Cool and Collected: picking up pieces of the World's Fair | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Cool and Collected: picking up pieces of the World's Fair

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Sometime in the mid-80s Rick Rann was sifting through items to add to his collections of Beatles, Batman, and Cubs memorabilia when he ran across a souvenir from the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago. He was intrigued by the fair's art deco logo and wondered how such an expensive spectacle could have taken place during the Depression.

The answer was early planning. "One way they tested public sentiment was to have people join the World's Fair Legion for $5," he says. "When the fair opened they would get a booklet good for ten admissions. They got 118,000 people to buy it in 1927 or 1928, before the crash. After the crash, they solicited members of Chicago society like Samuel Insull to donate $1,000 each. They did a lot of creative financing."

It paid off: 39 million people attended the fair, located along Lake Michigan between 12th and 39th streets and the island now home to Meigs Field. "It was one of the few world's fairs to make a profit," says Rann.

The Century of Progress, which commemorated the city's 100th birthday and continued into 1934, was primarily a showcase for technology and industry. Items such as Hiram Walker whiskey, Wonder bread, White Owl cigars, Firestone tires, Coca-Cola, and Chevrolets were made on-site, and souvenirs like key chains and cigarette cases sold like hotcakes.

Rann, who's a police officer in the western suburbs and has a stall at the Broadway Antique Market, met fellow Century of Progress fanatic Bob Conidi seven years ago, when Conidi bought some fair souvenirs from him. Conidi, who owns a printing business in Itasca and collects print-related items, got hooked on the Century of Progress ten years ago after a fellow member of the Windy City Postcard Collectors club showed him a brightly colored advertisement for a company that supplied the paint for the fair's buildings. He has since amassed over 3,000 postcards from the fair and a mountain of trinkets.

The pair was a lot younger than other serious Century of Progress collectors (Conidi is 38; Rann is 41) and quickly became friends. Trolling estate sales, they discovered a lot of fair items coming on the market. Says Conidi, "As people get older they're downsizing and moving to smaller places or senior centers, or a family member is cleaning out their place; this stuff becomes available." Some of Rann's favorite finds include a full-size pinball machine promoting the fair, a couple of employee uniforms, and a chair from the Sky Ride.

Six years ago the pair organized a collector's show just for Century of Progress items in Hillside, where they manned booths and showed newsreels and other footage of the fair. The event attracted over 300 people, including fair alumni. "Anyone in the area who is over 70 either went to the fair or worked at the fair or knew someone who did," says Rann.

Mementos are about all that's left of the Century of Progress. "People say we should start a museum," says Conidi. "That's easier said than done. But if Mayor Daley had his wishes and they turned Meigs Field into a recreational area, it would be nice if they provided space in the building for something similar to the United Center's display of things from the old Chicago Stadium. If they had a room like that, we certainly would be encouraged to put something together for them."

The sixth annual Century of Progress Collector's Show takes place Sunday from 10 to 4 at the Elk Grove Village Holiday Inn, 1000 Busse Road (Route 83 and Landmeier Road) in Elk Grove Village. Admission is $4, free for anyone who worked at the Century of Progress and can produce an employee ID. Call 630-467-0100. --Cara Jepsen

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