On latest special, Geoffrey Baer a tour guide through time
By LORI RACKL TV Critic December 1, 2013 10:00PM
A picture frame serves as Geoffrey Baer’s portal on “Chicago Time Machine,” debuting Tuesday. | WTTW
7:30 p.m. Tuesday on WTTW-Channel 11 (check listings for encores)
At suntimes.com, Geoffrey Baer talks about his new special.
Updated: January 3, 2014 6:08AM
Geoffrey Baer has used myriad modes of transportation — boat, car, bike, the L, his own two feet — to take WTTW-Channel 11 viewers on tours of Chicago’s history and architecture.
For his latest TV special, Baer opted for a less conventional vehicle: a time machine.
He hauled this gussied-up picture frame — a window to the past, tricked out with time-traveling powers on a public-television budget — to 39 locations across the city and suburbs. The charmingly cheesy time machine is the portal Baer uses to peel back layers of often long-forgotten history, things that happened centuries or decades earlier, on that very spot.
“On This Very Spot” was the working title Baer had in mind when he got the idea for the show that became “Chicago Time Machine,” debuting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. “I was thinking about the night Barack Obama claimed victory in Grant Park,” said Baer, who’s written and hosted 20 public TV specials about Chicago and its surroundings since 1995. “If you stood right there and dialed back in time 40 years, it’s the same place protesters were massing to march for the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Dial back a little farther for the birth of the Petrillo Bandshell. A little farther and airplanes are taking off and landing in Grant Park in one of the world’s first air shows.”
Dial back a little farther and you’re in the lake, because the land that is Grant Park didn’t exist.
It was built on debris shoveled into the lake from the 1871 fire.
The 80-minute program packs in similar stories about a wide range of topics, some of which are more compelling than others depending on your interests.
† A vacant lot in Streeterville was the site of the CBS studio where Kennedy and Nixon faced off in the first televised presidential debate.
† UIC Medical Center was home to West Side Grounds, where the Chicago Cubs played back — way back — in their World Series-winning days.
† A school in Wicker Park sits on top of the final resting place of a giant, prehistoric beaver. Baer hoped to unearth a dinosaur story; this is as close as he got.
† A southwest suburban forest preserve is the graveyard of the world’s first nuclear reactor.
Baer and producer Dan Protess worked on the show for the better part of a year.
“Coming up with all the archival photos was a challenge,” Protess said during an interview in River North’s Brehon Pub, featured in the program. It was the setting of the infamous Mirage, a fake tavern the Sun-Times concocted 35 years ago to expose city corruption. “We have close to 700 images in the show, far more than we’ve ever used before.”
Another challenge: Explaining the unusual-looking time machine prop to security guards and others who were skeptical of what Baer and his camera crew were up to.
The team wasn’t initially welcomed at a South Side fitness center’s parking lot, for example, where a key civil rights sit-in took place in a long-gone coffee shop.
“We’d have to keep explaining that it’s a time machine,” Baer said. “We’re not doing some hard-hitting expose, unless somebody did something illegal here in 1852.”