Thursday, January 6, 2011

1933 Chicago World's Fair: Dwarfs, Strippers and Beer for Breakfast

One of the local Chicago AM stations recently conducted a radio facsimile of "Antiques Road Show." They had a local expert antiquarian fielding phone calls from people who described their suspected treasures and she would either encourage them or burst their bubbles with her sight-unseen appraisals.

One caller inquired as the the value of various mementos from the 1933 Chicago "Century of Progress" World's Fair that she had inherited.

The appraiser told her that she often got that question. It seems, she said, that half the population of Chicago and the Greater Midwest has such artifacts squirreled away in basement boxes or attic trunks.

As there is just so damned much of it, she said, they are essentially worthless.

My little sister salvaged just such stuff from the de-consolidation of our grandparents' old house. She thought the aging depression-era lapel pins, yellowing postcards and viewmaster slides might eventually have some value. At the very least, she thought it was cool old stuff.

It conjured up to me, visions of our grandparents donning their Sunday best finery and cranking up their old Ford to travel down to the South side (the site of the current McCormick Place and Burnham Park) to take in a grand event in Chicago's wonderful past.

It was, after all, an event designed to celebrate Chicago's centennial. A century of industrial innovation and cultural growth. It showcased the futuristic Zephyr locomotive, the 1933 Pierce Silver Arrow luxury car whose advertising shouted, "Suddenly Its 1940!" and an exhibition of the newfangled pediatric incubators complete with real babies.

But according to the 1994 biography of Pulitzer winning author, Ross Lockridge Jr. (Shade of the Raintree, Viking Press) the experience may have been a little different than I envisioned.

According to the account, Lockridge, then a valedictory level student at Indiana University, lit out in June 1933, with a friend from his home in rural Indiana for the bright lights of the grand Chicago "Century of Progress" World's fair.

Here is the account:

"Through a friend, they arranged for a ride on a flatbed chicken truck. Since there was no room in the cab, they rode on top of seven layers of crates full of chickens. They held on to the ropes for dear life and endured the stench for ten sleepless hours overnight all the way to Chicago. The drivers took them in the early morning to a cafe across from the warehouse, where the waiter asked them if they wanted beer for breakfast.

"Not wishing to be thought a country jake, Ross cooly said yes. The two were served and ex-YPB (Young Peoples' Branch of the Womans' Christian Temperance Union) Secretary Ross Lockridge swilled his down with nonchalance, while ex YPB President Malcolm Correll found the going tough, almost gagging. From there they sacked out drunkenly at the World Book Company Headquarters, prearranged by Ross' dad.

"At the fair, their first stop was the Streets of Paris exhibit, advertised with a good deal of showgirl semi-nudity. They then went to Ripley's Believe It or Not, hardly in keeping with the "Century of Progress" motif, where they saw pygmies, giants, two-headed calves, a man who held up weights by slits in his nipples,and another who stuck hundreds of pins in his flesh.

"They then left the fair for the Rialto burlesque house where they watched bare-breasted women on hollow pedestals singing Neapolitan love songs.

"Four days later they rode home under a blistering sun on the same accursed chicken truck. Deadpan, he told his parents, We've seen some buildings that are higher than our barn."

"They had spent nine dollars each."

1 comment:

  1. Ha! Too funny! It reminds me of the saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Slits in their nipples, indeed! LOL Yeeeouch!


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