Quick pandemic vacations from safety of your car
The pandemic has canceled many summer vacation plans, but Gerry Lekas of Glenview knows plenty of grisly, glamorous and eclectic places you can visit in the city and the suburbs, many without even leaving the safety of your car. His new book, "Where the Tour Buses Don't Go," gives readers nearly 200 places linked to the famous, the criminal or the weird.
Lekas, 71, started developing his keen sense of quirky as a boy growing up on Chicago's Northwest Side.
"Some kids were into baseball cards. I'd be reading the police blotter," Lekas says. Sometimes the offbeat finds him. After graduating from Lane Tech High School during the Vietnam War, Lekas enlisted in the National Guard, where he did military basic training with soldiers and Marines before being deployed to a special instruction school.
"I was trained as a typewriter repairman. It was very dangerous work," Lekas deadpans.
During his career as a language arts and social studies teacher at Jack London Middle School in Wheeling and Friendship Junior High School in Des Plaines, Lekas found unusual ways to grab kids' attention.
"I was a strange teacher," Lekas confesses. "My hall pass was a rock from the site of the first Jack the Ripper murder. It was a little unusual."
His book gives the location of local horrific crimes, such as the Des Plaines pharmacy (now a day-care center) where serial killer John Gacy met his final victim. Lekas doesn't give the address of the home where Gacy buried his victims in the crawl space, out of respect for the people who built a new home on that ground, but he does include the McDonald's restaurant in Niles where Gacy was arrested and a Chicago bar frequented by Gacy and fellow serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Crime and celebrity sometimes overlap, as in the case of the Villa Venice in Wheeling, which was owned by mobster Sam Giancana, offered gondola rides on the Des Plaines River, and for one glorious week had Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. entertain the crowds. The book also gives you the description of how and where Giancana was gunned down while cooking in his Oak Park home. But that's not all. "I give you the recipe for the last meal he made," Lekas says. His "Dine Like a Mafioso" recipe for Giancana's favorite -- sausage, escarole and beans -- also includes the warning, "Don't allow anyone to sidle up behind you."
Instead of providing the address for the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" or the Biograph Theater where outlaw John Dillinger was gunned down, Lekas urges readers to visit the alley where the Outfit's getaway car was stashed or the apartment where the "Woman in Red" was living on the night she led cops to Dillinger.
The book shows addresses for the Essanay Studios in Chicago, where Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin and Gloria Swanson honed their acting chops; the club where Moe and Shemp Howard met a stooge named Larry Fine; the Woodstock apartment building that once was the Todd School for Boys, where Orson Welles developed his love of theater; and the Libertyville theater where a teenage Marlon Brando got fired for being a bit too much of a rebel.
"You could take a ride to see Bill Murray's house and the park across the street where he and his brothers played," says Lekas, adding that Wilmette location isn't far from where Charlton Heston, Ann-Margret, Harold Ramis and John Hughes once lived. "You go to the house where Harrison Ford grew up in Park Ridge, walk a couple of blocks and you're at Hillary Clinton's house."
The boyhood home of John Belushi in Wheaton has been updated, but his parents are still buried in River Grove. The boyhood home of Robert Reed, who played the dad in TV's "The Brady Bunch," still stands in Des Plaines, a short drive from the gravesite of baseball announcer Harry Caray. Jack Ruby, who gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald after the John F. Kennedy assassination, is buried in Norridge. Chicago Bears founder George Halas rests in the family crypt in Niles.
"People can take these little road trips and not have to interact with people," Lekas says. Married for 47 years, Lekas and his wife Noreen have a daughter, Elizabeth Kozek, and a son, Joe Lekas, who took the photographs for the book.
"It was on my bucket list," Lekas says of his book. He's also written a couple of plays that have been performed, created several board games, and composed a song that appeared in Ron Howard's 1982 movie, "Night Shift," for which he still receives modest royalty checks. What's left on his list?
"Attain enlightenment," says Lekas. "And it's still early in the day."