When was the last time – if ever – someone suggested driving to the airport to grab a bite to eat? If you’re like me, the answer is never.
But before transcontinental flights, planes stopped at Midway Airport to refuel and luminaries such as Katherine Hepburn, John Wayne, President John F. Kennedy and his equally famous wife Jackie and Marilyn Monroe were often spotted there whiling away their time in the airport’s corridors and restaurants.
Chicagoans interested in the stars might dine at Marshall Field’s upscale Cloud Room for a good meal and a chance to seeing a celebrity or two.
Mike Rotunno was there as well. Carrying his Speed Graphic, one of those cumbersome looking rectangular cameras that you see press photographers using in old time movies, Rotunno was a newspaper photographer who decided he might make more money on his own and so started Metro News at Midway Airport (there was no O’Hare at the time) and for the decades spanning the 1930s through the 1950s, he would shoot photos not only of family’s going on a trip but celebrities when they landed in Chicago.
Author Chris Lynch, whose family owned Monarch Air Service at Midway, was intrigued by pictures of vintage airplanes taken by Rotunno that his family had on their walls and after meeting with Rotunno’s family who had a treasure trove of his photos and anecdotes, wrote “When Hollywood Landed at Midway Airport: The Photos and Stories of Mike Rotunno” (History Press 2012, $19.99).
"Traveling by air was more glamorous in those years,” says Lynch, manager of customer services for the City of Chicago. “It wasn't like boarding a flying bus, the way it is today. The people flying generally had money or it was a very special event. People dressed up. I remember that my grandfather always wore a three piece suit and a fedora."
It was also a time when photographers used flash powder for illumination.
“Flash powder is basically gun powder,” says Lynch who in his book recounts the story of Rotunno taking a photo of Al Capone and when the flash went off, all his mob friends fell to the floor guns drawn.
But gun powder was dangerous in other ways as well.
“Photographers blew their hands off at times,” says Lynch. “You really had to know what you were doing.”
Speed Graphics with their glass negatives weren’t point and shoot cameras, as they required using both hands, focusing and the shutter speed was slow. But the images they captured are compelling even now 60 to 90 years later. There’s John Wayne, a hunk of a man, on the tarmac jauntily walking towards the camera his hands in his pocket and his long coat thrown back, Marilyn Monroe with her big toothy smile, Bob Hope pretending to give Rotunno a hot foot and Katherine Hepburn looking stylish in a white hat perched on the side of her head and a long white coat both almost blindingly light in the black and white photos.
Rotunno had found Hepburn asleep on a bench at 4am looking deciding unglamorous. In exchange for not photographing her so disheveled, she dressed up and stood in front of the plane and Rotunno took a much more movie star like photo.