Flophouse hotel — blown up in ‘The Blues Brothers’ — was part of the ‘dark side of downtown’
In the movie, Elwood and Jake spent Jake’s first night out of jail at the Plymouth at 22 W. Van Buren. Filmmakers shot inside the hotel, including its long narrow flight of stairs up, its dingy second-floor lobby and even inside Elwood’s cramped room.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on June 21, 2005, as part of a weeklong series to commemorate the 25th anniversary of “The Blues Brothers.” The Sun-Times is republishing the series to mark the film’s 40th anniversary.
No one would have mistaken the Plymouth Hotel in the South Loop for the Ritz-Carlton.
It was a classic flophouse. So close to the L tracks that rooms literally shook when trains passed. Rooms so small you could almost touch both side walls while standing in the middle.
In “The Blues Brothers,” Elwood and Jake spent Jake’s first night out of jail at the Plymouth at 22 W. Van Buren. Filmmakers shot inside the hotel, including its long narrow flight of stairs up, its dingy second-floor lobby and even inside Elwood’s cramped room.
“How often does the train go by?” asks Jake. “So often you won’t even notice it,” Elwood responds.
Indeed, a dozen trains pass in less than three minutes, a schedule producers paid the CTA to run.
Those who remember the area said the movie was fair. “It used to be like hell,” said Rickey Haggins, 44, who now stays in a residential hotel on State.
“This was the dark side of downtown,” recalls Tim Samuelson, the city’s cultural historian.
Its reputation dated to the late 1800s, when it teemed with saloons, gambling and prostitution. By the time of filming in 1979, the area was changing, but a rough bar, a pawnshop and another SRO hotel were nearby.
In 1991, the block between Plymouth Court and State was razed as the city built Harold Washington Library across the street. Pritzker Park sprouted a year later. Now, it is a fenced-off, sporadically used patch of green. Plans to develop a new park have languished. “It’s nicer than it used to be,” said Haggins, “but you still can’t come out here and enjoy yourself.”
Haggins also complained about the loss of affordable places like the Plymouth. He pays $190 a month for a room in the Ritz Hotel on State but says more options are needed.
The number of SRO hotels dropped from 300 with 30,000 rooms in the early 1970s to 200 with 15,000 rooms in the late ‘90s, according to the Single Room Operators Association.
“Nobody said they were the greatest, but they were affordable,” said Ed Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Real blast thwarted for safety
For the movie, filmmakers had hoped to actually blow up a downtown hotel for the scene in which a spurned mystery woman, played by Carrie Fisher, detonates a bomb at the hotel.
They negotiated with the owners of the closed Wabash Hotel at 27 E. Harrison to implode the building and film it. They contracted the Loizeaux family — a world famous demolition company — and were going to pay them $30,000 to do the job.
Set decorators had even painted bricks on the Wabash facade to resemble the Plymouth.
But there were concerns about an adjoining wall with a neighboring building and fears underground gas lines might leak, said first assistant director David Sosna.
The explosion was canceled, and they used a model instead.