In Praise of Chicago

Part of our ongoing From the Vidéothèque Vault series, Chris Houkal brings us a collection of short documentary films from Chicago-based filmmaker Tom Palazzolo. In 1979’s Labor Day, East Chicago, Palazollo heads to the southeast section of Chicago to take in the day’s celebrations. In 1994’s I Married a Munchkin he interviews local little person Mary Ellen St. Alban about her career in Hollywood and marriage to Elmer St. Alban, former Munchkin. In 2000’s Down Clark Street, Palazzolo revisits places from his past along Clark Street. While he laments the changes, he never romanticizes the past.


In the world of Chicago-based/themed documentary filmmaking, one name looms large. Over the course of several decades Tom Palazzolo has become synonymous with documenting life in Chicago. A St. Louis native, he came to Chicago in 1960 to pursue a degree in painting at the School of the Art Institute. However, after unsuccessfully completing the degree, he made the switch to experimental filmmaking, eventually settling on the genre he’s most famous for.

Thanks to early support from film critic Roger Ebert, Palazzolo would go on to make a number of short films about Chicago’s past and present, and, most importantly, the interesting characters that populate its landscape. Perhaps most famously, he documented one Jerry Meyers, owner, proprietor, and renowned bully of Jerry’s Deli, once located in Streeterville. The appropriately titled  nine-minute Jerry’s Deli (1976) shows Jerry shuffling customers into his deli, leading them to the counter, then impatiently screaming at them to make up their damn minds already and order! Oddly, his clientele seems to love it. Interviews with Jerry throughout offer some much appreciated expository by way of ‘character development.’ He’s a decent guy and even he isn’t certain whether or not his antics are genuine. Jerry’s Deli, besides being great fun, is a good entrance point for those interested in Palazzolo’s man-of-the-people documentary style. If nothing else, his films show a high level of respect for working people.

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Facets’ Tom Palazzolo’s Chicago includes three films from different parts of his career. In the first, 1979’s Labor Day, East Chicago, Palazzolo documents the annual Labor Day festivities in Calumet Park. Nostalgic for his boyhood working class neighborhood, it seemed an ideal location to shoot a film. The film doesn’t so much tell a single story – though the beauty pageant dominates – rather, it interweaves numerous tiny threads of the day’s events together.

Refreshingly free of narration, Palazzolo simply documents the day: families enjoying picnics, senior citizens gathering, a boxing match, beauty pageant, and so forth. Some of the most memorable scenes are of kids rolling down a hill (in Chicago?), on swings, and otherwise enjoying the freedoms of a day off school in a park. Aside from some unnecessarily heavy-handed editing involving a boxing match intercut with the beauty pageant, Labor Day, East Chicago makes for an endearingly intimate account of a single special day in a working class Chicago neighborhood.

The second film in the collection is I Married a Munchkin, from 1994. For this film, Palazzolo heads to Chesterton, IN, to meet with Mary Ellen St. Alban, former member of an acting “midget troupe” and wife of original Munchkin, Pernell ‘Elmer’ St. Alban. After a brief career in Hollywood, she returned to her hometown of Chicago to get married and open a bar on Chicago’s south side, the Midget Club. Palazzolo’s interviews with Mary Ellen are intercut with scenes of a local annual Wizard of Oz parade as well as scenes from Mary Ellen’s last film, Three Wise Fools (1946), in which she played a fairy queen. Best of all are grainy shots of Elmer at the 1933 Chicago’s World Fair.

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What’s so terrific about this film is, like Jerry’s Diner, Palazzolo dignifies his subject by just letting them be themselves. Mary Ellen jokes about her size, talks proudly of her husband’s proportions, and, well, has a wonderfully positive attitude about pretty much everything. As she says at one point: “We’re normal, just small.” While watching this, I couldn’t help but think that it could have been terribly mishandled by a less sensitive director. Perhaps to emphasize this, Palazzolo inserts earlier footage of an interview with Elmer and Mary Ellen by one of those less sensitive filmmakers, a man a bit too interested in learning how others react to them at their bar (the look on Elmer’s face as he responds is priceless). Palazzolo allows Mary Ellen to tell her story, and she does so eagerly and articulately.

 

The final film in the collection is from 2000 – Down Clark Street. Of the three films in the set, this is easily the most personal. One gets the impression that this work came directly from Palazzolo’s heart. In Down Clark Street he documents the history of Clark Street in Chicago, how it’s changed since the early 60s. Although there is a sense that he laments the changes, he’s also honest about what’s being changed: bars and burlesque houses have transformed into fast food restaurants and Walgreens. I get the impression that it’s not so much the loss of the bars and burlesque houses that Palazzolo bemoans as it is the homogenization of, well, everything. While Chicago’s wild past may have been dangerous, it also had a pulse to it that’s no longer there.

Despite the bittersweet tone of this short – assisted by bluesy music and still shots of past squalor – Palazzolo himself often seems quite exuberant. While taking us on a stroll through this part of Chicago so dear to him, he revisits old haunts of his which clearly still hold value for him: the place where he filmed the “pigeon lady,” the place near LaSalle where he played his trumpet as investors traded below, and most memorably, in what seems an epochal moment for Palazzolo, the exact spot where he photographed a Native American couple nearly thirty years earlier. This scene so perfectly denotes the film’s theme of change that it borders on iconic.

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These three films are utterly charming. In the respect they show for their subjects, their simple though compelling storytelling, and appreciation for Chicago, they are peerless. Tom Palazzolo loves Chicago and it’s hard not to agree with him after watching his films.


Author: Chris Houkal is completing his MS in Cinema Productions at DePaul University. This autumn he is the Programs Assistant Intern at Facets. Here are some samples of his work on Vimeo.

 

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