Old Chicago: A Man, A Monkey, and an Amusement Park

Old Chicago: A Man, A Monkey, and an Amusement Park
The Old Chicago amusement park building was modeled after the buildings from Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

Once upon a time, in Bolingbrook, Illinois, stood a very fun place, at least in the eyes of a nine-year-old kid from Cicero.

Its founder was Californian Robert Brindle and the 500,000 square-foot building with almost 9,000 parking spaces stood roughly at the southwest corner of where IL Rt. 53 met I-55.

The concept was new at the time but the theme was definitely late 1800s Chicago.  I, of course, was too young to appreciate the turn of the century theme.

The concept was a combination of an indoor amusement park surrounded by an indoor mall of over 200 stores.  The building itself was huge and was basically a replica of the large neo-classical buildings present in Chicago’s Jackson Park during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.  The building had a white granite-style look with a dome in the center to make room for the roller coasters.  Two lions were present to greet visitors at the main entrance that looked suspiciously like two lions we are accustomed to seeing at the entrance of the Art Institute of Chicago.  In fact, Brindle attempted to purchase the actual Art Institute’s lions for his project but since they were not for sale he created two replicas.  Brindle’s concept came to life when “Old Chicago” opened on June 21, 1975.

 

The Old Chicago building was modeled after buildings like the now, Museum of Science and Industry which was the Palace of Fine Arts during the Columbian Exposition of 1893

The Old Chicago building was modeled after buildings like the now, Museum of Science and Industry which was the Palace of Fine Arts during the Columbian Exposition of 1893

I remember the smell of caramel corn and fast food when you entered the building.  There was a theater where you could see a variety of different acts to include, comedians, circus acts, magicians and the like.  antique street lights purchased from the city of Chicago lined the “streets” of the mall and small, specialty, retail shops seemed to go on endlessly in a loop around the amusement park.   There were two retail spots I liked the most.  One was a magic/gag shop where I bought my first whoopee cushion and trick deck of cards and one was similar to a funhouse where I remember you could talk to a live genie in a bottle who was lounging on shiny cushions and he would answer or should I say heckle you with rude responses.  It was behind a glass window and the person was obviously being reflected by mirrors or projected into the small bottle but it sure looked and sounded real to me!

I wasn’t really big into the amusement park part of the whole thing mainly because I would get sick on the topsy-turvy type rides but I loved the log flume and the concerts that they would have in the amusement park.  I remember seeing Chuck Berry there live.  I researched Chuck Berry’s appearance and know now that I saw him live on either June 23rd or June 24th in 1979.  We only went to the amusement park twice during the time it was open because it was also pretty expensive.   It was a whopping $5.95 for unlimited all-day rides.

The indoor amusement park concept was something very new for 1975.

The indoor amusement park concept was something very new for 1975.

I saw Chuck Berry at Old Chicago either on June 23rd or 24th of 1979.

I saw Chuck Berry at Old Chicago either on June 23rd or 24th of 1979.

But besides the amusement park and the very cool stores, one experience has really stuck with me all my life.  There was this old-time, Italian accented guy with an organ and monkey that just cracked me up.  The guy would crack jokes and his monkey would definitely attract throngs of young kids.  I remember standing pretty much in a large half-circle around him and the monkey while he cranked his musical organ and you held out usually a quarter or so.  The monkey would walk over to anyone and everyone with a coin in hand and would walk over to you and wait.  You would bend down and the monkey would take your coin, tip his monkey hat to you as a thank-you and return to his human cohort and drop the coin in a slot in the organ.  It was the greatest thing in the world!  I am sure I would still get a kick out of this today!  There was also a more sinister side to this guy and his monkey.  If you already gave up a quarter, the guy would tell you in his Geppetto-style accent that if you produced another quarter his monkey would tell you a secret!  Now, what kid isn’t going to produce their own quarter or ask their mom and dad for another?

So, with the second quarter in hand, the monkey would go through the same routine.  I handed the quarter to the monkey, he tipped his hat but now the organ grinder told me to lean down toward the monkey and he would tell me the secret.  So I leaned in, placed my ear near the monkey’s face and the monkey quickly stuck his tongue in my ear!

Seriously gross, but hilarious both to the violated and the others watching the violation!  The surprising thing was that everyone now wanted to experience the marsupial Wet Willy!  Now I actually started to feel sorry for the monkey!

I never forgot the guy and his monkey and I felt like I wanted to find out who they were and I did.

The act itself was called “Tony and Chris”.  Tony was the human and Chris was the capuchin monkey.   The old Italian-accented “Tony” was actually a long-time carnival and circus actor named Raymond Wesley Beebe who was born in Newark, Ohio on July 17, 1919, to Charles D. Beebe, a taxi-driver, and Minnie Esther Peak.  He had an older sister Cara, an older brother, Charles Jr., and a younger brother, Pat.

Raymond Wesley Beebe and South American monkey, Chris, had a 38 year career as "Tony and Chris"

Raymond Wesley Beebe and South American monkey, Chris, had a 38 year career as "Tony and Chris"

On November 20, 1944, at the age of 25, Beebe enlisted in the Army for what would turn out to be a 6-month tour of duty during World War II.  He was discharged on May 19, 1945.

Not too long after his discharge, Beebe, had started working with various carnivals and circuses as a hippodrome motorcycle rider and also owned a trained dog act.  In 1953, when he was on vacation in Florida, he visited a roadside animal show and the proprietor sold him a 2 month-old baby capuchin monkey which he bottle fed for a period of time.  He also sold him a hand organ or “hurdy-gurdy” which he said would be a great complement to his monkey.  Thus the act of “Tony and Chris the wonder monkey” was born.

Chris was an extremely smart monkey and Beebe taught him many tricks to amuse the audiences and many times they appeared in matching outfits.  Beebe had an immense interest in the old organs and street pianos and actually had a working street piano made in 1875.  It was basically a crank operated player piano on wheels and bore Columbus, Ohio license plates that were dated from 1907 to 1912.  The city of Columbus used to require license plates for the rolling pianos but quit when there weren’t many left in existence.

“Tony and Chris” played everywhere; county fairs, carnivals, circuses, undertaker conventions, lawyer conventions, veterinarian conventions, shopping malls, holiday parties, you name it.

Ray Beebe had an 1875 street piano that he took to different events with Chris his "wonder monkey"

Ray Beebe had an 1875 street piano that he took to different events with Chris his "wonder monkey"

By the time that Beebe entered into his 40-week gig at “Old Chicago”, he was already thinking about retirement and his crank organ was now simply playing recorded music.  It became harder to keep the old crank organs in working condition because they took some serious abuse from children who couldn’t resist trying to play with them.

Beebe and Chris had a very close and loving relationship.  Beebe had told a reporter, “Humans can be rude, mean-spirited, inconsiderate and unpredictably violent, but a monkey you can figure”.

Beebe and Chris had a 38-year career as a team which is astounding since a capuchin monkey in captivity is only expected to live about 15 years.

In November of 1990, Chris stopped eating one day.  Beebe knew that capuchins will typically fast one day each year to cleanse their digestive system but when Chris didn’t eat the second day he knew there was a problem.  He started to feed Chris with an eyedropper to see if he could get some nutrients into him and it was while Beebe was doing this that Chris died in his arms.  A south-side Columbus, Ohio funeral home cremated Chris and Beebe kept Chris’s ashes with the intent of one day spreading them over a lake or woodland forest.

Beebe himself died on May 3, 1994, less than four years after his friend Chris and is buried in the Beebe Cemetery in Athens County, Ohio.

The “Old Chicago” amusement park and the indoor mall was not around nearly as long as “Tony and Chris”.  In fact, it really wasn’t around that long at all.  The enterprise was plagued from the beginning with financial problems due to a lack of expected financing and construction strikes during the building phase.  Other than the first year it was open, the attendance was never what was predicted by planners.  Traffic studies were not done and Rt. 53 could not handle the traffic necessary to turn a profit.  People soon grew tired of the two to three-hour backups that resulted from the heavy traffic.  Also, when the weather was bad people didn’t like to venture out and when the weather was good people liked to be outdoors which is not what planners had expected.

The amusement park closed in March of 1980 and while the mall portion remained open for a few more years in different configurations the building itself was razed starting on February 28, 1986.

Mr. Beebe, may you and Chris rest in peace knowing that you brought many a smile to young children everywhere including this nine-year-old from Cicero.
Find Chicago History The Stranger Side on FACEBOOK

Find Ray Johnson on Twitter and Google+

If you love Chicago History please consider subscribing to my posts. You will receive an email that alerts you when a new article is published. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

Leave a comment