Several of my college years were spent in downtown Chicago, where a loose and easy class schedule allowed me much opportunity to wander the streets exploring the city and discovering some of its great hidden gems. One such place I happened upon was the Museum of Broadcast Communications, which at the time was housed in the Chicago Cultural Center and free of charge.
Since relocating back home in Peoria for good in the first part of the last decade, the museum moved to a much grander location on North State Street and a modest admission fee is now charged. Its current (and I’m pretty sure permanent) spot near The House of Blues opened in summer of 2012 after a long and arduous fundraising and building process, stifled of course by a bad economy. Their 62,000-square-foot home is an expansive pad that houses a considerable amount of space and displays over their previous digs at the Cultural Center on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street. A recent weekend trip back to the city allowed me to finally check out their new home.
The mission of the MBC is “to collect, preserve, and present historic and contemporary radio and television content as well as educate, inform, and entertain the public through its archives, public programs, screenings, exhibits, publications, and online access to its resources.” It's one of only three museums dedicated to broadcasting in the country, and it’s always a lot of fun to walk through.
After you pass the doors from Oprah’s show on the main level, you head up an escalator through a glass atrium and past this tower, a seventeen foot tall 1,200 pound sculpture illuminated by neon and comprised of old monitors and junk parts. The piece pays tribute to the history and evolution of media and entertainment, and is also super cool looking and fun to watch its various monitors that run video-clips 24 hours a day.
As you enter the third floor (housing the television section of the museum) your senses are assaulted by color and whimsy; puppets, costumes and props from nearly all of Chicagoland’s beloved and long gone children’s shows reside here, and it’s fascinating to see how once upon a time, old men in weird costumes, puppets, cartoons and pies in the face were the cornerstones of children’s entertainment. Among the shows represented in these displays are Cartoon Town, Gigglesnort Hotel, Elmer the Elephant, and many more.
Behold, the characters from Garfield Goose and Friends, a show that debuted in 1952 and had a long healthy run until 1976. “Gar” was created by the show’s host Frazier Thomas, and featured kiddie comedy, educational segments, and at Christmastime was the first WGN show to air the now classic “Hardrock, Coco, and Joe” cartoon (which you can buy on DVD in the MBC’s gift shop.)
It is interesting to see these puppets up close, designed and created in a time before Jim Henson had perfected puppet design techniques for television, and without shows like this paving the way, we probably wouldn’t have The Muppets.
Thomas and many of the other WGN personalities of the era spread themselves out over numerous shows; it was not uncommon for these guys to appear in the mornings on one show, at lunchtime on another, and still yet another in the afternoons or evenings, usually juggling numerous characters and personas.
Look...it’s Cuddley Dudley! Originally a promotional item for Chicago Tribune subscribers, he was a stuffed animal turned puppet by Roy Brown, a puppeteer and artist who built and performed practically every puppet to appear on Chicago television, save Kukla and Ollie. After his stint reading mail and cracking jokes on the Rayner show ended, Cuddley moved to a new gig, this one under the Big Top…
Yes! Bozo’s Circus (later renamed “The Bozo Show” and finally “The Bozo Super Sunday Show”) was the longest running and most successful local childrens show in television history, totaling more than 40 years in its various incarnations. As other kiddie shows folded, Bozo still reigned supreme, and their refugees often found a home at Bozo’s Circus, including Frazier Thomas (who hosted for a long stretch after Garfield Goose ended), Cuddley Dudley, and even Hardrock and pals during the holidays. Although numerous Bozo Shows appeared in different markets nationwide, Chicago’s was King of All Clowns.
I was quite possibly Bozo’s biggest fan living outside of Chicago, and continued to watch religiously until the show left the airwaves when I was 20. Here at the MBC you can see the costumes of both Bozos, as well as his many sidekicks, including Cooky, who was actually puppeteer Roy Brown (as a kid, I always wondered why Cooky and Cuddley Dudley never appeared together.)
Here we have the original Grand Prize Game buckets! Also on display here is Bozo’s “At-Home Player” drum, still full of postcards sent in by many now-grown hopefuls once eager to win vicariously through the lucky kids who got to actually play the Grand Prize Game. I bet if you dug through it, you’d find one one with my name in there somewhere...
It is still quite legendary just how difficult acquiring Bozo tickets was; the list was so notoriously long that parents, upon conception, would jump on the waiting list for tickets in hopes of making it before their unborn fetus left for college. Considered a once in a lifetime (if ever) opportunity, I was fortunate enough to defy those odds, and visit The Bozo Show not once but twice in my youth. My mom first won our family tickets during a WGN call-in contest on St. Patricks Day in 1990, and a letter soon arrived promising we would get to see Bozo live sometime in late ‘91 or early ‘92.
Bozo’s eventual move to a Sundays-only schedule bumped us down on the list all the way to finally going in October 1995. But by then, I had already been once, after my cousin won instant tickets on the radio in the winter of 1991. More photos of both experiences are floating around in my “archives” somewhere, but here’s a peek behind the scenes…
I didn’t get to play the Grand Prize Game, but after the Grand March, we were led back in the studio, where Bozo and pals met and greeted every single guest, and was my first brush with a true celebrity.
So yeah. I went. I saw. I got the pin. Twice!
Remember Wizzo? The mystical magician from the far away land of “Arobia” with the thick Chicago accent? And his “Stone of Zanzabar” and how he’d always threaten to “doo-dee in the box!" Wizzo was played by magician Marshall Brodein who made a mint on the side selling decks of “TV Magic Cards," which yes, you can also buy in the MBC’s gift shop!
We’ve hit upon the area devoted to Jack Brickhouse, legendary sportcaster and native Peorian (Manual graduate). Once I saw this display and the Peoria connection, it clicked that maybe I should be taking photos not just for fun, but for the blog!
The Brickhouse display is quite extensive, taking up a long wall that features a lot of info, articles, photos, and even a very “Anchorman”-esque polyester blazer! Very cool to check out if you’re a sports fan, which as you can probably tell by my abundant enthusiasm for clowns and puppets, I am clearly not.
So, moving on…
I wandered into a strangely secluded area that honored television commercials, and this guy jumped out of nowhere…or was it me that jumped when I turned the dark corner and unexpectedly saw him standing there?
It’s Vince (or is this Larry?), one-half of the Crash Test Dummy duo from the “Don’t Be A Dummy, Buckle Your Safety Belt” campaign. I loved these guys! Didn’t everyone? Turns out, he was just a guy in a suit.
We did not “Meet the Press” that day, but if we had, I’m pretty sure this would have been the place to do so…
So this is wild...the museum had a section devoted to the life of Gary Coleman!
The MBC is probably the only place you will ever find something like that! An extensive collection of “artifacts”-personal items, memorabilia, even the kid’s homework are all on display in this temporary exhibit. This is a cel from his short-lived Saturday morning cartoon in which he actually played an angel. Weird. RIP Gary.
So go ahead…say: “Whatchu talkin’ bout Willis?” to yourself. You know you want to. After you’ve had your fun, we will move down to the museum’s second floor…
MBC is home to America’s only national Radio Hall of Fame Gallery, which covers the second floor and is almost as compelling to walk through as the television portion of the museum.
I think I remember this display from the MBC’s old location, and just as I was wondering if I should open the door, a museum employee breezed past and whispered “try the closet”, so I did and…
Crash! It’s Fibber McGee’s Closet! Fibber McGee and Molly were of course radio legends and Peoria natives, and honored here with an abundant presence in the Radio Hall of Fame! Fibber and Molly managed to last on the radio all the way until 1959, long after television and other forms of media had dethroned radio as the dominant form of entertainment in America.
Under this glass case you can see more Fibber McGee memorabilia, and look! It’s Jack Benny too, who as I recall, had a much bigger presence at the museum’s old location-there, you could actually walk into his infamous “vault!”
Here he is! Preserved in glass, and not aged a day, it’s the Charlie McCarthy, along with Mortimer Snerd and Effie Klinker, two of Edgar Bergen’s other creations. I stared a bit too long, and I’m pretty sure one of them winked at me. Or maybe they all did. Creepy.
I distinctly recall an old Trivial Pursuit question that revealed Northwestern University (Bergen was an alum) once awarded Charlie McCarthy an Honorary Degree...and lo and behold, here is that actual degree, for being a “Master of Innuendo and Snappy Comebacks” no less.
I call this…The Wall of Boom! This museum just keeps getting cooler-a whole collection of outdated Ghetto Blasters! If Goodwill can’t sell it, put it in a museum.
The space devoted to radio hero Lone Ranger was surprisingly slim, but you can find what they have in this glass case, along with many radio giveaway prizes—rings, badges and even Little Orphan Annie Secret Society Decoder Pins! For some reason, that was always the part of “A Christmas Story” that fascinated me the most. I wanted one…
And speaking of Christmas, before heading down to the first floor, I thought another friendly reminder that Christmas is coming might be appropriate…
On your way out, the last display you pass is the small set from WGN’s “Family Classics” program, which aired (you guessed it) classic family friendly movies on Sunday afternoons, yet another show hosted originally by Frazier Thomas (note the Garfield Goose portrait! WGN was nothing if not synergic in those days.)
I only scratched the surface that day of what you can see here, and I strongly recommend checking out the Museum of Broadcast Communications next time you find yourself in the Windy City with a couple hours to kill. Whatever your age, you will feel like a kid again!