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Happy Birthday Nelson Algren! Three Ways to Celebrate

By Selena Fragassi in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 28, 2015 7:00PM

This photo by Art Shay of Nelson Algren at the corner of Madison and Halsted in 1949. It's the cover of Shay's then new book in 2007, Chicago's Nelson Algren, Copyright Art Shay and Seven Stories Press.

Chicago has always been a writer’s den. From Royko and Ebert to Terkel and Brooks, the pen has continually moved swiftly in this town and produced some of the most classic works of journalism, fiction and poetry. But none was greater than Nelson Algren who gave life to compelling protagonists that extrapolated daily life in the city, the swindlers and dealers, prizefighters and politicians, the freaks and fast movers.

Algren was heralded by Ernest Hemingway as one of the best American novelists, and he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters before he passed in 1981. His greatest works were cultural icons. “The Man With the Golden Arm” won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1950 and was adapted into a movie starring Frank Sinatra. “A Walk On the Wild Side” influenced Lou Reed to write a song of the same name and was made into a Broadway hit. Even today, the boy who grew up in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood and was schooled through CPS and the University of Illinois leaves behind an incredible legacy that is remembered each year with the Nelson Algren Literary Awards for short fiction and with a fountain dedicated to him in Wicker Park.

On the weekend of his birthday, March 28, MediaBurn uncovers a short documentary, "The Algren Chronicles: Somebody’s Street Fair," that was previously buried in its archives. Pieced together in 1988, the 30-minute film features Studs Terkel, Art Shay, Stephen Deutsch, Herman Kogan, Kenan Heise and Gwendolyn Brooks who speak about Algren's life, his literary work and the importance of his writings in Chicago. Amongst the various interviews, there’s footage of Algren’s home at 1958 W. Evergreen Street, news clippings and recorded segments of the author reading his works.

The Music Box also plays “Algren: The Movie” at various times today and tomorrow. Columbia College teacher and filmmaker Michael Caplan provides a “visual mosaic that echoes Algren’s gritty universe” in this acclaimed 87-minute documentary that had a sold-out running at last year's Chicago International Film Festival. It features countless photographs and interviews with admitted fans like John Sayles and Billy Corgan. A third documentary, "Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All" comes to the Gene Siskel Film Centre starting April 4.

You might also head over to Dove’s Luncheonette (1545 N. Damen), the deluxe diner from the group behind Big Star and Blackbird. Named for Algren’s memorable character Dove Linkhorn, profiled in the book “A Walk On The Wild Side,” it’s a snapshot of 1960s Chicago with vintage d├ęcor, an old jukebox and a photo of the author tucked away in the corner, more evidence that great writers like Algren can never really die.