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Thursday, Jan. 6, 2005 07:47 am

You never know where a job here might take you

Chic Sale (right) came to Springfield for the 1935 world premiere of The Perfect Tribute, a short film about Abraham Lincoln. The real star of the film, Sale told the audience at the Orpheum, was the make-up artist, who toiled for hours each day to turn t

Like most other capital cities, Springfield has always had a certain transient population whose ebb and flow are governed not by the moon but by the rising and falling tide of work necessary to efficient state governance. Some people come here to work, become attached to Springfield, and end up spending the rest of their lives here; other people, I'm sure, probably wonder what sin of a past life was so egregious that fate, or a cruel and vengeful God, has consigned them to exile in such a wasteland as this. In any event, it's not too many who live here a short while, leave, and return as the conquering hero, to be fêted at the Executive Mansion and celebrated publicly by having a special day declared in his or her honor. Such was the case with Charles "Chic" Sale, for whom Monday, Sept. 23, 1935, was declared Chic Sale Day in Springfield by Mayor John "Buddy" Kapp.

Sale was a 22-year-old electrician's helper from Urbana when he accompanied his employer, Richard McClain, to Springfield in 1907 to assist in the construction of the new Supreme Court Building at Second Street and Capitol Avenue. The two men took rooms in the home of local photographer August W. Kessberger, 200 W. Capitol Ave., where the Stratton Building now stands. When he wasn't rigging electrical wires, Sale took part in amateur theatrical productions, entertaining neighbors at the Kessberger home and even giving a public performance at the First Congregational Church in which he portrayed a country schoolmarm and her pupils. Sale apparently made quite an impression on Kessberger's daughter Irene, who was convinced that Sale was possessed of the right stuff to be a success professionally if given the chance at a stage career. Sale only laughed at Kessberger when she importuned him to audition for a part in a professional production, but it was she who laughed last when she wrote to Daniel Frohman, manager of the Madison Square Theatre in New York City and one of American theater's most influential men at that time.

By return letter, Frohman informed Kessberger that if Sale visited his New York offices, he would receive Sale and determine whether he had the talent for a successful stage career. Sale was taken aback when Kessberger showed him Frohman's letter but, after thinking it over, trekked to New York City and met with Frohman in his offices. After an impromptu audition, Sale was signed to a contract and went on to a highly successful career in vaudeville and on the Broadway stage. He later moved to Hollywood and acted in several movies, among them The Perfect Tribute, a short subject based on the 1906 story of the same name by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews, in which he played Abraham Lincoln. The film had its world premiere in Springfield at the Orpheum Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 22, 1935. On that day, he also appeared on the Orpheum stage as Billy Brown, a character from Ida M. Tarbell's He Knew Lincoln. His performance, given without benefit of lighting effects or makeup, with only a white wig for a prop, received a tremendous ovation from the packed house.

Like many other treatments of the historical Lincoln during that era, both The Perfect Tribute and He Knew Lincoln were overly sentimental stories with little or no basis in fact. The movie did, however, contain one scene that held a poignant real-life connection to the life of Lincoln. The poignancy derived not from Lincoln but from 84-year-old Springfield resident John Neuman, who, as an 8-year-old boy, crashed into Lincoln at Sixth and Adams streets as Lincoln exited his law offices during a sleet storm, causing both man and boy to hit the pavement.

Sale, who visited the dying Neuman at Springfield (Memorial) Hospital during his visit, was quoted in the Illinois State Journal: "Mr. Lincoln sprawled on top of the boy and immediately became worried that he might have injured him. He lifted the lad to his feet and inquired if he was hurt. Informed that he was not, Mr. Lincoln went on his way. A few days later he met the lad again and asked a second time, 'Are you hurt?' Receiving the same answer, Mr. Lincoln lifted his trouser leg to show the boy a skinned place on his leg resulting from the accident."

Sale's most enduring fame resulted from a short booklet that he wrote in 1929 called The Specialist, which was the outgrowth of a comedy routine he told from the perspective of the title character -- one Lem Putt, a rural carpenter who was the builder of the finest outhouses in Sangamon County. The book sold more than a million copies and brought Sale even greater wealth and fame, but on the downside, his name became more closely associated with outhouses than he would have liked. After the book's success, people no longer visited the privy or the outhouse but the "Chic Sale."

You never know where a job in Springfield might take you.


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