Great ideas start out small, and this one began as the slightest notion: “Why not have a reunion of all the guys around here, in the Hollywood section, who we knew when we were kids?”
About a year-and-a-half ago, Jeff Cermak (still in the Hollywood area) had the germ of an idea and wondered to boyhood friend “Big Ed” Marcin, “What if we got up a picnic in Kiwanis Park with as many of these guys as we could find?”
Marcin was definitely interested. As a lifelong resident of Hollywood for 50 years, he believed that “this area was a great place to grow up. There was always an abundance of children doing something outdoors. We were never bored.”
They discussed the reunion idea some, but the details of planning such a thing at Kiwanis Park seemed daunting; getting a date set for the picnic, getting food set up and served by volunteers and not knowing how many guys would actually show up. So a year passed by with nothing more happening.
It seemed as though the idea of a reunion would forever remain that”just an idea. But then, the week before Christmas 2004, Marcin happened to be in Joliet, in the area of the Joliet Jackhammers’ Minor League Baseball stadium at Silver Cross Field. He started to wonder how many people one of the skyboxes would hold, and what they’d cost and about food service. He had nothing to lose, so he walked in and asked his questions. The answers were promising.
While still at the stadium, he started calling up his old boyhood friends, telling them about the reunion, and asking them point blank, “If I buy this box, will you come to this thing?”
The answers were encouraging, so he rented a skybox that could hold 22-30 people. The date set for the event was Saturday, June 25, 2005. He next met with Cermak and together they teamed up to work out who should be invited and, most importantly, who could be found.
The news of the reunion then spread as Marcin and Cermak called people who knew where still other people were, and so on. Ray Romolt contacted Keith Kurzeja of Willowbrook.
“[Romolt no sooner] started to mention something about several Hollywood ‘kids’ getting together for a ‘reunion’ of sorts,” Kurzeja said, “than by the time he was halfway through, I interrupted him and said ‘I’m in. When is it?’ I really didn’t care where or when it was, I was going.”
About two weeks into January, they had 80 percent of the 30 guys rounded up and promising to attend. Almost all of them either lived in Hollywood or a suburb of Chicago. By February, almost every one of them had responded and would be there. However, Marcin was taking no chances.
“I haunted these people”didn’t let them breathe”and sent them constant e-mails,” Marcin said.
But not all of them were so easy to pin down and convince.
“Ronnie and Jerry Duve seemed uninterested at first, said that they might come, and then did show up,” said Marcin.
Once there, their reactions echoed those of their old friends: “This is so cool! I’m so glad I came!”
Some of them came from as far away as downstate Illinois, Alabama, New Jersey, New York, Florida, Minnesota, Maryland and Kansas City.
Dave Zatloukal thought the whole reunion was “a great idea! Much of our youth was spent together, and the foundation of who we are today was influenced by these relationships. I thought it would be fun to see how everyone was doing, and relive some old stories.”
Wayne Vantluka also thought it was a great idea, as he hadn’t seen most of his friends for over 30 years.
On the day of the Hollywood boys’ reunion, everything was set up and ready to go. Old friends just streamed into the skybox at around 6 p.m. The Joliet Jackhammers were playing the Lincoln Saltdogs.
As the skybox filled up, “it was non-stop talking,” said Marcin. “I just sat back for awhile and watched it all unfold. I heard a lot of guys saying ‘who are you? No! Get out of here!'”
Ted Tobias thought he was in the wrong room until Steve Crotz, whom he didn’t recognize at first, said hello. Keith Kurzeja just stated his name as he entered the skybox, and then looked around for familiar faces.
Some, like Joe Stejskal Jr., were amazed by the large turnout.
“I can’t believe this! Will I be able to recognize anyone?”
Rob Chana from Clarendon Hills was of a similar mind.
“Oh, no. Am I going to recognize anyone here? Then everyone was asking, ‘Hey, do you remember this? Or, ‘Hey, do you remember that?’ After a while, it seemed like we were all back at Hollywood School.”
Crotz, who came in from Alabama ,brought in a few newspaper articles about when he was in Hollywood Scout Troop 87, but the order of the day was talk, and plenty of it. Memories were flying faster than crab apples being thrown at a Mosquito Abatement DDT fog truck.
Chuck Sikorski remembered “playing baseball from sunup to sundown, only stopping for lunch and dinner.”
Jeff Cermak reminisced about “playing baseball behind Hollywood School, touch football on the ‘field’ that is now overgrown on the south end of Hollywood and shooting baskets wherever we could find a garage with a hoop.”
Keith Kurzeja recalled playing a lot of Capture the Flag and “four square with 16 kids, all at once.”
Marcin talked about playing nighttime flashlight tag, where the person who had the flashlight had to use it to find and tag the hiders. Sort of like hide-and-seek in the dark. Wayne Vantluka discussed his days playing by Salt Creek and climbing trees. Ted Tobias recalled his skateboarding days and his special one-time-only bicycle trick.
There were a lot of memories about food. Cris Snyder recalled “when a Jumbo Cone from Cock Robin cost 17 cents” (today it’s $1.99). He also relished the old days when he was eating fruits and vegetables from neighbors’ trees and gardens, and he and Marcin were scarfing down pizzas from Barone’s, Ralph’s and Enzo’s after eating a full dinner. And they never seemed to gain a pound, which amazed everybody. Marcin also remembered going for chocolate swirl cones at Kerry’s Custard on the northwest corners of 31st Street and Maple Avenue.
Sometimes Marcin’s dad would buy a whole box of ice cream cones from the Good Humor truck, and pass them out to neighborhood kids. And in the Marcin basement there was a real fountain service soda pop dispenser. Kids were allowed to go home and bring back pitchers to fill up with soda. It was like every kid’s dream. “You’d think we were giving away gold,” recalled Marcin.
The general belief was that the 1950s through the early 1970s were a good time to grow up in. As Dave Zatloukal said, his clearest memory was that “in reflection, it was the freedom of kids to be kids. During the summer months, we used to go outside after breakfast and many times not come home until dinner. There were always kids around to play with, and rarely did we hang around inside. Our parents did not worry, like we do today, about all of the bad things that could happen to unsupervised kids. It is amazing how we survived without cellphones and text messaging.”
Still, the world of these Hollywood children was not all peace, love, and tranquillity. Keith Kurzeja remembered that his mother, a nurse, had to identify a lady who had committed suicide by laying down on the Hollywood tracks.
Cermak recalled that “in the hottest part of the summer of 1963, a man committed suicide and laid in his house for two weeks before he was discovered. All of us kids thought the house was haunted after that, and we were afraid to go past the house, and it was not uncommon for us to cross the street, or make a 100-yard dash past the house during the next year or so.”
Rob Chana had a vivid memory of actually having seen Sidney Pavichka’s house being robbed, and car being stolen, though he hadn’t realized what was happening at the time.
One summer night after he graduated from Riverside-Brookfield High School in 1975, Ted Tobias, who used to zip around the Hollywood street islands in his 1971 Mercury Capri, became aware, in front of RB, that a suspicious car seemed to be following him. He took a few turns, testing to see if this was true, and he came to the conclusion that it was.
Speeding up around the islands, he darted into alleys and finally got far enough ahead to park, turn off his lights and engine and lose his pursuer, whoever it was. The experience may have had a lasting effect on him, as he has worked for the LaGrange Park Police Department for 21 years.
As the hours passed, memories flowed like soda pop from the Marcin soda fountain. Then the party broke up. Stejskal thought it had been “unbelievable and magical. By the end of the night (the general feeling) was ‘We all took some different routes and we all turned out pretty damn good.'”
Cermak expressed the opinion that “we all went to the same schools, hung out at the same parks and all grew up with the same values and role models, but there was lots of diversity in our group. Farmers to lawyers … but personalities did not change, even though physical appearances did.”
Cris Snyder recalled that “just seeing people and exchanging stories with them helped me remember stories long forgotten. How great it was to see the kids I grew up with, that I haven’t seen in 30 years.”
Marcin was happy that the reunion turned out to be such a great success.
“We had a blast, telling our stories. These are the things I will not forget.”
Even though many old friends stepped outside to watch a little of the baseball game going on, no one could say it was anything near to being the main attraction here. When asked about the final score of the game, Marcin couldn’t recall it, but later found out that the Lincoln, Nebraska Saltdogs beat the Joliet Jackhammers, 6-4.
Obviously some memories are more important than others.