Yes, Woodstock has its groundhog, but it also has its Gould.
The city has declared Feb. 22 Chester Gould Day in honor of a documentary airing on WTTW-Channel 11 that day about the late Chester Gould, who originated the world-renowned Dick Tracy comic strip.
The strip features a square-jawed police detective portrayed both on paper and in several films, including 1990’s “Dick Tracy” starring Warren Beatty.
Born in Pawnee, Oklahoma, Gould and his family moved to Woodstock in 1936 and settled on a farm east of town in what is now Bull Valley. Gould lived in town for 50 years until his death at age 84 in 1985 and is buried in Woodstock’s Oakland Cemetery, his gravestone etched with a likeness of Dick Tracy.
Inspired by Gould’s accomplishments, Woodstock resident Tom Firak and his sons Steve and John began working on a documentary about him in 2007. That documentary has become “Chester Gould: An American Original.”
The show will air at 3 p.m. Feb. 22 on Channel 11 and is expected to air several times after that. Featuring interviews with Gould’s family, including daughter Jean O’Connell, writers who took over the strip when Gould retired in 1977 and others, the 56-minute documentary is a biographical representation of Gould.
“I’ve been a fan of Dick Tracy since I read comics in the newspaper,” said Steve Firak, who, along with his brother, was a film student at Columbia College in Chicago when the project began. He now owns Ahoj Productions.
“There was something about Dick Tracy that attracted me. My parents and grandparents could relate, too. It was kind of a bonding thing. ... I’ve been a Woodstockian for years. I know Groundhog Days is a big thing around here, but Dick Tracy is a huge piece of history for this city and also for American culture, Americana.”
First distributed in 1931 by the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate, the strip appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News for 45 years. It’s the sixth oldest comic strip in America today.
Housed in Woodstock’s historic Old Courthouse for more than 17 years beginning in 1991, a Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum now exists solely online at www.dictracymuseum.com. A room of original artwork, photography and memorabilia, including Gould’s drawing board and chair, it drew thousands of visitors from throughout the country before it closed.
Gould actually created the concept of Crime Stoppers in his strip, which led to the Crime Stoppers Club for Woodstock boys in the 1950s. Years later, a police officer in New Mexico received Gould’s permission to use the term “CrimeStoppers” for a citizen-run law enforcement program that soon spread throughout the country.
Written today by Joe Staton and Mike Curtis, the Dick Tracy strip lives on, owned by Tribune Media Services.
“It’s not like it’s forgotten about completely,” Steve Firak said. “The man behind it is what’s important. This is our endeavor to have people know about the struggles it took and how hard of a worker he was and what a family man he was.”
The documentary tells of Gould’s move to Chicago in 1921 with a portfolio and $50 in his pocket.
For 10 years, he sent strip suggestions to the Chicago Tribune. All were rejected until Dick Tracy, originally called “Plain Clothes Tracy.” Gould received a note back saying, “Your ‘Plain Clothes Tracy’ has possibilities,” the comic strip creator recalled in an interview taped before his death and featured in the documentary.
“I broke out in a cold sweat. I got the chills,” he said at the time. “I just went all to pieces.”
Steve Firak said the documentary is the beginning of efforts to create more of a perspective piece on the impact Gould’s creation had on the world of comic strips.
“This one is really more about his life and how he might have been influenced by artists before him and really about his family and how things developed,” he said. “We’re actually going to try for fundraising for what I would call an artistic perspective version of Chester Gould and Dick Tracy.”
The goal is to create a feature-length film about Dick Tracy’s place in culture, he said, adding they intend to use fundraising site Indiegogo.com for the future project.
As for Woodstock’s role, it’s just another piece of history for the city to celebrate.
“We’re having a lot of fun with the strip, and I think Chester would be very pleased,” said Terry Wilcockson, grant writer for the city of Woodstock.By JAMI KUNZER firstname.lastname@example.org