Once there were giants

Last Sunday, as you might remember since your brain is no longer frozen, was the nastiest of winter days. Still, a handful of people braved the snow and wind and cold and slick roads to make their way to the Museum of Science and Industry.

"It's a tradition with us every Christmas," said Arthur Kliner of Lexington, Ky., visiting relatives in Oak Park over the holidays and visiting the museum with his teenage daughters (Naomi and Lisa). "We have old favorites, but there is always something new."

Though it sits high on the must-see lists of many out-of-town visitors, for many of us the MSI has become so familiar as to often be forgotten or taken for granted. I have spent more time there than most, going back to childhood, through the years I helped my father research his 1973 book, "A Continuing Marvel: The Story of the Museum of Science and Industry," and into these past nine years that my daughter has been around and curious.

It was odd Sunday morning to have the place virtually to myself, and I spent a couple of pleasant hours examining such items as a 4-pound Libby soup can from 1884; a 1912 Henderson motorcycle; Space Race playing cards from 1967; record players from 1938 and 1965; and an anatomically vivid mannequin that was featured, with wings added, on the cover of Nirvana's 1993 "In Utero" album.

I was virtually hypnotized by "Sweepers Clock," a real-time video created in 2009 by Dutch designer Maarten Baas that shows two men keeping time by sweeping trash piles laid out in the shape of clock hands. (It is the first video to be part of the MSI's collection.)

All are part of "80 at 80," an exhibit celebrating the 80th anniversary of the museum and giving a tantalizing taste of the more than 35,000 items that remain in storage. My colleague Steve Johnson rightly called the exhibit "superb" when it opened in July.

Of the 80 items, No. 80 looked and sounded very familiar. It was a huge animatronic face of a fictional and famous giant lumberjack. It filled a window and spoke with mouth moving and eyes shifting from side to side: "I'm Paul Bunyan. Careful there. I'm tippin' the cabin a little to get a good look at you. You know, being as big as I am sometimes causes folks a little trouble."

It caused only joy for Jane Bradbury. She is a program assistant with the Management and Strategy Department of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University — and this Paul Bunyan is, in a quite real sense, her father.

I will explain. In 1953, the museum opened an exhibit, "Hall of Hardwoods" that covered 10,000 square feet and featured, according to a Tribune story at the time, "hardwood floors in a variety of patterns … (and) full sized rooms (that) include an 'office of tomorrow.'" Its most memorable attraction, certainly for kids, was a tilted log cabin, one of its windows filled with Bunyan's face and the room filled with his voice telling tall tales. That voice was provided by Win Stracke, Bradbury's father.

"Hall of Hardwoods" closed in 1986, though Bunyan came back in 1993 for a short visit to help celebrate the MSI's 60th birthday. So, when Bradbury read that the "80 at 80" exhibit featured Bunyan, she excitedly grabbed the phone and called the museum.

"I left a message, explaining who I was, who my father was and the connection to the big giant head's voice," she says. "I also asked if they had the recording and were using it. I heard back, and the folks there who were very happy to get this additional information. They did have the recording and, after my call, let me know they were lengthening the voice segment."

Bradbury and her husband, Bill, a child psychiatrist, were formally invited to come and see the exhibit, which they did on a Friday in early August; her sister, California-based Barbara, has been unable to visit. While there, Bradbury was interviewed and photographed for the museum's magazine, Momentum, in which she recalled childhood visits to the MSI and such favorites diversions as the "baby chicks and 'Yesterday's Main Street.'"

"I love any opportunity to keep my father's name alive, because I believe he was a local cultural treasure in 1950s and 1960s," Bradbury told me. "He was a quintessential son of 20th-century urban America. In his case, the city was Chicago."

She is so right. Born in Kansas, Stracke came here at 2 years old and began singing in the Second German Baptist Church in Old Town, where his father served as preacher. After attending Senn High School and Lake Forest College, he hit the road working as, among many jobs, oil field hand, fruit picker, coal miner and gas station attendant, before returning here in the 1930s.

Stracke's booming bass voice and guitar were heard on such radio shows as National Barn Dance and Chicago Theater of the Air. He was part of the Chicago Repertory Group that performed in support of civil rights, labor unions and world peace. He was a member of the ensemble on "Studs' Place," Studs Terkel's improvisational and pioneering TV program in the early 1950s, and had his own musical shows for children, "Animal Playtime" and "Time for Uncle Win."

Blacklisted from television during the McCarthy era, Stracke played in folk clubs here and around the country. His most lasting and important contribution to the cultural landscape of the city was helping to found in 1957 the ever and still vibrant Old Town School of Folk Music.

He began a premature retirement in the early 1970s after a traffic accident and spent most of his time in Mexico. He was 83 when he died in 1991 and is buried in Graceland Cemetery.

Stracke's voice will be silenced when the "80 at 80" exhibit closes Feb. 2. At that time, Paul Bunyan/Win Stracke will be carted away to storage. Gone again but, one can hope, not forgotten.

"After Hours with Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.


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