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Ask Geoffrey: 11/13

Could the Palmolive Building's beacon be seen from Milwaukee? Is the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson's bar still standing? Throughout the 1950s, south suburban families saddled up and rode to the Oak Lawn Round-up Days, so what happened to the festival? Geoffrey Baer rustles up the answer in this week's edition of Ask Geoffrey.

I heard that if the Palmolive Building’s beacon was stopped and allowed to focus you could read by it as far away as Milwaukee. Was this so?

– Gerald Zanke, River Forest

The beacon in question was called the Lindbergh Beacon and was a revolving light atop the great art deco style Palmolive Building from 1929 on North Michigan Avenue. Some remember it as the Playboy Building.  You can see it from Oak Street beach and Lake Shore Drive rising up behind the Drake Hotel.

There’s no question it was a very, very bright light – it was 2.1 billion candlepower, the brightest light ever made at that time. When President Hoover flipped a switch in the White House in 1930 illuminating it for the first time, the newspapers reported all manner of claims about it including a claim similar to the one our viewer mentions, that you could read by its light from 50 miles away, which is a little over halfway to Milwaukee. Unfortunately, those pesky laws of physics present a challenge – because of the curvature of the earth and the angle of the beam, you would have to be in an airplane to do that.

An editor for the Chicago Herald-Examiner tested this claim in 1937. The revolving beam was stopped for the experiment, and the editor reported he could read a newspaper by the light of the beacon in the darkened cabin of an airplane from 27 miles away. That’s about the distance to Fort Sheridan.

Another publication, Modern Mechanics, said a reporter in an airplane read the New York Times from 50 miles away. The article went on to claim that at 39,000 feet it could be seen from Cleveland, and if you were in a spaceship you could see it 500 miles away, but this sounds like the magazine was following the lead of the publicist.

The light did in fact have a purpose other than decoration. In the days before air traffic control and radar, pilots used it as an aid to find Chicago. A second beam from the tower pointed them toward Midway Airport.

The light was a gift of Dr. Elmer A. Sperry who figured out how to combine carbide and carbon to make an extremely intense arc light. The light was named in honor of Charles Lindbergh, who had made his heroic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. (The publicity-shy Lindbergh declined the honor and failed to show up for the dedication.)

When Hugh Hefner was growing up on Chicago’s west side he used to see the beacon sweep across the sky.  He wrote that it represented Gatsby-esque glamour to him. After his own rise to fame and fortune he bought the building and renamed the light the Bunny Beacon.

The original light was turned off for good in 1982 because it was shining into the windows of taller buildings that had been built around it. It’s now in an aviation museum in Appleton, Wisconsin. As part of the renovation of the building into a residential tower, a new beacon was installed in 2007. It only operates on Saturdays and Sundays from sundown to 11pm, and sweeps in a small arc over the lake.

The African-American world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson had a bar, Cafe de Champion, in the old Levee district. Is it still standing?

– Brian Galaviz, Little Village

The bar is no longer standing. The site is now the northern part of the IIT campus on 31st Street, just west of State. It was actually not in the Levee, which was Chicago’s vice district, but just south of there, near “the stroll” along State Street, which is part of Bronzeville/Black Metropolis.

Johnson was the first African American world heavyweight champion and a huge national celebrity, fond of wearing furs and driving fast cars. He was a hero in Chicago’s black community especially after he defended his title against the so-called “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries in 1910. Despite this, his life was hounded by racism.

Jack and Etta JohnsonJack and Etta Johnson (click to enlarge) Johnson opened the Café in July of 1912.  The club was a highly controversial “black and tan” (interracial) establishment, lavishly and expensively decorated with a mahogany bar, silver and gold cuspidors, and fine framed artwork that Johnson had purchased in Europe including – according to the Chicago Defender – a few Rembrandts. Most prominent were huge portraits of Johnson, including one featuring the boxer with his wife Etta, who was white. Johnson scandalized many white people in segregated America by romancing and marrying several different white women during his life.

The club was a huge success. Mobs lined up for opening day and police had to control the traffic. Johnson personally welcomed guests and even sat in with the orchestra playing bass.

The club only lasted a few months. Etta lived as a recluse in their third floor apartment to avoid the unwelcome attention whenever she went out.  She sank into depression. Just two months after the club opened Etta committed suicide upstairs.

After just three months, the City of Chicago shut down the Café de Champion, calling Johnson "an undesirable person of bad character." A few months later he married another white woman who was a former prostitute.

Shortly after that, Johnson was arrested and charged with transporting his wife-to-be across state lines for immoral purposes, which was illegal under a law called the Mann Act. Johnson was found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail. He and his wife fled to Europe, where he tried to continue boxing.

As his fame and his boxing prowess declined, he returned to the U.S., surrendered, and served his one-year sentence in Federal prison. He died in a car accident in 1946.

Back in the ‘50s I used to dress up as a cowboy and go to a cowboy & Indian parade in Oak Lawn. Whatever happened to that parade?

– Jim Lund, Elk Grove Village

What we imagined would be an obscure event turns out to have been well documented and huge, with as many as 100,000 people attending each year. It was called the Oak Lawn Round-Up Days, and it began in 1949. The main event was a parade, featuring covered wagons and as many as 400 horses and riders. WGN-TV televised the parade in 1952 with Jack Brickhouse as the host.

Oak Lawn used the annual festival to showcase itself to prospective homebuyers in the competitive post-WWII housing boom.

The cowboy theme was inspired by local lore, with rather shaky basis in historical fact, that the area was a haven for horse thieves during pioneer days.

The parade was just one part of the three-day festival. Another highlight each year was a mock attack on a stagecoach or other unsuspecting victim by masked bandits. Throughout the three days of the festival there would be periodic shootouts between posses and the bad guys, always culminating in the arrest of the bandits on the last day, after which they were strung up in true frontier justice style – all good 1950s family fun.

Also each year a prominent local citizen was selected to be the masked mystery rider, and a contest was held to guess his identity. There were BBQs, square dance competitions, souvenir stands selling things like 10-gallon hats, a carnival, and dollar day sales.

Over the years the festival evolved into a fundraiser for community causes. One way they raised money was by charging people a small fee to dig for prizes in several specially constructed mines. The prospectors would dig up capsules buried in the sand containing vouchers for such things as a mink scarf, down payment on a house, major appliances, and a trip to Las Vegas.

The community stopped staging the festival because, in the end, it just got too big. People felt that the event became too commercialized and lost its original local flavor. Also, drunk and disorderly behavior became an issue. After a big debate in the local papers, the festivals ended in the late 1950s.

More Ask Geoffrey:

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