Part of the Chicago Icons series from the 2023 Best of Chicago edition. Read the rest here.
I came to Chicago from Northern Virginia for the University of Chicago in 1960. There I encountered John Dewey, Doc Films and a documentary by Ricky Leacock and Joyce Chopra called “Happy Mother’s Day.” My BA paper was “Cinema Vérité in a Democracy.” I met Jerry Temaner, Stan Karter and Jerry Blumenthal and my path was set.
For me, Chicago is the neighborhoods I lived in and the people I learned from and, of course, the restaurants. All were accessible, affordable, and had a certain honesty about them. I lived in Hyde Park (Valois, Salisbury steak), Lincoln Park (Peters Roasted Chicken, club sandwich), West Lincoln Park (the Colonial Confectionery, Blue Plate Special) and Logan Square (Le Cafe Station, Taco Tuesday), often moving west to escape gentrification, which would catch up with me anyway.
I know this is supposed to be about the nineties but I’m eighty now and the truth is I don’t remember, it seems like not that much happened to me in the nineties except I met the guys who made “Hoop Dreams” and the New York artist Leon Golub, who grew up and got his education and passion in Chicago. Even my connections to Chicago’s great independent film venues harken back. The Clark Theater, The Film Center (now The Siskel), Chicago Filmmakers and Facets. I was shaped by the people I met in the sixties.
Mike Shea was pure Chicago. A photographer getting into documentary film. Mike never went to college—I don’t think he finished high school—but he was all about being a professional. While still a student I started working for him in his small studio, a fourth- floor walk up at 9 East Huron. Not great for schlepping film equipment, but Mike said without an elevator it was quiet for recording narration. Mike, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago, became an artist. (He would not be comfortable with me calling him that.) We ate Mike’s Rainbow down the street with the cabbies, and at a tiny Japanese place whose owner had been in the internment camps. Mike was a drinker and in many ways felt like a character out of an Algren story. (Did Mike ever read Algren?) For sixteen Sundays we were down at the old Maxwell Street filming “And This Is Free,” where you could get anything, a crate of peaches which may have been frozen or a rusty nut. Years later I had my hubcaps stolen and I swear I found all four for sale on Maxwell Street, and I bought them back. Mike hired Howard Alk to edit the film.
Howard grew up in Chicago (I can’t remember what neighborhood) and had been an early entrant at the U. of C. as a teen. He was one of the founders of Second City. Later he had a nightclub called the Bear and made films with Bob Dylan. He taught me to edit and introduced me to hard drugs. When we met, he had gotten off drugs. I remember him telling me to never trust him if he was using. The editing stuck, I skipped the drugs. Larger-than-life is a good description of Howard; he was an intellectual, an artist, a performer, a polymath. He was a big man with a Jaguar, and he taught me how to get into a sports car. He explained the Chicago hot dog and the importance of celery salt. Like Shea he knew Chicago and its neighborhoods. If I was reading something he probably had already read it. Both men were passionate about craft and loyalty, and about civil rights and free speech and they knew how to tell a story. I know they sometimes referred to me as “the kid.” When I moved north from Hyde Park, I inherited a fourth-floor walk-up a block west of Gas For Less at 500 West Armitage from Howard and his wife Jones. The rent with sort-of-heat included was $115 a month. It had six rooms, a working fireplace and a spectacular view of the city and was an unrehabbed, tub-only kind of place. Years later (they were divorced and Howard had died), Jones was staying with us in Logan Square. She was a West Side girl and she wanted pizza. Real pizza, not this deep dish or fancy crap. I got delivery from John’s Pizzeria on Western. It was perfect sausage, cheese, tomato, no bullshit, and even came with a free bottle of RC cola.
Gordon Quinn Senior Advisor and founder of Kartemquin Films, Quinn’s documentaries include “Home for Life,” “Taylor Chain,” “The Last Pullman Car,” “Golub,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Vietnam, Long Time Coming,” “Stevie” and “The New Americans.” Recently he directed “For The Left Hand,” “Prisoner of Her Past,” “A Good Man” and “‘63 Boycott,” shortlisted for the Oscar. He was EP on “The Interrupters,” “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” “The Homestretch,” “Life Itself” and “America To Me” and Oscar-nominated “Edith and Eddie,” “Abacus” and “Minding The Gap.” Gordon helped create the Documentary Filmmakers Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use and speaks on public media, fair use and documentary ethics.