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Chicago was wowed in 1969 by the first moon landing and watching it on television

Perhaps the most common emotion was amazement. The astonishment was as much about TV’s ability to convey what was happening as with the landing itself.

The Sun-Times’ front page on the historic first moonwalk 50 years ago.
The Sun-Times’ front page on the historic first moonwalk 50 years ago.

Sunday, July 20, 1969, was a special day at White Sox park — “Homecoming Day” with Nellie Fox, Al Lopez and “his old gang of cliffhangers,” who’d won the pennant 10 years earlier, returning to be honored between games of a doubleheader against Kansas City.

The presence of the heroes of 1959 and the sunny, warm weather helped swell the crowd to 17,420, though almost 5,000 of those were unpaid thanks to free tickets given to “A” students.

There was also that business on the moon that day. News came in the seventh inning of the first game that the Eagle lunar lander had set down on the Sea of Tranquility at 3:18 p.m. Chicago time. Play was halted and the exploding scoreboard set off in celebration.

Chicago was in some ways the same, in some ways quite different 50 years ago, when, the necessity of baseball notwithstanding, the city and world were transfixed by the first man to land on the moon. Chicago was more crowded — 3.3 million people, 20 percent more than today. Construction on the John Hancock Building was completed, the Sears Tower not yet begun.

If you remember the moon landing as a huge, jubilant public celebration, you are mistaken — that was Aug. 13, when the three Apollo astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, stopped in Chicago for a tickertape parade. Two million packed downtown for it. Never one to leave anything to chance, Mayor Richard J. Daley had requested the visit on July 11 — five days before the Saturn 5 rocket even took off from Florida.

The day of the landing, the Loop was almost deserted. Only a few people clustered around TVs in store windows. “Did they see God yet?” a little girl asked. First, it was a Sunday. Second, the moonwalk originally was supposed to take place at 1 a.m. Chicago time.

Third, and most importantly, the historic event was happening on the moon. Everyone on earth had the same perspective — as viewers glued to television sets. About as many households had TVs then — 93 percent versus 97 percent now — though the tendency was still to gather with family or friends to solemnize the event and experience history together. The largest public gathering was 3,000 people who went to the Adler Planetarium to watch the landing on TVs there.

Perhaps the most common emotion was amazement. Remember, older Chicagoans had memories of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight not quite 66 years earlier, in 1903. So the astonishment was as much about TV’s ability to convey it as with the landing itself.

”We were all there, bound together by the miracle of communication that intertwined all the other miracles of technology that marketed man’s first step on a celestial body,” the Chicago Daily News said in an editorial.

”The medium reached its electronic apogee Sunday night by bringing in a picture — a live, moving picture — of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon,” Sun-Times columnist Paul Molloy wrote. “There has been nothing like this in the full history of broadcasting.”

Not that television was alone in patting itself on the back. The Chicago Tribune ran an editorial, headlined “The Tribune’s Own Great Feat,” suggesting that its coverage of the landing was an event equal to the landing itself.

But television had the advantage of near-instantaneous coverage. In Northbrook, dozens of moviegoers left just before the end of “Goodbye, Columbus” to watch TVs in the lobby.

Imagining the hundreds of millions around the world watching, Molloy suspected that “many had to be repeating over and over again: ‘Am I really seeing this? Is it really happening?’”

Sun-Times columnist Paul Molloy’s take.
Sun-Times columnist Paul Molloy’s take.

That was the reaction of Kathy Slatek and her friends from Morton West High School.

”It was hard to believe it was live,” said Slatek, who was 15. “I couldn’t make it sink in that it was really happening.”

Steve Dmytriw, 16, and friends from Tuley High School “sat awed” watching TV in their backyard and talked about whether they’d make the journey, given the chance.

”I’d go,” Dmytriw said.

Another common reaction was concern for the astronauts’ safety. After the fireworks at Sox park, the crowd stood in silent prayer. The deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts in January 1967 were still very much on people’s minds: The Chicago Today American ran an editorial cartoon on its front page showing the three astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee, hoisting the American flag on the moon behind Armstrong, flag-raising done Iwo Jima-style.

Anxiety was certainly felt at the Barrington Hills home of the Trude family, where Alfred S. Trude and his four children, Jack — celebrating his 11th birthday — Mike, Sherry and Patty sat watching. Trude’s wife was in Houston with her sister, Jan Armstrong, married to the astronaut.

”We were all pretty nervous,” Alfred Trude said. “Nobody was breathing when Neil made that last step down to the moon. But then everybody relaxed, and the boys really got a kick out of all that bouncing up and down on the moon.”

A thousand conventioneers for the American Association of Workers for the Blind were in Chicago, and reporters converged on them to describe how sighted friends described what was happening on TV.

”What could top this?” said one, Robert Wright of Carbondale.

At home in Winnetka, Richard Kinney, who could neither see nor hear, had details of the landing spelled out on his palm and found that more than sufficient.

”Oh, I probably got a better picture of the landing than most people who watched it on television,” the executive vice president of the Hadley School for the Blind said. “And there was no static.”

The pilot of the jet bringing Jon and Abra Anderson back to Chicago promised they’d be on the ground in time to see the moonwalk. But when they got to O’Hare, the Daily News columnists found two tiny television sets — one at a newsstand, the other at a gift shop. Both were mobbed by dense crowds. They settled for listening on the radio in their car on the Kennedy Expressway.

At the Ravinia Festival, conductor Isivan Kertesz gave the orchestra a 10-minute rehearsal break for the landing.

At the Pump Room, bandleader Stanley Paul led his orchestra through a lunar medley.

”I never realized there were so many moon songs,” Paul said much later, in the wee hours of Monday morning.

Following the landing was practically a human right. On Monday, 8,000 General Electric workers walked off the job at distribution centers around the nation to protest not being allowed to listen to the moon landing at work.

Not only was savoring the moment important, so was saving it. The Daily News instructed readers how to best take photographs off their television set (turn out the lights, use a tripod, set your shutter speed to 1/30th of a second). Harold Tribolet, conservator of books at R.R. Donnelley, suggested that newspaper readers roll their keepsake papers into a cylinder, wrap that cylinder in well-washed cotton, such as an old bedsheet, then wrap the cylinder in aluminum foil, then plastic, and store in a cool, dry place.

President Richard Nixon declared the day after the moon landing — Monday, July 21 — a national holiday. “Moonday,” it was instantly, dubbed, though the term didn’t last. Nor did “astrowives,” which newspapers trotted out, briefly.

The Chicago Board of Trade was closed Monday, along with the stock market and other exchanges. Jewel didn’t open its supermarkets until 1:30 p.m., but most Chicagoans went to work—county employs were inspired by Cook County Board President George Dunne threatening to dock them a day’s pay if they didn’t. Businesses jumped at the chance to show their connections to the moon mission, no matter how tangential.

The Republic Molding Corp, at 6330 W. Touhy Ave., let it be known that every last moon rock and speck of dust would be gathered in their boilable plastic jars, spaceworthy jars that the public could themselves buy for less than 40 cents apiece.

The landing was frequently viewed through a spiritual lens. Clerics commented. The Chicago Bible Society set up a pulpit on Michigan Avenue and invited passersby to share their prayers on a ledger.

“Help them come throw,” a child scrawled.

“Oh Lord, let us not desecrate the moon as we have God’s green earth,” someone wrote — the first Earth Day was less than a year away, and environmentalism was another common theme.

The accomplishment inspired others to dream big.

”The events of these last few days have filled me with awe and with a vaulting confidence in the outreach of our capabilities,” Robert H. Finch, the president’s secretary of health, education and welfare said at a benefit dinner at the Ambassador West that Tuesday, including the possibility on one cohesive “system for delivery of health care to every American.”

Not everyone was cheering. Activists protested the expense. Columnist Mike Royko looked forward to “other history-shaking walks to be taken”:

”For instance, I’d like to see somebody walk the streets of Lawndale at nigh without standing a good chance of getting his head cracked, whether he is white or black, but especially if he is white.

”And I’d like to see a black man walk through the Back of the Yards, Gage Park or Cicero without being forced to flee for his life.

”Come the first day of school in September, I’d like to see all the kids in all the big cities walk into their classrooms to a decent education.

”When gravely sick poor people walk into a hospital, let them get the same treatment and kindness that is afforded to rich people.”

A woman who “just wanted to speak her mind” phoned the Daily News to complain of all the moon-landing hubbub.

”Now that they’re on the moon, what are they going to do with it?” she asked.