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Story of Chicago’s 19th-century power couple told in documentary

Posted Apr 11, 2013

BY LORI RACKL TV Critic/ March 21, 2013 8:10PM

Chicago is what it is today thanks in no small part to deep-pocketed visionaries Bertha and Potter Palmer, a 19th-century power couple depicted in a new documentary on WTTW-Channel 11.

Produced by River Forest-based Corn Bred Films, the half-hour program tells two love stories: one between young socialite Bertha Honore and the self-made millionaire 23 years her senior, and another between the Palmers and the muddy Midwest outpost they helped transform into a world-class city after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

“Love Under Fire: The Story of Bertha & Potter Palmer” also chronicles Potter Palmer’s massive role in the retail business and how he shaped the way we shop today. It’s a timely topic. PBS recently launched “Mr. Selfridge,” an eight-part series about an ambitious American who spent 25 years working his way up the ladder at Chicago’s Marshall Field & Co., which got its start as a dry goods store opened in the mid-1800s by none other than Potter Palmer.

Evanston native Jeremy Piven stars as Harry Gordon Selfridge, who took everything he learned — and the piles of cash he earned — and hopped the pond to London to open his eponymous department store. The “Masterpiece Classic” period drama, co-produced by Britain’s ITV, debuted on WTTW with a two-hour premiere at 8 p.m. March 31.

“Selfridge probably wouldn’t have been Selfridge if it wasn’t for Potter Palmer,” said Amelia Dellos, who co-founded Corn Bred with her screenwriter husband, Eric Anderson.

Dellos wrote and directed Corn Bred’s first completed project, the Palmer documentary, which works as the perfect appetizer before digging into multi-course “Mr. Selfridge.”

“The whole concept of modern-day shopping as we know it — Palmer was the father of that,” Dellos said. “Marshall Field gets a lot of credit for things Palmer created.”

Through a mix of sepia photographs and interviews with local historians, the documentary touts a long list of Palmer’s contributions to the retail biz, from eye-catching window displays to the “Palmer Method” of buying directly from manufacturers and importers to keep prices low.

“Potter Palmer actually started the whole concept of customer service,” Chicago author and historian Sally S. Kalmbach says in the film, crediting Palmer with the creation of the “bargain basement” and offering customers ample lines of credit.

Palmer helped turn shopping into a leisure activity — a sport of sorts aimed largely at women, who were increasingly asserting their independence.

“He was the first one to allow women to come in and exchange or get a refund,” says Palmer’s great-grandson, Potter Palmer IV. “Everyone thought that was just a crazy thing to do.”

Like “Mr. Selfridge,” the Palmer documentary isn’t all business. Both shows devote ample time to the men’s wives (and in Selfridge’s case, his many lovers) — privileged, well-to-do Chicago women who shared a passion for art.

Bertha Palmer singlehandedly is responsible for a large part of the Art Institute’s famed Impressionist collection. She also was instrumental in the 1893 Columbian Exposition, serving as president of the Board of Lady Managers — a role that had her butting heads with architect Daniel Burnham over the design of the Women’s Building.

It was Bertha’s involvement in the World’s Fair that first piqued the interest of Dellos while she researched a paper as a graduate student at University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The story of Bertha always stuck with me,” said Dellos, 41, who went on to write a historical-fiction screenplay about the woman, titled “Courting Bertha.”

Dellos hopes “Love Under Fire” works as kindling to ignite demand for her screenplay, which she’d like to turn into a feature-length film as well as a theatrical production.

“We’re hoping this is phase one,” she said. “Whether it’s 1893 or 2013, the Palmers’ story is timeless.”

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