February brings with it Valentine’s Day and conversations about love. Not being one to color outside the lines, that’s exactly where this column is going to go! That isn’t a challenging premise when we’re talking about our beloved Roseland. Anytime people get together and talk turns to Roseland the stories start to flow from the heart.
All Roseland stories involve our love for the great memories we have. Given how much time we spent on “The Ave,” talking about Michigan Avenue brings up 100s of stories. If you’re reminiscing about going to a movie or seeing a show on The Ave, you had three theaters to choose from.
The State Theater was the biggest and had an organ that rose up from the stage pit. It had also had a balcony that became the setting for many a teenage make-out session. There were even live events and a couple of concerts held there. However, the most cherished memory everyone has is of the free summer movie passes given out by Roseland merchants. There were at least eight free movies screened throughout the summer and it became part of the ritual of a Roseland summer.
Walking south from the State Theater, the Parkway Theater was on the east side of the street. One of the most memorable things about the Parkway didn’t actually take place at the Parkway. Before you entered the Parkway, you were able to buy your snacks through a window at “The O”: the Olympic Grill.
I don’t recall ever seeing a movie at the Parkway because I was too young for that treat. However, I do recall one of my brothers belonging to the “Chicago Slicks” car club that used the “O” as their clubhouse. My only other memory was when the Parkway closed and my dad’s friend Scudella called him to come by and pick up three five-gallon tins of coconut cooking oil. The oil was originally meant to be used to make popcorn, but its destiny was to lend a coconut scent to my mom’s cooking for months!
One of the proudest and most surprising moments for Roselandites was when the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine, on its last page of memorable photos, showed a photo of the Parkway Theater.
Further south was the Roseland Theater. In its final years, the Roseland Show became the neighborhood “B” movie theater, running horror, shock and exploitative films. In the 1920s, the Roseland was the first silent movie theater in the area. By the time many of us stepped into the building, the Roseland was in its third incarnation.
With so much of Roseland now physically gone, it’s odd that the white brick clad Roseland Theater Building is still standing. It’s across the street from the second incarnation of Roseland’s only Chinese Restaurant, The Tea Garden. The Roseland Theater we patronized had a special feature that everyone brings up when given half the chance.
When the theater opened as the Roseland Show, the guest of honor was none other than Chicago’s own Two-Ton Baker! Dick “Two-Ton” Baker was a radio and TV entertainment personality and musician who performed all around Chicago. A South Sider, he spent his final years living in Hazel Crest. As the guest of honor at the grand reopening, he had his own double-wide seat along the center aisle.
If you were on the Ave to go shopping instead of to a show, you had stores galore to choose from. Second only to downtown, the Ave was blessed with all the dime store brands: Neisner’s, S.S. Kresge and Woolworth’s. Among the major clothing and department stores on and just off the Ave were Montgomery Ward, Sears and Robert Hall. Of course, the big draw for the Ave was the most beloved store of the entire Roseland experience Gately’s People’s Store.
Everyone shopped there at one time or another because Gately’s had everything, and every department has at least one story associated with it.
There was the sale’s girl whose boyfriend put the wrapping string into the pneumatic tube and sent it all the way to the business offices, and the shoe department foot x-ray machine that gave everyone their first dose of radiation. The grocery store in the basement was convenient for one family that took their wagon into Gately’s, parked it inside the 112th Street entrance while they shopped, then filled it with groceries to bring home with them.
The Green River pop and hot dog stand for a quick lunch was situated across from the most fascinating device on earth: the donut machine! As moms would grocery shop, their kids would watch the donuts work their way along the grates through the entire baking process. Getting fresh hot donuts was always a thrill but nothing beat the thrill of getting a bag of broken donut pieces. I fondly remember the time I asked for a bag of broken donuts and, rather than telling me they didn’t have a bagful, the sales lady broke a few donuts to give me a full bag for my 15 cents.
Another reason we all loved Gately’s was that it was the Roseland scouting headquarters. Gately’s had everything from books to camping equipment for Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and Brownies and Girl Scouts. If you couldn’t find it at Gately’s, it probably was a special order item.
That didn’t just go for scouting — it went for anything you might need. The story goes that old man Gately originated the center aisle sales bins. You walked in through the front revolving doors and right past the sales items in the bins. After the bins, it was time to make a choice. You could go up the stairs, pass by the seating area along the balcony where the retirees and husbands hung out, to women’s clothing on the right, or you could go to the left and the shoe department and the restaurant in the back.
If you decided to go down the stairs you were in the donut, snack, grocery area. I’m sure there was an automotive section of some sorts downstairs. The big plus to Gately’s was the five-story parking garage behind the store. You could park there and no one minded if you went out of the building to any of the other shops on the Ave.
Of all the things we loved about Roseland, cruising the Ave was a favorite. Any of us that had access to “wheels” would make it a point on Friday nights of driving up and down the Ave looking for members of the opposite sex. It was a big part of the Roseland dating/mating game.
We would ride straight south on the Ave from 103rd Street to 111th Street as slowly as possible, making our way through the shopping area. After 116th Street, normal driving resumed all the way down to 127th Street, which was home to three drive-in with car hops.
All these things mean that much more to us because many of us met the loves of our lives on the Ave. I met my future wife at Fenger Junior College and we married at St. Anthony’s on Kensington. Before our reception at Club Allegro on Halsted on Dec. 23, 1972, we looking out on a snow-covered Ave from the Tea Garden Chinese Restaurant, where my new wife’s Aunt Ying presented a fantastic din sum to me and her niece, the new Marilyn Chao Martello.
Copies of “Petals from Roseland: Fond Memories of Chicago’s Roseland, Pullman and Kensington Neighborhoods” are available with prompt first-class delivery at $20 + $5 shipping and handling. The book has sold more than 600 copies since it became available a year ago. Roselandites who have bought my book are very excited to have their memories brought to life. I’m thankful for the opportunity to have provided so many fond memories of Roseland.
Contact me by writing to 11403 S. Saint Lawrence Ave., Chicago, IL 60628; calling me at 773-701-6756; or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.