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History

Since its beginning, Waukegan has been home to many entertainers including musicians, actors, writers and visual artists as well as venues that have entertained generations of residents and visitors alike.

Waukegan is part of the early motion history, explained Ty Rohrer, museum supervisor for the Waukegan Historical Society. A local inventor, Edward Amet, was among many around the world at the turn of the century who raced to be the first to develop the first motion picture camera. His invention, called the magnascope, was a camera and projector, and because it was lightweight, he was able to share his movies around the country.

“He never put a patent on his device, but he is recognized in the way he started to make movies,” Rohrer said. “He ventured away from using his camera as a way to just record natural events, and he was actually using actors and actresses and then later sets with models, making his own scenes and making his own movies.”

One of the short movies he made was a comedy featuring two women who wore dresses while boxing. Believed to be the first actresses cast in a movie, one was Bess Bower Dunn, whose name will be recognized as the Lake County Discovery Museum is renamed. The other was Isabelle Spoor, the daughter of George Spoor, who went on to found S&A Studios in Chicago, the most famous of silent film companies of that time. The Spoor family also built the Academy Theater in 1916, the first theater in Waukegan built solely for showing motion pictures.

Waukegan, at one time, had 40 theaters. The premiere entertainment venue is the Genesee Theatre, which was built in 1927 by businessmen Al Brumund, HC Burnett and DT Webb. The cost to see a show at the Genesee Theater when it first opened was 60 cents.

“This is where all the people were. These theaters wouldn’t have been built and the groups wouldn’t have come if they didn’t think there were people to fill the seats,” Rohrer said.

Waukegan hosted many performers such as musicians like Benny Goodman and Gene Autry; unusual performers such as Moro “The Human Icicle,” who was frozen in a cake of ice; and more recently David Copperfield, Loretta Lynn and the Everly Brothers. But one of the most well-known performances was in 1939 when hometown legend Jack Benny held the world premiere of his movie “Man About Town” at the Genesee Theatre.

“At that time period, Waukegan was Hollywood,” Rohrer said.

The unique thing about Benny, who was raised in Waukegan and lived there until age 18, was he never forget where he came from.
“Everybody about the country was tuning into his radio show and later his television show, and people around the country got to know Waukegan because he talked about it quite often,” said Rohrer, who added Benny’s last appearance in Waukegan was as a guest performer for the first-ever performance of the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra.

Another well-known hometown artist is Ray Bradbury, whose writings often conveyed stories of his childhood. One of his stories, “Green Town” has many references to Waukegan using pseudonyms. The community has later recognized him by creating a Bradbury walk, where guests take a walking tour through the city and stop at sites important to the artist’s life and writings.

Waukegan has become known as a spot where filmmakers come to film their movies. Over 50 movies as well as several television shows, have been filmed here, including “The Blues Brothers,” “Groundhog Day,” “Batman Begins” and most recently, “Chicago Fire.”

Waukegan also has been home to talented visual artists. Born in Waukegan in 1860, Kate Cory later moved to live near the Hopi Indians to capture them in photos and paintings to show how these seclusive people lived. Known as one of the southwest United States greatest artists, Cory is honored by the Waukegan Arts Council who presents the Kate Cory Award to a local artist.

Known for his charcoal drawings, pencil drawings and watercolor, Phil Austin is among artists recognized at the Waukegan Walk of Stars along Sheridan Road, Rohrer added. Austin’s daughter recently presented to the Waukegan Public Library slides featuring her father’s work.

The city began a recent movement to recognize local artists and help revitalize its downtown with the start of the Art Wauk, a monthly event since 2011. Each month, a property owner gives keys to a retail space to an ArtWauk artist, who turns the space into a professional gallery, recruiting more artists and hanging a show.

Today, many local artists are not only bringing a better education of art to the community, but also showcasing a city filled with many different cultural backgrounds, and celebrating those cultures. Examples include the mariachi bands at the elementary and middle schools within Waukegan School District 60 and the Waukegan Tamburitzan, a dance organization formed in 1972 to promote Croatian heritage.

“These dance groups are an opportunity to teach the new generations, those born in Waukegan who may not have background of the homeland, but can be taught the traditions of their predecessors,” Rohrer said.

Waukegan continues to also celebrate and share the arts through work by the Waukegan Park District, which offers music, dance, art and theater programs as well as offers opportunities to see local performances such as the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra, Waukegan Concert Chorus and Bowen Park Theatre Company. The community also showcases the arts through community festivals. One is is the annual Ray Bradbury Dandelion Wine Fine Arts Festival, which has been held the first Saturday in June since 2001. The free event features music and entertainment stages, fine arts display and family activities.

“We’re trying to showcase the local talent both in visual arts but also with music, with dance, and we do a pretty good job at that,” Rohrer said.

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