Childhood road trips: Good Old Neon

As a Baby Boomer child  in the car traveling  with my parents, there were no cell phones to play or movies to watch on video players. You were lucky if your parents played games like 20 questions, Name that Tune or Alphabet  where you would look for every letter of the alphabet from the road signs you passed. It could be any sign but neon were easy to see with their beautiful varieties of color, sparkle and great logos.

Though for me, I didn’t really care about the games. Unfortunately, reading a book while traveling made me sick. I just loved to pass the majestic signs. Ultimately, it was the neon signs alone that offered a colorful road trip suggesting great places to visit such as Kiddieland , Margies Candies or the Seven Dwarfs Restaurant.  How my parents loved the Green Mill Lounge with its beautiful gold array of lights highlighting the green title,even back in the days of mafia connections.

I always wanted to stay at the Tangiers Motel…something I thought…  truly out of the country. Fortunately, I was spoiled. When I pointed and cheered with determination at the mesmerizing neons, we would actually stop at many taking advantage of the rides, sweets or a chocolate shake; maybe even an overnight stay.

Remember Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket neon sign in Willowbrook?  I am only a few miles from the Chicken Basket and the sign still guides me today…one of my favorite restaurants.

Nick Freeman felt the same way about neon growing up and Chicago’s rich neon heritage is published in his full-color collection of delightful signs. From the South Side of Chicago to Wisconsin, his book Good Old Neon  spotlights the familiar signs captured in over 130 photos; many fast-disappearing artifacts of a glorious era when brightly lit signs filled the landscape.

“Several dozen of the signs pictured in my book have disappeared since its publication, and once they’re gone, they’re not coming back,” Nick comments, ” Big reason for my passion for preserving them through photography.”

Nick talks about the cost of the neon which is expensive due to the hand-crafting that goes into each one, as well as the physical and technical requirements involved in their construction and placement, not to mention upkeep.  The fragility of glass tubing continuously exposed to harsh Chicago weather makes the survival of an old sign a kind of urban miracle, deserving, at the least, of photographic preservation. Even the many that have outlived their functional glory days have their own visual appeal. Animated neon signs, working or not, are a special treat.

Nick Freeman, a life-long resident of the Chicago area, has been involved with words and pictures throughout his professional career. Starting at Feldkamp-Malloy, one of the last of the old-time art studios in the city, he spent 30-plus years in advertising–god help him–serving as production director at Leo Burnett and other agencies.

He now devotes his time and attention to his first love, oil painting, and has exhibited his work in a number of local and regional shows. His art, both paintings and photography, can be seen at galleryfreeman.com.

After viewing his work on his website, I was amazed by his polished, realistic technique and use of color. Two of my favorites were Isla Jane and the Pumpkin Farm which were sold. But his wonderful collection offers a great painting of Dog N Suds called Root Beer, Flea Market II, the Blue Goose for sale and many others. He currently resides in St. Charles, Illinois.

Good Old Neon is available direct from Lake Claremont Press, Amazon or wherever fine gift books are sold. Founded by Sharon Woodhouse in 1994, Lake Claremont Press has been publishing amazing histories and guidebooks about Chicago by Chicago authors.

Unlike many publishers, their books truly capture the passions and knowledge of their authors. Many have been featured in national newspapers and numerous television shows such as the History Channel and The National Geographic Channel. Because of their credited field expertise, most authors are actively involved in non-for profits and several of the the greater Chicago land missions.

Please visit their site and you can sign up for the Lake Claremont Press newsletter to receive announcements about new book releases and special offers of distinguished Chicago authors.

The best of Chicago land’s homemade candy

For me, my weakness has been a toss up between ice cream and homemade candy. My vintage trips to Marshall Fields always called for a box of Frango mints and some of Chicago lands favorite home made candy shops offer those delectable mints today.

As a last minute stocking stuffer, my daughter runs to the grocery store to add a couple of bags of Lindt’s Lindor truffles which has been around since 1845.  I can eat one bag in a few minutes. For many, the following shops have been favorites for decades, a pride of the best Chicago businesses and some also offer home-made ice cream.

Margie’s Candies story begins in 1921 when  George Poulos opened an ice cream parlor on the North Side. The shop became known as Margie’s Candies in 1933, when Poulos’ son George Peter Poulos married Margie Michaels. Still family owned, Margie’s is known for their delicious fudge, Kosher dark chocolate wrapped in handmade boxes. Many ice cream connoisseurs love the varieties of homemade ice cream flavors as well. Margie’s original location is still open at Western Avenue. The only good complaint I have heard about Margie’s is that their lines can be long at times and they do have a second location on Montrose Avenue.

Amy’s Candy Bar located in Lincoln Square was opened in 2011 originally inspired by Amy’s grandmother, Geraldine. As a child, Amy spent hours watching and helping her grandmother bake but decided to forge a career with a degree in psychology and marketing. She worked in corporate America in later years.  But her initial passion for candy told her to follow her heart. In 2006, she decided to leave her present position and enroll in the French Pastry School in Chicago. Amy’s shop offers some of the best, award winning, hand-crafted confections that include her signature sea salt caramel. You can also order your favorites online.

Katherine Anne Confections began her candy adventure at the age of 10, when Katherine would use cream from her family’s Jersey cows to create soft, old-fashioned caramels on their farm in Wisconsin. “Katherine’s Karamels” were sold at her Dad’s office and quickly became a local favorite. The amazing confections were launched in 2006; everyone ordering her famous chocolate for the holidays. Finally, in 2012, Katherine opened her cafe in the Logan Square neighborhood on Armitage and she also offers excellent coffee drinks to compliment her sweets. They have a great online store and host corporate events.

Galena’s Kandy Kitchen was established in 1974 when George Paxton left Chicago and the overwhelming business of computers that he worked to come to Galena, Illinois, and open his confectionery. His father William (Bill) Paxton helped to create Chuckles candy in the 1930’s and continued on inspiring his son until he retired from the candy business at the age of 98. They are known locally for their “Pecan Georgies” named after George. George passed away from cancer in 2011.  Galena’s Kandy Kitchen is known for its awesome hand-molded chocolate bars with potato chips as well as excellent jelly beans that can be purchased online.

Andersons Candy Shop in Richmond IL offers an interesting history with Arthur Anderson beginning a candy shop in 1919 in Chicago and then moved his family to Richmond in 1926, purchasing a home there. He ran his business out of his front porch and living room selling candy during months that were not hot and ice cream in the summer. In 1933, his business took on new meaning after Grandpa and his family visited the Chicago World’s Fair. He came home with the first air conditioner in McHenry County, of course, this ingenious purchase allowed him to sell  chocolates year round. Some of their bestsellers are the delectable buttercream, handmade caramel and something new, smore’s bars!

Old Fashioned Candies began its journey in Chicago in 1969 and moved to Berwyn in 1971. Owned by George and Theresa Brunslik, a fire almost wiped them out but the family business is still going strong with a second store in Indian head Park. Both stores offer some great ideas for celebrating events with hand made chocolate party trays as well as Cubs and Socks Suckers. But Old Fashioned Candies truly specializes in great party favors for a new baby, graduation or wedding. Customers rave about the best chocolate covered strawberries that are available daily. Another favorite are frozen chocolate covered bananas and they ship throughout the US.

Cunis Candies originally opened its doors in 1933 on 79th street by George Askounis. The store was between the streets of Kingston and Colfax; a neighborhood I grew up and my family visited their shop many times. Now, Kathy Biesiada owns the store in South Holland which has been a south suburban favorite since 1971 and still family owned. Again, a shop that followed me or I followed them when I went to high school at Thornridge in Dolton. Cunis is also known for their amazing ice cream. Some delights include the Turtle Sundae and Peach Ice Cream topped with fresh peaches, the latter available in the summer months. They take pride in their homemade chocolates that include freshly dipped turtles,  chocolate covered orange peels and in the fall, the best caramel apples.

Gayety offers beautifully boxed assortments of homemade chocolates that include Muddles Pecan Caramels, Chocolate Almond Clusters and Butter Toffee. Gayety also serves ice cream and has shops in Lansing IL and Schereville, Indiana. James Papageorge came to America and purchased his ice cream shop Gayety’s,  located on Commercial Avenue next to The Gayety Movie Theater in South Chicago in 1936. He worked seven days a week;  never giving up the passion that meant so much to him. Lee started his career at the Gayety as a responsible and an active 12 year old eager to follow in his uncle’s footstep, then his son Jim became in charge in 2003 and the shop is still family owned.

Cupid Candies is another family owned business, founded by Paul Stefanos in 1936 and has been producing quality chocolates; serving Chicago land residents in their own retail stores for the past 68 years. The first store was at 79th and Ashland, where only fudge, toffee, and popcorn were sold. By 1940 Paul Stefanos, and his wife Pauline, opened another store at 3207 W. 63 rd Street, along with a small manufacturing facility, where the chocolate line really advanced. They continue to manufacture chocolate for some of the finest candy shops in Chicago offering a wonderful melt-away mint. Currently, three locations are available in Chicago, Oaklawn and Orland Park that offer a soda fountain service.