Chi Lives: Russ Meyer's early work on the "Wall Street of meat" | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Chi Lives: Russ Meyer's early work on the "Wall Street of meat"

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Dominic Pacyga hired on as a livestock handler at the Union Stockyards in 1969. His mother and both his grandfathers had worked at the "Wall Street of meat"--which covered the square mile between 39th and 47th streets and Ashland and Halsted--and although Chicago's meatpacking industry was slowing down, Pacyga, who was a UIC student at the time, was enthralled. "I remember being in a hog house with five or six thousand head of hogs," he says. "For a city kid it was kind of amazing--even for someone who grew up around the corner."

After two years Pacyga had moved up to assistant head of security. Then, in 1971, the stockyards shut down. "They were closing and dumping their material," says Pacyga, now a Columbia College history professor whose specialty is Packingtown. "I was already a history major and planning to go to graduate school, so I went through the Dumpsters."

Among the books, films, and papers he salvaged was a half-hour documentary called Chicago, USA, by one Russ Meyer. Pacyga wondered if film pioneer Russ Meyer, responsible for such sexploitation classics as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Vixen, had shot the film. "I found a friend with a 16-millimeter projector and showed it on the wall of my apartment," he says. "I had a party."

What he and his friends saw was a straightforward industrial film that didn't look much like the work of Russ Meyer, bosomaniac. It was aimed at farmers and, rather than sex and violence, it emphasized "how reliable and honest the commission men and services were at Chicago's Union Stockyards." After World War II, Pacyga says, "farmers were selling directly to meatpackers and not sending them to the central markets. This was an attempt to convince farmers to ship their livestock to Chicago for the best price they could get."

He points out that the very first industrial films were made in Chicago in response to Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, which created an uproar about sanitation and working conditions in the meatpacking industry. "After the book came out, meatpackers did a series of films that would be run in movie houses to prove that the process of meatpacking was actually quite sanitary."

After he watched the film, Pacyga donated it and other items to UIC's archives. A few years later he heard an interview with Meyer on the radio and "I called in. I said, 'Are you the Russ Meyer who made Chicago, USA?' He immediately denied it. He said, 'I didn't do stuff like that. It sounds like hard porn.'"

When Pacyga told him it was an industrial, Meyer changed his tune. It turned out that after working as a newsreel cameraman for the Army Signal Corps during World War II--and before landing in Hollywood--he had made industrial films and shot Playboy centerfolds. "He said he'd been hired to do the film and spent six of the best months of his life working at the stockyards and eating steak every night," Pacyga recalls. "He said, 'Even then, my films were of a bovine nature.'"

Chicago, USA was collecting dust in UIC's archives until a few months ago, when Pacyga told producer Tracy Ullman about it. "He thought they'd lost it," says Ullman, who interviewed Pacyga for a documentary on the stockyards. "The minute I knew it existed, I had to have it." She contacted UIC's special collections library and "sat on them for weeks and begged them for it." After a month, she was rewarded with a video copy of the film.

Ullman--who describes herself as "a big fan" of Meyer's films--found it pretty sterile, apart from some footage of men on horseback herding cattle. "It shows everything but the slaughterhouse," she says. "I didn't expect it to be so stiff. Everyone is walking stiff, like androids--like Stepford wives. But it served its purpose."

Chicago Stories: The Union Stockyards, with some of Ullman's interview with Pacyga and segments of Meyer's film--including "poetic" slowed-down footage of the cowboys--airs Monday, April 30, at 7:30 PM on Channel 11.

--Cara Jepsen

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