WBBM Special: Looking Back At “Chicago Christmas”

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"Chicago Christmas" Book Cover. (WBBM/AP Photo)

“Chicago Christmas” Book Cover. (WBBM/AP Photo)

CHICAGO (WBBM) - The “Chicago Christmas” special series looking back on Christmases past returns to WBBM Newsradio 780 for the 31st consecutive year.

It’s a series that examines the big news during the Christmas seasons of other years, some of it tragic, some of it of historical importance, some of it nostalgic, some of it funny.

This year, Jim Benes remembers Christmastime during the following years: 2000, 1950, 1990, 1940, 1910, 1960 and 1930.

Some items covered: Please check back as we add more audio during the week.

  • LISTEN HERE 2000: 21 inches of snow on the ground at Christmas.
  • LISTEN HERE 1990: The technology of 1990, just 20 years ago: cellphones that were called “bricks,” no Internet to speak of, home computers operating on 286 chips, and the biggest year ever for the sale of videocassettes.
  • LISTEN HERE 1960: A jetliner from Chicago makes a crash landing in London on Christmas Day 1960, and luckily, nobody is hurt;
  • LISTEN HERE 1950: A GI in Korea muses about Christmas in that lonely land during wartime in 1950.
  • LISTEN HERE 1940: Fibber McGee opens his hall closet to the delight of listeners on Christmas Eve, 1940.
  • LISTEN HERE 1930: Christmas shoppers choose practical gifts as the Depression begins to deepen at Christmas, 1930; Chicago is the fourth largest city in the world.
  • LISTEN HERE 1910: The city responds quickly and generously after 21 firefighters perish when a warehouse wall collapses during a big fire in the Stockyards district on December 22, 1910.

LISTEN: Chicago Christmas 2000

“This is Jim Benes, along with Bob Roberts and Julie Mann, with a look back at Chicago’s Christmas of ten years ago.

“Monday, Christmas Day, was a relief from the horrible weather of the previous two weeks. The temperature got up to 17 degrees following four days of sub-zero cold. Bright sunshine glinted off 21 inches of snow that had piled up from three big storms.

“All that snow presented a series of problems—and also opportunities:

“Snow piled up along the center barriers of expressways became not an obstacle but a ramp for cars that went out of control. No less than nine of them shot up and over the barriers and onto CTA tracks. Streets & Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez came up with a plan to clear the side streets: plows would do the sides of streets with odd numbers one day,then even sides the next. The plan was voluntary, and it didn’t work. But the snow provided 200 Chicago public school students with the opportunity to do public service work, shoveling it away from schools, nursing homes, and the homes of senior citizens.

“Chicago’s Do-It-Yourself Messiah was alive and well, celebrating its 25th anniversary at the Civic Opera House on the Tuesday and Wednesday before Christmas. Thirty-six hundred people turned out for one performance; there weren’t enough tickets for four thousand other would-be participants.

“Another Chicago tradition was being re-invented on the lakefront. The Sun-Times reported:

“The colorful story of Chicago’s ‘Christmas Tree Ship’ entered its third century, as Navy Pier celebrated a tradition that captivated Chicago at the turn of the last century.

“Members of the Bailiwick Repertory Theater performed excerpts from its popular holiday show, ‘The Christmas Schooner,’ and the US Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw stood in for the Christmas Tree Ship, a name actually applied to a variety of vessels that brought evergreens down from Michigan and Wisconsin to the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“One of the hottest toys under the Christmas tree in 2000 was the scooter. There were several different brands and models, costing from 50 to 140 dollars. A scooter with an electric motor was about 300.

“There was also a wide variety of toy robots, mechanical dogs and cats that cost $20 to $40.

“The Barbie doll was back, of course. She and Ken were dressed as characters from ‘The Wizard of Oz.’

“The tunes at the top of the Billboard survey were led by Destiny’s Child:

“Independent Women Part I by Destiny’s Child; It Wasn’t Me by Shaggy; Case of the Ex by Mya; With Arms Wide Open by Creed; He Loves U Not by Dream; Ms Jackson by Outkast.

“At the movies, some reviewers of ‘The Family Man’ starring Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni were calling it a new Christmas classic. Dr Seuss was on the big screen, wiHth Jim Carrey starring as ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.’

“Christmas in Chicago, 2000. With Bob Roberts and Julie Mann, this is Jim Benes Newsradio 780 WBBM.”

LISTEN: Chicago Christmas 1990

“This is Jim Benes, along with Dave Marsett, with a look at Chicago’s Christmas of 20 years ago.

“The weather for the Tuesday Christmas of 1990 was cold and snowy. A cold wave swept in on December 23rd, and the temperature wouldn’t rise to 20 degrees until about 11 a.m. on Christmas Day. A light dusting of snow was predicted for Christmas Eve.

“The big news of the day was the preparations that were underway in the Persian Gulf for the start of the US offensive to kick Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. The expected hostilities were well-noted from Chicago-area pulpits. Bishop Frank Griswold of the Episcopal Diocese, for instance, told congregants his prayers were for those seeking to bring about a just peace without recourse to war.

“It was only 20 years ago, but the world we lived in was oh, so different:

“With prices falling to around a thousand dollars, the idea of putting a computer in the home was just starting to catch on. IBM’s PS-1 and Apple’s MacIntosh were big sellers. But so were IBM clones made by Epson, Packard Bell and even Magnavox. They were much slower, and much less sophisticated than the machines we have today.

“The Internet and cell phones were in existence, but the Internet was not yet in daily use by most people, and cell phones were, well they were clunky: big, heavy units that some people called bricks.

“As for videos, 1990 was the biggest year ever for the sale of videocassettes.

“There was a run at Christmastime for the video called ‘Your Christmas Yule Log Fireplace’ which made your TV set look like a roaring fireplace—but without the heat, of course.

“On television on Christmas Eve, it seemed like you couldn’t get away from the 1946 Frank Capra movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ It was on five different channels.

“The top three recording artists in December, 1990, were Stevie B, Madonna, and Bette Midler:

‘Because I Love You’ by Stevie B; ‘Justify My Love’ by Madonna; ‘From a Distance’ Bette Midler.

“Movies of the season included ‘Dances With Wolves’ starring Kevin Costner; ‘Three Men and a Little Lady’; ‘Mermaid’; ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’; ‘The Godfather Part 3’; Arnold Schwarzenegger as ‘The Kindergarten Cop’ and Macauley Culkin in the first ‘Home Alone.’

“The Chicago Maritime Museum at North Pier terminal had an exhibit on the Christmas tree ships that brought Christmas trees to Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“The Chicago Tribune told us about the Showalter family’s home decorations. They strung no less than seven thousand small colored lights over their two-story home at 105th and Oakley.

“Christmas in Chicago, 1990. With Dave Marsett, this is Jim Benes Newsradio 780 WBBM.“

LISTEN: Chicago Christmas 1960

“This is Jim Benes, along with Felicia Middlebrooks, with a look back at Chicago’s snowy Sunday Christmas of 1960.

“Five days before Christmas, a storm dumped 12 1/2 inches of snow on Chicago. Then, the temperature plunged into sub-zero territory. It was -13 degrees at O’Hare airport at 2 a.m. on Dec. 23.

“But with Christmas Day came a thaw. The mercury got up to 41 degrees on Christmas Day.

“One of the top news stories of the day was about British Overseas Airways flight 564 from Chicago. On landing in London, the plane’s braking system apparently failed, and the pilot—Captain R I B Winn—had turned the plane off the runway before it could crash onto an adjacent road. The plane’s landing gear collapsed and that tore and engine off a wing of the Boeing 707, but all 95 passengers and crew members were able to evacuate the plane safely.

“The incident had occurred just nine days after the world’s worst air disaster to date: a United Airlines DC8 and a TWA Super Constellation had collided in the skies over New York, killing 137 people in the air and on the ground.

“The US government was in court in Memphis, trying to stop the eviction of more than 300 African-American sharecroppers who had angered their white landlords by registering to vote in the November election. In his Christmas message, President Dwight Eisenhower was calling racial discrimination a blot on the bright image of America.

“Elvis Presley had the number one song on the Billboard survey in ‘Are You Lonseome Tonight.’ Also among the top tunes were: ‘Last Date’ by Floyd Cramer; ‘Many Tears Ago’ by Connie Francis, and ‘Exodus’ by Ferrante & Teicher.

“Movies of the season included ‘The Grass is Greener’ with Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons; ‘Butterfield 8′ with Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey and Eddie Fisher; and Disney’s ‘Swiss Family Robinson.’

“On television on Christmas afternoon, you could’ve watched ‘The Honeymooners,’ ‘Amos N Andy,’ the popular Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, a celebrity golf match: Sam Snead against Dannis O’Keefe, or ‘Burns and Allen,’ ‘Maverick,’ or ‘Lassie.’

“Store windows along State Street were lit up with 34 special holiday displays. The Chicago Tribune tells us:
‘Marshall Field & Company tells, in 13 scenes, the story of a Christmas eve dream-tour taken by two girls. It’s called “The Christmas Eve Dream House.” At Wieboldt’s, Santa’s animated helpers are making preparations for Santa’s ride. Carson Pirie Scott & Company presents four tableaux: ‘Great Religious Gifts’ depicting the artists Michelangelo, Botticelli, Rembrandt and Raphael, each at work in his studio. At The Fair store, Santa sails across a window display to the shores of Candyland.’

“Field’s was selling men’s socks, three pairs for two dollars. Sears was selling cotton dresses for 2-76. Lyon & Healy was advertising GE clock radios for 29-95. AM and FM models were 40 dollars more. Polk Brothers was sellng RCA Victor color televisions for 495 dollars. Goldblatt’s had Philco portable TVs for 179-95.

“Brenda Lee was rockin’ around the Christmas tree in December, 1960:

“In sports, Cubs’ owner Phil Wrigley had just announced a plan to have eight rotating coaches run the team instead of a manager during the 1961 season. The Green Bay Packers and the Philadelphia Eagles were preparing to battle for the pro football championship on the day after Christmas.

“Christmas in Chicago, 1960. With Felicia Middlebrooks, this is Jim Benes Newsradio 780 WBBM.”

LISTEN: Chicago Christmas 1950

“This is Jim Benes, along with Bob Conway, looking back at Chicago’s Christmas of 1950. The forecast for that Christmas Monday called for mild, cloudy and windy weather, with no chance of snow.

“Just nine days before Christmas, President Truman had declared a state of emergency. That was because of the advances the Communists were making in the war in Korea, which was exactly six months old on Christmas Day.

“In Korea itself, William C Barnard of the Associated Press wrote about being with the soldiers:

“’This is the loneliest day of the year,’ the GI from Brooklyn said. ‘All we can do is make the best of it.’ Over this bleak and battle-torn land Monday the American soldier is touchingly making the best of it. He is singing carols, and eating turkey and, if those presents came through, he is showing the new gifts to his buddies. He has hacked a type of fir tree from one of Korea’s snowy slopes and to it he has fastened anything that glitters. There is nothing to put under it, but it’s still a Christmas tree, and it takes him home.’

“Under that Christmas tree at home, the big gift of 1950 might well have been a TV set. Muntz was selling a 19-inch model complete with AM/FM radio and three-speed record changer for about $400. A 17-inch Motorola table model could be had for $240.

“The Christmas turkey of 1950 cost 45 to 65 cents a pound at Jewel, or you could eat an 8-course turkey dinner at the Blackhawk restaurant in the Loop for $3.

“You could buy a brand new Buick two-door sedan for $1,964.

“One of the most popular programs on the radio was Amos ‘n’ Andy. On Christmas Eve, Amos explained the Lord’s Prayer to his little daughter Arbadella

“The top tunes on YOUR HIT PARADE were led by a million-seller for Gene Autry:

“Movies of the season included ‘Harvey’ starring Jimmy Stewart, ‘For Heaven’s Sake’ with Clifton Webb, Joan Bennett and Robert Cummings, ‘Mr. Music’ starring Bing Crosby, and ‘Let’s Dance’ with Fred Astaire and Betty Hutton.

“Christmas in Chicago, 1950. With Bob Conway, this is Jim Benes Newsradio 780 WBBM.”

LISTEN: Chicago Christmas 1940

“This is Jim Benes, along with a look back at Chicago’s Christmas of 1940.

“The weather was mild for that Wednesday Christmas. The mercury reached 50 degrees on Christmas Day. Rain was expected in the evening.

“In all of America, Christmas celebrations were subdued. Most of the rest of the world was at war. The battle of Britain was under way with nearly daily Nazi bombing raids on English cities. The Chicago Tribune contrasted Christmas in Chicago and in London, calling it a tale of two cities:

“Chicago carolers sang last night. Toddlers hung their stockings beside glowing hearths. Neighbors visited each other, bearing gifts, exchanging greetings, sipping Christmas cheer…The shops, locked for today, have helped spread throughout the big city about $150 million worth of holiday merchandise: jewelry, books, automobiles, evening gowns, vacuum sweepers, furniture, canned goods shoes. There are more gifts than at any time since 1929.

“London, on the other hand, was without church bells this Christmas for the first time in a thousand years. Fewer gifts, more empty chairs at family tables, fewer church services, the conspicuous absence of street carols, no groaning festive board, and an undercurrent of anxiety. All this marks London’s Christmas of 1940 as probably the gloomiest the nation has known in the memory of any living person… Deep down in the subway air raid shelters more than 300-thousand persons took up their nightly residence, although the city had no raid alarm.

“There was a political cartoon in the Tribune on Christmas Eve. It showed Scrooge and Hitler sitting on a bench. In front of them was a sign saying ‘The World’s Most Unpopular Man.’ In the cartoon Scrooge was telling Hitler: ‘I can’t compete with you so I might as well go out and make somebody happy.’

“‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ had a swing beat in 1940, but it didn’t make it onto Your Hit Parade. The top tunes in the nation on December 21st were led by crooner Vaughn Monroe

‘There I Go,’ ‘Ferryboat Serenade,’ ‘Down Argentina Way,’ ‘We Three,’ ‘Only Forever,’ ‘Frenesi’

“78 rpm records cost 35 cents in 1940. A Crosley superheterodyne radio was $9.95… And only 25 cents down and a quarter a week at Busch’s Kredit Jewelers on Madison Street in the Loop.

On the radio on Christmas Eve, you might have tuned in to hear Fibber McGee and Molly, who had just taken delivery of a big package from a store:

“FIBBER: ‘Where’s the scissors…of these days.’

“Movies of the season included ‘Tin Pan Alley’ at the Chicago Theater, ‘Men Against the Sky’ at the Oriental, ‘Blondie Plays Cupid’ at the Pantheon, WC Fields as ‘The Bank Dick’ at the Palace, and ‘Foreign Correspondent’ with Joel McCrea and Laraine Day at the Granada.

“Christmas in Chicago, 1940. This is Jim Benes, Newsradio 780 WBBM.”

LISTEN: Chicago Christmas 1930

“This is Jim Benes, looking back at Chicago’s Christmas of 1930. Snow had fallen on several days leading up to Christmas, but temperatures were expected to approach 40 degrees on Thursday, Christmas Day.

“Financial distress following the stock market crash of 1929 was still spreading across the land. The Labor Department was estimating two to three million American workers were out of jobs. The American Federation of Labor put the number at more than five million. Those figures would’ve meant an unemployment rate between 6 and 11 percent—and it still was going up.

“Economic worries were not being reflected in the volume of Christmas sales—but rather in the kinds of articles being chosen as Christmas gifts. They were more practical and useful. One item that was in particular demand was rubber footwear.

“The Chicago Tribune was reporting a 10 percent decline in food prices over the past year. The Christmas turkey of 1930 cost 39 cents a pound at Hillman’s. Four pounds of coffee cost 79 cents; butter was 31 cents a pound.

“One of the most popular tunes of the day was “Three Little Words,” by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra.

“The census counted more than 3,376,000 people in Chicago in 1930. That made Chicago the fourth largest city in the world.

“And just before Christmas, the government had recommended $1.7 million dollars be appropriated for construction of the proposed Chicago World’s Fair of 1933.

“Christmas in Chicago, 1930. Jim Benes, Newsradio 780, WBBM.

LISTEN: Chicago Christmas 1910

“This is Jim Benes, along with Bernie Tafoya, with a look at Chicago’s gloomy Christmas Sunday of 1910.

“It wasn’t just snow flurries and temperatures in the teens that caused the gloom, it was one of Chicago’s worst fire tragedies that had just occurred on Thursday, the 22nd.

“Fire chief James Horan and 20 of his men were crushed and burned to death when the gigantic brick wall of a burning warehouse fell on them in the stockyards district.

“The Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper reported Horan and his men were on a loading platform running along the wall when:

Suddenly a great roar came from the volcanic depths of the burning warehouse and the tall brick walls tottered and swayed threateningly. ‘Run for your lives, men!’ shouted Chief Horan. Assistant Chief Seyferlich, who, a second before, had been talking with his superior officer, leaped away to safety, but before Horan and the other men could rush from the platform the great wall of brick and burning timbers with a roar that could be heard for blocks away, crashed down upon them. Instantly great forks of flames leaped up from this awful pile of debris so that many of the victims were literally roasted to death.  Hours after the wall had fallen piteous groans were heard coming from the ruins and it is believed that the mercy of an instant death was denied many of those who perished.

“Within two days, the city had raised a quarter of a million dollars for the welfare of the fallen firefighters’ families.

“Transportation was exciting—but it also was dangerous. The coroner’s office was just out with a report saying 577 people had been killed in transit in Chicago during the 12 months ending November 30th. 381 were victims of railroad accidents, 52 of car crashes.

“A news report indicated the American public was demanding safer automobiles. More and more, people were buying cars with enclosed passenger spaces. Locomobile was advertising itself as the best-built car in America. But there were others, like the Reo, or the Auburn or the Babcock Electric Car. You could buy a new Hudson 33 touring car—a convertible—for $1,250

“Under the Christmas tree in 1910, little boys might have found 19-inch enameled-iron horse-drawn hook-and-ladder trucks. They cost 49 cents at the Boston Store. Little girls might have loved daintily dressed dolls. They were a $1.25.

“Lyon & Healy was selling player-pianos, starting at 395 dollars.

“The song ‘Come Josephine In Your Flying Machine’ was one of the top new tunes at the end of 1910.

The top tunes of 1910 also included: ‘Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!’/’Meet Me To-Night in Dreamland’/’Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?’

“As has been the case now for more than a hundred Christmas seasons, Chicago’s Apollo Musical Chorus was performing Handel’s Messiah. The 1910 performance was to be Friday, the 23rd, at the Auditorium Theater. Tickets cost 50 cents to $2.

“The Chicago Health Bureau was out with some holiday tips, including:

“If your internal plumbing is defective, avoid plum pudding. Cheap candy—expensive funeral. Why take chances? Open windows will preserve your Christmas tree—they will also preserve your health.”

“Our thanks for their help in making this series possible go to Sarah Engel, Sylvia Ortiz, Bob Roberts, Julie Mann, Dave Marsett, Bob Conway, Regine Schlesinger, David Roe, Mike Krauser, Felicia Middlebrooks and Bernie Tafoya.

“This is Jim Benes, Newsradio 780 WBBM. A very Merry Christmas everybody!”

 

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