The Monkey Hustle: When Hollywood came to Woodlawn

May 20, 2010

If you grew up on the South Side and are of a certain age,‚  it feels funny to drive down east 63rd Street between Stony Island and Cottage Grove in the Woodlawn neighborhood and see block after block of emptiness.

But here's a way to see what the Woodlawn community and 63rd once looked like: check out "The Monkey Hustle," a 1976 film starring Yaphet Kotto as a kind of Fagin teaching black kids how to run rinky-dink hustles and street scams as they talk jive and slap five. Debbi Morgan, Rosalind Cash, comic Rudy Ray Moore and Thomas Carter--now a successful director--help round out the cast.

"The Monkey Hustle" 'is a light post-"Uptown Saturday Night" comedy. When the movie's inaugural heist involves the swiping of a carton of Wanser's milk, you know Truffaut, this ain't. But it has some fun moments and the movie has a topical side plot involving characters protesting the Crosstown Expressway, a real Chicago project then.‚  And the opening credits feature some good aerial shots of the South Side, taking us from downtown, past the then-barren South Loop and further south to 63rd Street. The city has changed so much since 1976. Some screen grabs:

Joe the community organizer sets Tiny (played by Donn Harper) straight. The lattice work of the 63rd Street EL is visible overhead and The Woodlawn Organization headwaters is across the street. All demolished now. To the right is the exterior of the old LaSalle Street Station at LaSalle and Van Buren.‚  The station was demolished in the 1980s for‚  new building with a Metra Rock Island commuter station:

And here, Joe talks as a character looks out of the window onto the old South East Bank building at 63rd and Drexel. Both buildings are gone now.

In the movie's final scene Yaphet Kotto and Kirk Calloway (who was quite good as Marsha Mason's son in "Cinderella Liberty" three years earlier) apparently join forces downtown to chase down the people who convinced them to appear in this movie:

I kid, I kid.

And you're in luck. The entire movie is on Hulu, legally and for free. The aerial shot is at the 4:36 mark. The Wanser Milk scam filmed on 47th Street is at 6:25. And Rudy Ray Moore--dressed in a gold outfit that he could have worn on the dance floor at Faces back then--drives up and dismounts from a furiously pimped-out Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham at‚  58:30.