New Years Eve in Chicago

As a child at home, it was about watching the ball drop in New York at 11 Central on TV and then turning on whatever Chicago hosted an hour later for a second New Year’s eve celebration. Sometimes I didn’t make it past 11 pm. On occasion, we would go to a friends house to spend the night. I would play with the other kids upstairs and of course, the parents would do the unspeakable…have fun…dance to the sounds of Mitch Miller in their finished basement.

Sometimes other shows were on that hosted Guy Lombardo’s Band playing Auld Lang Syne; his final New Year’s Eve appearance took place in New York, 1976. Not many may remember him.  And if Guy Lombardo traveled to Chicago, many celebrated bringing in the New Year at the Aragon Ballroom to listen to his orchestra, which was a powerhouse attraction in the 1940s.

Aragon is still in existence today at West Lawrence Ave in Uptown Chicago. The Aragon was known as one of the most elegant ballrooms in the world and has a capacity of 5,000 still offering live entertainment.

If my parents went out for a New Years Eve extravaganza, it was also to the beautiful Edgewater Beach Hotel, a resort hotel complex on Lake Michigan that featured such stars as Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Other new year celebrations included live music at the Willowbrook Ballroom, that had a history of over 80 years entertainment before it was destroyed by fire just a couple of years. A variety of big bands would take the stage for dancing events that occurred on a 6,000 square foot dance floor.

Over the decades, restaurants, ballrooms and historic tradition have come and gone but for those who celebrate at home in front of their screens, you can still watch the ball drop in New York and catch other Chicago New Year’s festivities from all media, too numerous to mention. Certainly not on only four to eight channels back in the day.

Today, popular celebrations that have created timeless tradition in Chicago is a trip to Navy Pier where you can enjoy entertainment and family attractions. Navy Pier offers exquisite cruises along the lakefront with an amazing fireworks display on New Years Eve.

Reserve a table to celebrate New Years at a fine restaurant in Chicago that offers the best six course cuisine at the new West Loop, Bellemore. In the Western suburbs, you may want to try the most popular Meson Sabika in Naperville where you can enjoy brunch, lunch or dinner at this fine Spanish tapas restaurant.

Maybe your New Years Eve is just centered around pizza delivery, lots of wine and banging pots and pans in your yard with the little ones.  Regardless of how you spend the evening,hopefully, the New Year will bring to you nothing less than an abundance of health, happiness and peace.

Happy New Year!

Beat Bugs: Winter break fun

As I watched with a group of children, we could not take our eyes of the television screen as we entered the world of imaginary bugs building colorful homes in an over grown backyard. I wanted to check out the grass in our own backyard…just at that moment.. but was afraid I would hurt them.

The Beat Bugs explored, invented and sometimes found themselves in trouble, one who actually got stuck in a bottle that was filling with water, but someone was there to help. Crick, Jay, Buzz, Kumi, and Walter are the main Beat Bugs who are always learning lessons and there are visiting bugs and creatures that help teach those valuable life lessons. Postman Bee works as a postal worker and there is Doris the Spider who actually teaches the bugs to see beauty in everything including her webbing.

After watching several shows one boy said that because of Doris the Spider, he wasn’t going to be afraid of spiders anymore. Great New Years resolution!

Beat Bugs is an Emmy Award winning animated preschool series that airs on Netflix about a bunch of cute bugs who go on fun adventures. Many of the adventures are inspired by familiar Beatles songs which brought a smile to my face including Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, a dragonfly who appears as the song is played. She is known for her wings resembling diamonds and her kaleidoscopic eyes; a guest bug in the series. Kids are now hearing Beatles songs on this show and are going around singing wherever they go.

Target just launched a huge consumer product line for parents and teachers interested in buying the Beat Bugs.

Beat Bugs Hijinx Alive:

These Beat Bugs character figurines come to life (there’s also a huge plush version) when they hear the show being played on TV (or DVD or the app). They actually start singing at the right time when they hear the characters start to sing from the season 1 episodes. The figures light up and move their mouths when they sing and can also sing along with other Beat Bugs Hijinx alive toys!

Ages 3+, MSRP $24.00 for the 6″figures, Walter Plush version is $29.99 Here’s a link: Hijinx Alive and Hijinx Singing Walter Plush.

Here’s a link of all the toys available– Beat Bugs Complete Consumer Product Line

Check out Beatbugs.com for updated information, things to color and other activities. For parents and teachers, you can help your little one build a terrarium and bring their own garden inside. You can download a free fun activity book filled with coloring pages and practice pages for writing.

Shoe box of memories

Andrea gazed out the window as the first snow fell, blanketing the ground with its grace.  It was Christmas Eve and any other year she would be jumping for joy at this wondrous sight.  Andrea and her Dad would try to build a snowman or sprinkle reindeer food with dashes of glitter scattered about so that Santa’s sleigh could find the food easily.

Those moments were only memories now.  Her father had passed away the day after Christmas one year ago.  As she cried herself to sleep many times in the past year, she tried to hold on to his embrace and the image of his gentle face.  Her loneliness had continued to grow rather than subside.

Especially now.

Andrea wanted to stop the arrival of Christmas Day unless it could bring her father back to life!  No other gift could be greater than his self-assuring presence and constant love for her.

Her mother tried to create the excitement of past holidays by continuing family traditions.  Beautifully wrapped packages sat under a balsam tree decorated with favorite ornaments and twinkling lights.  Homemade dressing was being prepared for a feast of all feasts.

Yet, none of these holiday trimmings seemed to fill the gap and make Andrea whole once more.

Fortunately, she had her shoebox.  It was neatly decorated with hearts of many colors and golden stars.  Beneath the cover, photographs, travel brochures, post cards including a trip to Niagara Falls, a broken wrist watch, a tie clip and other treasures symbolizing her father’s life filled the container as well as the barren spot in her heart.

Tonight, it was time, time for Andrea to feel safe, secure and loved.  So, she went to her dresser drawer and carefully pulled the box from it’s’ place, cradling it like a baby in her arms.  After many minutes, she spread the contents of the box on the floor to be touched, read and admired.

She felt close to him now.

But on the floor nestled in her collection was an advertising card that Andrea had not seen before.  It was a rectangle in blue and advertised the top automobile glass companies with their phone numbers and addresses on it. Maybe her Mom had found it somewhere and put it in her box for safekeeping.

The third company on the card was her father’s “Glass Sales and Service” and beside the name, his familiar phone number.  Andrea couldn’t even begin to count the number of times that she had dialed that number, anxious to share her accomplishments at school or simply to tell him “yes, it had been a good day.” On Saturdays, her Dad would take her to his shop and she would spin around in his office chair and he would always take her to lunch for a hamburger and chocolate shake.

After he passed away, her mother had sold the business and the new owners changed its name, requesting a new phone number.  Had that number which offered Andrea private words of concern with her father been disconnected forever?

Maybe it had been issued to another business or home for those to share similar conversations as Andrea had experienced.

Andrea was tired, tired of missing her father, tired of the queasiness in her stomach, tired of feeling so alone. With her shoebox, she decided to lie down just for a minute and climbed into her bed. She was asleep in an instant and the dream began.

A voice, deep within, had prompted Andrea to find out about her father’s old phone number.  Why, she didn’t know, but, still the whisper of the unknown urged her on.

Cautiously, she picked up the receiver and dialed the number…

There seemed to be a connection!  The number had not been discontinued after all!

After two rings, a voice responded.

“Good evening, Glass Sales and Service,” followed by a brief pause, “Hello, Andrea.”

The voice was distant and almost inaudible due to crackling on the line but there was no question whom the voice belonged to.

“Dad?” she stammered, her throat parched, her heart throbbing as she shut her eyes quickly, hoping to hear a response over the pounding in her chest.

“Yes, Sweetheart,” her father said calmly and deliberately.

Andrea could not believe what was happening or how and why.  All she knew is that her father was finally here.  Tears of joy began to flow freely down her face, “Dad, are you really alive?” she asked.  There was a pause that seemed endless.

“Andrea, I cannot come back to the life as you know it.  But…..”

“No! It wasn’t true!  Andrea had been dreaming, a long and dreadful dream this year.  He was really coming home soon and……..

“What you are hearing, Andrea is the voice of your heart, my spirit that will always be there.”     She was so confused and at a complete loss for words.  Though buried within her soul, Andrea knew he was right.  His funeral had been too vivid, too horribly real and that indistinguishable voice inside of her convinced her that death was final, final in the physical way.

He did not wait for her reaction because he knew it would be too difficult for her to understand.  So, he continued.

“Regardless of where I am today, death cannot tear us apart.  If you believe in the importance of your life and look inside your heart, you will always find me waiting.  Waiting to guide you through problems and loving you as you are and will be.  Don’t ever lose hope for what is hidden in your heart.  Just open it, Andrea, like you do with your shoebox of memories and you know what, if you listen carefully, you can hear the angels……………..”

Static drowned his words.

“Dad, I love you…….”  Her voice suddenly dropped dramatically, “Dad, are you there?”

Within seconds, she heard a click followed by a dial tone.  He was gone.

Instantly, Andrea dialed the number again.  It began to ring and suddenly she heard, “I am sorry, that number has been disconnected.”

She opened her eyes and her body was shaking with emotional exhaustion.  Shock trembled through her, but somehow, she felt a peace that she had not experienced for a long time. She did not have that feeling of nausea. She had heard stories about dreams being much more than someone’s imagination working overtime. Was that it or had she really received a message from her Dad that everything would be ok?

Peace had found a place in her heart that had been barren.  She truly believed her father’s words and she knew life could go on in her world as well as his.

She heard her Mom call so she made her way to the bathroom to wash her tear-stained face.  She glanced at her reflection in the mirror above the sink and smiled.  She not only saw her own features but the wonderful love of her father standing behind her.  And as her Mom called once again, she thought she heard other voices as well.

“If you listen carefully, you can hear the angels……..sing.

Creating new holiday memories

Is it true that more people pass away during the holiday season than any other time of year? According to researchers, studies have shown that there is an increase in mortality caused by natural death. After an analysis of millions of death certificates, there seems to be a 3-9 percent increase around the season that should be jolly.

Individuals are exposed to weather changes, stress and tend to be less cautious when it comes to dietary restrictions and alcohol consumption. Therefore, the next question raised; do many just mentally give up during the holidays? Is it because they may not have the financial means or the people in their lives that they want to celebrate with?

Regardless of how lucky I should be, I do shed tears on occasion due to the loss of many family and friends that are no longer with me while staring at my Christmas tree or watching a holiday tear-jerker on the tube every year.

I cry for my own childhood lost and too many packages that I could not count under my family tree. I cry for my own children when they were young who couldn’t wait to sprinkle oatmeal food sparkled with glitter outside so the reindeer could find their way to our home at night. I long for the seats at my dining room to be occupied next to the place cards of my mother, father and all the ones that were invited for the holiday feasts of the past but only appear as ghosts in my memory today. I cry for those holiday celebrations that offered smiles, laughter, friendship, hugs, kisses and the feeling of not having a care in the world!

My holidays have changed over the years and maybe yours have too. But with time I have learned to just be grateful for past holidays that have been wonderful and glad to have that memory.  I have learned to be grateful for my tree, lights and magical ornaments without the mountain of boxes from childhood or even my own children’s. toys.

I have learned to love those who are here today and create new memories for the future. I have learned to let my daughter cook and create her own place cards instead.

I am creating new traditions and activities; maybe a choice to give instead of getting such as volunteering musical skills at a church or retirement home, crafting a scrapbook or watercolor canvas that someone today will really appreciate and taking a co-worker that doesn’t expect an invitation to lunch or dinner.

Just Sunday, I attended the children’s pageant at church of those students who are in my first grade class. So many hugs I received in return for attending their performance was worth more than any gifts under my tree.

Though many of our loved ones have passed on and are sorely missed, I do not think they expect us to drown in misery because they are gone but want the love and gifts they gave us, especially during the holiday season, to be transformed into happiness rather than pain for others to experience and enjoy.

You would be surprised who needs that hug from you now!

The best holiday plays in Chicagoland

My first trip to see the play, A Christmas Carol, was in April… not the holidays.  Mid 1960’s it was hosted at Drury Lane Theater in Evergreen Park and I sat through a 2 1/2 hour show with a broken arm. I tripped on a dimly lit step during an afternoon matinee for my best friend’s birthday party.  Unfortunately, the details of the performance are vague since I was focused on not moving my arm to avoid massive pain. That night, I was hospitalized at South Chicago Hospital which was the way of doing things back then and operated on the next day since my arm was broken in three places.

Since, I have enjoyed numerous performances and movies of A Christmas Carol without interruption. Today, if tickets are still available the Christmas Carol, can be enjoyed in the Chicago land area. Though the Evergreen Park Theater, is no longer open, Drury Lane Theater still exists and is presenting A Christmas Carol between now and Dec 23 at the Oakbrook Terrace theater.

Established in 1925, the Goodman Theatre has been a part of Chicago’s loop for over 80 years and I can’t remember the countless shows I have seen there. However, I will never forget one of the best performances of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. You can also see A Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theatre Chicago through December 31st.

In the late 1960’s, I also got to the see the Nutcracker Ballet though it was difficult for me to understand the story when I was about 7 or 8 because I kept waiting for words in between dances. Though confused, I still could not take my eyes away from the amazing costumes, dance and music.

It is a story written in 1816 by German author E. T. A. Hoffmann, in which young Marie Stahlbaum’s favorite Christmas toy, the Nutcracker, comes alive and, after defeating the evil Mouse King in battle, whisks her away to a magical kingdom populated by dolls. The story begins on Christmas Eve.

I loved ballet and watching them stand on their toes, something I  could never get right.. I, too, took ballet early on as a young girl.

It is strange that I think about the Nutcracker this year since the Joffrey Ballet is performing this holiday masterpiece.  And I saw the Nutcracker again as an adult when the Joffrey was only New York and Los Angeles based. Now, the Joffrey, which trains to the highest standards, lives permanently in a new facility, Joffrey Tower, in Chicago.

It is also strange that I think of my childhood experience with the Nutcracker as I watch my first grade students learning the story in their music class. We have listened to the famous March, read the book, and watched a beautiful video with different interpretations, names, but always followed by the same exceptional music including  Waltz of the Flowers and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Fifty years later, still, I am mesmerized by the video of creative color and song. My little ones cannot pull their eyes away from the beauty of the Nutcracker either.

 

Five of the best Chicago land holiday light presentations

It was called the Christmas Tree House. That’s what my kids called it, anyway, back in the early 1990’s. And you had to wait…a mile long car line on Christmas Eve to see the house in Downers Grove, Il. Neighbors of the Gorsham family also decorated to excess so you were entertained while you moved pleasantly through the neighborhood…your children oohing and ahhing in the back seat.

The Gorsham house had a booth that held Santa and Mrs Claus on weekdays and the house was highlighted with a beautiful train village in the garage and several booths of animated scenes.The crew members would begin decorating in October and the Gorsham’s would end up with an electric bill of 3 to 4 thousand dollars. They finally retired and moved to a warmer climate selling their stock to a neighboring village.

Where are some of the best places in the Chicago land area to view decorations and lights today? The zoos are the first favorites to begin.

Lincoln Park Zoolights 
Lincoln Park Zoo, 2200 N. Cannon Dr., Chicago
On the north side of Chicago, for over 20 years Lincoln Park Zoo has provided a beautiful light display of over 2 million lights. You can also find beautiful ice carvings throughout the zoo grounds and other holiday related activities such as ice skating where you can bring your own skates or rent a pair.

Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo
Brookfield Zoo 8400 31st St. Brookfield, Il 60513
Just south of Chicago in Brookfield at the zoo, you can see over 30 years of celebration for the holiday season. Visitors can be dazzled by over a million lights and can enjoy caroling with the animals and special treat with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Several corporations have set up trees set to music and one that you can actually interact.

Aurora’s Festival of Light’s
Phillips Park, 1000 Ray Moses Drive. Aurora, IL 60505
Free admission to the festival in Aurora just southwest of Chicago which is considered one of the largest displays. You can drive through a dazzling mile of lights that are animated and a Christmas Tree that is 20 feet tall and actually sings.

Larsens in Elburn

When he was a senior in high school he was awarded the lawn maintenance contract for the City of St. Charles; a huge contract and from there he went into landscaping and design work.

In 2000, Brian Larsen incorporated County Wide Landscaping, Inc. and pretty much got out of maintenance and concentrated on design work. He went to CAD architectural school and focused on designing outdoor living spaces. Since he has won awards for his work and has designed his own Christmas house since 2006. People have traveled from all over the world to see this show light show during the holidays. Brian uses a little over one million lights and because of how the display is set up, over 20,000 extension cords.

According to the Larsens, inside the house you can’t even tell what is going on outside unless you look out the window. The music is also transmitted to play on the visitor’s car stereo via a FM transmitter so you don’t hear the music.

Mooseheart Holiday Lights

Holiday Lights at Mooseheart in Batavia is one of  the largest Chicagoland’s light displays! The lighted route is approximately 1.8 miles and has more than 80 lighted displays to view.

New this year is a half-mile extension of the route to include Mooseheart’s farm area for the first time. A live Nativity scene will highlight this new portion of the show on Nov. 30, Dec. 7, 14 and Dec. 21-24.

Even though Santa is extremely busy this time of year, he couldn’t turn down an opportunity to visit Mooseheart! For six nights this year – Dec. 8-10 and Dec. 15-17 – the admission price includes not only the Holiday Lights show, but also a chance to see Santa Claus at the Mooseheart fieldhouse.

Santa will sit for free photos beginning at 5:30pm. In addition to Santa Claus, children can enjoy a crafts, holiday music, hot chocolate, and Christmas cookies at the fieldhouse.

Decades of holiday decorations

Growing up on the south side of Chicago in the early 1960’s, for my Dad, it was the Christmas Tree. The Christmas tree that was real. Not the fake trees that were first metal, silver and generally had coordinated ball ornaments that were all the same.  The metal tree also rotated in a stand to music with floor lights. My father had to have an 8ft real tree with over 600 colored bulb lights where two lights of the same color were never together, bubble lights which were effectively scattered as well as intricate ornaments  placed with care on each branch to compliment the space. Tinsel was hung one string at a time. And that was it…sometimes he would put colored lights to frame his creation around the front window facing the street.  The tree took hours, sometimes days to complete but it was his masterpiece and still remembered by many today.

After Dad passed away , I tried to carry on the tradition in the 1970’s for my Mother. She switched to a fake, green tree with the new Italian lights and garland while living in Dolton.

And then during the 1980’s and 1990’s, Christmas became more involved with my own little ones and the art of decorating traveled outdoors. I also worked for Christmas Around the World part-time and still have the manger scene today. Now, it wasn’t about just the Christmas tree, though we did have a perfect cathedral ceiling foyer to show off our large green, fake tree. It was about the entire house even changing out the art work to celebrate the holiday. It was about stringing lights to frame the garage and wrapping the garage with ribbon.

And the new millennium came and it was still about Christmas trees, though now we had switched to white lights and lace lights trimmed the porch and frame.  The fake tree finally fell apart and still in the same house with the cathedral ceiling all these years, we are back to a real tree from Home Depot and unfortunately, not quite as large. Though the indoor decorations have remained, the outdoor lights have broken, wreaths have withered, faded, a wooden replica of Rudolph has lost its leg and Santa flying his sleigh with his plastic reindeer have seen much better days.

As for this year specifically, I have had help, we have scaled back as far as outdoor decorations though the weather in Chicago has been unseasonably warm.  A deck decorated in lights from last year still works and flower pots from summer are left in their spots filled now with fake poinsettia leaves and maybe other items from the dollar store.  An easy fix.

It is a little sad for me as I leave for work everyday and think …..hmmm….maybe today when I come home, I will add a few more decorations outside. Though I haven’t yet.

But when I do leave in the morning, it is strange that the sign of hope by my driveway seems to be especially illuminated with light from the sun, sky or the spirit world. Every morning it gives off an unusual brilliance….a special message.

Many friends and family have passed away through the decades, and maybe this is there way of telling me that it doesn’t matter what kind of costly decorations we have to celebrate the holiday season, as long as we share the sign of hope with others, there is nothing else that is more vibrant….more important! There is always hope if we truly believe.