Housed in an 1843 Victorian home, the Waukegan Historical Society museum contains relics from 189 years of the city’s past, including a bed once slept in by a future president named Lincoln and the authentic reproduction of a typical family home in the 1870s. To fans of pop culture all over the world, Waukegan will forever be known as the hometown of comedian Jack Benny and science fiction/fantasy author Ray Bradbury.
Perhaps it was only natural that Jack Benny – who was born Benny Kubelsky and lived in Waukegan until he left to seek fame as a star of vaudeville, radio, TV and movies – would go into show biz. The Waukegan he grew up in between 1894 and 1912 has had many connections to Hollywood.
Motion picture inventor
Ty Rohrer, museum supervisor for the Waukegan Historical Society, said those connections began very early for the city. A local inventor, Edward Amet, was among many around the world at the turn of the 20th century who raced to be the first to develop the motion-picture camera. Amet’s invention, called the magnascope, was both a camera and a projector.
“He is recognized for 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.”
“Morning Exercise,” a short comedy by Amet, featured local women Bess Bower Dunn and Isabelle Spoor boxing in skirts.
Believed to be the first actresses cast in a movie, Dunn was also Lake County’s first woman historian. The recently opened Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County was named for her.
At one time the city had 40 theaters.
During the Roaring ’20s the premiere entertainment venue was the Genesee Theatre, which was built in 1927 at a then eye-popping cost of $1 million. Lake County residents swarmed there to watch not only movies but traveling vaudeville shows, plays and concerts.
Remarkably, the historic Genesee has again become the premiere venue 90 years later. As the movie business moved to giant multiplexes, the Waukegan gem went out of business in 1989 and sat empty for a decade. But the City of Waukegan purchased the building in 1999 and began renovations at a cost of almost $23 million with the help of over 120 volunteers. The Genesee reopened on Dec. 3, 2004 and has been reclaiming its old glory ever since.
The top names in show business now come to the Genesee to put on several live shows per week, and they draw audiences from all over the Chicago area and southeast Wisconsin. For example, the Genesee’s bookings in spring 2018 included Boyz II Men, Jay Leno, Daughtry, Paula Poundstone and Lisa Lampanelli – all within just a one-month period.
The Genesee is now complemented by the nearby nonprofit Three Brothers theater company, which describes itself as “an ensemble of artists … dedicated to the belief that theatres should be driven by artists.” Our mission is to create theatre that is different, vital and (mostly) fun.”
One of the Genesee’s most famous performances came in 1939 when Jack Benny held the world premiere of his movie “Man About Town” at the Genesee. Benny never forget where he came from and became Waukegan’s biggest advertisement as he mentioned his hometown repeatedly on his radio and TV shows.
Although Benny was born in a hospital in Chicago, he often referred to having been “born and raised in Waukegan.” On a 1959 episode of the TV game show “What’s My Line?,” Benny joked, “They say that I put Waukegan on the map. But it’s not true. Waukegan really put me on the map,” by bringing him into the world.
The comedian also came back when School District 60 dedicated Jack Benny Middle School. Rohrer said Benny, who pretended to be a lousy violin player as part of his act, last visited the city as a guest performer for the first-ever performance of the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra.
Another world-famous native was Ray Bradbury (“Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles”). His fictional city of Green Town, mentioned in such works as “Dandelion Wine” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” was largely based on Waukegan. Before he died in 2012, the community created a Bradbury Walk, guiding guests along a walking tour through the city that stops at sites important to the artist’s life and writings.
More than 50 movies as well as several television shows have been filmed in Waukegan, including parts of “The Blues Brothers,” “Groundhog Day,” “Batman Begins” and most recently “Chicago Fire.”