The Full Text of Ryan's Letter | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

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The Full Text of Ryan's Letter

"It is a very odd fact that Chicagoans never boast about their city, yet they secretly seem to love it."


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I can never remember when we didn't have a telephone—the numbers were taken by a lady operator-and one of the most popular phonograph records of the day was called "Cohen On The Telephone"—a comedy bit full of the perils of early telephone talk. Very, very early in my life I remember the lamplighter—a solitary youth who went around lighting the street lamps. We had no automobile in those years and nearby travel was by streetcar and downtown travel (to the Loop) was by the elevated railway. Everybody walked much more than they do now, particularly in Los Angeles were walking is now historic activity.

The center of my childhood life was the alley—it had everything; fences to climb—animals—all the trucks to sneak rides on—it was the social center of the world and the place where all the neighborhood children got together. Also one could wear old clothes—a very considerable blessing in a day when long stockings, high button shoes, knickerbockers and velvet jackets were "Dress up" clothes. For some reason I disliked being "dressed up" and apparently still do.

I wish I could better remember my brother John, but it is all quite dim. I remember a rather solemn, gentle little fellow. He was two years younger than I and died when he was six of lobar pneumonia. I remember the terrible day that he died—and the feeling of my mother and father, that he might have been saved. Certainly, today, he would live.

Evidently we got along very well and he looked up to his "big" brother. We slept together and I remember us both lying awake on Christmas Eve while my father stamped around the back-porch and rang sleigh bells in a convincing (to us) representation of the arrival of Santa Claus.

His death shook up my parents terribly and they decided to move immediately. We left Kenmore Avenue for an apartment at 1408 Winona Street considerably west of Kenmore. The apartment was new but the neighborhood was in some ways less desirable. But nothing mattered. We had to move and we did.

We were up on the second floor in a rather small flat (one bedroom) and I slept in the living room in a pull-down bed known as the Murphy bed—a rather famous invention of the time and the subject of much humor. Chaplin once made a comedy (One A.M.) that featured only him and a Murphy bed. The neighborhood consisted mostly of Swedish-American families and almost all of my playmates were named Larsen, Anderson, Johnson, Hallquist, etc., etc. I went for one year to the Lyman Trumbull School which was all Swedish and then transferred to the Goudy School which was mostly Jewish. The intellectual life was a good deal livelier. At Goudy, I began to be put into plays by the teacher but this meant nothing to me except more work. The actor's instinct was either extremely latent or non-existent—it was not to manifest itself for another seventeen years.

I don't recall too much about my scholastic aptitude—evidently it was no great problem to pass things rather easily. I vaguely remember some of my teachers at Goudy and the fact that I had a couple of crushes on the younger ones.

There was nothing much in the way of organized athletics in those schools. A few swings in the playground—some indoor baseball—"gym" once a week—and a lot of running and walking around the streets. I remember that we were continually chasing one another—sometimes for hours. Probably had something to do with an excellent pair of legs that I still find very useful.

I distinctly, indeed, remember one morning of my life on Winona Street—I went to bed in a state of excitement because the next day would be my 9th birthday—it turned out to be a good deal more. At about 5 in the morning a tremendous banging noise was heard—it grew louder and was [entangled] with people shouting and dogs barking. [Thus] was ushered in my 9th birthday, on November 11, 1918—Armistice Day—the end of World War On and one of the most hysterical days in American History. I ran around all day telling people it was my birthday—and must have collected several dollars—most of which I was obliged to return (at my parents suggestion).

The Winona apartment was about three blocks from the Essanay studio—one of the first and most important movie studios in America. During my childhood it had employed such people as H.B. Walthall, Francis X. Bushman, Wallace Beery, Gloria Swanson and the immortal Charlie. Most of them lived in our neighborhood and I recall scenes being shot up and down the street. At Winona a bunch of us went on Saturday and worked as extras in Kid Movies starring Mary McAllister—the first child star. For this we got $2.50 a day and I started as a movie actor—a career I was not to pick up again for nineteen years.

During these years my father had been working hard at the construction business and was beginning to prosper.

After leaving Lockport he had gone to Chicago and become a protege of his uncle, Timothy E. Ryan. "T" "E" was one of the very prominent Chicago politicians and was boss of the West Side—in the days when bosses were supreme—and the West Side was an important area in Chicago politics.

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