Monday, November 30, 2009

If You're Looking for a Dose of Holiday Cheer This Weekend, Downtown DP is the Place to Be

This weekend looks like a busy one for downtown Des Plaines (and Lake Park, too.) There is a series of events going on from many civic organizations. I hope you can show your support for our city by coming out for some of these fun times.

Friday, December 4

-Afternoon: Tree decoration from local schools sponsored by the Optimist, Rotary, and Kiwanis Clubs

-5:30 p.m., Metropolitan Square Plaza
Lighting ceremony featuring entertainment from the Maine West Warrior Band, Singing Librarians, and Artistry in Motion and AiM2 Dance Companies, with selections from The Nutcracker. Roasted chestnuts from the Des Plaines History Center. Appearance by Santa, arriving via fire truck. Lighting should happen around 6

-7:00, Des Plaines Theatre
"How The Grinch Stole Christmas" - free, with popcorn. Tickets available at downtown merchants listed in the Journal

Saturday, December 5

-9 a.m. - Noon Prairie Lakes
Santa Breakfast

-11 a.m. - 5 p.m. Lake Park
Lake Wonderland Festival with decorated trees and lights, as well as "horse drawn sleigh rides along the lake shore, winter games, such as holiday bingo and the quirky yellow snow eating contest, arts and crafts, face painting, food, and ice craving demonstrations. Inside the two heated tents families can pose with Santa Claus for free holiday pictures sponsored by the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce and meet their favorite characters such as Ronald McDonald. There will also be many free live performances. The History Center will be serving roasted chestnuts, hosting a bake sale and presenting a special exhibit: Celebrating the Season – Photography and Memorabilia," which is about winter in Des Plaines."

-2:00-3:00 Des Plaines Library
Canterbury Carolers, a choral group performing traditional carols in authentic period costume

-7:00, Des Plaines Theatre (
"How The Grinch Stole Christmas" - free, with popcorn. Tickets available at downtown merchants listed in the Journal

Did I miss anything?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Now on YouTube: The 1982 Des Plaines Theatre Fire

I ran across these videos on YouTube of the 1982 Des Plaines Theatre Fire, and thought this was as good a time as any to tell the story.

Around 2:00 p.m. March 7, 1982, the Des Plaines Theatre was devastated by a three-alarm fire. Burning for nearly three hours, the fire was later traced to the (incredibly stupid) act of putting incinerator ashes into a cardboard box. The fire started in the basement, below the storefront to the right of the theatre entrance, Shoe Box. Damages were estimated at $500,000 and over 50 firefighters and 14 vehicles from seven agencies responded. The fire ripped through the front of the building, with most of the damage to Shoe Box and neighboring Rappoport Watchmakers and Jewelers, where the floor and roof partially collapsed, then spread to the second floor offices. The theatre itself, and Windy's Hamburgers on the corner, sustained very little damage, mostly smoke and water (and as I discovered from this video, a little fire on the roof that was quickly put out), because it is separated from the stores by fireproof walls. The lobby suffered the brunt of the damage from water; the current lobby is essentially a shell within the old lobby.

In a twist of fate, the fire could have been stopped considerably sooner, presumably with less damage. At one point in this video, the cameraman looks down at a fire hydrant across the street. When firefighters arrived on the scene, they found this and another hydrant dry, apparently because a Public Works employee failed to turn them back on after a water main repair the previous month. It took another 20 minutes to get the hoses hooked up on Ellinwood Street and get the water running, all the way across the train tracks, which also delayed C&NW service; passengers had to transfer to a train on the other side of the hose. One train came within 50 feet of the hose. Despite these difficulties, Deputy Fire Chief Dave Clark praised his mens' service as the best firefighting he had ever seen the department perform.

At the time, the Theatre was showing the movie "Taps". It had played for about five minutes when the theatre manager on-duty, John Praught, stopped the film and announced there was smoke in a nearby store. The theatre's 200 patrons quickly evacuated with no injuries.

It was only through the sheer determination of longtime theatre owner Richard Balaban that the theatre was saved from the wrecking ball. He quickly decided he wanted to re-open. Initially, the city and a neighboring business sought to remove the east wall and the entire second story of the building was condemned, for fears of collapse. However, Balaban didn't want to see the building lose its architectural quality, and made the necessary moves to strengthen and maintain the walls.

The long-term impact was that the theatre was closed for almost a year, reopening January 21, 1983. Balaban repainted the interior, cleaned the exterior, recarpeted, reupholstered the seats, and redecorated, along with a new stereo system and screen. The crowds that had until then flocked to the theatre found other places to go in the meantime, and the loss of momentum meant that attendance levels didn't return. This dealt a blow to the downtown as a whole, since those audiences spent money elsewhere downtown. The theatre was sold about a year and a half later to the Mandas family, who then sold it to longtime operators Poppy Cataldo and Jeff Kohlberg, who split it in two and ran it as a successful discount house. Since they sold it in 1997, the theatre has struggled.

Thanks to The Arlington Cardinal for the YouTube find.

UPDATE 11/26/09

Photos after the fire

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Crain's Chicago Business: Des Plaines Casino Groundbreaking Delayed

Developer Neil Bluhm has quietly postponed groundbreaking for his new casino in Des Plaines, near O'Hare Airport.

   Sources close to the matter say that construction on the 40,000-square-foot, 1,200-gaming-position operation was supposed to be starting right about now but has been put off until late winter —sometime in February, or perhaps March.

  The delay is being attributed to the difficulty of arranging financing in an extremely tight credit market, with minority partners in Mr. Bluhm's Midwest Gaming & Entertainment LLC said to have faced especially high obstacles.

  Insiders say the holdup is temporary...

Read more at Crain's Chicago Business

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Svoboda Building, 1430-1440 Miner

Today, the Svoboda building is probably best recognized as one of the handful of buildings downtown that received a 'modernization' in the 1970s that hasn't aged well at all. But underneath that skin, there's an attractive building.

If you click on that picture of the 1935 Centennial Parade, you can see that the original red brick facade is actually pretty well-detailed. The little things like consistent retractable awnings and signs that fit the building make a big difference. There were a handful of similar brick and limestone buildings downtown once upon a time, including the Sugar Bowl, but this is the only one left that's probably salvageable. It would probably not take a whole lot of work to peel back the 1970s mansard facade - the building still has its original windows, so I would bet they didn't make too many other change.

It was built in 1922 for the Svoboda family, which ran what was then called the Des Plaines Toggery. After a few years, they dropped that name in favor of F.J. Svoboda's Sons, and eventually just Svoboda's Men's Wear. In the early days, Svoboda's carried work clothes right alongside its pinstripe suits and hats. They became known for their tailoring and personal service. In 1994, Frank Svoboda, Jr. chose to close up shop while he was still ahead, rather than fight the tides; the former Svoboda store has housed an insurance agency and law office since.

With the choo-choo and Masonic Temple, the Svoboda building was targeted for a possible new Police Station site. Those plans have been shelved for the time being due to the economy, but the Masonic Temple is still under contract to be sold to the city (I wonder what's taking so long - the council moved to purchase it in May.) However, of the three, I think the Svoboda building is the most endangered - with its existing facade, it's the ugliest, it's directly adjacent to city hall, and if the small city hall parking garage is demolished in the future as planned, it would be possible to develop a new building going all the way back to Jefferson street, plus the city-owned parking lot between the choo-choo and Masonic Temple, assuming neither of those is demolished.

Except for one extension on the original Men's Wear Store, the Svoboda building only extends to half the depth of its lot. It would be possible to restore the front half and connect it to an all-new, probably high rise rear half (or even extending further), allowing attractive, historic, pedestrian-scaled storefronts on the front and new uses to the rear.

Partial Tenants List:

1440 Miner - Des Plaines Toggery, F.J. Svoboda's Sons, Svoboda's
Magnum Insurance

1438 -
1932 Wolff Shoe Repair
1947 Floyd h miller siding
1948 Northwest Stoker Sales-Service

1436 -
1924 Dyer & Dyer Chiropractors
1924-1933 Maria Shaefer Music
1946 Cramer's Motor Service
1948-1949 - Northwest Heating & Air Conditioning, Engineers Inc

1994- Roman's Kitchen and Deli
1999- Alice's Kitchen and Deli
Wally's Kitchen and Diner
-2007 Joey Tomatoes
2008- Dung Gia

1434 -
1934 J.M. Hannon Dentist
1941-1945 Otto's Wines & Liquors
2003 Polo Woods Sales Center

Paradise Flowers and Gifts
Noble Insurance Agency
2003-2004 J&Z's Card Zone
2005- Gabby's
Anna Wolski Insurance
2007- Allstate Insurance
Daniel Rhames Insurance

George & Ivan Meyer, Optometrists
Dr. Robert Mahnich, Optometrist
1957- Sewing Machine City

Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.
-1959) Walter Johnson Realty
-1971) Kole Real Estate
(1986) - The Letter Box
Panaderia Valle
New Milieu
Cellular in Motion

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The History of the choo-choo

Everybody *knows* the choo-choo, Des Plaines' famous home of hamburgers on a model train, is historic.

But the choo-choo's actual history? It's a little harder to find. Here's the most complete version of it written yet.

Is the choo-choo a Des Plaines original? It might surprise you, but no. The first one was opened in Skokie in 1949; Des Plaines followed in 1951, after Wilmette. Its original location was a few doors down, in the corner store of the Masonic Temple building, which we covered just a few entries back.

As the story goes, the choo-choo idea came about when Roy Ballowe (pronounced Bell-ewe,) a model train lover, was serving as a soldier in the Philippines in 1941. The soldiers were forced to subsist on small rations. Sitting hungry in a foxhole one day when he pondered the phase "gravy train". On a flight of fancy, Ballowe, who loved model trains as a child, thought to himself, “Why not serve hamburgers on a model train? Kids love both of ‘em.” At the same time, he considered that trains were also known for speed, so it would be a great way to serve their "fast food". It didn't hurt that serving food on a train was a memorable experience. And of course there was the long tradition of railroad dining cars, train cars converted into diners, and diners at train stations. Really, trains and diners have had a long link. And the concept could have longevity- even if one child got bored with the idea, the next year there would be another in his place, especially during the baby boom, and when he was older he would share it with his own children.
(photo of Harriet Wenzel at Skokie choo-choo, 1949)

The first "Choo-Choo Limited Restaurant," a "restaurant designed with children in mind," opened at 4923 Oakton Street in Skokie on July 1, 1949, and was operated by Ballowe and his business partner William Indelli. The choo-choo had 19 seats, and two O-scale trains: a Pennsylvania steam engine and a Santa Fe streamline diesel, each pulling about 6 cars of food. Two waitresses with brakeman's caps reading "choo-choo" worked there, calling orders to the kitchen and listening for the cook's cry of "'Board!" and a steam whistle, indicating that food is ready. The waitresses used a system of numbered seats and a control box to know where to stop the train. It was later featured on the Camel Caravan TV program and closed in 1956. A second choo-choo opened in April 1951 at 1114 Central in Wilmette. Des Plaines was next, in May 1951, followed by 3352 W Foster in Chicago. Two more eventually opened, at 6324 Van Nuys Boulevard in Van Nuys, California, and in Fort Lauterdale, Florida.

Roy's brother James was a true character. He was a lawyer, always wanted to learn piano, and wrote a book. His family came to the Chicago area in 1922, when he was 16. He first got an education degree at DePaul in 1928, taught for a year or two at Senn High School, then went back to Chicago's Central YMCA College (Roosevelt) for an Art/Dramatics degree, where he was also elected president of the Little Theater association. He went to Hollywood to act, but returned to Chicago after finding only a few small movie parts. Next, he received a law degree from John Marshall College in 1934, followed by a doctoral there. From there, he went into the mail order business, doing quality control for Alden's, Inc. He married in 1947, in 1949 ran for Justice of the Peace in Niles Township and was elected President of the Roosevelt College alumni association, and opened the Des Plaines choo-choo in 1951. He was working at a corporation in Skokie when his brother asked him to prepare his income taxes; when he saw the receipts, he decided to have some fun and join the business. He did not completely abandon law, however; while running the choo-choo in 1964, he was interviewed by members of the US Supreme Court and was given permission to represent persons taking cases to the court. He made an unsuccessful run for Des Plaines first ward alderman in 1975. He also served as a substitute teacher. In 1981, he wrote a book, "Trailer Park," set in Des Plaines and based on a ditch digger that Ballowe met in front of the Des Plaines Theater. Ballowe died March 22, 1997 at the age of 90. (photo of James and Marilyn Ballowe in 1973)

In 1974, the Ballowes sold the business to James and Sue Doris, who ran the restaurant with the Mandas family as a partner, until 2000, when George retired shortly after his wife's death.

Des Plaines is probably better known for the first McDonald's built by Ray Kroc (the ninth McDonald's overall) down the street. But few realize that the histories of the two are closely linked.

Dr. Bud Phillips in Des Plaines once shared the story that Ray Kroc once approached Stan Orsi, an executive at Kraft Corporation, about purchasing the choo-choo, but Orsi declined; this was before he had gone into the McDonald's business. This seems like a plausible story: Kroc was selling Multimixers at the time, which is how he wound up at McDonald's in California in the first place, and to this day the choo-choo uses a Multimixer for its milkshakes.

Ballowe later recalled that while Kroc was preparing to open McDonald's, he stopped in at the choo-choo in the Masonic Temple building to check out the other hamburger place in town. Kroc thought the choo-choo was a novel operation. Kroc assured him that he didn't think his hamburger restaurant would be competition, since he didn't have seats or a train. After Kroc left, he remarked to his employees that McDonald's was a fly-by-night operation with no chance of survival, and would never move as many burgers as the choo-choo. Many of Kroc's employees defected to the choo-choo because it could pay in cash instead of stock (and several of the employees who stayed with McDonald's became very wealthy as a result). Ballowe never saw Kroc again. While cars took the place of trains, and McDonald's took the place of diners, the choo-choo has endured as home to the kid in us.

In 1956, the restaurant was popular enough that a new, larger, freestanding building was built, the choo-choo we all know today. The building is more architecturally interesting than it may seem at first. Essentially, it is a compromise between the Modern architecture style of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the vernacular commercial modern style. The building's architect was Robert Stauber, who had studied under Mies at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the late 1940s. Mies' influence can be seen in the extensive use of plate glass divided by thin mullions, and the parapet wall of the roof which is covered in sheetmetal. The influence of vernacular modernism can be seen in the wood texturing of the sheet metal, the tan, rusticated Roman brick used on the building, and its use of signage. It is identical to its 1950s appearance, except that the dash in choo-choo disappeared somewhere along the way, as did "free parking" signs. As far as anyone can remember, the paint colors are original. The building is also architecturally significant because Stauber was also the architect employed by Ray Kroc to adapt the McDonald's building plans to Des Plaines - extensive alterations were made, which were critical to Kroc's success. Both McDonald's and the choo-choo use a "fishbowl front", with plate glass across the front of the building atop a low wall, wrapping around the sides. At McDonald's, the fishbowl enclosed the kitchen, making it visible and inviting; at the choo-choo, it displayed the warm, inviting interior. McDonald's used a flashy, eye-grabbing style to catch attention and build brand image, while the choo-choo chose a sober style to let the experience speak for itself. Unlike McDonald's, which was extensively rebuilt in 1985, the choo-choo retains authenticity and integrity.

The interior of the choo-choo is virtually identical to its 1956 appearance, with Formica surfaces, stainless steel equipment, terazzo floors, wood paneling, and naugahyde stools (though they were once light green); even the bathrooms and air conditioner are original. About the only things missing are vertical blinds and a foot rail. The biggest changes to the restaurant were the addition of booths along the outside wall in 1973, where a waiting bench had been, cutting through the front counter and removing a stool to make an access to serve the booths, and the replacement of a "Champion" mechanical horse (just like Gene Autry's, who appeared live at the Des Plaines Theater, and who was an icon to 1950s children,) in 2001 with a mechanical train ride. Other changes are small, like the removal of a worn-out footrail, removal of tattered curtains, replacement of the ceiling, replacement of the trains, and restoration of the neon sign. With L&L Snack shop on Northwest Highway, possibly also designed by Stauber, the choo-choo is one of only two vintage restaurants in the city, and the only authentic historic franchise in a city that became known for franchises. (photo of a similar Champion)

The current operator, Jean Paxton, has done a great job with the restaurant. It certainly seems like the place is busier than ever, the food is now good, and it's consistently sparkling clean. Equally importantly, she has shown a lot of respect for keeping it authentic, the same place we all remember going as kids.

The choo-choo is not the only restaurant to serve food on a train. The best known in the area is Snackville Junction, which opened two years after the choo-choo in 1951, which has moved several times since, at 10809 South Western, 11016 South Western, and 9144 South Kedzie Avenue.

More recently, a host of restaurants have popped up looking to franchise the idea. In Frankfort, there is Choo Choo Johnny's, which opened in 2002 and is now seeking to sell franchises. In 2006, 2Toots Train Whistle Grill opened in Downers Grove, IL and in 2008 in Glen Ellyn. One also opened at 2336 S Reynolds Road in Toledo, Ohio, but has since closed. In 2007, All Aboard Diner opened, at 1510B West 75th Street in Downers Grove.

And there were others around the country. In 1956-1965, there was Hamburger Junction (1) in Carney, Maryland. There was the Hamburger Choo Choo and Hamburger Local in Huntington Bay Shore, and Hewlett, Long Island, and Garden City, NY. Hamburger Express, Parkchester, The Bronx. The Hamburger Coach, Glen Oaks, Queens on 256th St & Union Turnpike. One in Sanford, NC. The Iron Horse in Seattle. The Pizza King chain in Indiana. A variation on the theme at Fritz's Railroad Restaurant in Kansas City. And probably more I haven't heard of. There is even a patent out for an overcomplicated version. Internationally, there is Výtopna in Brno, Czech Republic.

I have tried to dig deep with my research, and from what I've been able to tell, the choo-choo was the pioneering concept in this string of well-remembered restaurants. As Chicago is the hub of the nation's railroads, Des Plaines is the hub of the nation's model railroad restaurants. The choo-choo is far older than any of the others that exist today. It is among Des Plaines' oldest restaurants, and likely the most intact of them. And trains probably mean a lot more to Des Plaines than any of these other communities. The choo-choo is a unique slice of Americana that has the kind of local character most cities would kill for, and it is an experience that should be kept around for future generations.

The question that's been on everyone's mind is, "Is the choo-choo safe?" I can only speak for myself, but my impression is "Yes- for now." If only because the city cannot afford to build a new police station any time soon. I think the city has seen that any threat to the choo-choo makes A LOT of people VERY upset and I do not imagine they wish for a repeat performance on a bigger scale. But keeping in mind this history, it should be obvious that just moving the business into a different location is not going to cut it. The building is just as important a part of the experience, and so is the place. Eventually, a new police station will be built. With luck, the extra time to think about it has made it obvious that this block is not well-suited for a new station.

But ultimately, the choo-choo will not be safe until the city has a landmarks/heritage resources ordinance and the choo-choo is, deservedly, legally protected.

(Grand Opening ads from the Des Plaines Suburban Times and Journal)