The Rise and Fall of Marshall Savings Part 2 of 5: We're in the money

Rapid expansion put Riverside savings and loan on the map

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By Bob Uphues

Editor

In late 1962, Marshall Savings and Loan appeared to be on top of the world, and its 100 Million Dollar-versary was the thrift's biggest promotion yet. 

Since beginning its rapid, ambitious expansion in 1958, Marshall Savings and Loan spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on promotions and advertising. 

For the savings and loan's 1963-64 fiscal year alone, Marshall Savings budgeted spending $503,000 for advertising and promotions. In the two years prior to that, Marshall Savings had spent another $734,000 on advertising and promotions, according to a 1963 bank examiner's memorandum.

A report to the association's senior officers in November 1963 shows the scope of the campaign. 

For example, Marshall Savings and Loan was the sponsor of a weekly TV show starring weatherman Harry Volkman, at a cost of $1,375 per week.

"It was a separate show, a five- to 10-minute show," said Volkman in an interview with the Landmark prior to his death in 2015.

Volkman had arrived at Chicago's NBC affiliate WMAQ-TV in 1959 from Oklahoma City. 

"I was introduced as the weather man for Marshall Savings and Loan in Riverside," he said.

On radio, Marshall Savings and Loan spent $4,800 a week to sponsor WBBM-AM's traffic helicopter — named the Air Marshall. 

Also on WBBM, Marshall sponsored a performance of Handel's "Messiah" around the Christmas holidays for $2,500, and broadcasts of Lyric Opera performances. The thrift also spent $885 per week in 1963 to sponsor the radio show of popular journalist Tony Weitzel (no relation to Riverside's present police chief, Thomas Weitzel), who wrote the "Town Crier" column in the Chicago Daily News.

Marshall Savings ads could be found on billboards, event programs, buses, calendars and monthly in nearly 20 newspapers. And, of course, Marshall Savings and Loan spent thousands in giveaways for its customers — pens, litter bags, fly swatters, matchbooks and, naturally, the pile of prizes it would raffle off at its big promotional events at the savings and loan.

The strategy worked.

A June 1958 blurb in the Chicago Tribune, trumpeting an almost-completed major renovation of the bank, quoted Henry Moravec Sr., Marshall Savings' president, as saying that the savings and loan had doubled its assets in the past year, to $16 million. 

The remodeling project was largely complete by Jan. 4, 1959, when the Tribune announced a two-week open house at Marshall Savings to show off the "brown, gold and aquamarine … color motif for all the furnishings."

Those January open houses were established as money-makers for the savings and loan, and the sparkling new building — with its "unusual exterior … of porcelain paneling and a multi-colored panel above the main entrance," "circular-type elevators," and central "free-form marble staircase" gave an impression of luxury and wealth that the founders of the association back in 1904 would never have dreamed of.

In April 1962, Marshall Savings announced it was again expanding its building at 3722 Harlem Ave. At the same time, in the association's April 1962 annual report, Moravec reported to Marshall Savings and Loan shareholders that an open house event in January of that year had increased Marshall's assets by $9 million. 

In all, the association had increased its overall assets by 41 percent since the beginning of the 1961-62 fiscal year, an amount pegged at $23.6 million, "the single largest increase recorded by the association in its 58 years of growth."

The work on the latest building expansion was wrapping up in December 1962 when Moravec heralded the upcoming 100 Million Dollar-versary celebration. In five years, Marshall Savings and Loan had increased its assets by more than 500 percent.

That was cause for celebration.

The 1963 open house at Marshall Savings and Loan would be like no other. It would be a star-studded affair, featuring past legends of music and comedy and contemporary hit makers and nightclub and TV personalities, both national and local.

Herb Lyon, who wrote the popular entertainment-centric column "Tower Ticker" for the Chicago Tribune plugged the two-week celebration in his Jan. 2, 1963 column.

"Vic Damone headlines at Marshall Savings' unique anniversary spectacular tonight only. [It's a two-week affair.] Others to follow: Tony Martin, Jan. 8; Shecky Greene, Jan. 9; Jack E. Leonard, Jan. 10; Tony Bennett, Jan. 15."

Lyon left out the appearance of George Jessel, a one-time vaudeville comic and singing star, Broadway sensation, film actor and movie producer. He appeared on Jan. 12. Henry Moravec Sr. made a point of getting a photo taken with Jessel during his appearance.

The event got even more play in the local papers, which published large ads with pictures of the stars and hyped the appearances of local celebrities like weatherman Harry Volkman (on Jan. 14), newsmen Len O'Connor (the father of longtime Riverside resident and former state Rep. Bill O'Connor) and Jim Hurlbut, radio host Phil Bowman and local singer Carole March.

"This was quite an affair," Volkman recalled. "There were all kinds of goodies there, drinks. It was a major opening of an institution. I went to a lot of grand openings of banks, department stores. That Marshall thing was one of the biggest ones of all."

Singer/actor Tony Martin's heyday was in the 1940s and 1950s, but fans thronged to see him at Marshall Savings on Jan. 8.

As Martin sat at the bank president's desk, writing out a slip to open an honorary account at the bank — Volkman recalled getting a check for $10 in the mail to settle his honorary account from the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation after Marshall Savings' liquidation — fans ogled the star through the windows of the office.

For comedian Shecky Greene and singer Vic Damone, the open house was just another event, and one they don't remember much about.

"I know I did it, because there it is," said Damone in a 2011 interview, referring to photos from the event sent to him by the Landmark. 

One of the photos shows him peeling off a $100 bill and handing it to a bank clerk, likely to open his own honorary account. "I can't remember the circumstances," he said.

Greene also had just a vague memory of the event.

"I just went and kibitzed around," said Greene, who recalled later hearing that Marshall Savings and Loan "was investigated."

Greene also performed for the crowd, firing off jokes.

"I made up things about going to the bank," he said, referencing a gag about a man wanting to make a withdrawal and mentioning to the teller not to mind the gun in his hand, and singing songs.

Asked about a photo from the event where he's seen holding a bass fiddle like a guitar and mugging for the crowd, Greene instantly recalled the routine, launching into a Jamaican-accented send up of Harry Belafonte's "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)."

The celebration drew crowds that packed the bank lobby, hoping their door prize tickets would be chosen to win gifts like a new "color  TV and stereo hi-fi sets," according to a Dec. 30, 1962 article in the Berwyn Life. Bank officers got to rub elbows with celebrities and get their autographs, using the exposure to gain new depositors.

But there was trouble below the surface. Despite the apparent success, Marshall Savings and Loan was fighting a public relations war as problems dogged its highest-profile client – Manny Skar, the man whose name sat atop the marquee of the new Sahara Inn, the Las Vegas-style hotel/nightclub/restaurant complex on Mannheim Road near O'Hare Airport.

It was through the Sahara Inn that stars like Tony Bennett, Vic Damone and Tony Martin found their way to Marshall Savings' big anniversary celebration. After all, Marshall Savings and Loan had loaned Skar millions to build the hotel.

But some depositors were getting skittish in the face of ongoing negative press surrounding Skar, the Sahara Inn and their connections to the Chicago Outfit.

It was a strange position to be in for the formerly modest thrift, founded to allow Czech immigrants a way to buy a small piece of the American dream.

Contact:
Email: buphues@wjinc.com Twitter: @RBLandmark

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