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Happy birthday, Von Freeman!

Earle Lavon “Von” Freeman Sr. would have been 96 today, as hard as that is to believe. That’s because the great “Von-ski” (as many of his friends and fans called him) continued to be a key player on the Chicago jazz scene up until his death in August 2012.
Von was one of the founders of the post-war “Chicago school” of tenor sax – a school that included greats like Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordan. But while he came of age as a tenor sax force in the 1940s, he kept his ears open to any post-bop sounds that he heard, including the avant-garde jazz championed by Ornette Coleman and others.
The video above was produced 10 years before Freeman’s death, in 2002. The great Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich knew (and knows) everyone on the Chicago jazz scene by first name. And he arranged for an extremely rare on-camera interview with “Von-ski” at one of his favorite haunts at that time, the Green Mill Lounge in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. I produced the video with m…

Thoughts on the Hotel Sherman and the Thompson Center

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The recently-launched James R. Thompson Center Historical Society made a unique entreaty to Chicagoans this week. The group --composed of an architect, real estate reporter and architectural historian in the city-- encouraged Chicagoans to "visit the building and contribute to the ongoing discussion of the past, present and future in Chicago," according to this story from the Sun-Times' Tina Sfondeles.

This reminded me of the recent Twitterverse suggestions about turning it into a hotel, which seemed like a feasible idea for this unique Helmut Jahn building.

Of course, doing so would bring the location back to its roots, since the legendary Hotel Sherman/Sherman House occupied this space in one way or another from 1837 to 1973.

The last iteration of the Hotel Sherman, designed by the ubiquitous Chicago architectural firm Holabird & Roche, opened in 1911, and at its peak had over 1,600 rooms. I'm sure you could squeeze in 1,600 rooms in a reconverted Thompson Cen…

"Ernie Banks ... was unimpressive in the field ..."

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Hall of Fame shortstop/first baseman Ernie Banks made his Chicago Cubs debut on this date in 1953 at Wrigley Field. It was a historic appearance: the future "Mr. Cub" was the team's first African-American player to play for the Cubs, who were the eighth team in Major League Baseball to integrate with black players. By comparison, the crosstown White Sox were sixth, introducing Minnie Minoso and Sam Hairston in 1951. Banks was one of three rookies to make their debut on May 17, 1953. Pitcher Don Elston and outfielder Bob Talbot joined Ernie that day. A Chicago Tribune photographer captured the three before the game in the Wrigley Field locker room:


Elston, who would have a decent 11-year career, mostly on the North Side, got hammered in his debut, as the Cubs lost to the Phils 16-4:


The historic nature of Ernie's debut was totally lost on Ed Prell, the veteran Tribune sportswriter covering the event. Instead, he was dismissive of the 22-year-old shortstop who would e…

Sister Jean's "media debut": March 5, 2013

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Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, who celebrated her 100th birthday yesterday, became an international phenomenon during Loyola University-Chicago's historic NCAA basketball tournament run in 2018, which ended with the Ramblers' improbable appearance in the Final Four.

But Sister Jean's first major media profile was five years before that, in the March 5, 2013 edition of the Chicago Tribune, in print and online. The Trib's outstanding higher education reporter, Jodi Cohen (now with Pro Publica) wrote the story. And the Tribune's great photographer, Brian Cassella, shot photos and video. I produced a short video with Brian for chicagotribune.com, which was part of a multimedia package online.

Unfortunately, the Tribune doesn't really maintain an archive of its online multimedia packages prior to, say, 2016. That's too bad, because there was some compelling multimedia work between around 2005 and 2016, which is lost to time.

Anyway, enjoy this cobbled-together re…

A Platform for Chicago, circa 1964

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In the early 1960s, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial page would routinely provide its “platform” for the city underneath the newspaper’s masthead. The "platform" was a list of infrastructure improvements and political reforms.
This clip from March 29, 1964 lists eight goals for the city:



As you can see, the board totally whiffed on some of these ideas. Can you imagine the Loop without the elevated trains? That was the Tribune’s proposal, while at the same time expanding mass transit lines. I assume that the mass transit expansion would involve the new “L” lines in the middle of the new expressways being built in the city in the ‘60s: the Dan Ryan and the Kennedy (the Congress line had already opened in the median of the Eisenhower Expressway in 1958, the world’s first such public transit rail line to be located in the middle of a multi-lane highway).
The editorial board was also actively pushing for a West Side highway, better known as the “Crosstown Expressway”.  This idea…

An unlikely sports tradition in Chicago

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Here’s the headline on page 1 of the Chicago Tribune from 70 years ago today. It was front-page coverage of the long-defunct Chicago Charities College All-Star Game, which pitted the NFL champion from the previous year (in this case, the Philadelphia Eagles) against a team of star college football seniors from the prior year:


Check out that attendance – over 93,000 fans at a then-mammoth Soldier Field, 21 years before the lakefront stadium was reconfigured and made smaller in order to accommodate the Bears, who moved to Soldier Field in 1971, after spending the previous 50 years playing in Wrigley Field.
Believe it or not, that was a drop from attendance for the game in the two previous years, when the game drew over 100,000 fans. The 1947 and 1948 games had additional local appeal, since the NFL champs playing the game were the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals, respectively.
The preseason game was staged annually in August from 1934 to 1976 at Soldier Field, except for 1974 (due …

Stepping Into Swing Society

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Duke Ellington loved Chicago.
He first performed in the city at the Savoy Ballroom in 1930 and made his last Chicago appearance at Mr. Kelly's in 1973. Between that time, his orchestra played in the city hundreds of times, at places like the Joseph Urban Room in the Congress Hotel, the Panther Room at the Hotel Sherman, the Regal Theatre, the State-Lake Theatre, the Hotel Stevens, the Oriental Theatre, the Holiday Ballroom, the Chicago Theatre and, of course, the Blue Note -- one of Ellington's favorite all-time performing venues.

In his 1973 memoir, "Music Is My Mistress", he praised the city.

"Chicago always sounded like the most glamorous place in the world to me when I heard the guys in Frank Holliday's poolroom talking about their travels," he wrote. "By the time I got there in 1930, it glittered even more. . . . Chicago then was all that they had said in the poolroom: the Loop, the cabarets, the biggest railroad center in the world, beaches …