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Book Review: Wicked, Immoral, Utterly Bad!: An Illustrated History of Chicago Theatre 1837-1974

Wicked, Immoral, Utterly Bad!: An Illustrated History of Chicago Theatre 1837-1974. Pete Blatchford, Chicago, November 1, 2016, Paperback, 355 pages.

Reviewed by Jose Nateras.

Chicago is one of the largest and most diverse cities in the United States. It’s a hub of art (theatre in particular) and culture with a rich and fascinating history deserving of attention. In Pete Blatchford's Wicked, Immoral, Utterly Bad!: An Illustrated History of Chicago Theatre 1837-1974, the engrossing backstory of theatre in Chicago receives just such attention.

In his forward, Blatchford refers to his work as "an unabashed love note to Chicago and its theatre," and that is exactly what it is. Loaded with countless photos, illustrations, promotional posters, and maps of the city, Wicked, Immoral, Utterly Bad! allows its readers to get a clear image of what Chicago has looked like over the years and how the city and its theatre scene has changed, growing and developing with the passage of time.

Blatchford has a long history as a theatre artist in Chicago himself. As a playwright, he has written a number of plays, including adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo and The War of the Worlds, so his passion and experience in theatre go without question. His insight has clearly equipped him with the instinct to seek out and present the sort of information that any theatre aficionado would be interested in. Furthermore, his access to resources and storytelling experience has allowed him to create a tome that is more than the mere presentation of information and data; he is able to tell the story of the growth and development of theatre in Chicago with clear affection. 

Wicked, Immoral, Utterly Bad! contains the kind of stories one might expect in a historical account of Chicago theatre, such as the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903, and the founding of such institutions as the Goodman Theatre and The Second City. However, Blatchford is also able to feature profiles on otherwise overlooked characters and companies from Chicago theatre's past.

Blatchford covers everything from the stage performances of the Booth family—father Junius, sons Edwin and John Wilkes (the one that assassinated Lincoln)—to Shirley Graham, key player in the Black Chicago Renaissance. Even in terms of stories that touch on familiar territory, Blatchford manages to really dig in; for instance, the Jeff Awards are a well-known annual celebration of achievements within the Chicago theatre community, akin to the large-scale Tonys that take place in New York every year. With two ceremonies (one for Equity theatre practitioners and one for those who are Non-Equity), few know that the Jeff Awards and the committee who grants them take their name from the actor Joseph Jefferson III. Even for those who do know the origins of the awards' namesake, Blatchford offers unique insight into Jefferson's career and his impact on Chicago theatre. Having made a major breakthrough in 1858 with his performance in Our American Cousin, Jefferson went on to play the titular role in Rip Van Winkle from 1860 through 1905.

Over the course of its 355 pages, the book manages to cover a lot of ground. Blatchford does a good job of exploring the history of Chicago theatre in an interesting, well organized, concise, and accessible way. As with anything, there could always be more information regarding some of the relevant and less-mainstream movements that are intrinsically linked to the historical and socio-economic development of Chicago, both theatrically and otherwise (people of color and queer artists receive less focus than they're due). Yet, overall, Wicked, Immoral, Utterly Bad! is a worthwhile and comprehensive history of Chicago theatre from 1837-1974.


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