Hard Times Christmas in Chicago

he Selig Polyscope Company was one of the very first movie studios in the country. Located on a 200 acre parcel in what is now a residential area of Chicago, Selig produced the first version of Chicago native L. Frank Baum’s ‘Wizard of Oz.”

In the flickering candlelight, she sat rocking the baby at the back of the empty dining hall. Smelling the sandalwood candle, with some unknown part of me wanting to leap straight and true right into her eyes, came this thought, I wish I could give her more than Mister Foster’s song.

Which made no sense at all.

First, because there were no women living here. This was 1901. Women don’t live, or even take their meals, in a house on the Western Road halfway between the stone quarry and the Selig Polyscope Company, where they made moving pictures; the place I was lucky enough to find work this cold December of the new century.

But there was more than that. She looked at me as if she was waiting for a fight. As if she knew she could take me. A soul who would, down to her very core, never accept anything from anyone.

As I breathed in the sandalwood, something made me wonder. Just where upon this earth, have I met you before?

I met her defiant and somehow amused gaze. She nodded. Rocking the baby. And I wondered if this is why I was here.

My journey here had begun with a ship. A cold winter ship stuffed with Christmas trees.

Christmas trees from all of our farms across the Door Peninsula, in Northern Wisconsin. Hundreds of Christmas trees. Fruit of our harvest. Bound for Chicago. The chilled mint scent of evergreen like a blanket, as we departed the Port of Sturgeon Bay guided only by uncountable shimmering stars. The harvest was over. There was money to be made.

On the ship is where I first remember the smell of the sandalwood candle. A tiny flickering flame in the captain’s quarters. My job was to bring him his meals. He’d have a sandalwood candle lit. As if the fingernail flame could stand guard against the dark waves of the giant Lake Michigan.

I remember my fear. Why is there fire on this ship full of trees?

Then docking in Chicago. I remember clearly how I got from the smoky grinding sewage-stinking port on the shores of the Chicago River, where we unloaded the trees, on up to Colonel Selig’s Polyscope Movie Studios seven miles north. I walked.

Into the strange city night I walked: beyond the rows of worker’s homes, millionaires’ mansions and miles of wooden shacks inhabited by the very poor. Out to the crossroads of Western Road and a road named for a place called Irving Park. I remember looking up, wondering where the stars went in this strange place called a city, where there always seemed to be some sort of noise and it never really got to the dark part of night.

On through the night, it was just before dawn when I first saw the giant cluster of buildings and fields where the Colonel made his moving pictures. In fact, I remember walking under a sign that said OFFICE and into a room where a man clearly in charge was terrifying a trembling woman at a desk, with the mere volume of his voice.

“I told you, Mr. Thomas Edison is a brilliant man! A lawyer first, a man of science next…but above all, he is a scoundrel! Bless him and his moving picture machine. But his machine is different. My Polyscope is of course the superior contraption. And he will never, ever, ever shut me down!”

On the word “down” he thrust his index finger high above his head, made a grand circle in the air, and then marched towards the door, where I stood open-mouthed. As he huffed by me, he winked so that only I, a perfect stranger, would see him and he whispered, “Of course Edison’s lawyers will never find me here. And if they do? I’ll move all the making of the motion pictures to the western coast. I’ve heard tell of this place called Hollywood.”

There was a beat of silence. I remember the woman behind the desk was also burning a sandalwood candle. She turned to me and said, “Well, that was our employer. Colonel Selig himself. And who, might I ask, are you?”

“I’m William. I come from the north. From the Door Peninsula. My ship is docked now for a month, and I hear there’s work here. May I have a job? All I know is hard work.”

The woman looked at me a moment. Then she moved her shoulder towards a broom in the corner. “Well, there’s the tool you’ll need for the inside. And we shoot outdoors as well, so you’ll need to make the snow go away. There ‘s a roadhouse with rooms a bit south of here. They’ll feed you. You can settle in there.”

“Ma’am when you say “shoot,” I’m afraid I. . . .”

“Shooting the motion pictures. At least 5 or 6 per week. Well, I suppose I’d best show you around. Now that you’ve met the Colonel, I can introduce you to the others. Course, we’re growing so fast, I no longer know everyone’s name. But I know most of them.”

I learned on my tour that the Selig Polyscope studio lot was a sprawling 200 acres. The same size as my Daddy’s tree farm in Door County. There were wooden stages from the vaudeville theaters like the one in Green Bay. Miles of cables and giant lights and Polyscope machines and yelling and commanding and the actors weeping on cue. Easy to fit in, too, what with everybody raising their hands to draw attention to themselves. Blending into the background was as easy as maple syrup dripping from a tree.

Having learned of the roadhouse, that night I took a room. I began taking my meals in the dining room with the other boarders. I was at the motion picture studio at six and didn’t leave till all the winter darkness had been settled in for hours, not till seven or so.

And it was good to just work hard. To jump in cleaning, carrying the rolled up cables, carrying the painted wooden pictures of mountains and saloons from one stage to another. As if I was helping build some kind of brand new world, in these motion pictures.

The days passed quickly at Polyscope Studios. The winter nights came early just like home. I was alone.

But I didn’t mind. In fact no one really did more than nod in my direction, until that morning of December 24th when a man I’d never even seen before, a gentleman, said to me. “Son, I am wondering if you would be good as my Tin Man.”

I wasn’t even close to understanding what that meant. I knew the man’s name. He was Mister L. Frank Baum. A friend of Colonel Selig. He had never spoken to me before, but I’d learned in my two weeks at the Selig Polyscope Studio that it was always better to say something. So I replied, “Would you like me to lift some tin for you sir?”

He smiled. In his white frock coat, a distinguished gentleman. His eyes were kind. “No son. Come with me to the eastern lot. I’ll show you what I mean.”

Mr. Baum motioned me to a chair. For the very first time since I had begun the job, I sat down. And I had watched the making of what he called his “Fairylogue.” The scenes were built around a young girl they called “Dorothy.” Although I knew her by her real name of Romola Remus.

In Mr. Baum’s Fairylogue, he would do something I heard people say had never been done before. He would point the Polyscope machine at the wall. The pictures he had taken of his characters talking would appear on the wall. And Mr. Baum would talk to the pictures! He somehow had sound in these little entertainments. Sometimes he called them “radio plays.” But what they were, basically, was he himself sitting and talking to Dorothy and her friends as they traveled to a place called Oz.

This “Oz” had what Mister Baum called a “Wizard.” And the Wizard knew all.

These were hard, hard times, that winter. Times when it seemed like that tiny sliver of rich folk was just getting richer, and the rest of us had to just make do.

So this Wizard. This Oz. It sounded good to me. Mister L. Frank Baum, I think he understood something about the world that I could not quite put into words…something about how there’s more to the world than what we see. In his white frock coat, with his kind eyes that took in every detail of the world; then somehow tried to paint what he saw in brighter colors, better days.

He told me that the Tin Man, and that would be me, was on the journey to Oz to find a heart. But that the surprise in the story is that once he got to Oz, he’d find that he already had a heart.

I wondered if there’d be surprises like finding hearts for me. If, in this cold winter, maybe something would change.

Or maybe there would always be hard times. Which is why we needed as many songs, as many stories as we could grow.

So that day I made one of Mister Baum’s Fairylogues with him. That day I was the Tin Man.

Tomorrow was Christmas. There would be no work at the Selig Polyscope Company. I’d just be in my room in the Western Avenue road house. And because it was Christmas Eve, Colonel Selig let us all out early. That’s why, when I wandered back to the Road House, the dining hall was still empty. Save for her and the baby.

Seeing the two of them, I didn’t speak; I just walked into the kitchen and told Maureen, the old cook who had taken a shine to me, that a bit of her hot vegetable soup and some cheese with an apple would be just the thing.

Thanking Maureen, I took the food out to the woman; put it down in front of her without saying a word. She began to eat as if it was her very first meal. As she ate, the other boarders started trickling in; some would pay her and her baby no mind. But others would stare, some with malice. And though the woman’s defiance showed, I could feel her slight tremor as I sat across the table.

So I took her hand, and I held on. We still had yet to say a word. But I took her hand. As we sat, holding hands across the table, her cradling the baby in her other arm, I nodded at the baby and she passed him over the table. As I took the baby in my arm, she reached across the table for my hand again.

Dinner was ending and someone started singing Christmas songs. She and I were quiet. Neither of us touched by false cheer.

And it was then I remembered that first thought. It was then I remembered thinking that I wish I could sing her Mister Stephen Foster’s song. It’s not a Christmas song. It’s not a song of false cheer or empty hope. It’s a song that looks the hard times straight in the eye. Just like she did. Like I did.

Hard Times come again no more.

She and I? We started singing. Somehow the harmony was perfect. And before we were done, we had the whole dining hall, lighting up the winter night, with the sad yet hopeful sounds of the music. Not for a moment believing that it wasn’t hard times. But just for a song length, believing through the music that the hard times would come again no more.

And when the echo of the song’s last breath was a memory, we all sat down and she spoke her first words to me.

She spoke the words, “Merry Christmas.”

2 Responses to “Hard Times Christmas in Chicago”

  1. Ted Schneider Says:

    Once again you have been able to tell a story in 3D – allowing the reader to travel with you and see, smell and experience the assorted emotions of the situation and the characters.

  2. Paulhaider74 Says:

    Roger, this is wonderful as always. Is that Emmylou Harris singing with the group? That Stephen Foster song is truly timeless; these are hard times for honest and decent people who are suffering and crying. The white-collar criminals of Wall Street are still laughing all the way to the bank (Skank of America, Wild Goose Chase Bank, ShittyGroup/ShittyBank, Hell’s Fargo, etc.).
    Paul Haider, Chicago

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