The University of Chicago Magazine
Michael Dorf, AB'73, hopes to do what even an observatory could not do for Charles Tyson Yerkes: restore the tycoon's reputation.
Dorf, a partner in the general-practice law firm Adducci, Dorf, Lehner, Mitchell & Blankenship, P.C., in Chicago, is writing a musical based on Yerkes' life. Tentatively titled Titans, the musical--with a score by Ohio-born composer Claudia Howard Queen--portrays Yerkes as a champion of the working class, struggling against antagonists such as Philip Armour and Marshall Field in a valiant effort to unify Chicago's mass-transit system.
Dorf first encountered the streetcar magnate's history during a trip to Yerkes Observatory while enrolled in the University's "rocks and stars" class for non-science concentrators. The observatory immediately captured his imagination: "I loved that place!"
When he later read Theodore Dreiser's trilogy of novels based on Yerkes' life, Dorf was hooked. "I was just fascinated by it," he says. "I was so intrigued by Cowperwood," the character that Dreiser modeled on Yerkes.
While at Chicago, Dorf developed an interest in writing and producing musicals. As the Abbott of Blackfriars, he staged several in Mandel Hall, including one adapted from Horatio Alger's Struggling Upward.
About seven years ago, Dorf decided to combine these two interests and write a musical on Yerkes' career in Chicago. His research led him to the University of Pennsylvania, where many of Dreiser's papers are deposited. As he read through the materials, Dorf found that much of what Dreiser had written in the Frank Cowperwood novels was firmly based in fact.
Dorf concedes that Yerkes routinely used bribery to obtain the franchises he desired. "As a lobbyist, I deplore his tactics," Dorf stresses. Yet he believes that Yerkes was more victim than victimizer, continually at the mercy of blackmailing politicians like "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin, aldermen who subscribed to the following principle, as they sing in Dorf's libretto:
Yerkes is not the only visionary in Dorf's musical. William Rainey Harper also makes several appearances, always with his hand held out for funds, and always at the most inopportune moments. Dorf calls him a "beloved, but comic" figure, one who sings not for his supper but instead:
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