Behind the Scenes with Irish Chicago Producer Dan Andries
You've produced a number of documentaries for WTTW about different slices of Chicago life. Can you tell us a little about each?
ANDRIES: The first documentary I did for Channel 11 is probably still not recognized as a documentary. I did what turned out to be the last interview with Chicago Imagist painter Ed Paschke before his sudden death Thanksgiving morning, 2004. We made a half hour show about Paschke for Artbeat Chicago that aired about a month later. Chicago by Boat: The New River Tour and The Southwest Suburbs: Birthplace of Chicago were two shows about the region's history I worked on and hosted by Geoffrey Baer. Chicago by Boat was shot during the glorious and hot summer of 2005 on the oldest privately owned yacht in the city. Southwest Suburbs was shot in the fall of 2006 in an Edsel, on an Amtrak train, and on a tow boat in the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Beauty Rises: Four Lives in the Arts was a unique chance to spend a lot of time with four very talented Illinois artists, including jazz composer Orbert Davis. I also think it marks a personal high point in terms of its storytelling and style. Out & Proud in Chicago, which I co-produced with Alex Silets, told the previously untold history of Chicago's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens, mostly through the personal memories of nearly 20 extraordinary individuals who lived the story.
So what brought WTTW local productions to Irish Chicago?
ANDRIES: It's a natural. Irish immigrants have been arriving in Chicago since the 1830s. They found early success in politics because they spoke English on arrival and understood the basic structure of government having lived under the rule of the English for quite a while, unhappily I might add. From politicians to policeman, musicians, artists, writers and labor leaders, the Irish are central to the city's history. The Irish continue to arrive in Chicago to this day. It's high time we tell the story.
Are you Irish?
ANDRIES: Despite having ancestors named Donovan, Murphy, and Coffey, I really don't consider myself Irish. I wondered how I could make a show that would reach the large numbers of Irish- American Chicagoans who don't engage their heritage but could be made to care about this history, and their history. So while many of the people in Irish Chicago are very connected to their Irish identity, I also sought out people who were like me, ready to re-think their relationship to their heritage.
Any secrets of Chicago Irish history you and your production crew uncovered along the way?
ANDRIES: Secrets are really just facts that could use wider exposure. I found the story of the murder of Dr. Cronin luridly fascinating. It's a story about the relationship of Chicago's Irish immigrants with the Irish nationalist in the 19th Century. It's totally compelling if only in a guilty pleasure, penny dreadful novel sort of way. Illinois State Senate President John Cullerton is in the show and he can trace his family back to the earliest days of the city. His great-great grandfather helped to dig the Illinois & Michigan Canal, the waterway that made Chicago a city. Cullerton takes a walk in Canal Origins Park on Ashland Avenue at the river and talks about Edward Cullerton, immigrant.
What was the most surprising thing you learned?
ANDRIES: The intensity of anti- Catholic bigotry in the 19th Century did shock me. While there are stories in my family of the KKK burning crosses on the lawns of Catholic institutions after World War I, I certainly never experienced anything like that. Chicago elected a mayor in 1855 because he was going to cut the Catholics out of any access to power. Thanks to the registered Catholic voters in the Irish and German communities he was not elected to a second term.
Any behind the scenes stories you'd like to share from shooting the documentary?
ANDRIES: We shot one day in my house. Master Irish dancer Mark Howard brought over some of his students from Trinity Academy of Irish Dance to stage a rehearsal in my bungalow basement. Howard himself took lessons from Marge and Dennis Dennehy in the basement of their home in Bridgeport. Cameraman Tim Boyd mounted the camera on my kid's wagon for one shot. When the young male soloist, who was all of eight years old, leapt up onto the plywood stage and high kicked his way across it, memories of my son's days as an Irish step dancer came flooding back. When we were shooting traveling footage of Bridgeport out the window of the WTTW van we passed the Deering Police Station at 35th and Lowe. We pulled over to put the camera back in its case and a police car sped up the alley opposite us, turning the wrong way on a one-way street. A quick friendly conversation ensued, but we were reminded of how activity out of the ordinary gets attention in a neighborhood like Bridgeport. We also had great corned beef sandwiches at the Irish American Heritage Center's pub, the Fifth Province and at the Carraig Pub at Chicago Gaelic Park.
What are you working on next?
ANDRIES: Got any ideas? Let me know!