Saturday, July 20, 2019

Chicago wowed in 1969 by both moon landing and by watching it on TV

From A Trip to the Moon, a 1902 French film by Georges Méliès.

     This piece ran in the paper last Sunday. As a curious sidelight, after it was published, while looking for moon-related articles to post here, I noticed that I had written a story commemorating the event 20 years ago. While far shorter, the 30th anniversary not being the big deal that 50 is, apparently, it contained a few tidbits that I've worked into the story here, so you're getting a richer stew than the Sunday readers. Interesting, both pieces end with the same quote. When I saw it during my research a few weeks back I instantly thought, "That's the ending," and I guess that's as true now as it was in 1999.

     Sunday, July 20, 1969, was a special day at White Sox park — “Homecoming Day” with Nellie Fox, Al Lopez and “his old gang of cliffhangers,” who’d won the pennant 10 years earlier, returning to be honored between games of a doubleheader against Kansas City.
     The presence of the heroes of 1959 and the sunny, warm weather helped swell the crowd to 17,420, though almost 5,000 of those were unpaid thanks to free tickets given to “A” students.
     There was also that business on the moon that day. News came in the seventh inning of the first game that the Eagle lunar lander had set down on the Sea of Tranquility at 3:18 p.m. Chicago time. Play was halted and the exploding scoreboard set off in celebration. 
     Chicago was in some ways the same, in some ways quite different 50 years ago, when, the necessity of baseball notwithstanding, the city and world were transfixed by the first man to land on the moon. Chicago was more crowded — 3.3 million people, 20 percent more than today. Construction on the John Hancock Building was completed, the Sears Tower not yet begun.
      If you remember the moon landing as a huge, jubilant public celebration, you are mistaken — that was Aug. 13, when the three Apollo astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, stopped in Chicago for a tickertape parade. Two million packed downtown for it. Never one to leave anything to chance, Mayor Richard J. Daley had requested the visit on July 11 — five days before the Saturn 5 rocket even took off from Florida.
     The day of the landing, the Loop was almost deserted.. Only a few people clustered around TVs in store windows. "Did they see God yet?" asked a little girl. First, it was a Sunday. Second, the moonwalk originally was supposed to take place at 1 a.m. Chicago time.
     Third, and most importantly, the historic event was happening on the moon. Everyone on earth had the same perspective — as viewers glued to television sets. About as many households had TVs then — 93 percent versus 97 percent now — though the tendency was still to gather with family or friends to solemnize the event and experience history together. The biggest public event was 3,000 people gathering at the Adler Planetarium to watch the landing on their televisions. 

     Perhaps the most common emotion was amazement. Remember, older Chicagoans had memories of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight not quite 66 years earlier, in 1903. So the astonishment was as much about TV’s ability to convey it as with the landing itself.
     ”We were all there, bound together by the miracle of communication that intertwined all the other miracles of technology that marketed man’s first step on a celestial body,” the Chicago Daily News said in an editorial. 

     ”The medium reached its electronic apogee Sunday night by bringing in a picture — a live, moving picture — of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon,” Sun-Times columnist Paul Molloy wrote. “There has been nothing like this in the full history of broadcasting.”
     Not that television was alone in patting itself on the back. The Chicago Tribune ran an editorial, headlined "The Tribune's Own Great Feat," suggesting that its coverage of the landing was an event equal to the landing itself.
But television had the advantage of near-instantaneous coverage. In Northbrook, dozens of moviegoers left just before the end of "Goodbye, Columbus" to watch TVs in the lobby.
     Imagining the hundreds of millions around the world watching, Molloy suspected that “many had to be repeating over and over again: ‘Am I really seeing this? Is it really happening?’”
     That was the reaction of Kathy Slatek and her friends from Morton West High School. ”It was hard to believe it was live,” said Slatek, who was 15. “I couldn’t make it sink in that it was really happening.”
     Steve Dmytriw, 16, and friends from Tuley High School “sat awed” watching TV in their backyard and talked about whether they’d make the journey, given the chance.
      ”I’d go,” Dmytriw said.
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  1. If I remember correctly, Paul Malloy was the Sun-Times TV critic...and a very good one. I had that 7-21-69 edition of the paper, along with the ones that covered the deaths of RFK and MLK. I even had the "Crying Lincoln" edition (with KENNEDY KILLED! on the front page) from 11-23-63. Lost all of them in a mid-Seventies flood.

    That Sunday evening was very warm and humid in the Chicago area, but skies were clear, allowing a fine view of the moon. Many people remember that night as having a full moon, but it wasn't quite full yet. That didn't happen until the following Thursday, July 24th.

  2. I'm with Royko and the other grumps, especially the lady quoted at the end. To me, space travel always seemed expensive, boring and pointless.


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