shopped at a shoe store (Shapiro’s?) located at 4335 Oakton, currently home to a Salvation Army Family Thrift Store, and a Tuesday Morning prior to that.
My favorite stores in downtown Skokie included Louise’s Gift House, Skokie Camera, Ben Franklin, Discount King and a very odd, tiny jewelry shop near Louise’s on Lincoln Avenue north of Oakton. It was nearly as narrow as a phone booth and sold funky hippy jewelry like slave rings and love beads. I’m thinking it was in business in the late 1960s to early 1970s because my older sister Debbie drove me there.
Debbie hung out at Desiree Restaurant with pals from Niles West Orchesis and theater, although I can’t say I ever ate there. My younger sister Janet, who was a cheerleader, also hung out there after Niles West football games. It was one of those classic, iconic corner coffee shops continuously disappearing from the American landscape. The white terracotta-clad building also housed Skokie Paint and offices on the second floor. Skokie Paint advertised selling artist supplies in the window. I actually decided to investigate this one day and found only a handful of acrylic paints and artist brushes. A Thai-American restaurant briefly occupied the Desiree space. After sitting vacant for several years, the somewhat decrepit building was demolished, however, nothing has been built on the site. Right across the street was a Walgreens, but I have no recollection of this.
Interestingly, the idyllic stretch of Lincoln looking north to St. Peter Catholic Church was used to depict the fictional town of Mayfield in the TV series Leave it to Beaver. This intriguing blog compared a screen capture from the episode with a photo from the Skokie Historical Society to drive the point home. The episode Beaver’s Fortune originally aired on December 5, 1959. In the 1970 photo above, it appears that the iconic First National Bank of Skokie clock from the “Leave it to Skokie” scene was removed.
I had no idea there were Sinclair gas stations in the Chicago area, much less downtown Skokie, but always loved their icon. Interestingly, Sinclair Oil sponsored a dinosaur exhibit at the Chicago Century of Progress World’s Fair (1933–1934), pointing out the now discredited correlation between the formation of petroleum deposits and dinosaurs. The exhibit of a two-ton animated model of a brontosaurus inspired a promotional line of rubber brontosaurs at Sinclair stations, and subsequent addition of Dino to their logo.
The downtown Skokie bakery in the above photo holds special memories, albeit not good ones. I already blogged about a date from hell in Cotton Candy Memories. The absolutely dreadful date at Great America culminated in a party later that night in an apartment above the bakery. I ended up kissing one of my date’s roommates on the roof above the Nunn Bush store. We went downstairs to the bakery at one point and he told me he was friends with the owner so I could take a loaf of bread. On top of finding out my date had gotten back together with his old girlfriend (that explained his horrible behavior), my entire family got queasy after eating the bread!
Hobbies and Toys
My dad and I spent a lot of money at Skokie Camera on our mutual photography hobby. I also have fond memories of going to Record City with my sister and later by myself when I could drive. Located at 4407 Oakton, Record City was owned by Jimmy Staggs (aka Jim Stagg). Staggs was an iconic WCFL Chicago disc jockey in the heyday of Top 40 radio. He accompanied The Beatles on their ‘64, ‘65 and ‘66 U.S. tours and interviewed scores of legendary musicians. Staggs opened additional Record City stores in Lake Zurich, Glenview, Northbrook, and two outlets in Orlando, Florida. The Lake Zurich store was the last one, closing in 2005. Staggs lost his battle with esophageal cancer in 2007, dying at his Lake Forest home at age 72.
One of my favorite five and dimes was across the street from Oakton Park. I believe it was called Alexander’s and they sold all sorts of penny candy and dime store merchandise. I bought many inexpensive little toys that I used in my artwork, as well as candy. I also clearly recall buying a Charlie’s Angels plastic pencil sharpener with a photo of Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, and Jaclyn Smith on one side. I remember asking the owner if I could buy the display from an empty gumball machine when the store was going out of business, but he declined. I was most intrigued by the vintage 1960s-era charms of JFK and a troll.
A super cool store called That Paper Place was on the southeast side of Dempster and Crawford, if I recall correctly. Their original location was in Old Town, but despite much sleuthing, I couldn’t find a single online reference to this shop. They sold funky paper lantern light fixtures, huge paper flower table centerpieces from Denmark, greeting cards, posters, and more.
Entertainment & Leisure
Fun Fair was located on the southeast corner of Skokie Boulevard and Golf Road. It was owned and operated by Dave Foley, Tom Foley, and John O’Brien from 1948-1968. Like Hollywood Kiddieland, a little red fire engine picked up birthday guests at home and delivered them to the amusement park. I believe I only went there once with my grandparents and parents as a toddler. In the above photo of me, you can clearly see the helicopter ride in the background.
Around 1905, before many of the large movie studios moved west to Hollywood, dozens of silent movies produced by the old Essanay Film Manufacturing Company were filmed in the heart of Niles Centre. In 1915, Samuel Meyer built the Niles Center Theater at 7924 Lincoln. In 1942, the building was remodeled and enlarged with its current Art Deco brown & white checkboard façade.
I cannot say for certain how many movies I saw at the Skokie Theater, but it sure was nice to have a quaint little movie theater nearby. In the last couple of decades, the Skokie Theatre closed and opened a number of times in different iterations. It became a mix of art/foreign films, second-run commercial fare, and Bollywood movies until it closed in the fall of 2004. In the spring of 2005, the theater was acquired by the Skokie Theatre Music Foundation (aka the Cavalcade of Music Foundation). It was converted into a 148-seat venue for various types of music concerts. It closed on December 31, 2011, reopening in April 2012 as the Skokie branch of Gorilla Tango Theatre. Since February 2014, MadKap Productions has operated the venue under the name Skokie Theatre with a wide range of events.
The Old Orchard Theatre was considered state-of-the-art when it opened in 1960 at 9400 Skokie Boulevard at Emerson. It closed in late 2000 and was demolished in March 2003. I clearly remember seeing Funny Girl at this theater with my parents, which turned me into a lifelong fan of Barbra Streisand.
Gabby Hartnett in Lincolnwood was our favorite bowling alley, although in high school, I remember going once or twice to a few Skokie bowling establishments. Orchard Twin Bowl was next door to the theater at 9444 Skokie Blvd. It was the site of the 1960 season of the “Championship Bowling” TV show and the 1964-65 Loyola Academy bowling team. All Star Lanes was located at 5200 Dempster and Fair Lanes Oakton Bowl was at 4833 Oakton, just west of the Skokie Swift tracks.
Way back in the 1920s, Niles Centre residents could bowl, play pool and miniature golf among other activities at the Niles Center Recreation Rooms at 8146 Floral Avenue. This was the village’s first bowling alley which endured for many decades as Skokie Lanes, Sadly, like so many other bowling alleys, it bit the dust several years ago.
Eateries and Libation
I never ate at Cock Robin, which was north of Oakton on Skokie Blvd, but it’s hard to forget that name and cool sign. My sister Debbie went there on a few dates and raved about their square ice cream cones and buttered hamburger buns. This was prior to her becoming a vegetarian at age 16, so must have been around 1968 to 1969.
One of our family favorites was Chances R which opened in 1961 in Old Town, and later in Skokie, Hyde Park, River Oaks, Palatine, Champaign and Boyne City, Michigan. They had delicious char-broiled hamburgers and of course, we loved the free bowls of peanuts and throwing the shells all over the floor. We frequented the Skokie location north of Old Orchard on Skokie Blvd, before the original Hackney’s on Harms in Glenview became our go-to family burger joint.
I have very vague memories of Mister Ricky’s at 9300 Skokie Blvd, however, I know it was my parents’ favorite Chicago-area deli. Before the Chicago-Main Newsstand in Evanston carried The New York Times, my dad picked up his Sunday copy at Mister Ricky’s. The young, dark-haired guy working the cash register was none other than Rich Melman. His dad Maurie decided on the name Mister Ricky’s, even though Melman claims he hated that nickname. Melman cut his teeth at his dad’s deli before launching his incredibly successful Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. He wanted to be promoted to a partner at Mister Ricky’s, but when his dad declined, Melman quit and opened R.J. Grunts with Jerry Orzoff. Of course, the rest is history!
The European-style Tower Garden Restaurant at 9925 Gross Point Rd was where my sister Debbie got married on September 3, 1978. I was her wedding photographer and the restaurant and outdoor garden provided a beautiful backdrop for photos. I should have gotten married there in June 1981 instead of the Orrington Hotel, which at the time was run-down and not yet renovated. Tower Garden has been Zhivago Restaurant & Banquets for a number of years and I ate dinner there once, likely in 2007.
Schaefer’s at 9965 Gross Point Rd is a longtime family favorite. Over 40 years or so, my dad spent thousands of dollars on wine and gourmet food at this wonderful store. We enjoyed going to their Saturday tastings for many years. George J. Schaefer Sr. opened a tavern named The Boundary on January 1, 1936. In the mid-1940s, the tavern was converted into a package store and renamed Schaefer’s Wines, Foods & Spirits. After George Sr. suffered a fatal heart attack in February 1959, his widow Eileen ran the business, with George Jr. coming on board in 1966. Four years later, George’s sister Gene Schaefer Flynn joined the family business. In 2008, George Jr. passed away, and the following year, Kenilworth businessman William Graham bought the legendary store, retaining all 25 employees and the Saturday tastings.
As I child, I loved going to Kaufman’s, because my mom bought me sprinkled butter cookies and kichel. At one time, Kaufman’s was the only store that carried Ba-Tampte mustard, which has a wonderful kick. I loved it so much I would smear it on a piece of Challah bread. For many years, Kaufman’s was divided into two sides – the bakery and deli. It is currently owned by Bette Dworkin, whose father bought the deli in the 1980s from Maury Kaufman, a Holocaust survivor who opened the deli in 1955. Major renovations to the interior, electrical, mechanical, and plumbing were necessitated by a November 2011 fire that created extensive damage. As a result, the current store is upscale and quite attractive, especially compared to the original. Although Kaufman’s prices are somewhat high, the quality of their deli meats is superb.
I already blogged about Jack’s, Elliott’s Pine Log, and Henry’s in my Lincolnwood and Matchbook blogs. The Henry’s in Skokie was adjacent to Fun Fair. My sister Janet worked at Buddy’s Deli on Church, part-time during high school and full-time for a short time, after graduating early. The below picture gallery includes a variety of Skokie restaurants and bars with no personal meaning, however, I’m certain these places are associated with special memories for many people. Barnum and Bagel, Bryan’s Fountain and Grill, The Cork, Edward’s, El Gaucho, Isbells Nautical Inn, Krier’s, The Pyrenees, Sky Rocket, and Wally’s Red Hots. The Cork was owned by Harold Sokol, WWII Purple Heart Veteran of the Pacific Campaign. Black and white Cork photos courtesy Eric Bronksy.
Old Orchard Center
Designed by Richard M. Bennett of Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett, Old Orchard was anchored by the 3-level, 370,000 square foot Marshall Field’s, which stood at the center of the mall. Marshall Field’s grand opening was on October 22, 1956. When the center opened three days later, retail shops included Baskin (men’s wear), Lerner Shops, Walgreen Drug, Mode Petite, Chandler’s Shoes, Baker’s, Kay Howard (ladies’ wear), Broadstreet’s (men’s wear), Burny Brothers Bakery, S.S. Kresge 5 & 10 and Kroger supermarket. The mall’s second anchor, a 2-level, 83,000 square foot store called The Fair, opened a week later. In early 1964, The Fair was rebranded by its parent company Montgomery Ward.
Marshall Field & Company holds the most memories for me, starting as an impressionable youngster. I loved their toy department and frequently found good bargains on high quality clothing. When I was about 5-years-old, my dad went down the escalator ahead of me, not realizing I was still at the top. I was scared to come down by myself and he was quite angry when he had to come back up to get me. About 5 years later, I was shopping again with my dad and we saw an elderly lady fall down on the moving escalator and her hose must have gotten caught in the mechanism. I’ll never forget the sight of her bloodied legs. See dad, I was right to be scared! A much fonder memory is nursing my newborn daughter in the Field’s ladies lounge in August 1987 after exchanging a baby gift. There were several other mothers doing so on a comfy leather couch.
In addition to Field’s, we loved shopping at Kroch’s and Brentano’s, Montgomery Ward, Crate & Barrel, Saks Fifth Avenue, Chandler’s Shoes, and Baker’s. I remember only browsing at Joseph shoes because even their sale prices were high. At one time, I saw a dentist and gynecologist who practiced in the seven-story Professional Building at the north end of the mall. While Westfield Old Orchard barely resembles the mall of my youth, it is still a nice place to shop.
Photo sources: Eric Bronsky, Bowling History, Chicago’s Extinct Businesses, Cinema Treasures, Craig’s Lost Chicago, ebay, Illinois Digital Archives, Malls of America, NileHi61, Pinterest, Pleasant Family Shopping, Retrospace, 70sSkokie.blogspot.com, Silent Locations, Skokie History Project, Yelp