The Immigrant Mayor of ChicagoWithin the infamous and muscular history of Chicago, there came a fifteen-year old kid to Chicago in 1889. A tough, immigrant kid born to a coal-miner of Eastern Europe that pushed a cart of refuse lumber through the Southwest side to sell as firewood. A kid that would become the Mayor of Chicago and build the first dominant political force in our country, the Chicago Democratic Party.
The story of Anton (Tony) Cermak is the story of Chicago itself. Brought to the United States in the great immigrant wave of the 19th century, young Tony came to Chicago as an industrious teenager, seeking his own destiny. He found it in the first truly American city, Chicago, born of swamp and weed and built into a metropolis that became the heart of American labor, industry and innovation.
Our Premiere Performance!On June 10, 11 and 12, ‘Pushcart Tony’ had its premiere performance at the Vittum Proscenium Theater in Chicago’s Old Town. It was, to all those involved, an amazing feat by the 20-actor community theatre troupe of TesserAct Theatre Ensemble, who in less than three months of rehearsal moved the audience with a 30-song, original musical drama set in Chicago’s most exciting Era.
A very special thanks is due to our director, Julie Price, without whose vision, intelligence and industry we could not have presented our play. Bravo, Julie! We could not have wished for a better leader!
As the world of impassioned artists and enthusiasts know, stage theatre, and musical drama, is the most ambitious of the High Arts, and in the experience of all authors, actors and associates who were a part of ‘Pushcart Tony’, there was no doubt to it’s great labor. But there was not a soul involved who would not do it again, and again after that. We were a fine family, and blessed with each other.
-Michael Greitzer, Librettist
‘Pushcart Tony’ On WGN Radio!
On Sunday night, June 5th, playwright Michael Greitzer and actors Kyle Downs and Anne Arza had the privilege of being invited onto ‘After Hours With Rick Kogan’ on WGN Radio to discuss their musical play, ‘Pushcart Tony’. Mr. Kogan, as he has throughout his career as a Chicago journalist and historian, was outwardly gracious and the interview played as though Mr. Kogan was part of the project himself! We thank WGN Radio and Rick for showing us such consideration and look forward to talking to him again in the future. Click on the graphic to the right to hear our conversation.
The StoryBorn to a coal-mining father from Bohemia, Cermak was brought to America in 1874 through Castle Garden, New York, the national precursor to Ellis Island. As a very young man, he followed his father’s heavy footsteps into the coalmines of downstate Illinois before deciding that, at age fifteen, his destiny was in Chicago. He traveled there, intent on being independent and breaking the hard mold of his Bohemian ancestors.
On the southwest side of the city he out-worked everybody, initially as a mere laborer, but soon enough hauling goods with cart and horse and selling firewood throughout his community. From these days came the humble moniker, ‘Pushcart Tony’. Within a short time, the young Cermak formed teams, made friends and professional acquaintances among his Bohemian peers as well as other ethnic groups in the city, well on his way to a career in the political arena.
-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel
At age eighteen, Cermak witnessed the amazing 1893 World’s Fair, awestruck by it’s technology, art and display of global cultures. He walked through Chicago’s infamous First Ward, where the infamous ‘Levee‘ drew men into it’s snare of beguiling propositions, tantalizing sexual opportunities, and strong drink. Soon after, Tony made his decision to enter local politics. It was an uncertain choice, but one that the young man had a passion for. He began to canvas votes for the Democrats of Chicago’s SW side. He organized rallies and policed election polls. He listened to those above him and learned quickly, and through his great effort and industry, he was soon rewarded.
The United SocietiesCermak became a number one adjunct for the ward Democrats, a precinct captain, and finally, a state representative in Springfield. In 1909, he returned to Chicago to became Alderman of the city’s 12th Ward and a rising star of the city’s Democratic Party. It was during these years that Cermak was also distinguished with founding the powerful organization called the “United Societies For Personal Liberty”, an immense collective of ethnic groups that populated much of the booming city. The United Societies and Tony Cermak soon became mighty forces in the Chicago political landscape.
Drys Vs. WetsAs the rising tides of the national temperance movement beget Prohibition and bore the fruits of an omnipresent underworld, Cermak continued to rise through the ranks of the Chicago Democrats with an extraordinary capacity for hard work and political coalition. Patient and calculating, Alderman Cermak used every political skill at his disposal to improve the city and accrue a national disposition against the Volstead Act, which he saw as foolish and wrongheaded. Cermak knew that the ‘Noble Experiment’ would bring about changes in the country that it’s authors were too naive to anticipate.
“Prohibition does not prohibit!,” Cermak bellowed, “it poisons! It gives the gangster his job!” However, the ‘Wide Open Town’ of Al Capone’s Chicago could not be denied, and despite Cermak’s vehemence and political weight, Prohibition endured. The violence that resulted from the subsequent ‘beer wars’ and gangland attacks and retaliations made Chicago ‘Murder City’ in the eyes of the nation. With the outrageously corrupt Mayor ‘Big Bill’ Thompson minding the store, more was to come.
-Mike Royko, from his book, ‘Boss’
ReformReform was attempted in City Hall and failed. Al Capone moved his operation to the suburb of Cicero and turned up the heat on his city rivals. In 1928, his henchmen assassinated seven gangsters of a rival family. The ‘St. Valentine’s Day Massacre‘ infuriated the country. But the nation worried, ‘what could be done?’
Suddenly, the Great American Depression changed everything. Due to a massive stock market crash, the nation dove into financial chaos. The ‘Roaring Twenties’ were over.
Jobless men, women and their families languished into outdoor camps for the destitute called ‘Hoovervilles’ and became hopeless, inert, and frightened. Thousands of American banks closed, taking with them billions of American dollars that had been saved or invested. No money was lent, no money was spent. Tony Cermak, now head city council member and President of Illinois’ Cook County, solicited aid from Washington to subsidize municipal programs in both the city and country. He was rebuffed continuously by the Federal Reserve Board.
-Chicago Mayor ‘Big Bill’ Thompson, during the 1931 Mayoral Election
-Tony Cermak, days before his landslide victory over Thompson to become Mayor
Depression ExecutiveFinally, in the Mayor’s election of 1931, Tony Cermak crushed the bloated, press-crucified Thompson in the largest landslide in Chicago history. ‘Big Bill’ was done forever. Boss Cermak had finally taken over City Hall. He commandeered a change in that vessel’s public service that was unequaled, working sixteen-hour days and leaving no stone unturned in public worth nor trust. He cut, he fought, and he pleaded to save his city from financial Armageddon. On the horizon, the election of Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt signaled a change in the fortunes of Chicago and America.
The repeal of Prohibition was gaining strength each month throughout the country’s legislatures and the end of the Volstead Act was near. Chicago Mayor Tony Cermak led the charge, knowing the change and FDR’s election meant mighty things to the American people.
However, upon a trip to Florida to petition the President-election about federal aid to the city, the coin of fortune fell on it’s dark side at Mayor Cermak’s feet. An angry and confused immigrant attempted to kill FDR and shot Cermak instead. The end of the story of Tony Cermak had come quickly, and tragically, to an end. The city mourned the loss of it’s greatest statesman, it’s hardest worker, and the man who made Chicago his life.
Our MayorAnton Cermak left Chicago as the greatest example of a working-class city in the history of the world. Just weeks after his death, the people of Chicago spearheaded the final repeal of the 18th Amendment. Prohibition was over. A month later, they welcomed citizens from all over the globe to witness ‘A Century Of Progress‘ in the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933.
Mayor Cermak’s legacy was felt most intimately on the streets of the city he had devoted his life to and the place he loved the most, Chicago. In this true American city, Cermak was a true American. An immigrant, a worker, and a leader. Upon his death, his city remembered him as their greatest benefactor, a champion of public service and civic pride.