Chicagoans enjoy having Leap Year birthday

by Doug Rapp

The odds are 1 in 1,461 that you’ll be born on Leap Day, Feb. 29.

2020 is a leap year, with an extra day tacked on the calendar every four years to keep the seasons lined up with the 365-and-a-quarter days it takes for the earth to orbit the sun. 

Whether they’re called Leaplings, Leapers or 29ers, many Chicagoans said they enjoy having a unique birthday even if it doesn’t come every year. 

Ben Stumpf, who works in the West Loop, is a doubly special Leap Day baby since he has a twin brother, Brad. 

“We have been featured on the news a few times (since) it makes us something like 1 in 4 million,” Stumpf said, referencing the odds of twins being born on Leap Day. 

The Old Town resident said he loves being a Leap Year baby. 

“It enables me to have the easiest ice breaker out there and makes for a good excuse to have a large bash every four years,” Stumpf said.

On off years, he said he celebrates on both Feb. 28 and March 1, but he goes big on Leap Years.

“I rent a party bus in Cleveland, where I grew up, and visit different hot dog establishments with 50 of my closest friends (and) hot dog enthusiasts each year,” Stumpf said. “This year will be the biggest as we are attempting to piggy-back our birthday with the crawl.”

Patrick Foys, of Carol Stream, said he had a vague notion his birthday was special but didn’t fully understand the concept until he was 10 years old.

Foys said his parents usually celebrated his birthday on Feb. 28 while he was growing up but he didn’t enjoy non-Leap Year birthdays, instead celebrated special ages.

Having a Leap Day birthday doesn’t cause many problems, Foys said, although he occasionally comes across a form that doesn’t accept Feb. 29 as a date.

“Also, I recall that after Y2K in 2000, there was a mini-Y2K on Feb. 29, 2000 that most people didn’t know about,” he added. 

Carolyn Young of Evanston was born on Leap Day 1984. Like Foys, she became aware of the uniqueness of her birthday when she was 8 years old, her second Leap Day. However, she didn’t enjoy it at first.

“I didn’t understand it,” Young said. “Other kids also asked a lot of questions and it got annoying to try to keep explaining it.” 

As more birthdays passed, she grew to appreciate her Leap Day birthday, even if some of her family and friends’ phones and computers don’t have a Feb. 29 to plug in birthday reminders.
“But as I got older I really liked it—it made me unique,” Young said. “It’s perfect for places where you are asked to share something special about yourself—always an easy one. It is also fun when making appointments and such and they ask your birthday—there is often a pause and then an ‘oh cool.’”

Romance for the ages: From couples who made it

by Mat Cohen

No one knows love more than the people who have been pierced by Cupid’s
arrow and withstood the test of time.

Two couples in the Streeterville neighborhood offered their stories and advice for others.

Bill and D Clancy, married 60 years, went on the most epic first date you can imagine, and Roger and Jeannette Becker are high school sweethearts who have been married for 56 years.

Both know a thing or two about the ways of love.

D, who goes by the first initial of her maiden name, met Bill when she was 10. She was seven years younger than her future husband and friends with his niece.

Bill’s and D’s families are from Chicago and knew each other.

“The reality is we both really knew each other’s families for a long time,” D said. “I think sometimes newlyweds have problems with families and we never had that, but we both already knew each other’s families really well.”

And everyone thought they’d be together, especially after their first date years later.

“Our first date was more than 24 hours,” D said.

They went to a lecture, to dinner and then out dancing, which is enough to last three dates, but there’s more.

Bill crashed on D’s couch for a few hours of sleep, then they attended 6 a.m. mass the next morning, drove north to visit his brother, and finally back home.

They’ve always had fun together, which continued when they had kids in the 1960s.

“Bill and I had so much fun with our kids,” she said. “And that’s not true for everyone.”

They took a month-long road trip along the California coast and camped in a van along with four kids and a dog.

“I don’t think too many people do that,” D said. “I’m not sure if we were wise or not, but it was great. Now that we’re older we still have a lot of fun as a family. We’re not smothering, but we still have a good time together.

“The ability to laugh at things helps your relationship, sometimes people take things too seriously.”

High school sweethearts Roger and Jeannette Becker started dating their junior year after Roger asked Jeannette to the prom, partly because of her shiny hair.

“There was kind of a click,” Roger said. “A fit that developed more over time. I went away to college, but we saw each other close to every weekend. And we got married right when I got out of college.”

Jeannette agreed, “It was really meant to be.”

When Roger joined the army, travel and distance were introduced to the relationship.

“It takes work to have a good marriage, and by that I don’t mean it’s a struggle,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to pay attention. It’s a miracle that people can change in compatible ways. Both of us are different people than we were back in high school, but we’ve been lucky the changes have been compatible. We’re still best friends and plan to stay that way.”

The Beckers grew up close to St. Louis and moved to Chicago in 1996. The move filled them with newfound energy. Roger teaches a current events class and joined a gentlemen’s club, and Jeannette stays active at church and various seniors groups.

“(Chicago) has so much energy, it revitalized us,” Roger said. “We take advantage of what Chicago has to offer. We like to go out to eat and do many other things together.”

For the Clancy’s, Chicago is not their permanent home. Having Florida to escape to during winter helped the marriage blossom from the start.

“Another thing that was wise of us,” D said. “Bill hates the cold weather, so after we got married we moved to Florida over the winter and into May. I think starting out life with each other there, we got a chance to know each other better. We got off to a really great start.”

Through thick and thin, the couples have grown together, mourned losses together, and loved deeply together.

But of course, there is always some luck involved.

“We’ve been lucky,” Jeanette said. “I got a really great guy.”

Music Journalist turned Owner of The Goddess and Grocer, Debbie Sharpe says feeding 300 people is nothing

By Elisa Shoenberger

Debbie Sharpe came through Chicago on Paul McCartney tours while working as a caterer. “I met some people and I thought, ‘Oh nice place to stay,’ and so I just decided to stay,” Sharpe said.

Sharpe opened her own business, The Goddess and Grocer, which provides both ready-made and made-to-order food in several locations in the city. She’s even licensed out the name Goddess and The Baker to stores, including a recently opened location on 44 E. Grand Ave.

Australian-born Sharpe started off as a music journalist and ended up going to England working for Adam Ant’s manager. She ended up working in the catering company for a year and thought “I can do this myself” and that’s what she did.

Sharpe wanted to open an Australian deli. Fifteen years ago she could not easily find a good sandwich. “I was used to having a food store you could get sandwiches at and you could get prepared foods that you can just take home and reheat and not bother about going to the supermarket,” she explained. 

Sharpe still caters to the musicians, working big shows like Lollapalooza or Michigan-based Electric Forest. “I love the bigger the numbers, the better for me ‘cause I like the challenge.” 

The biggest event Sharpe ever catered was over 2,000 people in Lenin Stadium for the Moscow Music Peace Festival in 1989. They had just fed about 1,000 people but realized there were many more people waiting in line to be fed. She told her staff, “Oh no, we are so not done.”

On a considerably smaller scale, The Goddess and Grocer caters for Teatro ZinZanni, the downtown cabaret circus show. She was asked to cater for the show long before the show found the space in the Cambria Hotel Building. 

Each night, they serve 300 people but Sharpe noted, “Catering 300 people is nothing for me. But you’ve got to get 300 dinners in 22 minutes with a dance routine. It really adds a new level of difficulty.”

Sharpe’s staff are an important part of the show, she explained.  “They sing, they dance, they move props,” all while serving food. 

The Goddess and Grocer features a popular and immensely Instagrammable Rainbow Cake. Asked where it originated, Sharpe said, “We’re not sure. We just think one of our pastry chefs made it one day.” While it’s not exclusive to the Goddess stores, Sharpe recommended Goddess’ version. “I just think ours tastes really much better than everybody else’s because of the buttercream frosting.”

Chicagoan ready for round two of roaring 20s

by Mat Cohen

The 1920s was a decade unfamiliar to most. But Wanda Bridgeforth remembers it well.

Bridgeforth saw the Great Depression, World War II and lived in Chicago when the tallest building was eight stories high.

As the year 2020 begins, she’s ready to welcome the changes that a second shot at the ‘20s will bring. 

Bridgeforth, 98, takes a writing class at the Chicago Cultural Center but has more stories to tell that aren’t on paper. 

“My life has been different than average,” she said. “But I’m still a kid at heart.” 

Bridgeforth grew up in Bronzeville and has lived in Princeton Park, the Loop and now Hyde Park for the past 16 years. 

As a kid in the 1920s, Wanda’s family visited downtown Chicago once a year to see the Christmas decorations.

“We got dressed up to come downtown with gloves and hats,” she said. “Once a year we came down to Marshall Field’s to see the tree. Then we went up to the eighth floor to look down on it.”  She said although the Christmas setup is still the same, most things have changed drastically.

“Downtown is so different than what it was,” she said. “ The department stores, the theaters, all the high-rises. Sometimes I just have to suck in my breath and go with the flow. Everything is moving so fast these days with all of this technology. It’s just amazing to me.” 

As a kid, she saw neighbors stick together through thick and thin.

“The Depression came when I was about six or seven,” she said. “That’s when everybody’s life turned upside down. We had a closeness and a strong community spirit that we don’t have now.”

This tightness helped during World War II when her husband was stationed overseas.

“When he went overseas it was 56 days from Chicago to India,” she said. “I didn’t know he was in India, I just knew he was away from home.”

Beth Finke, who leads the writing class, has grown close to Bridgeforth.

“(Wanda) is profoundly deaf and I am totally blind,” she said. “Maybe we connect because both of us acknowledge  our disabilities without letting it de ne us. We both are resourceful and have to figure out ways to do certain things  that others do with their ears and eyes.”

Bridgeforth said there was another reason she was drawn to Finke.

“We clicked immediately,” she said. “Primarily through (Finke’s guide) dog because I love animals.”  

Singers in Chicago Children’s Choir ‘have to be excellent’

by Jacqueline Covey

The best young voices in Chicago perform with the Chicago Children’s Choir in storied locations like the grand glass-roofed third floor of the Chicago Cultural Center.

Members of the Voice of Chicago choir, the Chicago Children’s Choir’s premier mixed-voice ensemble, have performed overseas and in front of international leaders, such as former South African President Nelson Mandela.

The mantra for this elite group, instilled by Judy Hanson, senior associate artistic director with the Chicago Children’s Choir, is “the more excellent, the more magic.”

“They have to be excellent,” Hanson said.

At a recent holiday-themed performance of “We Are One” at the Chicago Cultural Center,  students in leadership roles addressed the audience at an open rehearsal.

“We connect to people through music,” said Isaiah Calaranan, a member of the choir. “We’re breaking down barriers and outside social constructs.”

During performances, the reaction of the crowd gives immediate feedback to the performers. “I love seeing their faces light up,” Calaranan said.

During the civil rights movement, the choir was  founded in Hyde Park to bring children of diverse backgrounds together.

Hailing from Rodgers Park, Calaranan followed his brother’s footsteps throughout each level of the organization, starting when he was nine.

“We have to be role models,” Calaranan said. “We are what (other groups) want to be. We are the end goal, but we keep inspiring and changing lives even after high school.”  

Streeterville Walks welcomes newcomers to the area

by Stephanie Racine

Streeterville Walks, a social walking program of Streeterville Neighborhood Advocates, has been around for nearly six years. 

Craig Kaiser, who organizes the walks, started the program as a neighborhood watch endeavor. But he noticed people who came on watch were much more interested in the social aspect, so the walk evolved.

The walk was then focused on hidden gems including public art, architecture, and businesses. Now, Streeterville Walks adds a different angle: welcoming newcomers to the neighborhood.

“We will introduce new people to the highlights of living [in Streeterville], including the usual history, art and architecture but also pointing out the great amenities like groceries, coffee shops, child care, pet care, parks etc.,” Kaiser said.

The first of these neighborhood welcome walks took place on Saturday, Oct. 5 at 10 a.m. The group met at the plaza next to the new Apple Store, on Michigan Avenue, just north of the river. Kaiser figured the recognizable location, plus the surrounding architecture, was a good place to start for newcomers.

New residents come to Streeterville frequently. With schools and hospitals in the area, including Northwestern Law and Northwestern Hospital, there’s a preponderance of newcomers every year. According to Kaiser, more than thirty thousand people live in Streeterville, along with ten thousand dogs.  

On the first walk, Kaiser took note of classic Streeterville lore, mentioning the story of its founder—George Wellington “Cap” Streeter. He also pointed out definitive restaurants in Streeterville, such as Robert’s Pizzeria, Yolk, and Lizzie McNeil’s. He spouted little-known architectural factoids, including the ordinance that Tribune Tower will always have an uninterrupted view of the lake.  

Christian and Janet Silge moved to Streeterville from Lake Forest about six months ago. “We were looking for a way to get to know the neighborhood a bit better,” said Christian Silge. They happened upon the Streeterville Walk on the neighborhood app NextDoor and have been happy with the experience.

“We love the fact that each walk has a different focus and we are always excited to learn some new tidbit of information or some historical significance of a street, building, park, monument, mural, or other artwork” said Silge.

The couple is happy to be more educated about the community and look forward to future walks. “Who knows, maybe we will lead some future walks ourselves,” said Silge.

Kaiser is hoping to partner with real estate agents in the area who sell or rent to newcomers, so they will have an opportunity to go on a walk and learn about the neighborhood, while also meeting their neighbors.

For more information about the Streeterville Walks program, email SNA60611@gmail.com, or join their official Streeterville Neighborhood Advocates Facebook group.

Comedy showcase marks decade in Streeterville

By Doug Rapp

Kanye West’s “Homecoming” boomed through the dark room.

As the lights came up, host Blake Burkhart took the stage riling up the audience of 90 gathered in a back room at Timothy O’Toole’s Pub in Streeterville.

Taking off a beanie to reveal his newly shaved head, Burkhart said he was giving in to his baldness.

“I look like a room temperature John Malkovich,” he said, or even worse, “a young Dr. Phil.”

Burkhart was hosting “Comedians You Should Know,” or “CYSK,” a weekly showcase of Chicago comedians that’s been staged for nearly 12 years. Each Wednesday night, a rotating host and six comedians perform. The venue charges an $8 cover.

“It’s the cream of the crop as far as Chicago comedians go,” said Danny Kallas, one of the founders of the show.

 “CYSK” started in 2008 in Lakeview but moved downtown to its current home base nearly 10 years ago.

 “Our idea was to put on the best standup show we could put on,” Kallas said. “It’s a celebration of Chicago comedians past, present and future.”

 The 90-minute show features touring veterans as well as up-and-comers on the Chicago comedy scene. On a recent Wednesday night, three club headliners performed, including Marty DeRosa, Sean Flannery and Pat Tomasulo. Having more than one headliner on a showcase is rare, Kallas said, but their show attracts top Chicago talent.

Kallas noted many Chicago comedians who have performed at “CYSK” have gone on to national fame, including Hannibal Burress, SNL actor Chris Redd and Cameron Esposito. Over 25 comedy albums have been recorded there as well, Kallas said. The showcase has added weekly shows in New York and LA, making it the only simultaneous comedy show in the three biggest comedy markets.

 Jonah Jurkens, one of the show’s producers, occasionally hosts and performs.

 “We host the best comics in the city,” Jurkens said. “It makes you want to be a better comedian because you’re surrounded by the best.”

Besides the three touring comedians, three local comedians, Ed Towns, Malic White and Gena Gephart, performed that night.

“When you get on this show that’s when you know you’re starting to make your way,” Jurkens said.

Kallas said most people can name a handful of famous comedians but the average Chicagoan doesn’t realize how many great comedians live next door to them. They’re trying to attract more Streeterville residents to show the entertainment available in their neighborhood. 

“Take a chance on Chicago comedy,” he said.

The News Gets Around

Take a little piece of home with you when you travel this holiday season. Show love for your community by snapping a photo holding up New Eastside News in a new and exciting location. We would love to hear the story behind the photo as well. The best photo and story we receive each month will get a spot in the paper and a gift card.

Managing Editor Stephanie Racine just took a trip to Newport Beach, California. Before having lunch with a view of the Pacific, Stephanie took a picture with the September edition of New Eastside News in front of Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean. 

Chicago Experiencing a Magic Renaissance

Chicago has been known as a cow town, a town of bootlegging gangsters, and even a town with long-winded politicians but few people know that Chicago was also a place for all things magic. 

At the turn of the 20th century, famous magicians, such as Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston, performed in theaters throughout the city. Chicagoans were hungry for magic and other live entertainment.  Another famous magician of the era, Harry Blackstone Sr. was from Chicago and took his name from the Blackstone Hotel, noted David Witter, author of “Chicago Magic: A History of Stagecraft & Spectacle.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Chicago was known for its magic bars, where magicians delighted patrons with tricks right at their tables.

“From the ’20s to the ’90s there were at least 16 different magic bars operating around the city,” writer Raf Miastkowski said.

Starting in the 1970s, Marshall Brodien, who played Wizzo the Wizard on TV’s “The Bozo Show,” brought magic into homes as spokesperson for TV Magic Cards, Watkins said.

But by the end of the 20th century, the age of magic in Chicago becan to dry up, and magic bars and shows began disappearing.

Now Chicago’s rich magic history is re-emerging throughout the city as well as the US.

Chicago Magic Lounge, 5050 N Clark St., opened a permanent location in 2018. Dennis Watkins,  a magician, mentalist and entertainer, does five weekly shows of The Magic Parlour at the Palmer House hotel since 2011. He’a also performed in Chicago plays that have incorporated magic into their shows.

Shows like “Penn and Teller: Fool Us” are getting people interested in magic again, Watkins said. 

“Magic isn’t just for kids,” he said. “People are looking for childlike wonder, a virtuosic performance, a puzzle and mystery.”

Close-up magic was Chicago’s speciality in comparison with big-production value disappearing acts. “Chicago magic history has been rooted in close-up and parlor style for a long time,” said Watkins. 

He said his intimate show for 44 guests takes place in the famed Empire Room, where magic legends have performed since the turn of the century. Audience members “get to experience something magical, not in front of you, but with you,” he said.

Ultimately, Watkins said that he and most magicians hope that their audience members will experience the “childlike wonder” of the show. After all, that’s what magic strives to do.

Chicago’s downtown offers spooky history

By Elisa Shoenberger

Downtown Chicago has a rich history of ghost stories and and many popular landmarks have spooky tales associated with them.

A famous site is the Iroquois Theater, now the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph. Hundreds of moviegoers, mostly women and children, perished in a horrible fire during a Christmas musical in 1903.

Many people died in an alley behind the theater when the panicked crowd ran out the upper-level fire escape doors and fell to their death because fire escapes had not been installed. 

There have been reported sightings of ghosts in the alley as well as the theater.

One reported haunting is inside the theater. Adam Selzer, a local historian, said theater workers report a backstage toilet that flushed by itself and the sound of a little girl giggling. 

However, Selzer explains, people assume that all the ghosts behind the Nederlander theater are from the Iroquois Theater Fire.

“Plenty of other people got killed there,” he said. The street, known as “Hairtrigger Block,” was filled with gambling halls.

Selzer has led ghost tours all over Chicago. This fall he’s running haunted river cruises as well as tours of Lincoln Park Zoo. 

Selzer said he does his research “to get the history right.” While studying haunted places, he’s found the stories can change as they are passed along.“

“Like a game of telephone,” he said.

Selzer said some stories involving Congress Plaza Hotel are more legend than history. However, he said, the location’s proximity to the Auditorium Theater offers some “gruesome” history. Many opera singers who stayed in the hotel ended their lives there.

Selzer said he once heard a gunshot in the hallway behind the Congress ballroom while leading a tour. They never found the cause.

Other haunted places include the site of the S.S. Eastland Disaster on the Chicago River at Clark St. and Wacker Dr., where 844 people perished when the boat capsized in 1915, and the site of Fort Dearborn at Wacker Dr. and Michigan Ave. where soldiers died in the Battle of Fort Dearborn.

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