Wauconda remembers 'The Blues Brothers' shot in town 35 years ago
Thirty-five years ago, a mission from God brought Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to Wauconda.
It was early September 1979, and the actors were in town filming "The Blues Brothers" -- the John Landis-directed, cameo-filled movie that's arguably the greatest musical-action-comedy ever made.
The movie was shot throughout the Chicago area between July and October 1979. Although most of the sets were in the Windy City, a few scenes were shot in the suburbs -- such as the sequence in which Jake and Elwood drive the Bluesmobile along a beach, using a gigantic rooftop speaker to promote that evening's musical performance at the entirely fictional Palace Hotel Ballroom.
That sandy strip was at the edge of Wauconda's Bangs Lake.
Eighteen-year-old Glenn Swanson was there.
"I was paid as an extra in the movie," recalled Swanson, now Wauconda Township's supervisor. "I think I made like $36."
Some critics bashed the movie's plot and its many zany car chases, but "The Blues Brothers" was a financial hit when it was released in June 1980. Its legend grew through repeated airings on late-night TV and with the advent of home media.
The picture remains a Chicago classic -- and the people who were there, boy, do they have stories to tell.
'It was chaotic'
"The Blues Brothers" drove into Wauconda on Sept. 5, 1979. Lifelong Wauconda resident Jayne Stuckmann remembers it vividly.
"The village was crazy-busy," said Stuckmann, who was 20 at the time. "I was on Main Street that day and it was chaotic with people trying to watch."
Stuckmann hopped in a boat with some friends and went to the beach shoot. After a conversation with a camera operator, she was told to sit in the sand and wait for the beat-up Bluesmobile to drive past.
"We ended up sitting on the beach while the police car drove between us and the lake," Stuckmann said. "For this 'Saturday Night Live' fan, it was so cool to be within 10 feet of Jake and Elwood Blues."
The filmmakers removed a fence between two privately owned beaches -- Sunny Hill Beach and Phil's Beach -- to get the shots they wanted.
Mary Beth Jachec was 17 that summer. Her family owned Sunny Hill Beach.
Jachec met both Belushi and Aykroyd -- but it wasn't easy.
"My dad had to threaten to stop filming on the beach in order for the two actors to come out of their trailer for a picture with us," Jachec said. "They were both awesome, posing for a picture and giving us each (an) autograph."
Like so many kids from Wauconda, Jachec was an extra in the beach scene.
"My role was to play in the shallow water, splashing and looking like I was having fun in the water," she said.
Unfortunately, Jachec didn't make it into the final picture. But 12-year-old Robert Baxter had better luck.
"For the filming at Phil's Beach I wore my father's red terry cloth swim trunks so I would stand out," recalled Baxter, now a 47-year-old Lake Zurich resident. "It worked, because I can still pick myself out of two scenes."
Swanson worked at Sunny Hill Beach that summer and was an extra in the beach scene. He remembers the crowd of gawkers at the set and at the stars' trailers, which were parked off Main Street.
"Most people just wanted to get a look at Aykroyd or Belushi," Swanson said. "They were surrounded by the movie people when they would come out of their motor homes."
If you go hunting for Sunny Hill Beach, you'll be out of luck. The Honey Hill townhouses are there now.
Phil's Beach is closed to the public, too. Descendants of the family that owned the beach in the 1970s live in a house there.
'It was so cool'
A few other "Blues Brothers" sequences were shot in Wauconda.
In the same montage as the beach scene, Jake and Elwood drive the Bluesmobile down Main Street to advertise their one-night-only show.
Musician-actor Cab Calloway, who portrayed the brothers' mentor, Curtis, also shot a segment on Main Street for the montage. It's the bit where Curtis sits behind the wheel of a black car, handing enthusiastic kids fliers for the concert.
"I remember all of the squad cars parked up at (routes) 176 and 12, both before the cop car (crashed) into the semi and after the car went into the semi," longtime resident Dennis Hennessy said.
Hennessy was 13 and his family had just moved to the area.
"I definitely knew who they (Belushi and Aykroyd) were from 'SNL,'" he said. "It was so cool seeing all of that stuff. ... (I) couldn't wait to see the film."
Butch Chambers grew up in Wauconda and witnessed the filmmakers shoot the epic police-car-and-semi pileup.
"(It) took about three tries to do it," said Chambers, who lives in Johnsburg now. "We loved watching the filming. What 17-year-old wouldn't like watching them wreck a hundred police cars?"
Not just Wauconda
Wauconda wasn't the only suburb captured on celluloid for "The Blues Brothers." Filming took several months, and the production traveled throughout the region.
A gas station and a motel in West Chicago made the picture. The English model and actress Twiggy was featured in those scenes.
And you know the scene in which the Illinois state troopers who pursue Jake and Elwood for much of the movie first pull over the Bluesmobile? That was Park Ridge.
A sequence was shot in Long Grove, too.
And let's not forget Mount Prospect. Although the village isn't seen in the film, Elwood tells his freshly paroled brother he acquired the new Bluesmobile -- a 1974 Dodge Monaco complete with "cop tires, cop suspension (and) cop shocks" -- at a Mount Prospect police auction.
Years later, the police department acquired a custom-renovated replica of the Bluesmobile. Then police spokesman Bill Roscop used to dress as Elwood Blues and drive the black-and-white sedan in parades and to schools.
"People would be yelling at us, especially in Chicago. We'd cause traffic jams," said Roscop, who retired in 2009. "You felt like a celebrity."
Where are they now?
Belushi died of a drug overdose in 1982. Aykroyd went on to appear in "Ghostbusters," "Driving Miss Daisy" and many other films -- including the 1998 clunker "Blues Brothers 2000."
Landis has had a storied career since "The Blues Brothers," too. He directed hits including "An American Werewolf in London," "Trading Places" and "Coming to America" -- but also the aforementioned "Blues Brothers 2000."
Wauconda has changed a lot since July 1979. Phil's Beach and Sunny Hill Beach closed -- but people still frolic in Bangs Lake.
And nearby Main Street is undergoing a bit of a resurgence these days, thanks to popular stores, restaurants and bars.
Some of those bars will host blues bands July 18-20 to mark the "Blues Brothers" anniversary. An all-ages musical event near Bangs Lake is in the works for that weekend, too.
Proceeds will benefit an ongoing Main Street beautification effort.
But if you want to visit the Main Street of the past, all you have to do is don a fedora, slip on your sunglasses and pop "The Blues Brothers" into your home-video player.
You'll see the light.
The Blues in the 'burbs"The Blues Brothers" was shot on location in the Chicago area in 1979. These are some of the suburban spots that appear in the movie.
• The corner of Talcott Road and Greenwood Avenue, Park Ridge
• Nelson Funeral Home, Park Ridge
• Gary's Mill, West Chicago
• The West Wind Motel, West Chicago
• Beaches on Bangs Lake, Wauconda
• Main Street, Wauconda
• The intersection of routes 12 and 176, Wauconda
Sources: movie-locations .com, imdb.com