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Searching for signs of John Belushi in his hometown

Belushi was the first in what would be a very long lineage of Chicagoans to join the cast of "SNL"

The first time I visited Chicago, about 25 years ago, I asked the clerk at the front desk of my hotel if he would point me in the direction of the John Belushi statue, the John Belushi memorial, the John Belushi honorary whatever. Because I had always assumed there was one. Alongside "Star Wars," K-tel records and Steve Martin, this Albanian-American from Wheaton played such an outsized role in so many '70s childhoods, there had to be something. Those dancing eyebrows, that coiled Tasmanian Devil caricature of a presence, that cheerfully rampaging personality behind a sweet smile — Belushi was the unshackled id of the Carter administration, the rebel you wanted to be before you knew any better. My friend Todd Sharon and I danced as Blues Brothers at our high school talent show. And to this day, along with my first phone number, I can recite Belushi's very first line on the first episode of "Saturday Night Live" from 40 years ago:

"I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines."

Belushi, born in Humboldt Park and mostly raised in the western suburbs, was the first in what would be a very long lineage of Chicagoans to join the cast of "SNL" — though for decades, and to many fans of that show, he was "SNL." Or rather, he became its tragic mascot: dangerous, committed, not at all respectable.

The hotel clerk told me he didn't know of a statue (Belushi's drug overdose at 33 was still an often-cited cautionary tale back then, so the question was probably mystifying), but maybe over at The Second City?

The Second City, though, never an organization to lionize one of its famous alums over any other, had only a painting of Belushi on a mural that included the images of other Second City stars. I was told there to check out the Billy Goat Tavern near the Tribune. Belushi's fabled "cheezbooger, cheezbooger" imitation of its Greek cooks had immortalized the place as a tourist attraction, and, indeed, I was pleasantly surprised by how nicely the Billy Goat doubled as a kind of theater — certainly, it reminded me of Belushi.

Still, no fries, no Coke, no statues.

Many years later, there are no Belushi memorials or honorary whatevers in Chicago, not really. Until recently a duo of creepy, vaguely replicant-looking fiberglass Blues Brothers would greet travelers in the A concourse of Midway International Airport; one pair was dancing, one pair ogling. Every time I drive by Celebrity Salon in Evanston I notice a different set of dancing Blues Brothers figures in the window. And at Calumet Fisheries on East 95th Street, the smoked fish emporium beside the bridge that the Blues Brothers leaped in their eponymous film, there is a shrine, albeit more to the movie than the legacy of John Belushi.

On Martha's Vineyard, off Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where Belushi had a home, there are two gravesites, a small stone that reads "Belushi" (where he is said to be buried) and a newer, less solemn stone with a questionable epitaph: "I may be gone but rock and roll lives on." The last time I visited, this second stone, a kind of tourist decoy, was complemented by whiskey bottles, dark sunglasses and an "Animal House" photo with an illegible thank-you note. At the Elmwood Cemetery in River Grove, where Belushi's parents are buried, the scene is far classier, an honorary tombstone to their son that reads "He Made Us Laugh."

But that's it for granite and gravitas.

So, the other day, on a whim, I drove to Wheaton, certain I overlooked something in Belushi's name. And I had: The McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage recently rededicated its 800-seat centerpiece stage as the Belushi Performance Hall. However, Diana Martinez, director of the center (and former president of Second City), explained it was actually named for Jim and John Belushi, considering that Jim (both he and John are alumni) raised more than $330,000 for the college's John Belushi Scholarship Fund. It's a pretty, tasteful space; the building recently received $23 million in renovations and its old noisy, clamorous heating system was replaced, Martinez said. But frankly, a noisy, clamorous heating system would have been apt.

From there I drove to Wheaton Warrenville South High School. Belushi graduated from Wheaton Central, but a Mariano's sits where Wheaton Central once stood. So Belushi gets a modest tribute in the lobby of Wheaton Warrenville: in a glass case, a "Blues Brothers" CD, a picture of Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and a photo of Belushi as the Wheaton Central homecoming king (Class of '67). Curiously, in an adjoining case, a similar tribute to Wheaton alum Bob Woodward includes a copy of "Wired," the journalist's often reviled Belushi biography. But then, as if answering this, a nearby stairwell mural of Belushi has the comedian grinning down, sharing space with football legend Red Grange and astronomer Edwin Hubble (both alums).

Not bad for a public school.

But not especially public.

On Elm Street in Wheaton there's no historical marker at the home where the Belushi brothers spent their formative years. At Lincoln Elementary School, a short bike-ride away, there's only a picture of one former famous student — Jim. And as if that's not bad enough, there's a video store not far from the old Belushi homestead, and when I stopped in and asked if they had any John Belushi movies for rental, the clerk — stabbing me in the heart — asked, "Do you know what films he was in?"

Depressed, I gravitated across the street to the Seven Dwarfs Family Restaurant, slumped into a booth and ordered. Seven Dwarfs was founded in the late 1950s, and it has the ancient, intermittently-working neon sign of a neighborhood institution. Grasping at straws, I asked the waitress if John Belushi ever ate here. "Oh!" she said, surprised. "He worked here. Jim too." She ran to grab the owner. Sam Sadiku materialized and sat across from me, beaming a very familiar-looking mischievous grin. He told me John washed dishes here (but before Sadiku bought the restaurant in 1979). He told me Mama Belushi worked nearby and often came in for lunch. I said I am still surprised, naively perhaps, that Illinois hasn't done more to honor John Belushi.

"My friend," he said, still grinning, "I agree 100 percent! Jim, though, he did come in a few months ago."

Really, I said.

"Yes! You think I am lying! This guy thinks I am lying! Why would I lie about that? As for John — do you see that picture?" He pointed behind the cash register, to an old photograph of John at Seven Dwarfs.

"Is that not John?"

That is, I said.

"Right, that's John! Our tribute! But to be honest, you're right, John deserved more than we have given him around here." Sadiku, Albanian himself, had thinning hair slicked back in a wave and a wide, animated face.

You look like John, I said.

"Get the hell out of here! I know I do! People have said that!" The door opened and two elderly women came in. He turned and jumped up and said, too boisterous, "Ladies, ladies, it is so nice to see you again, ladies!"

He's not granite, but as memorials go, we could do worse.

cborrelli@tribpub.com

Twitter @borrelli

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