At a Karoll’s party in the 1960s at Chicago’s Covenant
Standing: Florence, Herb, Toni, and Dave Karoll, famed Chicago Blackhawks hockey player Bobby Hull and his wife Joanne, Anita Karoll, Ruth Lerman, Ann and Jack Wolff
Sitting: Sam Karoll, Peter and Judy Miller (my parents), Irving Lerman
I’m writing this from American Airlines Flight 1763 en route to John Wayne Airport in Orange County. We couldn’t get any flights out of LAX with our frequent flyer miles and there weren’t any coach seats left so we had to fly first class. Not exactly a bad thing in this day of no frills cattle-car flying. While our compatriots in the back of the plane had the honor of buying boxes of junk food for seven bucks a pop, we are being plied with free booze and just dined on salad, short ribs with potatoes and green beans, and ice cream sundaes. I wouldn’t say that any of it is worth the exorbitant price of an actual first class ticket but the extra leg room and decent grub is a welcomed nod to the old days when flying was fun and comfortable. I just cried my way through the documentary “Young at Heart” about a group of singing senior citizens from New York who travel the world performing in sold-out concerts. It was the perfect film to watch following my long stay in Chicago when so much of my time was wrapped up in the memories of family members who are no longer with us.
At this point in my digital archiving, I thought I’d seen it all so I was delighted when I found a box in my sister’s house containing more undiscovered treasures. Here is a photo from the Chicago Sun-Times of my grandfather Sam (at left) with his two brothers, Herb and Dave, celebrating the 50th anniversary of their menswear business in Chicago. This photo appeared in Kup’s Column on November 20, 1988. I remember that my grandfather was a good friend of Irv Kupcinet, a Chicago institution who also had a great TV show for many years. I wish I’d known about that luncheon. Today I’d give anything to hear my grandfather and uncles telling stories about the old days. The brothers are now gone, as are all but two members of that dearly missed generation, born in the early years of the 20th century.
This is the building that the Karoll brothers bought so many decades ago to house their flagship men’s clothing store. The Reliance Building, at the corner of State and Washington, sits directly across from Marshall Field’s and, with its large plate glass windows, is considered the first modern skyscraper. This postcard is from the 1920s and it is exactly how the restored building looks today in its new life as the swank Hotel Burnham, named after its famed architect Daniel H. Burnham who designed many landmark structures in the city including Marshall Field’s, the Rookery, and the Monadnock Building. He was the chief architect of the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair and is a major character in Erik Larson’s brilliant book, “The Devil in the White City.”
When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, the building had turned almost black with soot, had ugly fire escapes going up and down its side, and saw a steady increase of sleazy tenants and eventually no tenants at all (click here to see the amazing visuals that photographer Jay Boersma took in 1994 just prior to the building's renovation). The part of the building that juts out on top was removed in the 1950s because chunks of the aging terra cotta were breaking off and falling into the street. It was a mess. In my family’s defense, my cousin Julie told me last week that her grandfather, my Uncle Herb, made numerous attempts to raise the millions needed to restore the façade but it never happened until the city took ownership of the building in the early 1990s when Karoll’s went out of business.
Many of the artifacts of my family history evoke the long-ago heyday of the family business, once a successful chain of men’s clothing stores. A few weeks ago I featured photos and videos of my brother-in-law throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game and singing during the seventh-inning stretch but my family also had allegiances to the rival White Sox. I found a bunch of photos of my grandfather with members of that team but being a north sider myself, I don’t have a clue who these guys are. Are they famous players? Why didn’t I ever go to Comiskey Park with my grandfather and Uncle Paul, both avid White Sox fans if I remember correctly? Funny that they favored the Sox when they lived walking distance from Wrigley Field.
My grandfather even sponsored a Little League team in the 1950s, as seen in the photo below.
Who knew? That’s him in the center of the top row but I don’t recognize the other adults. Are they Karoll’s employees? And where are those kids today? I’d give anything for an original Karoll’s Pirates uniform! If anyone has any information about this team, let me know!
I hope my endless dips into the family archives aren’t too boring for people outside of my gene pool. Nothing excites me more than finding new artifacts from bygone eras. Rifling through old boxes and envelopes I feel like Indiana Jones, searching for treasures that are sadly no longer tied to first-person anecdotes from living relatives.
And now, as we wing our way through the western skies, I know that it’s time to let go of my obsession with the past and resume my present-day life as an adult in Los Angeles. I’m already in trouble for dissing Los Angeles in my previous post. Don’t get me wrong—I love L.A. but part of my heart will always belong to Chicago. Los Angeles is hardly Siberia, but as we speed away from Chicago I can’t help but think of the song that Tevye’s middle daughter sang when she left her family in Anatevka for parts unknown:
How can I hope to make you understand
Why I do what I do,
Why I must travel to a distant land,
Far from the home I love.
Once I was happily content to be
As I was, where I was,
Close to the people who are close to me,
Here in the home I love.
There where my heart has settled long ago
I must go, I must go.
Who could imagine I'd be wand’ring so
Far from the home I love.