DePaul University students Bryant Arvesen, Sekordri Lewis, Ryan McGovern, and Kasia Szymanska talked to Michael “Mickey” Loewenstein about his work as a set designer for WTTW, Chicago’s public television station, for this entry in the Museum’s People and Places series. They were students of the Museum’s archivist, Peter T. Alter, as a part of DePaul’s public history program.
Sitting with us in his home, Michael Loewenstein started by telling us about his early years working at WTTW, where he began in 1959. The late 1950s marked the end of the Chicago School of Television. Loewenstein remembered this era “as a student of the Chicago School of Television from its very beginning … The Chicago School produced something that was not movies and not theater, but something that was distinctly television.”
Michael Loewenstein, 2014. Photograph courtesy of Michael Loewenstein.
At that time, television was still a relatively new medium. “It was all about the personalities on the screen and the design of the sets,” he remembered. Loewenstein worked with Burr Tillstrom, one of the fathers of the Chicago School, on the Kukla, Fran and Ollie show. “It was great working with such a large personality and creative person like Burr,” Loewenstein commented.
Left to right: Kukla, Burr Tillstrom, Ollie, and Fran Allison. ICHi-51884.
Loewenstein worked on so many different shows during his forty-plus years at WTTW, it was hard for him to keep track of all of them. He was most proud of creating the set for the Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert movie review show, Sneak Previews. “Working on Sneak Previews was great,” he remarked. “The set design continued through to their time at Disney with At the Movies.” Loewenstein designed the movie theater balcony setting by using an innovative approach called “forced perspective,” which made it appear as if people were sitting in a balcony. In remembering his work, he also mentioned his design philosophy and approach: “You had to work with what you had. Many of the spaces you worked with were small. You had to do what you could to make things work.”
Loewenstein used a technique called “glass shots” to create expansive and opulent-looking environments when the space and budget were small. “There was a time,” he recalled, “when we had to create a ceiling and a chandelier … You can’t have a ceiling because of the lights, and a chandelier would cost too much so you trick the audience.” A “glass shot,” Loewenstein explained, was a shot for which elements were painted onto a piece of glass. The glass was then placed in front of the camera lens to create the illusion of a ceiling or a chandelier being part of the set.
Ultimately, Loewenstein recalled the people and the personalities he got to know on the job: working with the band Earth, Wind & Fire on the show Soundstage, Burr Tillstrom, Ella Fitzgerald, Studs Terkel, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Second City are among those he fondly remembers. Loewenstein recently donated his papers to the Museum for all of us to enjoy. You can visit the Research Center and learn much more about him and the world of television set designing.
In honor of Chicago Styled: Fashioning The Magnificent Mile®, the Museum blog will publish a series of posts highlighting the stores, garments, designers, donors, and urban developments featured in the exhibition.
“The woman who is clever is not a slavish follower of style. She never clings blindly to an arbitrarily prescribed fashion. Individuality is a much more important result to strive for than mere newness.” —Harry H. Blum, Within the Portals
Blum’s Vogue was a specialty department store founded by Harry and Becky Blum in Chicago in 1910. The original store was simply called Blum’s and was located in the Congress Hotel, then home to Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore, and other famous theatrical stars of the day. Blum’s quickly became successful, and shortly thereafter the Blums opened a second store, Vogue, a few doors down. While Blum’s sold ready-to-wear clothes, Vogue sold custom-made garments. In 1924, the Blums bought their own building at 624 S. Michigan Avenue and began extensive renovations. Finally, in 1930, they moved to their new premises and combined their two stores into one: Blum’s Vogue. Blum’s Vogue was enormously successful, expanding to several locations in Chicago and eventually nationwide. It wasn’t until 1983 when the last store in the chain finally closed.
In 1923, Blum’s and Vogue released Within the Portals, a promotional booklet written by Harry Blum. It offered a behind-the-scenes look at how garments were either bought or designed, constructed, and sold to the women of Chicago. Moreover, it expounded on the guiding philosophies of the company. Because of this, Within the Portals is a valuable resource documenting retail practices in the early 1920s and provides a glimpse into Chicago’s development into an important location for fashion.
The Vogue shop illustrated in Within the Portals. Chicago History Museum.
Throughout Within the Portals, Blum emphasized the importance of giving his customers a personalized shopping experience—his stores were advertised as operating like a couturier instead of a normal department store, allowing women access to exclusive and custom designs tailored to their individual needs.
A photograph in Within the Portals of one of the dressmaking studios. Chicago History Museum.
Unlike department stores today, garments were not merely purchased from design houses and then sold as-is to the customer. One of the advertised benefits of shopping at Blum’s and Vogue was that women had the opportunity to customize their purchase. Blum writes, “Very often we urge a client to accept an American adaptation of some foreign style because foreign models are not becoming to all women. In fact, most American women require that the exaggerations which are accepted abroad without protest, be interpreted to harmonize with the personality of the wearer.” This quote reveals two important details. Firstly, that the tailor considered the customer’s personality when customizing a dress, showing that women were eager to develop their own individual and unique style. Secondly, Blum’s and Vogue made a concerted effort to not merely copy European fashions, but to develop a truly American style of dress for American women. In details such as these, we can see how Chicago’s own unique sense of style was developed.
Left: Wedding dress from Blum’s Vogue, Chicago, X1076ab. Right: Wedding dress, gift of Mrs. Gardner H. Stern*, 1977.28.1. ICHi-54647.
This type of customization is illustrated by these two wedding gowns from the Museum’s collection. While the dresses have the same overall design, modifications have been made for the individual wearers. Mrs. Stern’s dress on the right has a significantly lower neckline than the dress on the left and has had extra beading applied to the ribbon at the waistline. It is rare for a collection to have objects such as these dresses, purchased at the same store and of the same overall design but slightly altered for each individual owner. Through books such as Within the Portals and dresses such as these, we are able to gain a uniquely detailed glimpse at a particular moment in Chicago’s fashion history.
*Mrs. Gardner H. Stern was the second president of the Museum’s Costume Council.
Curator Joy L. Bivins invites everyone to explore the Museum’s latest offering, The 1968 Exhibit.
In case you haven’t heard, The 1968 Exhibit is now on view at the Chicago History Museum. This unique traveling exhibition takes a look at one of the most turbulent years in American history and features stories and objects from across the nation. The show, which originated at the Minnesota History Center, is organized as a month-by-month walkthrough of some of the year’s most significant events, from the United States’ increased participation in the Vietnam War and the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to the mayhem that erupted at the Democratic National Convention and the rise of black power.
One of the key stories is of the escalating American casualties in the Vietnam War.
In May, activists brought the plight of the nation’s poor to Washington, DC, by erecting Resurrection City on the National Mall.
In addition to examining the difficult realities of the year, The 1968 Exhibit also features the music, culture, and fashion of the time. Inside the galleries, you can test your knowledge of the era’s music, as well as view clips of the year’s most popular films and television shows. Additionally, you can cast your vote for president with a gear-and-lever voting machine and view everyday objects used in typical American households.
Test your knowledge of the music of 1968.
The 1968 Exhibit provides a unique look back at a year that changed the nation. It will close on January 4, though, so be there or be square.