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Harold Ramis' Chicago Childhood was Basis for Lost Sitcom

By DNAinfo Staff | February 24, 2014 12:34pm | Updated on February 24, 2014 1:16pm
 Harold Ramis in his high school yearbook and in 2009.
Harold Ramis in his high school yearbook and in 2009.
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Yearbook and Kevin Winter/Getty Images

ROGERS PARK — If someone had taken an interest at NBC, Chicago might have been famous as the location for "Mr. Ace," a sitcom Harold Ramis modeled on a store his mother and father operated on the West Side.

Ramis, an accomplished actor and director who died Monday at 69, spent much of youth in Rogers Park and was a graduate of Senn High school. But his earliest years were spent living near 13th Street and Keeler Avenue, and 14th Street and Kostner Avenue.

His uncle and parents, Nathan and Ruth, were partners in a grocery store at Lake Street and Hoyne Avenue called Ace Food and Liquor. Ramis was a delivery boy.

"I wrote a TV pilot about the store," Ramis told Dave Hoekstra of the Sun-Times in 1999. The store was in a black neighborhood "and there was a cool black butcher named Albert."

Since the store was called "Ace," Ramis said, "everybody called my father 'Mr. Ace.'" Set in the Eisenhower-era 1950s, the show was called "Mr. Ace."

Ramis' father was a real character, his son said. "Mr. Ace" loved to bet on sports events  "a buck on every single pro football, baseball and basketball game every day." The father, who died in 2009, was "the most charming, funniest person anyone knew," Ramis said at the time of his father's death.

The show Ramis had in mind "dealt with race relations like we don't see them today," Ramis told Hoekstra.

"There was period music, just the beginning of of everything that exploded in the 1960s. NBC paid for it but never got it on the air," Ramis said.

In a Tribune essay in 1994, Ramis said he felt secure on the West Side but his family joined "a great white flight" to Rogers Park, which he described as "rather unfortunate."

"I didn't perceive the integration of our West Side neighborhood as threatening," he said. The customers at Ace Food and Liquor "were all black and so were the employees."

"I had a secure feeling about race relations that apparently was not shared by others," Ramis said.

The store relocated to Rogers Park, and the family sold it in the 1960s.

Ramis, who also attended Hayt Elementary, 1518 W. Granville Ave., said it was "that three-story-apartment life that I totally associate with growing up and with Chicago."

"That's how I thought everybody lived. Only on television and in storybooks did people live in houses," Ramis wrote in the essay. "Every Christmas we'd drive to Sauganash to see the lights on the houses — that was how other people lived. It was not that we were poor; it's just that we were urban."

Long before he was on the big screen, a teenage Ramis got a taste of the spotlight as a Senn High School student, Class of 1962, where, according to Chicago magazine, he was known as Hershey, the Yiddish translation of Harold.

Ramis called being a member of the school's choir "a big formative experience for me." The choir served as extras at the Lyric opera, which allowed him to share "the most incredible stage I'd ever been on" with some of the greatest singers in the world.

"It made me feel, suddenly, that things were possible that had never seemed possible before," said Ramis, who wrote in his yearbook that he wanted to become a surgeon.

At Senn, 5900 N. Glenwood Ave., Ramis was co-editor of the yearbook and a member of the team's fencing squad. He was described by a Senn classmate in Chicago magazine as "a nice nerd."

Later, Ramis enjoyed the clubs in Old Town and joined Second City.

"The city gave me my education, and it's still giving me a lot," he wrote in the Trib essay.

Ramis went back to Senn years later and served as Principal for a Day in 2003. Senn principal Susan A. Lofton said Monday that the school would have a "tribute night," perhaps next week. The plan is to show a Ramis movie — "Groundhog Day was his fave," she wrote in an email of the 1983 comedy he directed and co-wrote.

Ramis' work included co-starring in "Ghostbusters," directing "Caddyshack," and helping write "Animal House."