Saturday, January 18, 2020

Anton Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard Bloomed in Moscow

Anton Chekhov--Physician and playwright.
The play opened on the celebrated author’s 44th birthday on January 17, 1904 at Moscow’s most prestigious theater under the direction of the man who would become famous as the founder of a new school of acting.  The Cherry Orchard was also Anton Chekhov’s last completed work, finished months earlier after years of work on it.  It and Constantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater would revolutionize 20th Century drama.
There had been earlier harbingers of a tectonic shift in theater, beginning with the work of Heinrik Ibsen in plays like The Doll’s House around 1880.  Rooted in reality rather than heroics or melodrama, Ibsen’s plays were also dramas of ideas, commentary on social mores and expectations.  He had drawn the attention and appreciation of commentators like George Bernard Shaw then a London theater critic and essayist.  Later in America Emma Goldman would lecture on him on the Lyceum Circuit.  In Russia idealistic young writers and performers took notice.
The most formidable of all was Chekhov.
The future writer was born in Taganrog, a port on the Sea of Azov in southern Russia in 1860.  His father was born a serf but had risen in the world to become owner of a small grocery.  He was devout to the point of fanaticism, the choir master at a local Greek Orthodox church, and a despot in the home.  His mother, to whom young Anton was devoted had traveled widely as a child with her cloth merchant father and nurtured a softer side of him.
Anton and his brothers were educated in a local Greek academy and later at the municipal gymnasium—an advanced level school roughly equivalent of an American college prep high school.  He was set back one year at age 14 for failure in Greek, to his father’s rage.  During his schooling he sang in his father’s church choirs and in the choir of a local monetary. 
His life was saturated with religion but the hypocrisy of his father’s behavior in contrast to Christian ideals soured him on the Church and led to his eventual atheism.
While he was attending school, his father abandoned the family after spending too much money constructing a house plunging the family overnight into desperate poverty.  His father fled to Moscow where two older brothers were attending university to avoid debtor’s prison leaving behind his mother and Anton to try and save the house.  Eventually the debts were paid by a local a man called Selivanov who took possession of the house—the genesis of a character and situation in The Cherry Orchard.  
His mother joined the rest of the family in Moscow leaving Anton to board with Selivanov and finish his education at his own expense.  He scraped together an income by tutoring and by catching and selling colorful finches in the local market.  He also began contributing short sketches and articles to a local newspaper.  Thus he began a literary career out of necessity, viewing it at first as just a means of survival.  Every kopek he could afford was sent to his desperate family in Moscow along with long, loving letters meant to cheer his mother who was undergoing emotional and physical collapse.
Chekhov was also reading widely and deeply—Cervantes, Turgenev, Goncharov, and Schopenhauer being especially influential.  He also conducted several love affairs with local girls and older women, including one with the wife of a tutor.  He also began to experiment with drama, completing a manuscript for a full lengthy comedy/drama Fatherless.  When he eagerly sent a copy to an older brother hoping for approval he was crushed when Alexander dismissed it as “an inexcusable though innocent fabrication.”
Chekhov as a medical student.
In 1879 he completed his gymnasium studies and gained admission to the medical school at I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University.  Living with his family in the city, Anton found himself not only responsible for the cost of his education, but virtually the sole support of his family.  In addition to rigorous studies he turned to a relentless daily output of writing.  He wrote humorous sketches and vignettes of contemporary Russian life, many under pseudonyms such as Antosha Chekhonte and Man without a Spleen.
He soon had a budding literary reputation and drew the attention of one of the city’s leading publishers, Nikolai Leykin who made him a regular contributor to his Oskolki (Fragments) journal in 1882.
In 1884 Chekhov graduated and was qualified to practice as a physician.  He always considered medicine his primary occupation and practiced throughout his life.  He later remarked “medicine was my wife, literature was my mistress.”  Still, most of his income came from his writing, especially as in practice he donated much of his medical services to the poor.
Keeping up a relentless dual schedule as doctor and writer, Chekhov was able to help his family move increasingly comfortable loggings.  But his health suffered and by the mid-1880’s he was coughing blood into his handkerchief—which as any reader knows is always the first sign of a doomed character.  He refused to be examined for what he knew must be tuberculosis and kept up his work.
In 1886 the publisher of Novoye Vremya (New Times) in St. Petersburg, a newspaper of wide circulation and influence, made Chekov a regular contributor at double the pay of Oskolki.  His contributions were a huge popular success and for the first time attracted attention of the Russian literary elite.  Dmitry Grigorovich wrote to Chekhov after reading his short story The Huntsman, “You have real talent—a talent which places you in the front rank among writers in the new generation.”   He advised him to slow down, write less, and concentrate on literary quality.
Chekhov was thunderstruck with the appreciation, “I have written my stories the way reporters write up their notes about fires—mechanically, half-consciously, caring nothing about either the reader or myself.”  But now he would take the advice—and take himself more seriously as a writer.
In 1887 this renewed dedication paid off when his first collection of stories, V Sumerkakh (At Dusk) won Chekhov the Pushkin Prize “for the best literary production distinguished by high artistic worth.”  In the heady world of the Russian intelligentsia the 26 year old had arrived.
The same year, exhausted from over work and ill, Chekhov finally felt he could take a trip to rest and recuperate secure in the knowledge that his family was well provided for.  He toured the Ukraine and was moved by beauty of the steppe.  The trip inspired a novella about a young boy forced to leave home crossing plains in company of a priest and a merchant.  Short on plot, the story viewed the journey through the eyes of each and the physical setting was a virtual fourth character.  It was so unusual he at first had a hard time placing it, but eventually The Steppe found a home in Severny Vestnik (The Northern Herald), the writer’s first publication in a literary magazine instead of a newspaper.  It also marked the beginning of his use of nature in his work—which continued right up to The Cherry Orchard and which is why many critics now regard him as one of the first environmental writers.
The next year, 1887, Chekhov was commissioned by a Moscow theater to write a play.  He dashed off Ivanov in ten days in much the same machine like haste that he used to produce newspaper sketches.  Although the play was a moderate success, the author hated it and told his brother he could not even recognize the words as his own.  He subsequently heavily revised the script and it was produced anew in St. Petersburg to glowing reviews.  Although not today considered part of the core Chekhov canon the experience whetted his appetite for drama and is a preview of the more mature work ahead.
In 1889 Chekhov’s brother Nikolay died of tuberculosis, plunging him into a deep depression.  It was the basis of a morose tale aptly named A Dreary Story.  As he recovered from his grief he became interested in brother Mikhail’s research into prison conditions.  

A photograph by Chekhov of guards and forced labor prisoners on Sakhalin Island in 1890.  His expose of brutal conditions stirred sympathy with the intelegencia but failed to move the Czarist government 
As a result in 1890 the frail Chekhov undertook a grueling journey to by train, carriage, and river steamer to the Russian far east penal colony, on Sakhalin Island.  Ostensibly gathering census data, he interviewed officials, guards, inmates, and the inhabitants of the remote town.  He witnessed firsthand casual brutality, regular beatings, the sale of women prisoners into prostitution, and the corruption of officials who pocketed funds for food, fuel, and clothing leaving inmates in desperate condition.  He was especially moved by the plight of children imprisoned with their parents.
The journey resulted in a rather scholarly report, Ostrov Sakhalin (The Island of Sakhalin), which he hoped would stir the government to institute reform.   Although it got the attention of intellectuals, the government itself was unmoved.  For them the very purpose of exile prisons was to be hell on earth and the fate of prisoners of no consequence except as warning to others.  He also referenced Sakhalin in his short story The Murder.

Chekhov (below left) is at his estate Melikhovo near Moscow in the company of local self-governance delegates and one of his dachshunds.
By 1892 Chekhov was wealthy enough to buy a small country estate, Melikhovo, about forty miles south of Moscow, where he lived with his family until 1899.  He took delight in overseeing his farm and in planting numerous trees, including a much beloved cherry orchard, often musing on what they would look like in a century or so, long after he was dead.  He also took seriously the role of a benevolent landlord.  He cared for the peasants as a doctor through epidemics of cholera and a local famine due to crop failure.  During his entire tenure there they came almost daily to his home where he tended them without charge and often traveled miles to attend those too ill or infirm to come in.  He also built three schools, a fire station, and eventually a clinic in which to see patients.
Most importantly, for the first time Chekhov really mixed with all levels of society, getting to know them all from the lowliest serf to the local aristocracy, visiting them in their homes and having them at his.  The experience opened up his writing and resulted in stories like Peasants which not only document their wretched, crowded living conditions, but treated the characters as fully formed individuals, not as either a stereotype or an empty symbol on which to hang a political polemic
While in residence at his estate, Chekhov turned once again to drama.  The Seagull opened on October 17, 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.  Considered the first of his classic plays, it had a large ensemble cast, significant sub-text in the dialogue, and violated theater convention by having the suicide of one character occur not off stage, but in front of the audience for full shocking effect.  The cast, classically trained actors, were uncomfortable and the director unable to pull together a coherent production.  The audience began booing and jeering during the first act.  Chekhov took refuge back stage.  The leading lady lost her voice in shock.  It was a humiliating failure.
Chekhov took it to heart and retreated to his estate vowing to be done with the theater.  The play, however, continued its run and the performers became more comfortable.  Audience warmed to it.  If it was not a hit several important writers and critics saw promise in it, if placed in the right hands.

Constantin Stanislavski, director of the Moscow Art Theater and influential acting teacher whose work became the Method.
Those hands belonged to Constantin Stanislavski and his Moscow Art Theater, the country’s most innovative and avant-garde company.   They mounted a new production of The Seagull in 1898.  It was a sensation.  It renewed Chekhov’s confidence and Stanislavski commissioned more plays from the writer. The following year the company staged Uncle Vanya to equal praise.

Chekhov in heady company with Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy in Yalta.
During this period Chekhov’s health failed.  He was finally persuaded to admit himself to a clinic where he was promptly diagnosed with tuberculosis and told to relocate to a warmer climate.  Reluctantly, he left his beloved estate and with his mother and sister took up residence in Yalta in the Crimea.  He was not entirely happy there despite entertaining famous and admiring visitors like Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.  He referred to it as his “hot Siberia.”  Despite planting new orchards, he was happier when he could get back to Moscow or was well enough to travel.
On one journey, he visited his old estate and was devastated to learn that his beloved cherry orchard there had been cut down for development by the new owners.
He could only work a few hours a day, not at his famous driving clip.  It took him a year to finish his next script for Stanislavski, Three Sisters,   which was inspired by the real life English Brontë sisters had strong roles for the principle women.  In fact, nuanced, believable women were becoming a hallmark of Chekhov’s work.  One of the lead actresses in the 1901 production was Olga Knipper who the playwright, a notorious bachelor who had confessed his preference for brief affairs and the comforts of the brothel to marriage, wed very privately on May 25 of that year.

Chekhov with his leading lady wife Olga Knipper--a happy marriage because the were most often apart.
The two had met during rehearsals for the Art Theater’s production of The Seagull and had maintained a playful correspondence for years deepening into love and affection.  She also had a leading role in Uncle Vanya.  Chekhov wrote the juicy part of Masha, the middle and most artistically accomplished of the three sisters, for Olga.  The author had previously told a friend that he could only marry under the conditions that, “she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her ... give me a wife who, like the moon, won't appear in my sky every day. Those were the exact circumstances of the apparently happy marriage—Chekhov spending most of his time in Yalta and she pursing here stage career in the city.
Chekhov’s health was failing as he began work on The Cherry Orchard and he knew it.  Into the play he gathered strands from his life—his childhood and the loss his home, the devastation of his beloved orchard.  He also gathered themes.  He worked slowly, painfully and in almost total secrecy as if to utter a word about his project would doom it.  It was only as he was nearly finished that while in Moscow comforting his wife on a miscarriage that he whispered the words Cherry Orchard in her ear.

The ensemble cast of The Cherry Orchard in the Moscow Art Theater production.
The reception of The Cherry Orchard that cold birthday in 1904 with his wife on stage was maybe the highpoint of the writer’s life, a final vindication—and a valediction as well.
That spring after the run of the play Chekhov and Olga went to the German spa town of Badenweiler in the Black Forest in hopes that the waters would help his deteriorating condition.  Despite cheerful notes home to his mother and sister, he knew he was dying.
Olga described the event on July 15, 1904:
Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe (“I’m dying”). The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: “It's a long time since I drank champagne.” He drained it, lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child.
His body was returned to Moscow packed in ice with a carload of oysters.  Hundreds attended the funeral, and thousands accidently followed the funeral cortege of a general escorted by a military band thinking it was his.  He was laid to rest in a church yard next to the father who had made his life miserable and who he had supported in his old age.
Olga never remarried.  She continued a long and successful career as a member of the Moscow Art Theater and died in the city on March 22, 1959 at the age of 90.
The four plays produced by the Moscow Art Theater, especially The Cherry Orchard and dozens of superb short stories have out lived them both.
Within a very few years The Cherry Orchard and the other plays were translated into English and mounted on the London stage.  Once again George Bernard Shaw was their champion.  James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield were among the writers influenced by his work.
In the U.S. Chekhov and Stanislavski rose in reputation in tandem through productions of the Group Theater and the development of the director’s ideas into what became known as method acting.  American playwrights including Eugene O’Neil, Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, and Tennessee Williams were inspired.  Around the world the theater was profoundly changed.
Of course over time, new generations of writers began to rebel against a new “classic” form.  As early as the 1920’s writers like Luigi Pirandello, Berthold Brecht, and later Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Becket would rebel at the conventions of naturalism.  But they never totally supplanted it.
Today Chekhov’s plays are considered modern classics.  The Cherry Orchard is consistently at or near the top of the most produced plays in the world, year after year.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Yukon Gold—Robert Service Poet of the Parka and the Mukluks

Robert Service at his Dawson cabin circa 1910.
One of the joys of my life is highlighting poets that drive poetry snobs the brink of homicidal mania.  They are so cute choking on outrage and condescension.  And no poet fits that bill better than the once wildly popular Canadian bard Robert W. Service.
Service was born on January 16, 1874 in Preston, Lancashire, England.  He was the oldest son of a Scottish banker and was eventually joined by 10 brothers and sisters.  Despite having the honor of being named for his father, the boy was farmed out for one reason or another to the care of his paternal grandfather, the local Postmaster in Kilwinning, Scotland and three maiden aunts.
When he was only six year old he showed off his native aptitude by composing and reciting his first poem—grace at the dinner table.  Recorded for posterity it went like this:
            God bless the cakes and bless the jam;
            Bless the cheese and the cold boiled ham:
            Bless the scones Aunt Jeannie makes,
            And save us all from bellyaches. Amen
It annoys me no end that this bit of juvenile ephemera is so much better than my first poetic effort not attempted until I was above the ripe old age of 10.  The stab at a limerick failed because I couldn’t get it to scan right and was built around rhyming Elvis with pelvis which is lame and pathetic.
Back to Service.  When his father got a plumb job at the Bank of Scotland in Glasgow the boy rejoined his family and began studies at age 9 at Hillhead Primary School, a prestigious day school attended by children of the faculty of the near-by University of Glasgow, civil servants, and the managerial staff—the aspiring middle class.  In addition to pursuing the established curriculum young Robert widely read the English Romantic.  He was soon peddling occasional verse to local newspapers for a few pennies of spending money.
In the new Hillhead High School, Robert excelled in his studies but also enjoyed adventure yarns, especially stories about pioneers and cowboys in the American West.  After graduating from school and saving his money from a Commercial Bank of Scotland minor clerkship, Service was able to immigrate to Vancouver Island, British Columbia arriving on the scene to some ridicule bedecked in a costume modeled on Buffalo Bill Cody.
Service took up the life of a sort of gentleman hobo ranging down the Pacific Coast as far as Mexico and back working an odd assortment of catch-as-catch-can jobs, sponging off sympathetic fellow Scotts when he could find them, and having various adventures including a suitably tragic doomed romance.
In 1899 he found himself a clerking in a Cowichan Bay, British Columbia store.  An offhand comment to a customer that he wrote verse resulted in an invitation to submit pieces to the Victoria Daily Colonist, which published six pieces on the Boer War in the summer of 1900 under the initials R.S.  For inspiration Service drew on letters of his younger brother Alex who was in Boer prisoner of war camp with a young cavalryman named Winston Churchill.  One of the poems, The March of the Dead, attracted a lot of attention and was picked up by papers across Canada.  The poem would end up in Service’s first collection. 
The Colonist continued to print Service’s verse through 1902 and he discovered that he was getting something of a literary reputation.  But he failed at love and at a fling at brand new Victoria College, a two year off-shoot of McGill University.
So in 1904 he used his Bank of Scotland letter of recommendation to get a job with the Canadian Bank of Commerce branch in Victoria.   He proved his worth and was soon advancing. In 1905 Service got his dream post, to a bank branch in   Whitehorse, a rough and tumble frontier town and the hoping off point for the Yukon gold fields.  Service had been dreaming of this adventure for some times and had already composed some gold field ballads before ever arriving on the scene.
Service passed his idle time in the saloons frequented by sourdough veterans and naïve city kids caught up in the flush of gold fever.  He played the piano and kept his ear open for good yarns.  Using popular verses like Casey at the Bat and especially Rudyard Kipling’s Barracks Ballads as his model, he began to turn some of those yarns in poetry.

Services's phenominally succesful first collection made him rich and famous.

The Shooting of Dan McGrew was dashed off at the suggestion of a local newspaper editor for recitation at a Sunday afternoon Church entertainment.  That was so well received the he quickly finished another The Cremation of Sam McGee.  The poems made him famous almost overnight and he continued to collect more yarns and set them down in rhyme and meter.  He seldom ventured far from Whitehorse himself and he did not make it to Dawson in the Klondike   until 1908, ten years past the frenzied peak of the Gold Rush.  
Service sent sheaves of his poems to his father, by then living in Toronto, who arranged them and found a publisher.  Service had planned to pay for the run himself and peddle his books back around Dawson and Whitehorse.  But the editors and typesetters were so taken by the rhymes that they legendarily began reciting them as they worked.  Friends shared them informally in galley proofs.   Based on word of mouth, more than 1,700 were sold in advance before the book could be bound.  Songs of a Sourdough went through seven printings even before its official release date.  Editions printed in New York, Philadelphia, and London was just as successful.

Service was suddenly a rich man, making more than $100,000 pre-inflation dollars on his first book alone.
But he was still working for the bank.  After finishing three years in Dawson Service was given a three month leave which he used to go back to Vancouver Island and to look up the pretty girl who had once spurned him because of his poverty and slim prospects.  This time Constance MacLean agreed to an engagement. 
Service was assigned by the bank back to Whitehorse, where he used his spare time to collect more yarns from old timers.  A second book, Ballads of a Cheechako, was as big a success as the first.  He now felt comfortable to turn down a promotion to manager of the Whitehorse Branch and quit banking for good in 1909.
A scene from the 1915 silent version of The Shooting of Dan McGrew.  Service was on set for the 1924 MGM remake.
He returned to Dawson where he rented a small cabin and set to writing a novel. The Trail of ’98, written in five intense month of work, was yet another best seller.  Service used his new wealth to travel to Europe and to Hollywood where some of his best known poems were being made into silent films.  But somewhere in those travels and adventures he lost his lady love.
Service came back to Dawson one last time in 1912 to collect stories for another book of poems, Ballad of a Rolling Stone. After that it was off to Europe as a foreign correspondent covering the Balkan Wars for before settling in France to live off of his considerable wealth.
In 1913 he settled in Paris with a summer home in Lancieux, Côtes-d'Armor, in Brittany.  In Paris, despite his wealth, Service chose to live as an artist on the Left Bank.  He married Parisienne Germaine Bourgoin, thirteen years his junior, a happy union that produced children and lasted the rest of the poet’s life.

Service as an Ambulance Corps driver on the Western Front.
When the war broke out Service was turned down for active service with the British because of varicose veins.  Instead the 41 year old poet became a war correspondent again.  After nearly being shot as a spy by panicked English troops near Dunkirk, Service enlisted in the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps, the same outfit in which other writers like Ernest Hemingway and e.e. cummings served.  His book of wartime poetry, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, in 1916 was dedicated to his brother LT. Albert Service, Canadian Infantry, killed in action that August.  Most critics agree that the verses represented his best work ever.  They were written in Paris after his health broke under the strain of combat.
In post-war Paris, Service reveled in the life of the city.  By day he could be a gay boulevardier bedecked in finery, carrying a gold-headed cane and wearing a monocle.  At night he caroused with the doorman of his pension in the lowest dives and bistros in the city.  He was reputably the wealthiest expatriate writer in Paris and sometimes a soft touch for down and out artists and writers.  He chronicled those days in a new collection of poetry, Ballads of a Bohemian in which the verses are interspersed with journal passages.
Through the ‘20’s Service concentrated on writing popular thriller novels, some of which were adapted to Hollywood.
The rise of tyrants of the Left and Right caught his attention after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1930 which inspired the savage sarcasm of a new long poem Lenin’s Tomb.  Hitler fared no better in poems printed in the popular press.  When news of the Hitler-Stalin Pact broke in 1939 Service and his family were in once again visiting.  With the secret police of both nations looking for him, the family had to go on the lam across the continent.

Service playing himself with Marlene Dietrich on the set of The Spoilers,
After a brief return to Canada, Service and his family settled into California during World War II.  He lent his talents to the war effort by entertaining the troops with recitations of his most popular work.  He found that many of the GIs could recite with him, word for word.  At the request of Marlene Dietrich he was cast as himself in The Spoilers with John Wayne and Randolph Scott.

After the war, Service and his family returned to France.  They found their summer home in Brittany destroyed.  They rebuilt the chateau and Service lived there the rest of his life between travels.  In semi-retirement he continued to write novels, occasional satiric verse.  He completed two volumes of memoirs, Ploughman of the Moon and Harper of Heave in addition to six more books of verse.  If his poems seemed old fashion, if the critics sneered—and they always sneered—if the new volumes failed to sell faster than they could be printed, Service was unconcerned

He never claimed to be a poet, he said, just a simple versifier who could catch the imagination of common people much like himself.  He never won an award or prize.  His status in Canada became more of one of National buffoon instead of the national bard despite selling more poetry than anyone before or since.  

Scoffed at by critics Service's poems remain popular with ordinary folk and was celebrated by the Canada Post.

 Service died on September 11, 1958 at age 84 in Lancieux, Côtes-d’Armor, and was buried there. His wife Germaine lived on 31 years following his death, dying at age 102 in 1989.

Critics may continue to scoff.  But when I was a Cub Scout long ago, we voluntarily memorized The Cremation of Sam McGee so that we could recite it around a winter campfire. No greater tribute could there be.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.

The Banker Poet

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Frigid End of Col. McCormick’s Dream

In the gray morning the Chicago Fire Department continued to pour water on the smoldering ruins of McCormick Place to extinguish hot spots.

It was gargantuan—a behemoth of a building—a long white box on the Lake Front.  It was an economic powerhouse to rival the belching steel mills of the South Works or the stinking, fading stockyards.  It was the thirty year dream of the Chicago Tribune’s powerful Col. Robert R. McCormick and the pride and joy of Mayor Richard J. Daley who finally pissed on Daniel Burnham’s plan and got it built.  McCormick Place was less than seven years old when in the frigid early morning hours of January 16, 1967 it was consumed in fire and left a heap of smoldering wreckage and warped steel beams.
Janitors working overnight to prep the opening the next day of the Housewares Show—then as now the biggest trade show in the U.S.—smelled smoke at 2:05.  The first Chicago Fire Department units on the scene discovered an already raging inferno.  They also discovered that most of the exterior fire hydrants had been disconnected during the construction of ramps for the new Stevenson Expressway and Lake Shore Drive and that the massive building lacked a sprinkler system.  Crews ran hoses over the ice to open Lake Michigan for water.  Valuable time was lost.
By 2:30 Robert Quinn, the colorful Fire Commissioner, best remembered for setting off the city’s air raid sirens when the White Sox clinched the American League Pennant back in 1959,  arrived, he upgraded it to a five-alarm fire. Eighteen minutes later, he ordered the first special alarm.  Before it was done, over 65% of the city’s fire equipment was engaged.  Routine cold weather fires elsewhere in the city consumed buildings that otherwise might have been saved.
The mammoth effort did no good.  The roof of the massive main convention hall collapsed.  The fire was declared finally struck at 9:30.  Only a damaged Arie Crown Theater remained standing.  One man, security guard Kenneth Goodman died in the fire and several firefighters had relatively minor injuries, mostly due to slipping on ice from all of the water poured on the fire.
The thousands in town for the Housewares show were at a loss—all of their exhibits were ruined.  Some smaller start ups lost their prototypes and never recovered.  Most exhibiters left town.  A handful tied to have some sort of show with brochures and what they had in their luggage at the Palmer House.
Predictably the two biggest backers of the exhibition hall tried to rally support for an immediate attempt to rebuild.  Mayor Daley told reporters, “This is a tragic loss to the people of Chicago. But remember the Chicago fire of 1871. The people recovered from that one.” And the Tribune echoed the sentiment and comparison in a front page editorial.
Way back when Chicago was indeed the Toddlin’ Town of the Jazz Age and the rail hub of America, the city had already become the convention center of the nation, supplanting previous claimants like Baltimore and Philadelphia.  Led by a series of national political conventions by both parties, word had gotten out that not only was the city capable of handling big events, but that as a wide open town its gin mills, nightclubs, burlesque houses, and armies of hotel lobby hookers attendees could have a mighty good time far away from home.

Political conventions like the 1920 Republican National Convention held at the Chicago Coliseum where Warren G. Harding won the nomination after negotiations in the original "smoky room" in a Loop Hotel, helped make the city the premier convention and trade show center of the U.S,
In the mid-‘20’s the main venue was the Coliseum on the near South Side, comfortably close to the notorious Levee District, a cavernous former Confederate Prison with a castle-like façade which had been converted from a Civil War museum.  The Armory and other smaller halls took up the slack.  But in the Roaring Twenties when people seemed to have money to burn, the biggest conventions along with trade events like the Auto Show were already outgrowing these venues.
Always a big dreamer, in 1927 Col. McCormick first proposed building a huge new hall.  He relentlessly used the pages of the Tribune to promote the idea.  And with his considerable clout in the city, no one doubted he could do it.

Chicago Tribune owner Col. Robert R. McCormick campaigned to build a Lake Front convention center for 30 years.
And he probably could have—if he was flexible on where it would be built.  But he was not.  He wanted it built on the Lake Front at 23rd Street, a couple of miles east of the McCormick Reaper Works, the foundation of his family fortune.  His family also controlled real estate nearby that could boom with a new convention center.  But he met the considerable opposition of many other members of the Chicago elite—or at least their formidable civic minded wives who refused to abandon the famous Burnham Plan which called for the entire Lake Front to be kept clear of development and preserved as open parkland for the citizens.
Then, one after another, other obstacles arose—the Crash of ’29 and the Great Depression took the economic wind out of the city, dried up the convention business and the money for private investment in the scheme.  Then the election of Anton Cermak as Mayor marked the end of Republican dominance of city government—and with it much of McCormick’s political clout.  Later it is conceivable that a project of that size and scope might have become a public works project with New Deal funding—but the McCormick’s virulent attacks on Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats cut off that possibility.  Then, of course, came World War II.
But McCormick never gave up his crusade even as new venues were built including the Chicago Stadium on West Madison in 1929 and the International Amphitheatre by the Stock Yards in 1934.  In 1950 Navy Pier was opened to trade shows, sharing space with both the active dock and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The 1950’s were another boom time reminiscent of the ‘20’s.  Trade shows, especially, were outgrowing available facilities and there were grumblings that some might now move as air travel was supplanting rail and making destinations like Los Angeles and San Francisco more attractive.  The Col. stepped up his campaign, but died in 1955, his dream unrealized.
The Col.’s death, however, was an opportunity for Richard J. Daley, just coming into his own as a building mayor with big plans.  He made peace with the Tribune which agreed to support his proposal for the long dreamed of Lake Front facility as a monument to the Col.’s memory.  They also agreed to wink at the public funding, which McCormick had always rejected.  There may also have been a tacit agreement to lay-off the Democratic administration.  Certainly there after that the Tribune was much friendlier to the Mayor and allowed the struggling Chicago Republican organization to wither away without support.
Ground was broken in 1958. Two years later McCormick Place was completed. The total cost was $41 million.  That figure did not include tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure support for the building including roadways, ramps, and utilities.  In tried and true Chicago fashion contracts were let to friends and cronies and there was plenty of cash to be skimmed, and the pockets of officials fattened.  From the beginning McCormick Place was a cash cow for many in so many ways.

Ugly as it was, the original McCormick Place was Chicago's pride and joy.
Despite being decried as an architectural monstrosity—it resembled an over-size concrete warehouse in an industrial district—the building was a success.  It opened with an intimate dinner for 500 movers and shakers presided over by a beaming Mayor Daley on November 18, 1960.  The next day the first exposition, World Flower and Garden Show, opened.
During its first year, the facility had 4.5 million visitors and exhibitors and hosted 28 major exhibitions.
McCormick Place had an interior exhibition space 1005 long and 300 feet wide which could comfortably fit six football fields. The cafeteria could serve 1,800 people in an hour. The Arie Crown Theater had 5,081 seats and a mammoth stage that could accommodate any production.  Despite notoriously bad acoustics the Theater soon became home to touring Broadway shows and the biggest concerts in the city in the days before outdoor arena shows
Use grew year by year.  And so did the money being pumped into the local economy.  An estimated 10,000 people were estimated to be employed directly by McCormick Place and its contractors and by vendors.  Thousands of others in the hospitality industry owed their jobs to the place. 
With all of this in jeopardy, Mayor Daley wasted no time in rebuilding.  A new financing scheme was already in the pipeline for planned expansion and renovation of the facility.  On the day after the fire Democratic Governor Otto Kerner hastily signed the financing deal that guaranteed enough money for the convention hall to be replaced.
The new building would rise in the footprint of the old and incorporate the still standing Arie Crown.  But it would be engineered to new fire standards and instead of an ugly box would stand a sleek glass and steel building.  On January 3, 1971, the replacement building, later called the East Building and now called the Lakeside Center, opened with a 300,000 square feet main exhibition hall.

The vast, sprawling McComick Place complex seen here in 2012 occupies both sidse of Lake Shore Drive connected by a pedestrian walkway spanning the road.
Since then additions have been made.  The North Building, across Lake Shore Drive was completed in 1986, is connected to the East Building by an enclosed pedestrian bridge. The South Building, dedicated in 1997, contains more than 1,000,000 square feet of exhibition space. It more than doubled the space in the complex and made McCormick Place the largest convention center in the nation. In August 2, 2007 the West Building with 470,000 square feet was added bringing McCormick Place’s total existing exhibition space to 2,670,000 square feet.
In 2017 the Wind Trust Arena, a 10,387 seat arena on Cermak Road just north of the West Building, opened.  It is currently home to DePaul University men’s and women’s basketball and the Chicago Sky of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA.)  It has also hosted rock concerts and special events like the Star Wars Celebration previews of new films and programs in the franchise—Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and The Mandalorian—were unveiled with epic ballyhoo in 2019.  The same year it was the site for the inauguration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot

McCormick Place at night.
Despite the expansion, there have been controversies and challenges for McCormick Place.   Trade shows long complained about labor costs in Chicago where contracts with numerous crafts led to classic featherbedding from the number of laborers needed to unload trucks to riggers being required to unfold tables and electricians to plug in an extension cord—or allegedly even to turn on a switch.  Big exhibitions, led by the Housewares Show began to threaten to leave the city unless reforms were made.  Despite initial foot dragging by the City and a long rear-guard action by the craft locals, eventually pressure from the Illinois General Assembly which threatened fund and bond authority for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, pushed the unions into significant concessions.  Now exhibitors can put up their own displays or hire contractors to do it without using the facility’s union personnel with some restrictions.
Some major expositions—most notably the Consumer Electronics Show abandoned the city anyway for the warmth and glitz of Las Vegas where hotel rooms are cheap and sin is still peddled.  Chicago has become a sanitized city, squeaky clean, with most of the old open vice gone or driven underground, and with it one of the lures of city.
Smaller shows and conventions now often locate at facilities near O’Hare.

Entrance to the Chicago Auto Show in 2019.
Still, McCormick Place is busy and its various halls host hundreds of events every year.   It remains an economic powerhouse.  It will hold Sox Fest this weekend and the Chicago Auto Show, the largest in the nation, which opens for its 118th edition for a two week run on February.