Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

When flying was a thrill

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
August 20, 2012 -- Updated 0829 GMT (1629 HKT)
Mike Rotunno was a newspaper photographer who started a business at Midway Airport in 1930s Chicago shooting pictures for travelers who wanted a memento as they passed through. Many celebrities were among them. Here, Rotunno poses with Marilyn Monroe in 1955. Mike Rotunno was a newspaper photographer who started a business at Midway Airport in 1930s Chicago shooting pictures for travelers who wanted a memento as they passed through. Many celebrities were among them. Here, Rotunno poses with Marilyn Monroe in 1955.
HIDE CAPTION
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
The glamour days of flying
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Flying has become a soul-sucking slog with cramped seats, bad food
  • He says it used to be pretty glamorous; a Chicago photog captured this in '30s-'50s
  • Mike Rotunno took pictures of celebrities, politicians arriving at Midway Airport
  • Greene: Stars made flying desirable, high-toned; think of this next time you endure a flight

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- Have you been flying much this summer?

If so, how has the experience been?

Right.

Thought so.

Flying these days -- the jammed-to-the-groaning-point cabins and torture-rack legroom; the fees for everything from checking your bags to being handed a paltry package of food; the endless, we'll-X-ray-you-to-within-an-inch-of-your-dignity security lines; the sweaty guy in the next seat with a tank top on and his shoes off -- you know how it is.

Airline asks passengers for gas money

Flying is too often a dreary, joy-sapping slog. It's difficult even to remember that it was ever any other way.

Which is why, at Midway Airport in Chicago recently, I was intrigued when someone mentioned to me a book about that very airport.

The book had a workmanlike title: "When Hollywood Landed at Chicago's Midway Airport." Because the person who recommended it to me spoke in such glowing terms, I ordered a copy through the mail.

Written by a fellow named Christopher Lynch, who grew up around Midway, it is a thin, paperbound volume that appears to be a labor of love and respect. It tells the story of one Mike Rotunno, a photographer-for-hire in the first boom years of commercial air travel in the United States.

Rotunno -- he died in 1994 -- was a newspaper photographer who decided he might be able to do better as his own boss. In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, flying was a big deal. When a family went on vacation by air, it was a major life event.

Rotunno set up a company called Metro News at Midway -- O'Hare International Airport was many years from being built -- to offer professional photo service to anyone passing through the airport who wanted a memento of the occasion.

But he also began taking photos of Hollywood (and political) stars as they arrived in Chicago. The cross-country flights in those years had to stop to refuel, and Midway was often where they set down.

Lynch's book is filled with Rotunno's old photos.

And ...

Well, take a look at the selection of those photos atop today's column. The next time you're frustrated and downcast about what air travel has become, the memory of the photos may serve as a tonic.

"Traveling by air in those years wasn't like boarding a flying bus, the way it is today," Lynch told me. "People didn't travel in flip-flops. I mean, no offense, Mister, but I don't want to see your toes."

Recovered wreckage fails to solve case of missing pilot

The trains were still king in those years. The airlines wanted to convince people that flying was safe.

"People were afraid to fly," Lynch said. "And it was expensive. The airlines had to make people think it was something they should try."

Enter Mike Rotunno.

His pictures of the stars as they got off the planes made air travel seem to be glamorous, sophisticated, civilized, thrilling. The stars dressed up to fly -- and so did everyone else. Few celebrities had the option of private planes in those days, so the guy passing you in the aisle on a cross-country flight just might be Clark Gable. And everyone alighted from the planes by stairways onto the runways -- there were none of the sealed bridges that today attach to the terminals.

The photos of the stars set the tone for flying. Lynch told me: "People who saw pictures in the papers of stars getting off planes thought, 'Hey, if John Wayne can fly, I can fly. I want to be like John Wayne. ' "

Thus, there is Wayne -- the Duke himself -- looking like the proverbial million bucks, climbing off a TWA flight and striding toward Rotunno's camera.

There is Marilyn Monroe, right there with Mike and his Speed Graphic. Katharine Hepburn, a dream incarnate. Gary Cooper, taking a photo of Rotunno, as Rotunno took a photo of him. Rock Hudson, surrounded by fans. Red Skelton. Gene Autry. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Jimmy Stewart. John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy and Richard Nixon -- together, all in a single frame, beneath a United Airlines plane.

It is a lost world -- the airborne world of everyday elegance, as available to the average ticket holder as to Bob Hope or to Abbott and Costello. Mike Rotunno, on a daily basis, captured it all.

It was an arrangement in which everyone won. The airlines, which assisted him in lining up the photos, won because the results helped convince the public to abandon the trains. The Hollywood studios won because they got a little bit of free publicity for their stars. The newspapers won because, by buying photos from Rotunno, they didn't have to send photographers to the airport themselves. And Rotunno won, because he got the money.

Potential FAA cuts would create big hassles for fliers

And he also won because he got the memories. Think of his photos the next time you're shoehorned into a seat next to a fellow who's dripping the sloppy innards of his carry-on submarine sandwich onto your sleeve. Air travel was once a treasured experience, exciting, exotic, something never to be forgotten. You, too, could travel like Elizabeth Taylor.

Who, of course, knew that Mike Rotunno would be waiting for her on the runway at the bottom of the stairs.

She's gone now.

He's gone now.

That era of travel is gone now.

And you?

Your flight is boarding.

Why aren't you smiling?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

Are you a window flier or an aisle seater?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT