January 31, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
As an actress in the 1933-1934 Century of Progress – Chicago’s World’s Fair – Peggy Wiley Carr remembers just why this exposition broke attendance and financial records in the height of the Depression. From Peggy’s vantage point on the Enchanted Island (set on a lagoon at Northerly Island), where she acted in daily matinees of “Peter Pan,” it was pure magic during a time when people needed such hope. Exploring the Fair as a 19-year-old, she experienced the whole thing – like the millions of others who attended – with wide eyes.
In a recent conversation with Peggy at her Near North apartment, she revealed her remarkable memory with vivid details of Chicago’s 100th birthday salute. A Century of Progress marked technological innovation, which generated so much employment, consumer spending, and entertainment that President Roosevelt requested it be extended for a second year. While Sally Rand whirled her fans, and an 11-year-old Judy Garland drew applause on the midway at Club Morocco, Peggy and her fellow troopers entertained thousands of children, dropped off at the Junior League Theater, while their parents explored the fair.
“I was just out of Sarah Lawrence College when I had seen Katherine Cornell and the Lunts on Broadway, and I had a desire to be on stage. The Junior League was the only organization asked to produce children’s theater at the Fair because of their success in staging plays in the Loop. I volunteered right away. My role was of Nana, the dog, and Mary Lingle made my costume out of old cedar dust mops. I definitely looked just like a shaggy dog,” she said.
“Although my dialogue consisted of ‘aarf,’ I said it in many compelling ways. I had a warning ‘aarf’ when Peter Pan arrived, a sad ‘aarf’ when Mr. Darling banished me outside, and busybody ‘aarf’ when babysitting,” she chuckled.
“Doris Winterbotham, a Junior League and Casino President, was the best Peter Pan I have ever seen. Our actress who played Captain Hook when forced to walk the plank was to have jumped onto a mattress but did so a little enthusiastically and broke her leg! She returned immediately to the cast in a cast,” Peggy recalled. “It was freezing cold along the lake front for our practices, then it was so hot during the summer that our heels stuck to the sidewalk when we explored.”
The Dawes brothers, Rufus and Charles, ran the Fair. Charles had been 30th Vice President of the United States under Herbert Hoover and was a co-winner the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925. A musician and composer, he is the only Vice President or Nobel Peace Prize winner to have written a number one pop song. His “Melody in Major,” played at official occasions – and, no doubt, at Century of Progress events – was used for “It’s All in the Game” by Nat King Cole, and for Elton John and Isaac Hayes, among others.
Peggy remembers Charles and Rufus Dawes opening the five-acre Enchanted Island, which featured a miniature train, performing animals, a magic mountain, and several daring rides, by reciting from “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”
Peggy, who can recite verse upon verse of “The Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew” and other poems, repeated those Lewis G. Carroll words to this entranced interviewer, and could have done all 18 verses.
“If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,” the Walrus said.
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.
“O Oysters come and walk with us!”
The Walrus did beseech.
“A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each.”
From the Enchanted Island, Peggy could see the huge General Motors Building with its “dream cars” displays, shooting fountains and light shows, which lit up the multicolored buildings designed to contrast the White City of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago’s first World’s Fair of 1893.
“Even after the play ended its two-month run of daily performances, we still came every other day,” she said. “My father was a member of the Century Club and my mother and I would eat in its ladies’ lounge. My sister and I rode the gondolas which took you from exhibit to exhibit.”
Peggy commuted to the Fair, which stretched from Roosevelt Road to 37th Street, from her parents’ home in Kenwood on 48th street, between Woodlawn and Greenwood. She lived there at the Kenwood house until she married Bob Carr at age 25. “Kenwood, at that time, was very quiet, and we would sit out on our front porch with lemonade and cookies. My grandfather Benedict lived in the house next to where the Obamas live now and the Wileys, my other grandparents, lived close by,” she said. “We had a wonderful cook and often boys from the Harvard School nearby would drop by for cake. I liked to think it they were there to see me.”
Peggy attended the University of Chicago Laboratory School where she often visits today to tell students about the school’s history. It was at the Lab School where Peggy developed her extraordinary skills for memorizing. When she was in the fourth grade, it was announced that the class would put on a play in French, a language she did not know. “Always the ham, I was determined to get a part. I memorized all the lines, even the stage instructions. When tryouts came I recited it all and got the part!” she exclaimed.
Anyone who attends programs where Peggy is present knows that she always asks the best question of the day and is frequently thanked by the speaker for bringing up a most cogent point. She said questioning was a daily part of her early education. “You were expected to pay attention and look interested. If you didn’t ask questions you were not considered to be at class that day,” she said. “My best advice to anyone who wants to improve their memory is to just pay attention and think of good questions to ask.”
The same spirit of inquiry continued at Sarah Lawrence College. The progressive and academically rigorous women’s college was just a 20-minute train trip from New York City and students commuted there almost daily. “I think my mother chose to send me there because the architect Howard Van Doren Shaw’s daughter Theodora was enrolled. How homesick I was at first, but by Thanksgiving I wouldn’t have returned home to study for anything!” Peggy recalled.
“The College required community service and I worked with young children at the Christodora Settlement House on Avenue B, between 9th and 10th Streets. They just sent you off to any neighborhood. I also worked in the Well-Baby Program at Columbus Hospital. Most fun were the visits to Broadway to see matinees of Eugene O’Neill plays with my beau, and, often, the New York Public Library. We piled our tables high with books and played that we were real scholars.”
After the Fair closed, Peggy continued her theater trooping with the Junior League, which took plays into elementary schools. “I played a tiger once and when the children laughed as I rolled around on the stage, I became more and more the ham. The other Junior Leaguers literally dragged me off the stage by my tail,” she laughed.
It was there that she encountered young puppeteer, Burr Tillstrom, who would go on to stage the first radio and stage show popular with children and adults alike, “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.” “Burr carried our lighting board in an old steamer trunk and his mother would play the piano at the schools we visited. Our most popular show was ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and we once performed it at the children’s playroom at the old Marshall Field’s store,” Peggy said. “Burr only had Kukla then. Fran, who was so marvelous, and Ollie came later. Theirs was the most beloved of shows, and it was all spontaneous.”
It was at her childhood home in Kenwood that Peggy developed another love: her lifelong passion for horticulture. “We had a white mock-orange and a lilac bush, but not a garden per se. I never had a delphinium, which I would have adored,” she lamented. “I first studied with Mrs. Watts at the Morton Arboretum.”
She has been involved with the Chicago Botanic Garden for many years and her knowledge of plants and flowers matches that of many professional horticulturists. As a member of the Children’s Memorial Hospital Women’s Board, she recruited the Botanic Garden to participate in a children’s horticultural therapy project. “It was a very jolly thing to have a little garden in the courtyard,” she remembered. “I volunteered there once a week and the children loved it.”
The Peggy Carr Garden stands next to the Chicago Child Care Society in Hyde Park, and Peggy planted a garden last summer with children at the Society’s new facility in Englewood. “I love amaryllis and donate bulbs every year; we plant them together and watch them grow.”
Peggy has served for 75 years on the board of the Chicago Child Care Society and rarely misses a board meeting. “When my mother was President, the organization was known as the Chicago Orphan Asylum, which was founded in 1849 to care for children whose parents had died in the cholera epidemic. My mother would often bring some of the children home to play with my sister and me. I kept up with several of them through the years.”
One of her first volunteer assignments when she returned to Chicago from college was at the old St. Luke’s Hospital on Michigan Avenue as a “gray lady.”
People of all ages number Peggy as their friend. She delighted in loaning her wedding veil, purchased for her mother’s trousseau in Brussels in 1907, to blushing brides-to-be, including Alice York, this past year, and Susanna Craib-Cox, in 2013.
She enjoyed helping them try on the veil for the first time and beamed with joy watching the delicate lace trail behind them at both of their wedding ceremonies.
Often having multiple board meetings, programs, and social events on her calendar daily, Peggy has legendary stamina (which she credits to staying busy) and thoughtful conversation with everyone she encounters, be it about international events or their particular interests. She is the first to inquire about a sick friend or to remember a child’s birthday with the latest LEGO. Her sons Tom and Terry – and his wife, Mary – all say they can’t keep up with her. Her grandchildren Ben and Lucy, both accomplished actors, agree. To all that know and love her, it is hard not to marvel at this extraordinary woman and Chicago institution.