The first time I met Paul Durica, he was Ben Reitman.
This was a few summers ago at the annual Bughouse Square Debates, held by the Newberry Library in the small Washington Square Park across the street and celebrating the bygone era when that park was regularly filled with soapboxes, and atop them an assortment of orators and lunatics.
Of course, Durica wasn't actually Reitman, the hobo/doctor/Socialist/lover of Emma Goldman, the philosopher/bohemian/radical and frequent Bughouse Square presence. Reitman died in 1942. But Durica was doing a fine job of bringing him back to life, in cape, floppy hat, scarflike Windsor tie and dashing manner.
Why, I wondered, would such a young man inhabit an all but forgotten character?
“Growing up in Cleveland, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, who lived on the same block,” he says. “They would regale me with stories of World War II and the Depression, and they had very detailed scrapbooks that made history come alive for me.”
Durica earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Michigan and came to Chicago in 2005 as a doctoral candidate in the Department of English Language & Literature at the University of Chicago.
In 2008 he founded Pocket Guide to Hell Tours (pocketguidetohell.com), its name taken from a not-so-kind 19th century observation about Chicago by visiting British labor leader John Burns.
“As I was doing research for my dissertation (about tramps, hobos and transients in American literature), I kept coming upon all of this good material that didn't fit into my academic work,” he says. “I wanted to share what I was learning with the broader public.”
His tours quickly morphed into more elaborate historical events. Among them have been re-enactments of the 1915 “Parade of Unemployment” and the 1886 Haymarket Riot; a “Ben Hecht's House Party,” celebrating the work of the famous newspaperman/screenwriter; and a re-creation of the final episode of the early 1950s television program “Studs' Place.”
His latest production is a bold attempt to re-create the legendary raucous First Ward Balls thrown by the corrupt bosses (i.e. aldermen) of the 1st Ward, “Bathhouse” John Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna. It takes place March 17 at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., starting at 8 p.m., and admission is $10, with all proceeds going to the 20-some performers.
I have more than a passing acquaintance with these fellows. My father, Herman, and his collaborator, Lloyd Wendt, wrote the definitive story of the lives and misdeeds of this duo in 1943's “Lords of the Levee.”
“I use that book all the time,” says Durica. “It has great material about many things.”
Coughlin and Kenna conceived the First Ward Ball as a way of further stuffing their pockets, already bulging with graft, through imposed ticket and liquor sales. The first ball was held in 1896, and by 1908 it attracted 20,000 drunken, yelling, brawling revelers to the Coliseum on South Wabash Avenue. The guests slopped up 10,000 quarts of champagne and 30,000 quarts of beer. It was very messy.
Kenna's reaction? “It's a lollapalooza! … Chicago ain't no sissy town.”
Durica will be playing the tiny, cigar-chomping Kenna next Sunday.
“I am a bit too tall, but I will try to be suitably taciturn,” he says.
For a guy who has been dead since 1946, Kenna is getting a lot of attention. His name surfaced in recent Mark Brown Sun-Times columns about efforts to close the Ewing Annex Hotel on South Clark Street, once owned by Kenna. And Friday, the Chicago History Museum put on display a “solid gold, diamond-studded alderman's star” that belonged to Kenna.
But, of course, Durica knows all that.
In 2011-12, Durica was a member of the Newberry's first class of graduate scholars-in-residence. Daniel Greene, the library's vice president of research and academic programs, says, “What really wowed me as I learned more about Paul's work is his deep commitment to Chicago history and to communicating history to contemporary audiences in fun and engaging ways.”
That kind of says it all. But there is more.
Durica and Northwestern University professor Bill Savage are the editors of the recently released “Chicago by Day and Night: The Pleasure Seeker's Guide to the Paris of America.” First published in 1893, the book was intended for the hordes of tourists pouring into that year's Columbian Exposition. The original text is great fun on its own, but Durica and Savage enrich the reading experience with a fine introduction and thoughtful, informative notes about such vanished places as the Eden Musee and Palmer Castle and the meaning of “dude town.”
When he presents his dissertation and gets his degree in June, Durica hopes to pursue a teaching and writing career, with the city's history as its foundation and engine.
But April 14, he and his pals will be dipping into the more recent past and bringing back to life “Bozo's Circus” at The Hideout. There will be a Grand Prize Game and such beloved characters as Cooky, Wizzo and you know who.
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