Jane Byrne, patron saint of Chicago’s film industry

Dan Aykroyd, Mayor Jane Byrne and John Belushi

Before Mayor Jane Byrne, there was no Chicago film industry. That was mainly because Mayor Richard J. Daley notoriously hated movies.  Didn’t want them messing up traffic.  Didn’t want Al Capone’s gangster days perpetuated on the screen. 

“He didn’t want anything to do with film,” says Local 476’s Mark Hogan, who was beginning film career in 1979.

“She turned the city around for us,” says Hogan, who remembers her frequent “Blues Brothers” set visits, not repeated by any mayor since. 

“When she came out to talk to us, she was as excited to be there as we were excited to see her.”

When Byrne moved into City Hall in 1979, the film office was a dinky afterthought tucked in the press office, where bureaucrats read screenplays to approve their content for filming that never happened.

When director John Landis wanted to shoot Chicago-set “The Blues Brothers” here, he dispatched its star, Chicagoan John Belushi, to speak to the new mayor.

According to Tribune columnist Christopher Borrelli’s account, Byrne sat stony-faced while Belushi sweated in his appeal for filming permission.  When he took a breath, she said “fine.”  Disbelieving, he continued his pitch.  “I said fine,” she said. End of conversation.  Start of a film industry. 

Then, in a move that would’ve given Mayor Daley I apoplexy, she okayed that famous “Blue Brothers” scene where a car crashes into the doors of Daley Plaza.  (In fairness, it was also a way to say “shove it” to her Old Guard detractors.)

Byrne gave the Chicago Film Office official status by locating within the Special Events department, which also issued permits for activities taking place on city streets.

The first CFO director was congenial police Lt. Dominick Frigo, a soft-spoken but steely master of crowd and traffic control.  He was succeeded a few years later by the brasher Sgt. Sam Babich, who quickly learned and accommodated the needs of film crews.  

Byrne a staunch Chicago Coalition supporter

Byrne’s arrival fortuitously coincided with the Chicago Coalition in early 1980.  Concerned vendor company owners, led by Optimus’ Jimmy Smyth, formed the Coalition as a business-booster, to convince advertisers and their agencies the advantages of producing their commercials in Chicago,

Who better to lead the Coalition as paid executive director than Sterling “Red” Quinlan, a former broadcaster for whom CEO doors were always open.

Quinlan engaged the new mayor’s support.  Byrne, always solemn-faced and dwarfed by her big shouldered bodyguards, was a regular at the Coalition’s many functions. She was happy (though unsmiling) to make impromptu speeches.  She was very approachable.  A good listener. Someone who reliably kept her promises.

During the Byrne/Coalition years, commercial production soared from an almost invisible $5 million in 1979, to a booming $40 million in 1984, equivalent to $88 million today. 

With her understanding 35 years ago of the economic benefits of film production, starting with “The Blues Brothers,” Chicago has been on a track of continuous growth ever since.

 Revenues from film production were $358 million in 2013; $60 million of that from commercials – and more to come.