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Geoffrey’s Behind-the-Scenes Journal for Chicago Mysteries | Chicago Mysteries with Geoffrey Baer

Geoffrey’s Behind-the-Scenes Journal for Chicago Mysteries

Geoffrey Baer and Monica Eng taking a selfie at Guaranteed Rate Field

Setting the Spooky Scene at The Mayslake Estate

Chicago Mysteries is unlike any show I’ve ever made so we wanted it to have an opening scene unlike any of my other shows. We wanted something mysterious – even a little spooky!

As luck would have it, while producer Sean Keenehan and I were kicking around ideas, folks from the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County invited me on a tour of their historic properties for a different project. And as part of the tour, I was shown the Mayslake Estate in west suburban Wheaton featuring a stately mansion built for coal baron Francis Stuyvesant Peabody between 1919 and 1921. Turns out Sean was familiar with the place!

Peabody only lived there one year before dying of a heart attack while fox hunting on the property. It was used as a Franciscan retreat center until the Forest Preserve District bought it in the 1990s. Could we employ a little TV magic to dress up the place as a creepy old mansion for me to explore in our show’s opening scene? The Forest Preserve folks generously granted us permission, and associate producer Matthew Shimmel handled the logistics to set us up for the shoot.

Oh, the possibilities! The mansion has a creaky old library, a looming front entry hall with a massive oil painting of Peabody staring down from the winding staircase and, best of all, a hidden stairway leading to Peabody’s saferoom in the basement.

On the day of our shoot, Sean and production assistant Sam Ruesink stocked the library shelves with all manner of mysterious props they had rented or scavenged, including huge, musty antique books, brass candelabras, a microscope, and a skull. We also snuck in a few Easter eggs referring to mysteries featured in the show: an an alligator head (for our Chance the Snapper story), a meat grinder (the Leutgert sausage factory murder), and a toy airplane (the O’Hare UFO sighting).

Director of photography Oral User, gaffer (that’s fancy film talk for the lighting person) Pat Lenehan, and sound recordist Martin Stebbing – all of whom usually work in documentary production – enthusiastically dove into the world of make-believe.

Sean Keenehan, Martin Stebbing, Oral User, and Geoffrey Baer filming at the Mayslake Estate
From left to right: Sean Keenehan, Martin Stebbing, Oral User, and Geoffrey Baer filming at the Mayslake Estate. Credit: Geoffrey Baer

For the first shot, we used a fog machine to make the library mysteriously misty, washed in dull blue light and pierced with a beam from my flashlight. On the dark shelves in the background, LED candles flickered convincingly. In the scene, I pull a book off the shelf and blow dust off it. We used a kind of stage dust called Trail Dust Powder that has the consistency of talcum powder and is disconcertingly brown. After about 10 takes, the floor was covered with it. We later tried to sweep it up, to no avail. Apologies to our hosts, who had to mop it up after we finished.

We filmed other scenes in the hidden stairway and entry hall. Our editor, Joe Winston, wove this raw material into a delightfully spooky sequence. Our composers, Jeff Meegan, David Tobin, and Cathleen Flynn created opening theme music worthy of Harry Potter (with just a touch of The Addams Family). One of my favorite parts was adding more sound effects at a recording studio called Mix Kitchen, including the stairs creaking under a closeup of my feet and the hidden door squeaking on the secret stairway – a special request I made!

Sean Keenehan, Oral User, and Geoffrey Baer on the tarmac at O’Hare. Sound recordist Clay Bowman’s head is peeking out behind Geoffrey.
Sean Keenehan, Oral User, and Geoffrey Baer on the tarmac at O’Hare. Sound recordist Clay Bowman’s head is peeking out behind Geoffrey. Credit: Oral User

Best of all, the very first shot in the show was a happy accident. We had wrapped up filming and were putting away our equipment. I opened the front door so our gaffer could retrieve a big TV light that was positioned outside to create a glow through the windows. As I did this, a dramatic shaft of light spilled across the floor of the entry hall and Sean and Oral immediately had a eureka moment! They put the camera back on the tripod and captured the fantastic silhouette shot of me entering the mansion. The perfect opening shot for our program. We are so grateful to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County for giving us the ideal setting to kick off an hour of Chicago Mysteries. Now that you know the drama behind the scenes, take a look at the finished product here.

On the Tarmac at O’Hare

I’m an aviation geek, so I’ll take any opportunity to film on the tarmac and airfield of one of our airports. The story of the UFO spotted by aviation professionals at O’Hare in 2006 offered just such a chance.

Of course, you can’t just walk out onto the airfield without an escort. An O’Hare driver transported us around the maze of taxiways and runways while in constant contact with ground control to prevent us from crossing paths with planes taxiing and taking off. But nothing beats standing at the end of a runway and seeing (and hearing!) huge jets pass just a few feet overhead as they come in for a landing.

Aboard an Electric Boat on Chicago River

Oral User, right, films Mark Chrisler and Geoffrey Baer on the Chicago River.
Oral User, right, films Mark Chrisler and Geoffrey Baer on the Chicago River. Credit: Geoffrey Baer

For our story of the “Foolkiller,” the sunken submarine salvaged from the bottom of the Chicago River in 1915, we decided to interview podcaster Mark Chrisler on the river aboard a tiny boat that we rented from the Chicago Electric Boat Company at Marina City. Because we had to fit our camera crew and producer on the boat, there was no room for a boat captain. So I drove the vessel myself while interviewing Mark, who spent ten years trying to solve the mystery of the Foolkiller. I’m an avid sailor but had never helmed a boat like this one.  The steering is surprisingly unresponsive, the speed is very limited, and the acceleration snail-like. All these restrictions are probably built in to maintain the safety of inexperienced mariners who rent these boats. But I must say, it was fun!

A Hot Dog with Ketchup and a Side of Breaking News

Geoffrey Baer and Monica Eng filming at Guaranteed Rate Field
Geoffrey Baer and Monica Eng filming at Guaranteed Rate Field. Credit: Geoffrey Baer

For our story about Chicago’s famous aversion to putting ketchup on hot dogs, we filmed at Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the White Sox. About an hour into filming there, everyone’s phones started lighting up. Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf had just fired longtime executive vice president Ken Williams, as well as senior vice president and general manager Rick Hahn! Suddenly, our escort from the press office was fielding call after call, while also trying to accommodate our filming. Kind of like filming an interview in a firehouse when suddenly there’s a four-alarm fire. On top of that, our interviewee Monica Eng, is a reporter for the Axios news service. She found herself at ground zero of the day’s biggest news story and had to split her attention between our interview and trying to get a scoop. Thankfully, the White Sox media folks and Monica managed to multi-task, and we got a great story unlocking the age-old ketchup vs. hot dog mystery.

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