In June, 2005, Geoffrey Baer, producer and on-air host for WTTW, channel 11 began writing his latest documentary, “Chicago’s Western Suburbs: From Prairie Soil to Prairie Style.” Three of the approximately 34 suburbs chosen for inclusion in this program, to be aired for the final time on Monday, March 20, at 7:30 p.m. were Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. Major funding for this project was provided by Harris Bank, and it was produced in association with the Chicago Historical Museum.
Baer’s name is not unfamiliar to WTTW11 viewers who have “tele-toured” with him as he twice cruised the Chicago River, hiked through the skyscraper canyons of the loop, explored the lakefront, visited the city’s neighborhoods along the “L” lines, and examined the history of some of Chicago’s other suburban regions.
You might think that researching so many different communities would be a daunting task, but the job was made easier by focusing only on certain aspects of each village, and then contacting local libraries, historical societies, and knowledgeable residents for information. Making certain that Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park were accurately represented were Frank Lipo, Director of the Oak Park/River Forest Historical Society, and Rich Vitton of the Forest Park Historical Society.
It took about a year to finish this film, the fourth in a series of five TV “tours” of Chicago’s suburban regions. Forest Park, River Forest and Oak Park were only three of the many communities chosen. Besides all the initial research and writing, there was continuity to worry about, and editing, and a thousand other things.
From the beginning to the end, the program follows the general path of two railroad lines: the Burlington, and then the Chicago and Northwestern. The “tour” begins with the town of Cicero, mentioning its Al Capone connection, former Mayor Betty Loren Maltese, and the Western Electric Hawthorne Works plant that closed in 1984.
Berwyn is next, with its fantastic art sculptures at Cermak Plaza. One of these is the “Spindle,” several cars impaled on a spike, by sculptor Dustin Shuler, and commissioned for the price of $75,000.
Next up is Riverside, one of the first planned villages in the United States, a complete landmark all by itself. Here you’ll see the library, village hall, winding streets, gas lights, current train station, and restored water tower.
The Hollywood railroad stop’s artificial rock waiting area leads into the section on the Brookfield Zoo, and its connection with Edith Rockefeller McCormick. Then come a few more highlights, such as its Tropic World, and Seven Seas Dolphinarium.
The village of Brookfield then has its early Grossdale history examined, and some Victorian homes up and down the historic Grand Boulevard are featured.
After a stop in DuPage County, the tour heads back to Proviso Township, where Berkeley seems to be most known for the warm air hand dryers of the “World Dryer Corporation,” in business since 1948.
Melrose Park is home to the original Kiddieland, still around today, and the headquarters of Jewel Food Stores.
Forest Park, a village once called by “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” as being “more dead than alive,” receives the most attention in the film for its cemetery population of around 590,000 graves (the village’s live population in 2000 numbered at 15,688). But it is so much more than that, according to Rich Vitton of the Forest Park Historical Society.
Vitton said he also furnished information on the Temperance Movement, and the Girls Softball League for the show’s producers. While glad to have the publicity, Vitton noted that “As much as I wanted to pull away from the ‘dead’ thing, Baer kept wanting to go back to that.” Nevertheless, he enjoyed the documentary.
River Forest had its sweet moments, when Baer related that here were made the first Mars Bars, Milky Way bars, and Twinkies, and Kool-Aid, “the budget beverage,” invented by Edwin Perkins. These tasty delights could be eaten in homes designed by local architect, William Drummond.
When it came to the final village on the program, Oak Park, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was a natural, even obvious choice.
Wright, himself, had an especially high opinion of his Unity Temple building, constructed in 1905, saying it was the place where modern architecture began. Unity Temple is currently undergoing restoration at a cost of from 12 to 15 million dollars.
Geoffrey Baer’s inspiration for this program was simple enough, as is sometimes the case. “One of the wonderful things about the western suburbs is the diversity. From ethnic enclaves, to historic, upper-class communities, to sprawling suburbs. Stories about racial integration and change. Native American history. World famous architecture. And, of course, connections to literally dozens of great and famous characters. Wonderful!”