Why 1936? Because we keep hearing echoes. The Lake Theatre is 70 years old this year. So is Spaulding’s clothing store on Marion Street and the main post office at Kenilworth and Lake. The Maze Branch Library at Harrison and Gunderson, which just reopened following extensive renovation, first opened in 1936. And Rose Goedert, after whom the Dominican University Goedert Center for Early Childhood Education was just named, graduated from Dominican (then Rosary College) in 1936.

Since we kept hearing echoes, we asked Doug Deuchler to go back and revive that momentous year for us. Sit back and enjoy part one of our summer time warp:

To paraphrase Charles Dickens’ opening line from A Tale of Two Cities, 1936 in our two villages was truly “the best of times and the worst of times.”
For starters, the community was now in its seventh year enduring the seemingly never-ending Great
Depression.

Though President Franklin Roosevelt was attempting to lift the economy with a variety of relentless public programs, Oak Park was so staunchly Republican that many residents were vocal in their annoyance with the Roosevelt administration. “Resolved that the New Deal Has Been Detrimental to Our General Welfare” was a well-attended
debate held at Field Playground Shelter House, Division and Woodbine.

Yet despite its reputation as a “Republican town,” Oak Park received a $2 million grant from the P.W.A. (Public Works Administration) for work to be done on a drainage system in the Harrison Street and East Avenue neighborhood. It was the largest New Deal project in Cook County in the spring of 1936.

The Works Progress Administration also provided lots of jobs, and even created projects that employed artistic people. W.P.A. murals depicting scenes from stories by children’s authors Carroll, Anderson, Barrie and Stevenson were executed at the various park recreation centers. Miss Frances Badger created scenes from Treasure Island at Stevenson. Some of her restored murals are on exhibit at the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest. “Skilled craftsmen” like Badger received the top W.P.A. salary of $96 per month. An average W.P.A. wage was $55 per month.

Heat wave

Hundreds of local W.P.A. workers labored on the streets and in the parks during the record-breaking heat wave of 1936. Many collapsed from the heat while doing street work on Chicago Avenue, Augusta Boulevard, and Division Street. Instead of Works Progress Administration, lots of the stricken workers renamed the W.P.A. “Weather Positively Awful!”

W.P.A. adult ed classes”everything from bookkeeping to soap carving”helped occupy people and lift the spirits of the Depression-weary villagers.

There were 22 free W.P.A. band concerts in June at the various parks. The largest was held at Cummings Square, Harlem and Lake, on the River Forest side.

Franklin Roosevelt was running for his second of four terms in 1936. Many community members of this Republican stronghold made a “pledge to do our share in the 1936 campaign to wrest control of the republic from the Democrats!”

Of the almost 40,000 registered to vote in Oak Park, 37,371 went to the polls to vote for president. In River Forest, of the 4,999 voters, 4,729 voted. But F.D.R. defeated Landon in a stunning Democratic victory. It seemed that an increasing number of local voters “crossed over,” believing that Roosevelt’s efforts to get the economy moving again were starting to pay off.

The local press later quoted various officials who lamented, “We did our best to stop New Deal legislation.”

A 3-room furnished flat with maid service was renting for $50 per month at the Bon Villa Apartment Hotel, 320 Wisconsin. Large, well-ventilated 4-room apartments with new G.E. refrigerators and an extra “Murphy bed” in the closet were renting for $40 at the Santa Maria Apartments, 232 N. Oak Park Ave., “known for discriminating tenants.”

Maze Branch opens

The red “Old Virginia” brick South Branch Library, later named the Maze Branch, opened on the northwest corner of Gunderson and Harrison Streets. Over 5,000 people attended the opening reception on Sunday, Nov. 1. The father-son architectural team of E.E. and Elmer Roberts referred to their creation as “early Georgian design of the Regency period of English architecture.” The land went for $10,000, while the building cost $50,000.

The slightly raised “sunny children’s department” on the south main floor had French doors leading to what was called the Plant Balcony. The Adult Reading Room on the North End had an open fireplace of pink Tennessee marble. A painting, “The Poet’s Home” by well-known Oak Park artist Carl R. Krafft, hung above the mantle. The vaulted ceiling featured hand-carved “ancient scrolls.” The assembly room with a small theater could seat 225 in what was called an English basement.

Mrs. Adele Maze, 949 Lake St., closed down the Harrison Street storefront South Branch where she had become well known since 1919 for her standing-room-only Saturday “story hours.” That building, along with an entire business district in the vicinity, was demolished with the coming of the Eisenhower Expressway in the 1950s. Maze died on the job in the late ’50s. The branch was subsequently named for her.

The first half of the 1930s decade was considered “years of standstill.” But although the Depression would drag on until the coming of World War II, the confidence of the community was bolstered to see so much new construction and the opening of a number of businesses.

A new post office

On Aug. 21, one of the hottest nights on record, “masses of people” turned out for a reception and preview of the new post office at Lake Street and Kenilworth Avenue and stayed till after 10 p.m. The W.P.A. band and a quartet of vocalists performed.

Architect Charles E. White, who early in the century had worked in the Frank Lloyd Wright studio, died the week the new post office opened. The old one on the northeast corner of Lake and Oak Park Avenue (now Great Harvets Bread) would be knocked down and developed as a business strip.

Alf M. Landon, Republican candidate for president, attended the post office dedication and spoke briefly.

Residents of the two villages were urged to come to the new facility and get their Social Security number under the new Social Security Act.

The massive $1 million Art Moderne style Wieboldt’s Department Store, southwest corner of Harlem and Lake in River Forest, was under construction much of the year. There was a well-lighted canopy extending over the sidewalk, a unique feature for stores of the era.

During Wieboldt’s groundbreaking ceremonies, although thermometers went over 100-degrees, more than a thousand people showed up. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes of the Roosevelt cabinet told the mass audience that the department store was a perfect example of the New Deal’s efforts “to prime the pump” of private business to beat the Depression.

Shoppers loved big department stores in the ’30s. At The Fair, northwest corner of Lake and Marion (now the Shaker Building), the Millinery Department featured straw hats with clusters of cherries or toques with veils for $2.95.

The Lake comes to Oak Park

The new “ultra-modern” movie house named The Lake opened on April 11, 1936. The building, designed in a style now known as Art Deco, featured white limestone and black marble. The interior emphasized vibrant colors. There were 1,500 seats upholstered in rust-colored velour. The ceiling had deep blue swirls with gold leaf accents. The indirect lighting was designed to suggest the setting sun. In the lower level, the lavatories were officially known as the Ladies Cosmetic Room and the Men’s Smoker. The Circular Lounge was upholstered in top-grain pig leather. A drinking fountain on the north wall was made of Italian marble.

Tickets to The Lake Theatre cost 15 cents for matinees, 25 cents for evenings, and a dime for children always.

Movies that were light and escapist were popular in 1936. During its first months, such films as A Night at The Opera starring the Marx Brothers, Captain January with Shirley Temple, My Man Godfrey with Carole Lombard, and Swing Time starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers all played at The Lake.

Feeling the competition from the new theater, two other movie houses, the Lamar, just south of the el tracks on the east side of Marion Street, and the Southern, just north of Harrison Street on the east side of Oak Park Avenue, both gave every child attending shows a new box kite “to open Kite Flying Season.” Both theaters also gave away dishes on Thursday nights.

Fannie May Candies opened on Lake Street “across from the show [ie. The Lake].” For the next seven decades candy-lovers went there for their fix of almond bark, pixies, trinidads, and mint meltaways. The family-owned business, which began in the Loop in 1920, closed up shop in 2004. Ben & Jerry’s is located at the Oak Park site now.

The Simpson Affair

Then as now, Oak Parkers mobilized to action when they opposed something “coming down the pike.” Ridgeland Avenue homeowners went into battle mode against a proposed widening of their street, holding their first mass meeting at Beye School. They mounted a campaign that successfully defended their homes against the plan, which also was to include the “lopping off” of a section of Taylor Park.

Carl R. Krafft, 416 N. Harvey Ave., enjoyed three exhibits of his paintings in Chicago during 1936. A number of his landscapes were shown at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, as well as several North Side galleries.

Lawrence Simpson, 226 S. Elmwood Ave., was arrested in Hamburg, Germany, and imprisoned by Nazi “Storm Troopers” for the crime of distributing Communistic and anti-Fascist literature. This member of “a fine old Oak Park family” was beaten and illegally interred in a concentration camp. Nazi officials refused him any other counsel but a lawyer they’d appointed.

“The Simpson Affair” began to develop national attention during the summer of 1936. In Manhattan, protesters boarded the German ocean liner, the S.S. Bremen, and tore down the Nazi flag before getting into a scuffle with police.

Simpson, a self-admitted Communist, was in prison for 17 months before being sentenced to an additional three years by the “German people’s court.”

Because of escalating public outcry, in December 1936, Simpson was unexpectedly pardoned by Adolph Hitler.

“Will We Have War in Europe?” No, said Clifton Utley, director of the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations in his speech at the Community Forum in First Congregational Church (now First United Church of Oak Park). Utley said Hitler was a fanatic but would ultimately back down. “Germany is aware she could not win a war if she got into one,” he insisted.

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...