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 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT