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Thursday, May 1, 2003 02:20 pm

Springfield 1935

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Orpheum Theater
The Sangamon Valley Collection

ORPHEUM THEATER

Near the corner of Fifth and Washington once stood the Orpheum Theater, known for its lavish interior. It rivaled the big theaters of New York and then fell victim to "progress" in 1965, when it was demolished to make way for the Illinois National Bank. Historic preservationists still bemoan the loss of such a grand structure, which drew crowds for both movies and theatrical productions.

Along with the Orpheum, Springfield's theaters--the Lincoln, Roxy, Tivoli, Senate, and Strand--could collectively seat a total of 8,500 people on a single night. Lucy mentions many movies that she went to see during 1935 and 1936; sometimes she would "steal away" to see a film in the late afternoon and then return to work. March 5, 1935, was one such occasion, as she writes, "These are busy days at the office but I did steal away about a quarter of 4:00 to see The Affairs of Cellini. Got back to the office after 5:00 and stayed until 6:00." Then she took in a lecture that evening.

 

LAKE SPRINGFIELD

Work on the lake had begun in October 1931 with 200 men digging and clearing land. Heavy rains in 1934 caused the water level to rise over three feet, and for the first time, according to a 1935 State Journal article, "on the morning of May 2 water passed over the spillway. . . . Lake Springfield was a reality at last."

Lucy Williams was out of town and missed the ceremony dedicating Lake Springfield and the Lindsay Bridge, but her diary mentions on July 10, 1935, that she had been invited to "sit in [the Spauldings] box for the Lake dedication."

On July 12, 1935, The Illinois State Register ran an article "Lake Homes: Residence Possibilities for Lake Springfield Are Great; Many Contemplate Building."

The same day the Vachel Lindsay Bridge on Lake Springfield was dedicated. Festivities began with a noon luncheon at the Leland Hotel honoring Lindsay's wife, Elizabeth, and Carl Sandburg. A motorcade started off at 2:15 from the Leland Hotel, traveling past Lindsay's home on the way to the dam at the lake. Here, a short ceremony with poems was held and then the motorcade continued on to the Lindsay Bridge (built at a cost of $204,530). Elizabeth unveiled the Lindsay Bust, made by sculptor Adrien Voisin, which was placed on the east side of the bridge under a bower of trees and mounted on a limestone pedestal. Carved on the limestone was Lindsay's poem "On the Building of Springfield." The bust today stands on a table inside the Lindsay Home.

 

GRAND HOTELS

Three grand hotels served Springfield for many years--the Leland at the corner of Sixth and Capitol (now an office building); the St. Nicholas at the corner of Fourth and Jefferson (now apartments) and with the old green and white lettering still visible on its north side; and the Abe Lincoln at Fifth and Capitol, which was imploded on December 17, 1978.

These were special spots to visit for special occasions. Lucy mentions having "a lovely luncheon" at the Leland on August 29, 1935. In May of 1936, when friends visited from Joliet, Lucy had to stop at two of these hotels, "I went down to the Abraham Lincoln Hotel and picked the three of them up for a drive around the lake. Then we went to supper at Leland Hotel." On February 19, 1936, her beloved University of Chicago had a "dinner at St. Nick with Professor Bartky of the astronomy dept. speaking to us. Forty-seven present and a most pleasant evening."

 

ELIZABETH GRAHAM

Elizabeth Graham was a well-known figure in Springfield, from her 42 years as an English teacher at Springfield High School to her work as the curator of the Vachel Lindsay Home. Many who can remember the early years of the Lindsay Home know it was operated on her schedule and her rules. Some tell of the "weird lady" who would admonish anyone who seemed uninterested as she quoted Lindsay's poetry.

But it is because of Elizabeth Graham that we have the national treasure of the Vachel Lindsay Home and the Association. She had been his English teacher and had spurred him on in his writing. During her teaching career, she had served as the chair of the English department for 21 years, resigning in 1957 in protest of a ruling forbidding her to group students according to ability, a practice in which she had been a pioneer. When the North Central Association evaluated SHS and criticized the school for having more than three groups of students and only one permanent department head, the school board decided to rotate department heads and also abolish ability grouping. Graham spoke at the school board meeting: "My experience has been that such grouping affords needed opportunities to every level of student." With these words, she submitted her resignation. Ability grouping has now been adopted across the country in an attempt to identify student needs and provide appropriate curriculum.

Lucy was a dear friend of Elizabeth Graham's and often mentions her fondly in her diary. She writes almost monthly of having her to Logan Place for dinner along with Susan Wilcox and Louise Welch. On Christmas 1936: "home to dinner along with Welch-Wilcox-Graham family as guests. A lovely evening."

Graham was named the Copley First Citizen for 1967 and lived out her years supporting the Vachel Lindsay Home, which opened to the public in November 1959. She was found dead in her home at 502 S. State on November 10, 1982. She was 90 years old.

 

LINCOLN MEMORIAL GARDEN

On April 19, 1936, the proposed location of the Lincoln Memorial Garden was marked off and visitors were encouraged to come see the future site. The newspaper announced that landscape architect Jens Jensen would appear at the Centennial Building on May 6 to discuss his plans. What is now a beautiful setting was merely a pasture.

Lucy did not attend the discussion; perhaps she was busy packing for her next day's trip to Milwaukee, as she writes on May 7, "Got off at 6:05 for Milwaukee." But she often writes of "driving out by the Lake."

 

SUSAN WILCOX

Vachel Lindsay adored his former English teacher and once wrote about her in the preface to his Collected Poems: "Half the poems in this book show her stern hand. Leaving out the members of my own family, she is, without a doubt, both as a person and a teacher, the noblest and most faithful friend of my life. She stood by me for years when I went through the usual Middle West crucifixion of the artist."

According to Lucy Williams' diary of June 12, 1935, "Miss Wilcox out again tonight with suggestions for Vachel's bust setting. Commissioner Wallis Spaulding appointed V.Y. Dallman, Susan Wilcox, and Mrs. H.C. Blankmeyer to choose a fitting site for the Vachel Lindsay Bust. They chose the Vachel Lindsay Bridge."

Susan Wilcox had been the 1884 valedictorian of Springfield High School and then started teaching there in 1888. She taught English for 46 years and distinguished herself not only as an outstanding teacher but also as the organizer of the Springfield American Association of University Women.

When Wilcox died, on July 12, 1943, Lucy wrote a funeral tribute to her friend, saying Susan kept her students interested by speaking in a musical tone of "delightful modulations."

 

THE PROCTOR PUPPETS

Lucy often mentions having Ellen and Romain Proctor to Logan Place for dinner. The Proctors, who lived at 1128 S. Fifth, established a profitable puppet theater. They designed and made more than 400 puppets and traveled all over the United States giving elaborate puppet shows. The State Register of January 14, 1941, states they "travel from California to New York, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf."

Lucy comments in her diary on August 30, 1935, "Mr. Proctor brought me two lovely wood block pictures he had made and some dear letters. He has done much interesting work with his puppets in Springfield. They are a fine couple--the Proctors."

The couple helped found the Repertory Theater, which Lucy often visited and where there was a permanent puppet theater.

 

LORA ROBIE

Lucy gave public book reviews and often visited Robie's bookstore, which was housed at 406 S. Fifth. Lucy must have often solicited the help of Lora Robie, since her entry for September 16, 1935, reads, "Went to Mrs. Robie's store this a.m. and she promised to take a program for Women's Council so now my program is complete."

Robie broadcast a weekly book review on the radio and periodically led discussions for various groups. She was born in Pekin, Illinois, in 1878, and moved to Springfield when her father became the president of the Illinois National Bank. She married, and after her husband died in 1912 she taught English at Lawrence School. She then became dean of girls at Springfield High School in the 1920s. She opened her bookstore in 1927.

She became manager of the book department at Myers Brothers Department Store, which was once housed in the building at Fifth and Washington. The book department was situated in a balcony alcove above the first floor and Lora Robie would sit in a chair to give book reviews to shoppers. Her obituary of January 3, 1947, mentions that the chair on the book balcony would stand empty.

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