Chicago’s Top 40 Artistic Breakthroughs

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The inaugural SNL cast
#13—Saturday Night Live raids the improvisational comic warehouse The Second City for its inaugural cast, and the TV show’s immediate success establishes the Old Town institution as a major comedy factory. For more photos of Chicago’s artistic breakthroughs, check out the photo gallery »



Chicago’s great artistic breakthroughs

To celebrate our magazine’s 40th anniversary this December, we name the 40 best records, restaurants, movies, and more

In plowing through 175 years of Chicago’s history to pick the top 40 artistic breakthroughs, we looked for seminal moments that reverberated nationally or even worldwide. But in many instances, we found a pleasing subtext: an ability to make magic with a humble budget and virtual anonymity—think Mamet when he was a Second City busboy, Muddy when he was still behind the wheel of a truck.

A few caveats: Our list is light on books and buildings—both categories have been or will be examined separately in this series. (Our Top 40 Novels list is here; look for Top 40 Buildings in our next issue.) We’ve tried to tilt toward high art, not pop culture, even when diverting to pop culture venues, such as television. And we’ve ranked the breakthroughs in importance, with the highest at number 1. But, true to the city’s tradition of creative, open debate (see number 38), feel free to stand on your soapbox and rail against our choices in the comments section below.

40. September 1950 In a Time article about the pioneering Chicago TV shows Kukla, Fran, and Ollie and Garroway at Large, the NBC station manager Jules Herbuveaux explains that “Chicago goes its own way.” The budgets and equipment may be modest, and the stories are mostly ad-libbed. But the talent is spot-on, and for a moment in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Chicago school of television rules with its recipe of informality and invention.

39. September 2000 In his breakout graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware marries his nostalgic, geometric drawings with a narrative style that’s marked by flawed Everymen and nonlinear storylines. A fixture in Chicago’s comics community since the 1990s, Ware introduces the art world to the graphic novella form when he exhibits in the Whitney Biennial and, later, the Museum of Contemporary Art. For Ware’s thoughts on drawing comics, watch the video below:

38. August 1916 The union organizer and frequent Bughouse Square orator Jack Jones finds a home for his epitome of bohemia, the Dil Pickle Club, in a converted garage on Pearson Street (the party later moves to Tooker Alley near Bughouse Square). The freewheeling club attracts counter-culturalists of all passions and exposes them to art, dance, hobo music, and literature. Luminaries such as Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, and Ben Hecht stop by. With a capacity of 700, a stage, and a motley crew of actors called the Dil Pickle Players, the club becomes one of the city’s most popular “little” theatres and showcases local playwrights alongside the works of Henrik Ibsen, Eugene O’Neill, and George Bernard Shaw.

37. 1947 While at Roosevelt University on the GI Bill, Joe Segal starts holding jazz concerts in empty classrooms on nights when the Chicago clubs are closed. He charges students 25 cents to see the likes of Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, and Miles Davis. Segal never finishes at Roosevelt, but the pugnacious promoter launches a career as one of the foremost supporters of American jazz.

36. November 1995 Ira Glass tapes a chat with his mother and a story from Wired magazine cofounder Kevin Kelly for the debut episode of his idiosyncratic radio show Your Radio Playhouse, which is later renamed This American Life. No topic—be it robots or the subprime mortgage crisis—is too silly or serious for the WBEZ-rooted show, which exposes the work of journalists, comedians, poets, and modern storytellers to some 1.7 million listeners. To hear Glass discuss storytelling, watch the video below:

35. December 1958 After traveling to 24 cities, the Ebony Fashion Fair—the largest traveling show in the history of couture—comes home to Chicago, where its creator, Eunice Johnson, introduces black consumers to world-class designers such as Dior, Chanel, Lanvin, and Oleg Cassini. The wife of John Johnson, the founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, Eunice doesn’t just borrow the clothes for her lavish shows, she buys them, and she helps boost the careers of black designers such as Patrick Kelly and Stephen Burrows.

34. September 1900 A professional roustabout named L. Frank Baum writes a tale about a tin woodsman who lives in a magical world called Oz—a fanciful place inspired by Baum’s visits to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. He hands his story to a newspaper illustrator, W. W. Denslow, who produces the most lavish pictures yet created in American children’s literature. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz becomes a bestseller—and America has its first homegrown fairy tale.

33. 1967 The fiery young Englewood poet Haki Madhubuti—then called by his birth name, Don L. Lee—meets the poet Gwendolyn Brooks at a poetry workshop in Woodlawn, and a friendship blossoms. The pair proselytize the art of poetry in South Side bars, and under the banner of Third World Press, Madhubuti ultimately publishes ten collections of Brooks’s writing, including her only novel, Maud Martha. In 2006, Madhubuti becomes the first black publisher to land a book on the top spot on The New York Times bestseller list, with The Covenant with Black America, edited by Tavis Smiley. For Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool,” watch the video below:

32. June 2000 Richard Wright, a dealer of 20th-century furniture and art, hoists the gavel for his first auction, featuring designs by Alvar Aalto, George Nelson, Edward Wormley, and Charles and Ray Eames. Wright quickly builds an auction category for modern design and, not content to focus only on historically accepted work, begins to use his market prowess to nurture new contemporary designers.

31. December 1957 At the urging of his fellow folkie Bob Gibson, a 20-something musician named Frank Hamilton begins performing at the Left Bank–inspired folk club the Gate of Horn. There, Hamilton meets the singer Win Stracke and the folk enthusiast Dawn Greening and, with their support, opens the tiny Old Town School of Folk Music in a dingy bank building at 333 North Avenue. The school becomes a musical institution, inspiring generations with its group classes, jam sessions, and performances.


Photograph: (Saturday Night Live cast) © NBC/courtesy of the Everett Collection

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