Archive for 2007

Angelo Testa’s final work

29 December 2007
Categories: Chicago

I know nothing about Angelo Testa.

I am a railfan and historian, and as such I’m fascinated by the forgotten and defunct rail lines of Chicago. One of these is the Lakewood Branch, a fragment of an old line that runs north from Goose Island. At right is a shot of the Lakewood’s current terminus as it fades out into a pair of cracks in the asphalt of Diversey Parkway. Until recently, the sole remaining customer along this branch was the Peerless Confection Company, manufacturer of a wide assortment of hard candies.

Via this rail line, once or twice a week, Peerless took deliveries of sugar and corn syrup to feed its large, shiny copper kettles. Here is an excellent photo essay describing a delivery in 1999. The travail of running trains through rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods is illustrative of how far rail-supplied industry has declined in Chicago.

Chicago was once one of the nation’s biggest candymakers, but decades of ill-advised tariffs designed to protect the American sugar farmer have made it utterly untenable to be a large-scale American confectioner. Peerless was one of Chicago’s last surviving confectioners, but it finally gave up the fight earlier this year.

A few days ago I took a camera to the Peerless factory to see what was left and maybe catch a few interesting shots. I was unprepared for its sheer size. The factory is an entire city block long, running along the east side of Lakewood Avenue south of Diversey. The buildings at the south end, along Schubert Avenue, are the oldest part of the factory, a seemingly random assortment of common-brick boxes, painted white, with simple corbeling at the cornices. To the north are a pair of much newer precast-concrete behemoths, utterly nondescript and indistinguishable from each other at ground level.

The land where it stands, at the boundary between Lincoln Park and Lakeview, is prime territory for Chicago’s continuing, go-go, mindlessly unstoppable condo-building boom, so what I found that day was no surprise. The entire factory was surrounded by Jersey barriers, and the walls were spray-painted with fluorescent orange No Parking warnings. A similarly coloured sticker on the main entrance showed that the city Department of Water Management stopped by on Christmas Eve to remove the building’s fire meter “before demolition,” but found no one home. Across Lakewood to the west, the site of a former baking company building was already a moonscape of brick and concrete rubble. The Peerless factory is doomed. It may already be gone.

Yet what’s this object mounted on the northwest corner of the building? A jumble of red and black square aluminum tubing, perhaps meant to symbolize the crystallization of sugar, with a name in jaunty lowercase cursive displayed below: angelotesta. Surely it’s artwork. Abstract, modern, minimalist, and totally not my style. But artwork none the less.

Who was Angelo Testa? I’d never heard of him. The web has plenty of listings of his works for sale, so I guess he was fairly prolific, but it’s kind of thin in the biographical department. According to the one decent article I found online—notably, available only via Google cache—this sculpture was Testa’s last. In response to a commission from Peerless, Testa designed five different maquettes in the late 1970s before succumbing to cancer in 1984; another artist completed this work and it was installed in 1986. One of the other maquettes, for a design that was not chosen, is up for auction and expected to garner four or five thousand dollars. This implies that, despite my ignorance of him, Angelo Testa was apparently not an unimportant artist. In addition, it seems that most of Testa’s work was in textiles—so a giant metal sculpture is fairly unique in his portfolio.

The wall on which it is mounted is going away—so what’s to happen to Angelo Testa’s final work?


[Follow-up for August 2011: Thanks to a niece of Angelo Testa, I have learned that the Elmhurst Art Museum was able to acquire the Peerless artwork. However, the work remains in storage pending an expansion of the museum which would require a substantial fund-raising effort. According to curator Aaron Ott, the museum is amenable to speaking with any “individuals or companies that may be interested in installing the work on their location.”]


Watching the beer wars

16 December 2007
Categories: Chicago

Larry Bell has big, big hops.

Last year, as described in this excellent Chicago Reader article, the Illinois distribution rights to the Bell’s Brewery brands were sold from one distributor to another. This was a perfectly legal transaction made possible by an outmoded but fully active law that protects distributors’ rights over those of the breweries, a law that made sense when all breweries were gigantic megalopolies, but which is utterly skewed when it comes to microbreweries and small craft brewers such as Bell’s.

In meeting with his new distributor, Larry Bell became concerned that his wide variety of brands would not be adequately marketed in Illinois, and that they would get lost among the Very-Big-Name Brands the distributor also carried. Rather than (as he saw it) suffer under this new regime, Bell chose to exit the Illinois market entirely, effectively killing around 10% of his total business (most of it in Chicago) for the sake of principle.

As a Michigander I’m a fan of Bell’s beers. Now an expat living in Chicago, I was saddened by the loss of the opportunity to purchase Bell’s here—a choice I had long taken for granted—but respected Bell for his stand against the distributors, who in my opinion have grown to be as all-powerful as the breweries were back when the Beer Industry Fair Dealing Act was written. In solidarity, I tried to remember to pick up some Bell’s whenever I returned to the Great Lakes State.

Now, a year later, Bell’s has returned to Chicago—sort of. Larry Bell (and his legal team) found a loophole in the law, one that implies new brands—not merely extensions of existing brands, as Heineken found when it tried to bring Heineken Premium Light here under a different distributor—are not subject to prior distribution deals. With that in mind, Bell’s Brewery has created three new brands under a “Kalamazoo” name: Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale, Kalamazoo Porter, and Kalamazoo IPA. By leaving the Bell’s logo as well as the Bell’s name off the label (except for the “Brewed and bottled by Bell’s Brewery, Inc.” at the bottom), and by using new brewing recipes, they have followed the letter (and perhaps the spirit) of the law and have managed, so far, to bring the Amber Ale into the city via a new distributor.

Of course, the former Bell’s distributor has threatened not only to sue, but to make the legal battle as protracted and expensive for Bell as they can.

This evening we stopped at one of the dozen or so purveyors of Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale and sampled a couple of pints. It’s very tasty. Heavy on the hops, like most Bell’s creations, making for a somewhat bitter finish that’s close to an IPA. But leading into that is a rich, creamy smoothness that I think is superior to Bell’s standard-issue Amber Ale. It is well worth seeking out. I’m looking forward to Kalamazoo Porter—and especially Kalamazoo IPA—coming to town.

What impresses me most about Larry Bell is not his fearless stance against the distribution syndicates, nor his audacity in creating new brews specifically for the Illinois market.

It’s the fact that the new label for Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale depicts a close-up shot of the classic 1887 Michigan Central Railroad depot in downtown Kalamazoo. Clearly visible in the shot is the sign over the depot’s main platform which reads, in part, “Kalamazoo—Chicago, 138 miles.”

Big hops.

A follow-up (The Big Chill)

5 April 2007
Categories: Film buff

In a March 2006 post I pondered a reference to “John Barrister Tipton” in the film The Big Chill, but was unable to find a satisfactory answer online. Thanks to another Google search today, I found that John Beresford Tipton was a character on a 1950s TV show called The Millionaire, in which he “indulges himself [by] giving away one million dollars apiece to persons that he has never met.” Now, that makes sense. Whether the character in The Big Chill misspoke and said “Barrister” rather than “Beresford” remains to be determined.

Seth Bernard and Daisy May

3 April 2007
Categories: Music appreciation

When I was in college I had the privilege of befriending an exceptional musical talent by the name of Jen Bernard. As I got to know her better—for a year we shared a house in the heart of the student ghetto—I learned that her talent came naturally, that her entire family was as richly steeped in musical tradition as she. (Jen’s current project is The Stolen Sweets, a 1930s swing jazz revival group that is a fine showcase for her ear for close, intricate harmonies. Their tasty recording debut, Shuffle Off to Buffalo, is available from CD Baby.)

One chilly winter weekend that year, several of us descended on the Bernard family homestead in northern lower Michigan, known as Earthwork Farms. It was then that I met the youngest sibling, Seth, who at the time seemed to me like your typical preteen boy, interested in sports and horseplay and hanging out with friends more than family.

Years later, I was pleased to discover that Seth, despite erstwhile appearances to the contrary, had learned well at the family hearth and has become, perhaps, the most talented Bernard musician of them all.

From his first recorded output, 2001’s Hello Fellow Travelers, Seth Bernard has demonstrated a very unique and personal songwriting style, one that understands well its myriad influences and yet chooses its own independent path. Subsequent solo releases, Constellation (2003) and Being This Being (2004), have shown growing maturity, along with a lively wit. Seth is comfortable in his music, in his voice, and in himself. I’m particularly fond of “Sassafras,” “Travel,” and “Collage,” all off the 2004 album.

All his releases are self-produced and appear on his Earthwork Music label. That name, and the fact that he has built a home studio on the farmstead, are testament to his love of family—a theme that recurs frequently in his songs. Among the members of Seth’s family is Daisy May Erlewine, who has also released solo works on the Earthwork label. Seth and Daisy May have toured and performed together for some time; for one, she lends her clarion, chiming voice to a beautifully harmonious accompaniment on “Sassafras.”

Seth Bernard and Daisy MayIn early 2006 they released their first duet album, Seth Bernard and Daisy May. Although they don’t share songwriting credits (each track on the record is attributed to one or the other, but never both), their musical partnership is one of perfect symbiosis and playful give-and-take. Even on the sadder songs, the joy of making music together comes through in every track.

On this album Seth and May are joined by a trio of friends to form “The Copper Country Quintet,” a name that stems from the fact that the recordings were primarily made in Calumet, Michigan, way up near the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the U.P.—copper mining country. Over the course of two days they recorded on the stage of the Calumet Theatre, a classic and well-preserved venue built in 1900 during the mining industry’s heyday.

This was a perfect choice. Judging from photographs, the theatre is gorgeous. Judging from the music, it has fantastic acoustics. In fact, the room has such a warm, strong presence on this album that it has its own entity, almost as if it’s an additional musician in the group. I don’t think I’ve heard a room play such an integral, positive role in a recording since the Cowboy Junkies set up shop in Toronto’s Holy Trinity Church back in 1987. And frankly, Seth Bernard and Daisy May deserves the same kind of long-term recognition as a piece of beautiful, timeless art that The Trinity Session has received over the years.

I can only hope that, some time soon, Seth and May make a trip “out west” and play a gig or two in Chicago.

Even the Dutch love the Blues Brothers

28 March 2007
Categories: Self-referential

Another blog has come along to tout my Blues Brothers map. This one’s in Dutch, and was posted early on 28 March 2007:

Het zal jelui bekend zijn dat ‘t epische muziekdrama The Blues Brothers—de film van de jaren tachtig, werd gefilmd in Chicago. Alle reden dus voor ondergetekende om de diverse filmlocaties van Robert Landis’ masterpiece eens nader onder de loep te nemen. Met andere woorden: ik zal, gebaseerd op deze voortreffelijke pagina, even langswippen bij die locaties—mits ik in de buurt ben—en gedurende de komende maanden op deze plek een fotografische impressie geven. ‘t Zal niet allemaal even spectaculair zijn, en tal van locaties zijn compleet veranderd, maar niettemin: dit is geschiedenis mensen. Mis ‘t niet!

Which, according to Babelfish, says something like:

It [is well known (?)] that the epic music drama The Blues Brothers—the film of the [Eighties]—was filmed in Chicago. All reason therefore for undersigned to evaluate the several film locations of Robert {sic—it was John} Landis’ masterpiece once closer. In other words: I, based on this excellent page, [will take a look (?)] at those locations—provided that I am in the [‘hood]—and during the coming months on this spot a photographic impression to give. [It] will be not all even spectacular, and numerous locations have completely changed, but [nevertheless]: this is history people. Wrong [it’s] not!

(Haven’t included a link to the weblog… because I’m not sure yet whether it’s a smutty site or not.)