You are hereby invited to the Nelson Algren Birthday Party, a civic institution since 1990. What
better way to celebrate winter’s end than to salute the 109 th birthday of the author of such classics as
The Man with the Golden Arm, Chicago: City on the Make, Neon Wilderness and Never Come Morning.
The revels take place Saturday, March 24, with doors opening at 7:30 p.m. and program beginning at
8. As in years past, the festivities take place in the activity space of the Bloomingdale Artists Building
at 2418 W. Bloomingdale, in the shadow of the Great Yuppie Trail, a.k.a. the 606. It’s near the
Western Avenue Blue Line stop and south of the Armitage-Western- Milwaukee intersection. Street
parking is available, but beware of restrictions on Bloomingdale. (For additional directions, call the
Algren Hotline at 773/960-8895.)
This year’s roster is among the most eclectic – and is certainly the most magical. We begin with
boogie-woogie pianist extraordinaire Erwin Helfer, in his 80s now and still taking it all “in stride.”
Other musicians include bluesman “Studebaker John” Grimaldi and chanteuse Melodie Magnuson,
a favorite at last year’s party. David Parr, a star of Chicago’s burgeoning magic scene (and who
recently appeared on TV’s Penn &; Teller: Fool Us) will perform feats of legerdemain while filling us in
on the golden age of Chicago magic. Algren biographer Mary Wisniewski talks about Nelson in the
age of Trump and actor-director-writer-Algren adapter Gary Houston reads from Somebody in Boots,
Nelson’s first, Depression-era novel. On the multimedia front, local journalist Curtis Black takes us
back to the 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair and reveals the forgotten history of the Balbo
Monument; documentarian Freddie Bell presents clips from his latest film; and filmmaker
Denis Mueller, co-director of 2015’s Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All, shows scenes
from a work in progress, featuring esteemed novelist Russell Banks talking about Nelson’s influence
on him. And architect Drew Bailey of the Polish Triangle Association discusses exciting plans afoot
to transform the bleak concrete intersection of Division, Ashland and Milwaukee into a vibrant public
space, honoring Algren in the process.
This year’s winners of the Nelson Algren Committee Award are Iwona Biedermann, photographer,
gallery owner and neighborhood force for good, and Lowell Thompson, Chicago artist, historian,
novelist and creative catalyst. They are worthy recipients of a prize intended to honor those who do
yeoman’s work on behalf of the community while staying largely under the media radar. We’ll also
remember late, great New York journalist Jimmy Breslin, another champion of the common person.
Admission is a negligible $10 at the door. Drink tickets and an array of beverages and complimentary
snacks are available, and Algren books and memorabilia – including our popular “mugshot mugs” –
are on sale. Committee members Warren Leming and Hugh Iglarsh do MC duty, along with fellow
members Nina Gaspich, Rick Homuth and David Witter. Laura Weathered and the Near
Northwest Arts Council are our much-appreciated co-sponsors. Happy Birthday will be sung to
Nelson, candled cupcakes will be served and the tradition will continue.
On April Fool’s Day of this upside-down year, please join us in celebrating the life and career of Nelson Algren, author of Chicago: City on the Make, The Man with the Golden Arm, Neon Wilderness, Never Come Morning and other novels, stories, poems and essays that continue to define Chicago.
This year’s bash takes place on Saturday, April 1, with doors opening at 7:30 p.m. and the program commencing at 8. As in past years, it all happens in the cozy confines of the activity space of the Bloomingdale Artists Building, 2418 W. Bloomingdale, where the 606 Trail, that river of gentrification, crosses Western. It’s just south of Armitage, near the Blue Line’s Western Avenue station. Street parking is available. (For detailed directions, call the Algren Hotline at 773/235-4267.)
Algren, an original honoree of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, was more than a writer of fiction. He was a cogent social commentator, whose political engagement resulted in a pulled passport and a thousand-page FBI file. This spring – which is also the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s epochal “Beyond Vietnam” speech – we respond to Nelson’s activist legacy by remembering Daniel Berrigan, a conscience in touch with humanity, who died in 2016.
Along those lines, one winner of this year’s Nelson Algren Committee Award is the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (represented by Barry Romo and others), which continues to play a key role in the struggle against America’s never-ending imperial wars. The other is Miki Greenberg, the talented musician-songwriter-producer-organizer who for decades has been a cultural dynamo in Chicago.
As always, we feature a motley lineup of readings, music, talks, etc. in the Algren vein. Legendary stride pianist Erwin Helfer leads off; actor-director Gary Houston delivers Algren’s reflections on Hemingway and the critics; writer David Witter discusses the history of Chicago’s Skid Row; archivist Tony Macaluso shares excerpts from the radio show of Studs Terkel, Algren’s friend and frequent interviewer; cabaret songbird Melodie Magnuson regales us with the evergreen tunes of Nelson’s day; photographer Bruce Sharp looks at the city’s lost movie palaces and neighborhood cinemas; and activist Joe Kransdorf talks about former Algren Committee member Norman Porter, aka J.J. Jameson, the fugitive poet who now languishes in a Massachusetts jail cell. Simone de Beauvoir, the celebrated philosopher and Nelson’s ladylove, is rumored to be planning an appearance.
Admission to this counter-cultural carnival is a mere ten bucks ($5 for seniors and students with ID) at the door. Drink tickets are available, as are snacks and door prizes, courtesy of Committee member Nina Gaspich. Committee cofounder Warren Leming and Hugh Iglarsh do MC duty, ably assisted by Kurt Jacobsen, Rick Homuth, Laura Weathered of the Near Northwest Arts Council and many others. Algren memorabilia – including books, “mugshot” mugs, buttons and postcards – will be on sale, a rousing Happy Birthday will be sung to Nelson on his 108th … and this Chicago tradition rolls on.
The Nelson Algren Committee, founded in 1989, eight years after our namesake’s death, is committed to keeping alive the memory of a great artist and cultural gadfly that the literary establishment would just as soon forget. A champion of the outcast and underdog, Algren would live to be scorned as the “bard of the stumblebum” by East Coast critics who found his critique too pointed. Despite their strategic indifference, Algren’s work is still read and his life still matters, as attested to by the two full-length documentaries and much-lauded biography that have appeared over the last couple of years. Join us, here in the city “built out of man’s ceaseless failure to overcome himself,” in a celebration of the artist who knew Chicago like no other and loved it warts and all.
Join us at home on the northwest side on January 12th for a reading with Mary Wisniewski, author of Algren: a Life and esteemed friend of the Algren Committee, this Thursday, January 12th. The event begins at 6:30 and runs until 8 o'clock at City Lit Books in Logan Square (2523 N. Kedzie Blvd.). More information here.
Join us Monday, October 24th, at 57th Street Books in Hyde Park as we continue to celebrate the release of Wizniewski's new biography, "Algren: A Life." Committee founder Warren Leming will moderate discussion on the author's life, works, politics, and anything else that comes up. Event begins at 6:00 PM, visit 57th Street Books' website for more info.
Join us at Volumes Bookcafe this Saturday as we celebrate the release of "Algren: A Life," a new biography on our beloved author by Chicago journalist Mary Wizniewski. The even is part of Wicker Park & West Town Lit Fest, started in 2015 to highlight the rich literary landscape with which Algren was so inseparably tied.
The event begins Saturday at 6:30, culminating with a journey to Rainbo Club, one of Algren's beloved neighborhood taverns. More info on Facebook.