[Dixielandjazz] " A League of Their Own" (Making movies in Chicago)

JimDBB at aol.com JimDBB at aol.com
Fri Mar 7 18:06:10 PST 2003

             "A League of Their Own": Making movies in Chicago

by <A HREF="mailto:JimDBB at aol.com">Jim Beebe</A>

In 1992 the movie "A League of Their Own" was released and it quickly became 
a big hit. It was highly entertaining and was based on a unique period in 
American history.

In 1990, I got a call from a woman who said that she was with Columbia 
pictures. She said that they were making a movie that would be filmed mostly 
in Chicago. The movie was about the Women's Baseball League that was formed 
in 1943 to fill in the gap left as so many men in professional baseball went 
off to fight in World War II.

The cast would feature such big names as Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, and 
Rosie O'Donnell and would be directed by Penny Marshall. The story would 
center around the Rockford Peaches and the Racine Belles, two of the 
prominent Women's League teams and would be titled, "A League of Their Own."

The woman from Columbia Pictures went on to explain that they had leased 
Fitzgerald's Club, located just west of Chicago in Berwyn and they were going 
to film some night club scenes in it. One would feature Tom Hanks and Madonna 
in some hot jitterbug dancing and they wanted an authentic jazz band on the 
bandstand while this was going on. She said that the music had been recorded 
and the band in the film would be sidelining.

"Sidelining" is the common practice in the movie business where the music is 
prerecorded and actual musicians are miming along with the recorded music on 
camera so that it looks real or authentic.

The Columbia woman said that my band had been recommended to them and she 
asked if I would be interested in this. I replied that I would. She said that 
the filming would commence in about a month and that they wanted to come now 
to see my band to consider us for their nightclub scene.

I told her the places we were working and she elected to come and see us at 
Dick's Last Resort in Chicago where we were in residence three nights a week. 
I hesitated about Dick's Last Resort as Dick's was a noisy place with 
contrived rowdiness as its ambience and hot jazz groups as its backdrop. It 
was not a choice place to check out a band with the din that prevailed and 
with waiters and waitresses periodically blowing up condoms.

A few nights later two young women and a young man came up to the bandstand, 
told me that they were from Columbia, and and said that they really liked our 
group. It was hard to talk with the ongoing din but I was encouraged by what 
they said. They were bright and enthusiastic and had the appearance of 
college graduate students.

The next day I got a call from one of the young women. "We love your band but 
we cannot use it in this picture." I was stunned and puzzled. She explained, 
"The band for this scene, because of the period, has to be either all white 
or all black. That is the way it was in the '40s. Your band is mixed, and it 
just won't work for this movie."

I saw my chance at eternal movie fame fleeting by and it seemed there was 
nothing I could do to save it. The Columbia woman effused as to how sorry 
they were that they couldn't use us and then she rang off.

A couple of weeks later I heard that the Columbia movie people had engaged 
Lester Stephens for the Nightclub scene. Lester Stephens was a long time jazz 
drummer and his band, Lester Stephens Modern-Traditional Jazz Band, had been 
a vital part of the Chicago Jazz scene for some years. The guys in Lester's 
band were seasoned veterans from the Afro-American tradition in Chicago Jazz 
and they had been active on the scene for many years.

I had to concede that Columbia Pictures made the right choice. Lester was a 
friend of mine and would often come to where my band was working and sit in 
on drums with us. At times I would go and sit in with his group. I was happy 
for him.

The Lester Stephens band.

A month passed by when I suddenly got a call from Columbia pictures again. 
The same woman said that they were going to do another night club scene and 
that they wanted me to have an all white band and asked if I would do it. I 
agreed before I was given the conditions, which turned out to be a bit of a 

These movie people were always rushed and in a hurry. The woman said that we 
would be on stage with Madonna, who would be singing an old tune, "Daddy." I 
was told that they would be filming this the following Monday at Fitzgerald's 
and that I would have to get my group to their building on South Michigan 
Avenue in Chicago by Friday to be fitted out with clothes. I could only have 
one young guy in the band as in the period of this movie most of the young 
men were off to war. No beards and no ponytails, as we had to look reasonably 

I hung up the phone and started making calls. I couldn't use most of my 
regular guys. Three of them were the 'wrong' color and one had a beard. In my 
zeal for fame and riches, I overlooked that fact that my regular musicians 
were going to be affronted at being left out. Other guys that I had worked 
with they were all tied up in one way or another and were not available for 
the following Monday when we were scheduled to started filming our scene, 
early in the morning

Columbia FedEx'd me a tape of the recording that we were to 'sideline' to and 
the music for it. This old tune, "Daddy" was done in a small band swing style 
and had been arranged by Dick Marx. I later discovered that a number of 
Chicago jazz greats including Bobby Lewis, Cy Touff, Eric Schneider, Ed 
Peterson, and others were on this recording that would be used on the movie 

I made copies for the band. Judi K, who sang with my band, was delighted to 
hear about the movie even though there was no place for her in it. Judi's 
cousin, Lou 'Erickson' Sauer, had been one of the Rockford Peaches. Judi has 
her picture, in her Peaches uniform, hanging on her kitchen wall. After a 
full day of phone calls, I lined up a group of musicians that I rarely worked 
with, at least one of whom I had never met.

We gathered at a building that Columbia had leased, with rooms that the cast 
used to rehearse their scenes. We were amazed to find a huge room full of 
clothes from the '40s—authentic clothes and shoes, not reproductions.

Curiously, we were fitted with an outfit that I felt was wrong for a 
nightclub band in that era but I thought it best that I didn't say anything. 
I gave each guy a copy of the tape and the music that they were to play so 
they could get familiar with it. They would have to mime along with the 
recording with the right fingering and positions on their instruments so that 
they would look authentic in the film. And they were to wait for the call 
from me.

Columbia was going to call me Sunday night to tell us what time to come in on 
Monday and the guys all had to be at home to get my call. Well, that Sunday 
night began a nightmare of phone calls and delays that to this day still 
rankles me. Sunday night I got a hurried call, "Keep your band on hold for in 
the morning, we are behind schedule...I will call you in the morning."

Morning came. . . "We're behind schedule, keep the band on hold." This went 
on through the morning into the afternoon and evening. The band guys were 
getting ready to strangle me. Finally that night a hurried call came, "We are 
going to cancel this nightclub scene. We are way behind schedule and have to 
go to Indiana to film some outdoor baseball stuff. Thanks for your help." 
That was it.

It dawned on me that I never had a contract or anything. Everything was so 
rushed, I assumed that we would get paid whatever the union agreement was; as 
this was a famous movie company, there wouldn't be any problem. I made a 
quick call back to the Columbia person and asked about payment. I was 
abruptly told that since we weren't used in the film they couldn't pay us but 
they would send me $200 for my efforts and my phone bills. And she rang off.

My subsequent calls never got through. They were gone that day. I decided 
that it would be prudent to visit relatives in Wisconsin as I knew that the 
musicians I had engaged for movie fame would be coming with baseball bats to 
'sideline' me to Wrigley Field.

The movie was an enormous hit and Lester Stephens and his band were just 
right for the jitterbug scene. Lester told me that Penny Marshall was great 
to work with and that she really liked his band. When they finished filming 
their scene, the band played the cast a swinging, "When the Saints go 
Marching In."

Lester and some of his band have passed on now. They were a vibrant part of 
Chicago Jazz history. Their music represented a special niche in Chicago Jazz 
as it embraced a wide palette of styles, just as their name, the Lester 
Stephens Modern-Traditional Jazz band, implied. The Rockford Peaches and the 
Racine Belles reclaimed their place in Baseball history memory. All of the 
women involved in the Women's Baseball League are now in the Baseball Hall of 
Fame and will forever be in the American consciousness.

And now you know the rest of the story to "A League of Their Own."

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