Sights, sounds and surreal Hugh ‘Red’ Argraves

Editor’s note: Hugh “Red” Argraves passed away June 23, 2010, at the age of 87. A Jan. 10, 1996, profile of Red, “Listening to ‘Mr. Movies,’ ‘Mr. Theater,’ ‘Mr. Downtown’” is available in the “Happening Now” section of

By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher

I first saw Red when I was 8 years old, when my brother Fred became the youngest union projectionist and got a job at the State Theatre. Red was the assistant manager, very tall and quiet; and yes, he had very red hair. He was very nice to me, although he did get mad a few times when I and my cousin Billy McCartney snuck out the side doors to hang out on the dock of the Jim Reevers and smoke our corncob pipes, filled with dried corn silk. Really. I remember John Wayne and Red’s eyes from those days.

Decades later, after I found him in unacceptable living conditions, Red lived with me for six years until he could no longer make the eight-block walk down to hold court at Parthenios. Everyone there took very  good care of him. The Morrissey family and the staff of their law office took over the challenge of Red’s last years with amazing dedication and kindness. The time and resources they expended are a testament to their natures.

I could go on and on about Red, who gave me so many of his paintings, and crayon works, mainly of the symbolist genre. Red’s voice had its own genre, raspy, soft, quick and slow. “It’s amazing what you can get done in 20 minutes a day, Frank, if you stick to it every day,” he’d say with a grin about my efforts at poetry. Red touted about living at my place, “In six years, we never had a cross word! Never!”

Rather than go on about memories, I’ll follow Red’s voice whispering in my head, “Print my poems, Frank. Print my poems.” So I will, after the obit Joe Morrissey wrote, a short bio and his handwritten notes from my files. Both Joe and I have very thick files on Red to match our Irish heads. He’d laugh at that, as he did when I said his poems were from the Dadaist tradition.


“Red” Hugh O. Argraves, 87, of Rockford died at 4:30 a.m., June 23, 2010, at Provena St. Anne Center. Born July 7, 1922, in Decatur, Ill., the only child of Wendell and Helen (Sax) Argraves; each an only child. Red spent two-and-a-half years working in Hollywood as an extra on various movies, including Casablanca, Music for Millions and Salty O’Rourke. Red was a World War II combat Army veteran and served in the military police at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. He returned to Rockford after the war and began working as a manager at various theaters in Rockford. He was the manager of the Coronado at the time of its closing. Red authored numerous plays and poems, several of which were published. Enjoyed painting. Predeceased by his parents. No known heirs. The Joe and Josephine Morrissey family and other close friends would like to thank the staff at Rockford Supportive Living, St. Anne Center and Hospice for their devoted care of Red. A special thank you to Susie Klink, who cared for Red’s cat.

Celebration of Red’s life starting at 10 a.m., Friday, July 2, at Morrissey Law Offices, 127 N. Wyman St. Graveside service at 2 p.m. in Brooklyn Cemetery in Compton, Ill. Arrangements by Torman Funeral Home in Paw Paw, Ill. Cremation rites accorded.

“Spotlight on…Hugh ‘Red’ Argraves”
From RELI Stagebill, April 1997

“Red” Argraves is as familiar to RELI show-goers as the twinkling stars and clouds moving over the ceiling of the Coronado Theatre. In his role as head usher for the Coronado, Red has seen countless performers and performances on stage, but what is not generally known about Red are his accomplishments in the arts.

Recently, Red was honored as the Rockford Art Museum’s 1997 Jessica Holt Purchase Award winner for his oil painting “Cubist City,” which will become part of the museum’s permanent collection.

For a man whose history includes serving in Patton’s 3rd Army in World War II and playing an extra in the classic Humphrey Bogart film Casablanca, Red says having a work in the permanent collection is very touching for him. He said: “This is wonderful. My mother would be so pleased because she is the one who encouraged me in art and used to bring me to the Burpee Art Museum (now the Rockford Art Museum).”

For over 57 years, Red has painted oil and watercolor works. His formal training is limited to two art classes he took at Beloit College in the 1940s at the age of 17. “I used to read (about Modern Art) at the library,” he explains. “I especially like the photos of works by George Grosz, Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso.”

Matt Herbig, Curator of Collections for the art museum, learned about Red through Skuggi Gallery, which is planning a 40-year retrospective of Red’s work in May. The show will feature some of the 300 never-before-seen watercolors, plus samples of his poetry, plays and short stories. Organizers also hope to bring his play The Great Depression to life for the event.

RELI is extremely proud of Red and most appreciative of his unfailing support and care for all our efforts in bringing events to the beautiful Coronado Theatre for all of the Rockford-area residents to enjoy. We warmly congratulate him and wish him our very best for many more years of continuing success. Our hats are off to you, Red! Bravissimo!

Red’s poems

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following poems were Red’s greatest publishing achievement, appearing in the most progressive journal of its day, the New Directions, Number Seven, 1942 edition. Other contributors appearing in that volume were William Carlos Williams and Franz Kafka, among others. The issue was dedicated “In Memoriam, Ford Maddox Ford, 1875-1939.”

Hugh Argraves
terrible tender yellow dotted toothless jaws
clicking upon the object–coney island, u s a

Honky-Tonk Tangle of Tatters
a blaring hairy tuba
constantly containing
golden ivory tipped tangled
weaving whining
tight yellow splashing spangles

Government Camp in a Red Veined Eye
five faceless hollow heads endlessly
prompted by endless grey tongue
upon the bare beach

Steel Subway Leading Leadenly
white whirling pipes revolving
around the
white vessels of the
nerve casings of a
subway poster of
a varying venus
red ruined palace constantly containing
1 wheel, 1 whale, 1 blind man
belonging endlessly ever to coney island
u s a

Broadway Bums with
Antique Bellows

electric light bashed bulb
singing strange
of brown bellowing
blowing upon
the monumental memories of
an idiot

Fun House in Infinity
a clown’s dreary dream
within a box
then bursting exploding
in luna park
lulu without head

Machine Mechanical Horses
With One Eye

colorless cogs of many manless arms
jerking jumpily towards
the endless cycle involving two million
of the varied
colored eye red blue yellow
maroon mammoth red eye staring stone
into infinity of the complex problem of
coney island u s a

Wooden Broken Egg Upon
Hallow Highway 66

dry dreary holy ducts moving
motionless upon
yelping steel yolk
the pulse pistons

Bird’s Nest in Twining Twigs
of Chicago Time

a red white blue pink eagle with
ten lizard legs
scratching screaming
at gruesome gallows
hanging the
abstract mind of al capone

Jealous Junked Jalopy
of Banjo Hillbillies

a wheel rolling roundly in the
cycle of time to
the plunking
constant pounding
bright white banjo
america u s a

Hugh Oliver Argraves and 58 Years with Surrealism (his personal notes)

1. 1940—wrote a “surreal” novel—rather large—rejected by New Directions publishers—combining Alice in Wonderland and the Depression of 1930s—now lost.

2. 1942—New Directions published my “Nine Surreal Poems” (same volume contained work by Ezra Pound and T. S. Elliot).

3. Small, usually “surreal” poems published in small literary mag. And poetry magazines (1941-1998).

4. 1950s—I published small books (of surreal poems) which are in libraries in U.S.A.

5. (1950-1998) My biography books concerning mostly “surreal” work in biographical books—Who’s Who in the Midwest, Illinois Lives, American Artists, etc. International biographies—Literature of Arts, also art and literary books.

6. One-man show at Burpee Art Gallery in Rockford, Illinois. 2 or 3 surreal works (1965–?)

7. Art shows in 3 New York City art galleries (mostly surreal work)

8. Wrote short stories in Compton, Illinois. 2 (1950s) surreal short stories.

9. Wrote 5 large plays (surreal in nature) called The Great Depression, Cabaret, Greenwich Village—The Twenties, The Freak House—none produced. But The Great Depression is on tape for TV of me reading The Great Depression and some small unfinished plays. The Last Train From Berlin, King Lear After Shakespeare—The Skeleton Play and The London Blitz.

10. Given the Jessica Holt Award in 1997.

11. 1997—Given retrospective of 40 years of my paintings at the Skuggi Art Gallery, Rockford, Ill.

12. In 1998, in Rockford Art Museum—2 shows. One which I have one painting in a show of paintings of the permanent collection and another of surreal painting of Outsider Artists.

13. In the future—all of these are slightly “surrealistic”—group of “surreal” poems about Rockford, Illinois—poems based on my play The Great Depression and some surreal poems on other subjects and some crayon drawings based upon drawings of Sir John Tenniel’s drawings of Alice in Wonderland, and finally I am working on a huge play encompassing 8 plays called The Skeleton Play—58 Years Surrealism.

Hugh Argraves

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a series, stamped: “ROCKFORD PUBLIC LIBRARY.” Handwritten: “R – 811 A691”

Poems by Hugh Oliver Argraves
Copy of an Original Manuscript by Hugh Oliver Argraves, American Poet, Listed in Who’s Who in the Midwest, with Original Literary Papers in the Illinois State Historical Library

The German Musician 1930
The thin musician puffs on the
thin winding horn,
And underneath the pressed tuxedo the
white shirt is torn,
but patched.
Try to keep the mind on the notes,
As the belly bloats,
from hunger.
Poorly paid,
Music staid,
with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Worrying about the family in the cold flat.
As he sat,
Upon the stage, upon the chair,
With a hollow-eyed stare,
And played with a clash and a bang
for culture and the Berlin

Antwerp Belgium 1945
The whirling waltz is over and done by a
misty smokey light.
The ghosts of steel gray have retreated into
the distance of history.
This a gay bitter sweet time.
Spring blossoms on Skipper Street and the
white faced people,
A one legged soldier limps,
Down a deserted street on a rainy
A sound very light,
Of a continental tango
drifts as a mist,
As the soldier’s fist
grips the crutch of
wood and steel.
The leaves on the trees are green.

Time Passeth
Summer turns to winter,
And spring turns to fall.
All turn to dust, all.
The child ends in the grave amid the dark,
Ancient in body, hearing not the lark
of youth.
The bone doth splinter,
And the flesh turn to must.
Burial clothes doth turn to rags,
in the flat coffin booth.
But the spirit arises forever
And shines when the sun has burned
to shine, never again.
And to shout the praises of God,
when the earth’s-sod
has disappeared forever.

XL. God Returns to Heaven With Man and Satan is Reformed and Purified
Amid the singing of the angels God returns in
stately glory to Paradise and enters
Heaven once again as man walks in, in
God casts down his mighty hand and with a
roar destroys the inferno and its
Environs and bids SATAN and his
band to enter heaven once
With a cry of anguish Satan is reformed
and all his band repent.
Their wings of black slowly turn to
pure white.
And GOD has purified Satan and all his band.

Captured by the Germans
The cannons boomed.
The skeletons in stately dress loomed,
large in the night clubs,
And Hitler danced in Napoleon’s tomb.
The nite club singer was tried for treason,
the reason
he would not sing for the
German race.
Treason to the skeleton crowd,
And the loud babble of the
The French singer was flung into
an old railroad car,
which started with the jar
of reality.

Editor’s note: Talk to you later, Red. Red says, with a grin, “Thank you, so much, to all of my friends.”

By the way, when you lived at my house, Red, I was always mystyfied as to how all the mice kept on living with all the traps I set. I wouldn’t let cats in the house because I am allergic to them. However, I really wish you hadn’t fed the mice in your room. They were really hard to get rid of after you left, and I hope you’re having a good time now feeding the cats and mice, grinning.

From the June 30-July 6, 2010, issue

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