View profile

This week in history: Leontyne Price brings the Lyric Opera down + Mahalia Jackson

Chicago Sun-Times Afternoon Edition
Welcome to the “This week in history” newsletter! Every Saturday we take a break from recapping the day’s news to bring you a deep dive into Chicago’s Black, soulful and regularly artistic history. For more historic photos, follow us at @CSTphotovault on Facebook and Instagram.
— Alison Martin (@miss_alison_m, follow for extra history plus rants and dogs throughout the week)

This week in history: Leontyne Price brings the Lyric Opera down as ‘Aida'
Leontyne Price, the world-renowned American soprano star, arrived at O’Hare Field, via United Airlines, to prepare for her Wednesday evening, November 24, 1965, appearance in the title role of Lyric Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Aida.” Five years earlier, she performed the title role for the first time at the Lyric Opera. | From the Sun-Times archive.
Leontyne Price, the world-renowned American soprano star, arrived at O’Hare Field, via United Airlines, to prepare for her Wednesday evening, November 24, 1965, appearance in the title role of Lyric Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Aida.” Five years earlier, she performed the title role for the first time at the Lyric Opera. | From the Sun-Times archive.
As reported in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News, the Sun-Times sister publication:
In 1961, opera singer Leontyne Price broke barriers when she became the first Black singer to headline at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Her standing ovation went on for 35 minutes.
A year earlier, the famed singer, who was born Feb. 10, stepped onto the stage of the Lyric Opera in Chicago and — unsurprisingly — brought the house down in the title role of “Aida,” but she nearly missed her cue.
According to an Oct. 13, 1960 article in the Chicago Daily News, Price underwent an emergency appendectomy while in Vienna, and “and has not recovered as rapidly as had been hoped.” Margherita Roberti took on the title role in her absence for the first two performances, but neither critic at both the Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times were impressed with her performance, and anxiously awaited Price’s return. 
Their wishes came true. Price rejoined the cast and performed to a sold-out audience on Oct. 22, 1960, according to the Sun-Times.
Strange Chicago
Grant Wood’s famed painting, “American Gothic,” made its first home at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1930s right after its creation, and no matter how far it roams, it always comes back.
Wood, who was born Feb. 13, 1891, won $300 and “instant acclaim” for his work, according to the Art Institute. Over the years, his painting morphed into a pop culture icon, printed on t-shirts, magnets and totes, and casually referenced on TV and in print.
But in January of 1960, the painting played a role in a publicity stunt by the cast of “The Music Man.”
From the Jan. 22, 1960 edition of the Chicago Daily News. | Sun-Times Archives
From the Jan. 22, 1960 edition of the Chicago Daily News. | Sun-Times Archives
Two actors from the national tour of the production, which arrived at the Shubert Theater (now CIBC Theater) in Chicago on Feb. 11, 1959, and stayed through March 5, 1960, according to the Internet Broadway Database, brought the painting to life by standing in front of it dressed as the subjects, a direct reference to a scene from “The Music Man.” The intention was likely a publicity stunt to drum up interest in the show.
Don’t remember the scene from the musical? Watch it here.
Talk of the town
Writer Alice Walker finished up the first half of the 1980s in style. In 1983, her book, “The Color Purple,” won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, making her the first Black woman to receive the award. Two years later, the author, born Feb. 9, saw one of Hollywood’s hottest directors — Steven Spielberg — take her book to the big screen.
The film, released in December 1985, catapulted one Chicago talk show host onto the big screen just as her show was about to dominate the small screen. Oprah Winfrey — then just 30 years old with a show that “has buried ‘Donahue’ in the local ratings” and was about to be nationally syndicated — took on the role of Sophia, the strong, assertive daughter-in-law of Whoopi Goldberg’s Celie. Winfrey sat down with Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert for an interview that ran in the Dec. 15, 1985, edition to dish on her experiences, hopes and discoveries while filming.
“I was intimidated and terrified,” Winfrey told Ebert of her first day of filming. “I kept thinking, I’m the only non-actor here. After I did the scene at the dinner table, talking about jail, Whoopi Goldberg hugged me and said, ‘Welcome to the family.’”
Who wouldn’t feel intimidated next to Goldberg or Spielberg? Winfrey won the role somewhat by chance. Producer and music composer Quincy Jones happened to catch her show while in Chicago and “called Spielberg to announce he had found their Sofia,” Ebert said.
But Spielberg didn’t let her flounder. He gave Winfrey subtle tips to improve her scenes and even allowed her to improvise. As a first-time dramatic actress, however, Winfrey struggled with not looking into the camera — a staple for any talk show host — and said Spielberg had to stop her multiple times.
Oprah Winfrey interviews Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Ruth Love speaks on AM Chicago on July 25, 1984. From the Sun-Times archive.
Oprah Winfrey interviews Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Ruth Love speaks on AM Chicago on July 25, 1984. From the Sun-Times archive.
Novice or not, Winfrey and her performance moved Ebert, who called it “vivid and deeply felt and with none of the self-consciousness you might expect from a talk show host.”
For all the buzz surrounding the movie, the Chicago host tried to keep her expectations in check before seeing the completed film. After all, what if her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor or the movie flopped?
Winfrey realized that even if the moving did flop (spoilers: the movie was a hit), she had learned something about herself: “I found that I can express anger. In life, I still don’t express anger very well. I hope to rectify that in 1986. It’s not part of my personality.”
The film went on to be nominated for 11 Academy Awards — and won none of them despite being the Best Picture favorite of many critics, including Ebert. It’s considered one of the most snubbed films in movie history.
As for Walker, she used her fame to lift up another Black woman, Zora Neale Hurston. Thanks to Walker’s research and determination, Hurston’s novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” came back to print, and her reputation as a Harlem Renaissance writer solidified. Read Walker’s original essay on discovering Hurston here.
Snapshot
Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, poses for a photograph in Chicago on February 12, 1954. | From the Sun-Times archives.
Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, poses for a photograph in Chicago on February 12, 1954. | From the Sun-Times archives.
On Feb. 12, 1954, a Chicago Daily News photographer captured this image of gospel singer and Chicago resident Mahalia Jackson. Despite her enormous success in New York City, Paris and London, Jackson hadn’t yet reached the same level of fame in her hometown.
Almost a month later on March 6, the photo finally ran in the paper along with a great profile of the prolific singer, introducing her to many, mostly white, Chicago audiences for the first time.
“Miss Jackson’s sweeping contralto voice draws huge audiences anywhere she sings,” reporter M.W. Newman wrote. “Two of her records have sold more than a million copies each.”
At just 42, Jackson, who was born in New Orleans but considered Chicago her hometown, outdrew Toscanini and Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall in New York, Newman noted. During her 1952 European tour, a single radio gig in the Netherlands resulted in 20,000 orders for the recording.
“They didn’t understand English,” the singer said of her Dutch listeners, “but the feeling got through, I guess.”
Jackson remained ever loyal to gospel singing, even as nightclubs and theaters begged her to perform popular songs. She told Newman that she never received a singing lesson in her life.
“As a girl in New Orleans, I heard the blues sung all the time,” she recalled. “That’s how I learned to sing. The walls were thin and the music came through from everywhere.”
At her “attractive” apartment at 3728 Prairie Ave., Jackson said she craved the simple things in life — good food and good friends. She hoped, Newman wrote, that her hometown would one day give her a wider reception.
“The blues are a sad song but the sacred song gives you hope for a better tomorrow,” she told Newman. “It lifts you up. The spirit is bigger than the song.”
Though Jackson’s apartment on Prairie is now a tennis court across from Ida B. Wells Elementary School, her home in Chatham still stands. Check out these NPR deep dives into Jackson’s strict dedication to gospel music and her prominent role in the civil rights movement. Enjoy Jackson’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” here or read the latest on her upcoming biopic.
Thanks for reading! Want to share your thoughts? Your favorite moment in Chicago history? Your complaints? Send them to amartin@suntimes.com.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Chicago Sun-Times Afternoon Edition

Chicago's most important news of the day, delivered every weekday afternoon. Plus, a bonus issue on Saturdays that dives into the city's storied history.

If you don't want these updates anymore, please unsubscribe here.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
Manage all your newsletter subscriptions here.
Powered by Revue
30 N Racine Ave. Suite 300, Chicago, IL 60607