Flickering Empire All Over the News!

In all these years and all these books, I've never had anything LIKE the response that Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the US Film Industry has received. Mike and I have recorded a handful of radio interviews (we're about to do another this afternoon!), and the book is being written up in major press outlets.   Just today, Chicagoist said "Smith and Selzer clearly did their homework, and the result is a book that immediately joins the ranks of essential film references."   Wow!

It also got written up today in The Chicago Tribune, and was also recently featured on a Turner Classic Movies blog.

Mike and I recently sat and chatted about it with Andy Miles of Transistor - hear it here.   We also chatted with Patti Vasquez on WGN. 

Our launch party is Saturday night at Transistor (3400 block of N. Broadway in Chicago) at 8pm - we'll be talking and screening some very rare films.  Look out for more events, lectures, parties and talks soon!

Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the US Film Industry

"...a book that immediately joins the ranks of essential film references." - Chicagoist.

Hi, everybody! Just a quick plug here - today, Jan 20th, Flickering Empire, my new book on Chicago silent film, is available through the film studies branch Columbia University Press. Though I try to cite my sources and hold myself up to reasonable academic standards in even my most down-to-earth work, this is my first "scholarly" book, written in collaboration with Michael Glover Smith.
Our 2011 podcasts exploring old silent film studios here and here

Chicago's role in the early film industry is largely forgotten today, but for a few years there we were a prototype Hollywood, producing early examples of serials, color films, feature-length films, and a whole host of other things that had never been seen before. Flickering Empire is the first book-length study of Chicago's role in the nascent industry, from the moving pictures that were (and weren't) on display at the 1893 World's Fair to the collapse of the local industry a quarter of a century later.   To research the book I traveled the country seeking out the handful of films that survive, met with relatives of major players in the industry, and generally had a blast!

Thoughts on "Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play"

Let’s say that seven years ago, a series of melt-downs and fires killed 99% of all people. Electricity is gone. Cans of Diet Coke are a rare commodity, even though, statistically, they donn’t seem like they should be (there were a LOT of Cokes in the world vs few people surviving, right?) Forgetting for a moment that batteries and some ingenuity OUGHT to make it possible to rig up a TV now and then, let’s say that every bit of recorded media - TV, CDs, computers, etc - are just as gone as most of your loved ones, and no one’s seen a bit of television or heard a rock song in seven years. 

Living in that world, when you went out for entertainment, which would you really rather see - a Shakespeare play, or a theatrical recreation of one of your favorite Simpsons episodes, complete with commercials? Sure, they get some scenes wrong and the costumes are awful, but imagine how much more of a comfort food a sitcom could become in that world. Besides being funny and brilliant enough to remind us that humanity did some good things before, and could do so again…well, don’t tell me you never spend an afternoon watching old commercials from your childhood on youtube. Nostalgia would be important in that world - theatrical recreations of TV shows wouldn’t just bring back memories, they would assure that not everything was lost. We still had the stories. 

This is the setup for Act 2 of Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play, now in previews at Theater Wit on Belmont here in Chicago. Having read about the show when it first premiered, I bought a ticket for the very first preview. After a sort-of meandering first act, in which a group of survivors huddled in the woods shortly after some sort of nuclear holocaust compare notes, trade rumors, and amuse themselves by trying to remember every detail of Cape Feare (the episode where the Simpsons go into Witness Protection while fleeing Sideshow Bob),  Act 2 picks up 7 years later, following the members of a ragtag theatrical troupe who specializes in Simpsons episodes. Some of their recreations are better than others. To fill the gaps, they buy “lines” from people who remember them (or claim to), they envy troupes with enough batteries to use flashlights on “A Streetcar Named Marge,” debate whether they should produce a shitty “The Springfield Files” just because people remember loving the episode, and help each other cope - with PTSD, with ever-present fears of brain damage or more fires, and with the constant threat of violence and dwindling resources. It’s a brilliant set-up, and I only wished it were longer. This concept of post-apocalyptic repertory theatre is so richly presented, so vividly imagined, that I wanted this troupe to have its own TV series. 

Even in this world, though, in the first years after the grid came down when authenticity in scripts is still currency, the stories are starting to evolve in tiny little ways to fit the changing needs of the audience.

Moving up 75 years in the timeline, the third act is another troupe’s version of “Cape Feare,” an odd kabuki Gilbert and Sullivan panto in which the story is barely recognizable. Few alive by this time can probably remember actually seeing an episode of The Simpsons, and the story has changed with the times. Now, The Simpsons are fleeing nuclear fallout, not Sideshow Bob, and the villain has become Mr. Burns (an obvious symbol for the nuclear plants that had something to do with the holocaust).It’s a hilarious, utterly strange, terribly disturbing, and finally uplifting melange of second-hand pop culture references - besides The Simpsons there’s some Eminem, Return of the Jedi, Night of the Hunter, and other snippets that have survived and simply become a part of a new generation’s consciousness. We can see many of the layers of purpose this version of the show holds for its intended post-apocalypic audience: comfort, a connection to the past, memory of a trauma still felt, even second-hand, and the power of music, stories and love to inspire resilience in terrible circumstances.  Even when the changes from the source material seem bizarre, we understand how they evolved. 

And hell, maybe these stories have already evolved. During the recent “Every Simpsons Ever” marathon I sat parked in front of my screen for days, feeling like my life was flashing before my eyes and seeing parallels between characters in The Simpsons and characters in The Pickwick Papers, which previous generations knew as well as we know The Simpsons. My rambles on it went on long enough to fill half a book.

Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play is one of the strangest plays I have ever seen, and one of the most thought-provoking in its commentaries on the power and purpose of narrative and pop culture.  The sense of camaraderie one sometimes senses in the characters felt as though it extended into the audience; I’ve seldom seen a play inspire so much friendly chatter among strangers between acts. It’s not a perfect play, but it’s certainly one I’ll never forget.

My Time Out Chicago blog (and other news)

Time Out Chicago, a local magazine, asked if I'd like to create a blog for them about odd and interesting Chicago history stuff.

So I now have a Time Out Blog that I'm referring to as "Adam in the Archives," since most posts will involve me digging obscure stories from old newspaper archives. I have two posts up so far, with one or two per week coming up.

Christmas Tragedies recounts a few tales of woe from the papers of a century ago (when taste and propriety were not exactly the order of the day).

Chaplin's Censorship in Chicago tells about how we actually had a government group that censored movies in Chicago 100 years ago - it seems timely given all the fuss over The Interview, which I take pretty personally - many of my books are satirical in nature, and I'm on the "banned books list." I don't care if the movie is any good or if Sony is milking it for publicity; if some country had hacked General Motors we'd have bombed them by now. But even before the release was (briefly) shelved and the President started talking about it, I kept seeing people saying "Well, Spider-Man 3 sucked, and I think Franco is annoying, so go, North Korea, go." This bugged me a lot. If you can't make fun of Kim Jong Un, who can you make fun of? If the answer is "no one," we may have reached some sort of Twitter-era singularity.

Anyway, no foreign nations launched attacks on us over Charlie Chaplin's Hitler-bashing The Great Dictator in 1941, but Chaplin ran afoul of local censors in 1914 over a two-reeler in which he spends about half the film pantless. This week marks exactly 100 years since Chaplin moved to Chicago; it was supposed to be a long-term move but only lasted a few weeks.

This ties neatly into a plug for Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the US Film Industry, which I co-wrote with Michael Glover Smith. I'll be out Jan 20 and, being published by the film studies arm of Columbia University Press, it's my first "scholarly" book.  That's Chaplin in the center of the cover photo, during his brief time at Chicago's Essanay studios.

Bitter and cynical old cuss that I am regarding publishing (a process that I describe as "95% misery and humiliation, 5% free food,") the books seems to be selling pretty well! As of this writing it's #6 in its category on Amazon and in the top 70k overall, which is a number I think I only ever hit with my novels when one of them is getting banned in Idaho.

While I'm making this rambling post (to show off my page's new look), there've been a couple of nifty posts over on The Mysterious Chicago blog lately:

The Mystery of Zanzic tells the story of an odd Chicago house set up to run fake seances in 1893 - according to a story Houdini retold years later, one customer died while doing it with what he thought was the ghost of his dead wife. Tough story to verify, but it's reasonably to imagine that if you were a magician getting rid of a body after something like that, you wouldn't fill out much paperwork.

The Strange Death of Lazarus Averbuch tells of the time the Chicago police chief shot a guy dead because he looked like he might be an anarchist. There were and are plenty of questions as to why the guy had really come to the chief's house, and plenty of reason to suspect that the chief just shot the guy because he thought he looked scary and panicked. But you can probably guess whether he was ever indicted.

And in William Duvol: Chicago's Only Revolutionary Soldier? I dig into a mysterious grave at Rosehill Cemetery that may or may not be the grave of a revolutionary soldier (he'd be the only one buried in the city that we know of; most revolutionary vets were long dead by the time Chicago began to grow).

That's about all of the news from here in Chicago. Jan 10th I'm the "paranormal guest" at an indie pro-wrestling event in Minneapolis, and I'll be at the ALA convention here on February 1st, signing VERY early advance copies of my Ghosts of Lincoln book at the Llewellyn booth.  My recent novel Play Me Backwards is up for a "funniest YA book" award over at YA Books Central, and I'd like to quickly plug The Wormhole, 1462 N Milwaukee Ave, where I've been coming to write every day. It has a full-size Delorean, a working Nintendo, and all sorts of 80s toys as decorations all over. I love it here.

Heavy Metal Vomit Christmas Party

Here's a little number I tossed up recently in the Caribbean:

 (recorded with The Back Row Hooligans and re-released as part of the PLAY ME BACKWARDS: A Novel For Young Adults Who Worship the Devil companion EP.)

Christmas with the family, my wife and kids are here
The fire is warm oh what more could I want
but there's something missing, I'm tugging at the strings
of my sweater, which has reindeer on the front
  they're fuzzy in their splendor, but don't bring back the glow
  that christmas with my family brought me all those years ago
     so can we have a heavy metal vomit christmas party please?
     if no one pukes, it doesn't feel like christmas time to me
   You'd better not cry, you'd better not pout I'm getting my dokken tapes back out
    let's get a mosh pit going all around the christmas tree

Every year my cousins would dub each others tapes
as we played them on my grandma's stereo
we'd beat up on my brother, and act like youth gone wild
burning things, and making demons in the snow
   We'd see how hard we could bang our heads against the wall
   I'm bleeding in the shots of me with santa at the mall
      oh can we have a heavy metal vomit christmas party please
      the smell of vodka makes it feel like christmas time to me
      when the grown-up table began to pray, the kids table knocked the night away
     shouting at the devil all around the christmas tree

  I believe we need a heavy metal vomit christmas party please
     I want my kids to know what what feels like christmas time to me
     heedless of the wind and weather, let's all shout "no life til leather!"

     I sold my soul for rock and roll around the christmas tree

Emotive Portraits of Imperial Commander

Here's Imperial Commander, from the Return of the Jedi era of Kenner's Star Wars action figure line.  My friends and I used to call him "The Imperial Stockbroker," and he used his evil skills at middle management, corporate cronyism, teambuilding, and insider trading to serve the Empire.

These same games also usually had Obi-Wan playing a crotchety old man who turned the hose on anyone who tried to get into the Rebel base, and Boba Fett as a kamikaze guy whose rocket pack was not a rocket at all, but a bomb strapped to his back. He would blow himself up at the base, but have just enough muscles left in his butt to crawl back to to his assistant manager, the Imperial Stockbroker.

Looking back, I'm a bit amazed that we had such a good sense of the absurdity and inherent comic possibilities of mid-level management meatballs, and while taking some pics of the new Rebels figures with the old guys, I found that the hang-dog expression on the Imperial Stockbroker's face was a gold mine. Taking shots of him is WAY more fun than taking selfies. So here are some emotive portraits, taken around town in the last couple days, when I've had about three days of continuing tour work, which I've been documenting on my instagram.


Imperial Commander cruises through the galaxy, looking for the heart of Saturday night.

With an Olmec head that has roughly his same expression as him. 

"So, it was like the Death Star of Chicago?" Imperial Commander at the site of the H.H. Holmes "Murder Castle" in Englewood. 

Paris Street, Rainy Day

In an early 19th century painting.

"Yes, m'lord. The Empire must establish an outpost in Canada..."

"He'd look good in a hologram."

Diagon Alley, London. Lots of people trying to scare me with their sorcerer's ways...

Off to the next adventure...

5 Reasons You Should Be Jumping Off a Cliff Every Morning (#3 had me LOL)

Archaeologists and paleontologists debate a lot of points regarding the ways that our ancient ancestors lived, but they’re in a agreement about several things.  They are reasonably sure that the rate of autism was far lower for babies born thousands of years ago, for instance, and skeletal remains indicate that obesity was not the epidemic 12,000 years ago that it is today (ever seen an obese skeleton? Neither have we! “Big bones” are a myth).  

We also know that our ancient ancestors jumped off many more cliffs than we do.

We know what you’re thinking: “Why would they have had to jump off of cliffs?” Well, it’s obvious if you think about it. For one thing, some times jumping off a cliff was the only way to get away from a woolly mammoth. For another, elevators hadn’t been invented yet. Even stairs were in their infancy, and our ancestors were wise enough to know that escalators are actually really problematic. Even when they weren't being chased, the best way for them to get from high ground to sea level, where much of their food was found, was by jumping off a cliff. They lived the benefits of cliff jumping every day, and so can you!

Here are five reasons to go jump off a cliff right now: 

1. Vertical Thrust    
The sudden movement of the particles in your body - known as the vertical thrust - that comes from jumping off of a cliff accelerates your atoms, energizing your skin at a tremendous rate. 

2. Endorphins - without the smell!
 The energy burst you get from a cliff jump is incredible - each 10 feet you jump is equal to one cup of coffee, without the afternoon slump. There’s no chemical substitute for releasing endorphins and getting your adrenaline pumping the way jumping off a cliff does. You can get a similar "high" by running, but think of the smell! By the time you’ve run enough to equal the rush of a 20 foot cliff jump, you’d be stinking something fierce.

3. Well, maybe SOME smell...
Did you know that people who were being hanged often evacuated their bowels in the process? It’s true! And it was partly because of the downward jolt, which you can recreate by (you guessed it) jumping off a cliff! A cliff jump dump (known as "C.J.D." on message boards for cliff jump practitioners) is not only deeply cleansing,  but many report that it feels “more natural” than modern toilets, and many report that jumping off a cliff with a baby leads to earlier potty-training, among other benefits. 
Note: this is also why jumping off a cliff naked is usually better than just plain jumping off a cliff. For one thing, you don't mess up your pants. For another, it's probably how our paleo-ancestors did it!

4. Collective Consciousness
Following the crowd (or, as our paleo-ancestors called it, “Running with the Herd” (RHD on the boards)), makes you feel connected. Get into jumping off a cliff every morning, and you’ll find a whole new family of die-hards ready to support you online! Also, the more people get involved in this exciting trend, the more mental energy will collect at popular cliff-jumping spots, leaving positive vibes for everyone.  Standing with your friends and knowing you’ve all just jumped off a cliff makes you feel far closer, far more like “chosen family,” than standing around knowing you’re all on the same social media sites (again, especially if you're all butt naked). Turn off the screens, strip down, and get jumping!

5. Jump Away from Modern Problems!
Autism and obesity are only a couple of the issues that earlier people - people from the age of the cliff jump - didn’t deal with as much as we do. Hardening of the arteries, graying of the hair, liver spots, varicose veins… none of these things have ever been found in fossilized remains or early humans. It may just be because everyone died in their 20s back then, but couldn’t it also be because they all used to jump off a cliff? Forget the skeptics and so-called “experts.” Jumping off a cliff has benefits we're only beginning to understand. 
So, get started! One of the best things about cliff jumping is that you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment - just a cliff and your (preferably nude, see #3) body. Get up a good run, then JUMP at the last second. For added fun, shout out "YAAA hoo hoo hoo hooie," like Goofy, or hold up a sign that says "Uh oh" right before you begin your descent, like Wile E. Coyote. Be warned, the landing at the end can be very painful, but the pain just shows you that it’s working! 

note: this is just because I posted a thing saying I was drinking a cup of coffee out of a bell pepper because the internet told me to, and someone asked if I'd jump off a cliff if the internet told me to. Don't jump off a cliff for real.       (also, I'm not making fun of autism, just the tendency of articles to link autism to gluten, carbs, lack of acai, or whatever it is this week). 

Tracking down a Groucho quote

A friend recently posted a challenge on facebook. He kept running into the following quote attributed to Groucho Marx:

"Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myselfI, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I'm going to be happy in it."

This was driving him nuts; anyone who knows thing 1 about Groucho Marx would have a hard time imagining Groucho saying anything like this. The man never seemed to be happy a day in his life. It sounds more like AA recovery-speak or something. Yet, the quote shows up, attributed to Marx, on innumerable webpages, books of inspirational quotes, and such-like.
A blotter given to school kids by
The brown trading stamp co
(obviously), reprinted in the
Jersey Journal in 1906

This is just the kind of detective work I like to do - it comes up a lot in the ghostlore research, particularly the upcoming Ghosts of Lincoln book - so I got right on it. The quote seems to have first become commonly attributed to Marx in the late 1990s, thought it did appear in a newspaper in the early 1970s, where it was presented as a philosophy that worked for Groucho. No source was given, though.

Working on the assumption that the quote that's being spread around probably isn't an exact quote, I started looking up stray phrases from it, and found a few similar things. Slogans along those lines appeared in ads and lists of inspirational lines from time to time throughout the early 20th century; my favorite was a list of advice from the Brown Trading Stamps co that was apparently given to school children in the early 20th century. #6 is "have all the fun you can today; yesterday is dead and tomorrow has not yet been born. #11 was "using Brown Trading Stamps will make you happy. (#s 3 and 19 had similar advice).

I finally hit paydirt with a 1955 article where commedian Danny Thomas told the story of a 104 year old contestant on Groucho's You Bet Your Life TV show had said a very similar quote when Groucho asked him the secret of a long, happy life  - something to do with "When a man wakes up, he can choose to be happy or unhappy, I choose to be happy."

That being a heck of a clue, I started looking up more things of that nature and found two columns Groucho wrote in the early 1950s in which answered frequently-asked questions. One o them was "who has been your favorite contestant?" In both columns he mentioned several, but both times included Hannus Von Yannah, a 102 year old contestant, who had created a bit of a sensation by saying something of that nature. Here's the 1951 version:

And the 1952 version, with a slightly different version of the quote in question:

Now, this still left open the question of whether all of this really happened, exactly. I couldn't find a thing about Hannus Von Yannah being a real person from  quick search, and it seemed entirely plausible that Groucho just made the thing up.  There was a 102 year old man on an episode of the You Bet Your Life TV show that was easy to find on youtube, but when Groucho asks him the secret of a long life, the man says "I eat whatever I want." And that episode is from 1958, years after the columns.

A bit more poking hit paydirt again: A widely-circulated column by Erich Brandeis in April, 1951 reconted the story of hearing a recent episode of You bet Your Life (the radio version, not the TV show), in which a 102 year old Scandinavian said that he chose to be happy every day. Brandeis then went into a little sermon about why that was such a great philosophy.

All that this left was to find the actual show. Like most old time radio shows, it's easy enough to find most episodes simply by googling. Most are in the public domain and easy to download for free. In this case, since no exact date was given, the name Hannus Von Yannah only led to Groucho's columns, and "102 year old man" only brought up the 1958 TV show, I simply downloaded a bunch of March and April, 1951 episodes and browsed through them.

And there it was: on the March 28, 1951 episode, one of the contestants in the second half of the program said he was 102 years old, born in January, 1851. The first president he remembered was Abraham Lincoln  - "You must be pretty old to remember a Republican president!" said Groucho. He then asked him, "What is the secret of long life, longevity?" The man replied, "I think the secret of longevity is to be happy. Every day a man wakes up, he has the choice whether he will be happy or unhappy. I have chosen to be happy." "That's a wonderful philosophy," said Groucho.  You can download the episode for free here. 

So, there you have it. Like many lists of inspiration quotes, the attribution is shaky, at best. I've learned this the hard way; the Leonard Cohen quotes I worked into a zombie romance satire a few years back get attributed to me by skin care companies who post inspiration quotes on twitter all the time. 

Now, what a skin care company would be doing looking in a zombie book for skin care tips, I'll never know. 

All Over the News!

Well, I was all over the media this past week! That's October in the ghost busting biz. It seemed like every day I was doing a phone interview, taking a meeting, talking with someone who was researching an article, or going to a radio studio for an interview. Here are some highlights:

Pretty Late with Patti Vasquez on WGN had me back to talk about Play Me Backwards and some local ghost stories. I love this show! I come in at about the 37 minute mark. Patti had first hand accounts of the supposedly haunted Hooters at Erie and Wells (a location that always gives me a chance to talk about grave robbing - my favorite thing!)

WBEZ Curious City met up with me twice to record segments for their story on local ghost stories (The Iroqouis Theatre and Resurrection Mary)

And RedEye did a whole spread:

Adam Selzer in the RedEye, Oct 2014

Adam Selzer in the RedEye, Oct 2014 page 2

Pumpkin Root Beer!

Excerpted from The Smart Aleck's Guide to Bootleg Soda, our soda syrup recipe book. It's not every textbook company that has its own in-house beverage! Most of them just drink a lot of gin.


One taste of this and we knew: this is why there is a Smart Aleck Staff. So we could make stuff like this. Sure, we’re also good for making fun of historical hats, teaching subtle lessons about info literacy and contextualizing history, but this may be our finest accomplishment.

This quickly became our in-house root beer. It may look like there’s not THAT much root beer in it, but the flavor of the root beer syrup is a stronger than the flavor of the pumpkin spice syrup, really, and, after all, root beer is really just a spice soda to begin with. This is a particularly spicy version of root beer that has just a bit of pumpkin in it, which makes it a fantastic autumn soda to pair with stews. Like “Pineapple Habanero,” this is one flavor that we mention to people just to see their mouths water. And it lives up to the hype!

We made it from mixing two syrup bases together, so there’s a bit of work involved here: One COULD make it all at once, but we haven’t been able to fully replicate the results in one saucepan yet that we get from combining the bases. You can just up the level of cloves and cinnamon in the root beer base and toss in some pumpkin, though, and the results will probably be just fine.  

This is our two-syrup method:

MODIFIED BLONDE ROOT BEER BASE (without the honey or vanilla):
1/4 cup sarsaparilla (or 1/8th cup sarsaparilla and 1/8th cup sassafras roots, if you have some)
2 star anise pods, freshly ground
5 whole cloves
1 teaspoon orange zest
3 small mint leaves
1.5 teaspoons fresh ginger
5 allspice berries
Dash of nutmeg
Dash of fennel
Dash of coriander
1.5 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of freshly squeezed orange juice
2 cups

 As with the colas, you can also try a tiny bit of gum arabic (web link) (for a fuller “mouth feel.”) Or a tiny dash of citric acid. 
Add a couple cups of water - you can use a bit more here than you would in some recipes. The amount of liquid left after straining tends to be lower than you’d think with this one. Some people even put in 4 cups of water to 1/4 cup sarsaparilla.
Simmer all ingredients for 30 minutes, then strain. 

Pumpkin Spice Base:
1 cup water
3 teaspoons canned pumpkin
1.5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1.5 teaspoons ground cloves

Simmer spices and pumpkin in water for 20 minutes, stirring to make sure the pumpkin is dissolved, and strain. Use whole cloves and cinnamon sticks if you feel like it and want some extra artisan points. Even if you use the ground stuff, though, you’ll want to stir thoroughly and strain it, or you’ll get a chalky syrup in the end.


1 part modified blonde root beer base 
2 parts pumpkin spice base
6 part sugar

Combine one part root beer base with two parts pumpkin spice base (the root beer flavor will still dominate). Mix the combined liquids with sugar (1 part liquid to 2 parts sugar) in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat at once and let cool. Mix one part of the resulting syrup with 4-8 parts carbonated water. 

Adam's New Book: Sept 2013