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Robert Boylan, an urban planner and zoot-suit fan, dies at 79

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Updated: June 9, 2013 2:42PM

The zoot suit resembles a mash-up of an MC Hammer video and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

High-waisted, baggy-pantsed and peg-legged, it sizzles with rainbow colors, snazzy chains, cartoonishly broad shoulders and snappy fedoras.

Malcolm X described his early flirtation with the zoot suit, a “killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.” Gwendolyn Brooks called them “wonder-suits” in her poem, “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith.”

Its sartorial swagger grew out of the world of jazz. It became even more famous after the Zoot Suit riots of 1943, when fighting exploded between Mexican-American and black youths and the white servicemen on leave in Los Angeles. Some say it was a way for disenfranchised minorities to thumb their noses at wartime fabric rationing.

So how, one might ask, did Robert Boylan, a respected urban planner and senior citizen, become the owner of 80 zoot suits in shades of turquoise, pink, yellow, lime green, lavender, purple and red?

You might say he was just a hepcat.

Jazz singer Spider Saloff recalled Mr. Boylan and his wife, Kathy, doing gossamer glides around the dance floor.

“It was wonderful to see someone who loved music so much that they expressed it with every part of their being,” Saloff said.

Mr. Boylan, 79, an urban planner who specialized in zoning and parking regulation, died last month at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital.

The Boylans connected the worlds of cabaret, jazz and African-American stepping, a smooth dance that descended from the jitterbug. They won a WSRB-FM (106.3) stepping contest and a 2009 State of Illinois Dancing with the Stars competition, his widow said.

They turned heads when they danced at the Glendora House in Oak Lawn; at Katerina’s at Irving and Lincoln and at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport, Iowa. They blended the tango, salsa, swing, foxtrot, merengue and jitterbug.

“We would dance anywhere,” said Kathy Mullen Boylan. “Even at the Jewel, if they had good music on, we would dance.”

Singer Loretta Lee asked the couple to dance in her tribute show, “Remembering Billie Holiday.” Kathy Boylan dressed in vintage clothing to match her husband. “They were perfect,” Lee said. “The crowd loved them.”

For a night on the town, Mr. Boylan was resplendent. He wore zoot suits said to come from Harlem, purchased at a shop in Elkhart, Ind. He owned 70 hats. He found brightly colored shoes to match his zoot suits at South Side stores. Often, he was the only Caucasian customer.

He festooned his suits with a chain. When a friend and fellow zoot-suiter, Richard Vajgrt, dressed up his outfit with two chains, “He was stunned,” Vajgrt said. “He said, ‘I can’t believe you double-chained me.’ ’’

Mr. Boylan graduated from Austin High School and studied at UIC’s Navy Pier campus and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned a degree in urban planning.

After enlisting in the Air Force, he served in the Korean War as a meteorologist.

Mr. Boylan did planning for city and county governments, helping to write zoning codes, including a respected Chicago parking ordinance, according to Professor Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University’s School of Public Service.

Mr. Boylan joined Barton-Aschman Associates, where he met Kathy Mullen. He asked her to dance, and that was it. “We were like two magnets, and we danced together for 40 years,” she said. They married in 1978. She called him Stan. He called her Ollie.

He started his own consulting firm and worked with real estate developer and Chicago zoning official Harry F. Chaddick. They worked on the creation of the Brickyard and Ford City shopping malls, his wife said.

Mr. Boylan liked the song “Satin Doll”; watching “NCIS,” and reading James Patterson mysteries.

Kathy Mullen Boylan is planning a celebration of his life in August. He asked her to bury him with a case of Veuve Clicquot champagne.

After he died, her brother invited her on a cruise to take her mind off her grief. There, she listened to music and missed her husband.

“Before I knew it, there was this adorable, cute young man, about 18 years old, and he asked me to dance,” she said. “He came out of nowhere, and I think Bob sent him.”

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