Many independent writers got their start in the newspaper business, and I am no exception. In the days before journalism schools were the only path to “content creation,” promising writers who had entrepreneurial skills, the drive to get the story and a nose for news were the primary requirements needed to get hired. Chicago’s City News Bureau and even wire services such as the Associated Press didn't rely on degrees and grade point averages as much as they do today.
I was hired for my first reporting job near the end of an era that was first heralded in 1928 in the play The Front Page, which takes place in the press room of the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago. On the eve of a murderer’s execution, a lead reporter decides to quit the newspaper business, marry a decent woman and start a respectable job at his father-in-law’s public relations company in New York. But these plans are thwarted when the biggest scoop of his career is thrust into his unwilling lap.
I’ve always loved the play for its cynical yet comic portrait of how reporters become hardened to human agony and how bottomless the corruption of politicians can be. So when Saint Sebastian Players announced auditions for a production of the play (opens April 27 at St. Bonaventure in Chicago), I figured that with my on-the-job experience, I would be a shoe-in to play one of the many reporters.
So imagine my surprise when I was cast on the receiving end of the free press as the Mayor of Chicago, who dominated the pinnacle of political corruption. As a result, I have put to good use my experience observing this species of political animal in its natural habitat—City Hall.
The reportorial milieu portrayed in The Front Page is not too exaggerated from reality. Everyone who has worked in a newsroom has experienced the rush of excitement that pulses through it when a big story breaks. Reporters race out the door or breathlessly dial phones to get sources’ quotes, the editors scramble to remake the front page, and in the old days, the composing room stops everything until the next big scoop is set on the linotype machines.
At the time of The Front Page, tearing out a page layout wasn’t just a matter of pushing a few buttons on a keyboard—it actually meant ripping out lead type that had been blocked into a layout with hammers, melting it down and literally recasting the story.
I know about this because I experienced several scoops similar to the one in The Front Page during my early newspaper career. When I was a daily newspaper reporter in Kankakee, Illinois, one scoop I uncovered (with the assistance of an invaluable informant) occurred on a sleepy Saturday -- traditionally a slow day spent preparing the Sunday edition. I had visited the county jail to get the latest crime reports off the “blotter,” a binder with typed or handwritten police reports in it.
Such a visit was a daily routine for the reporter assigned to it, which on this day, was me. It seemed nothing much had happened in the county on Friday night—or so the county sheriff wanted me to believe—until I learned a few hours later about a scandalous event. As the newsroom was starting to wrap up the Sunday edition, a woman telephoned me from a distant area of the county.
“I’m just calling to see how the state Senator is doing,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I inquired.
“I wanted to see if he was injured in the car accident last night,” she explained.
“What accident?” I demanded. She told me that the state Senator had been in a car crash the night before. Didn’t we have all the information on it?
Within five minutes, the sheriff—who didn’t work Saturdays—was on the phone. I reminded him of what he already knew and had ignored by law: all police records are public documents, and the newspaper had a right to see all of them. He told me to come back to the jail, where the report would be available. I told the photo department, and a photographer immediately was dispatched, tearing off in his car to the police auto pound before the managers there disposed of the Senator’s car, which was badly damaged. We tore out the front page and ran the photo there with my article.
As it turned out, the Senator had been driving late Friday night, crashed his car and broke his arm. For the next several days, we heard reports that the Senator had been introduced in various drinking establishments that night and did not appear to be as sober as a judge. In the days before social media and ubiquitous cell phones, covering up such an embarrassing accident could be attempted. Without solid evidence, we could not be sure, but it appeared that the Senator’s driving while intoxicated was being covered up by the county sheriff. Sure enough, charges were never brought against the Senator by the county’s prosecuting attorney.
This is just one of the many examples of official chicanery, special treatment and cronyism among elected officials that reporters still see every day. In The Front Page, the officials are portrayed as buffoons, the comic relief. Although this might have been wish fulfillment on the part of former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who wrote the play, it makes for a highly entertaining comedy of mayhem and laughter.
The Saint Sebastian Players present The Front Page April 27 to May 20 in the basement of St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W. Diversey (enter on Marshfield just west of Ashland) in Chicago, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For more information, visit saintsebastianplayers.org or call 773-404-7922.
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- Russ Gager
Russ Gager worked as a daily newspaper reporter in Watseka and Kankakee, Illinois—where he had a few scoops of his own—along with the Suburbanite Economist, the South End Reporter and the Blue Island Sun Standard.
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