Mike Nichols passed away on Thursday at the age of 83. I grew up listening to recording of him and Elaine May on radio station WFMT in Chicago, during their weekly Midnight Special program on Saturday nights. Though a premiere classical music station, that one night a week they devoted three hours to "Folk music and farce. Showtunes and Satire. Madness and escape." I suspect that many people first were introduced to Nichols and May on such a program, but it was particularly appropriate to make the connection on that program, specifically,
That's because as a young man, Mike Nichols was a radio host on WFMT. Actually, no, that's not exactly right. The reason it was so appropriate hearing Nichols and May for the first time and repeatedly on WFMT's Midnight Special is because years early, in 1953, Mike Nichols created the program, The Midnight Special.
That's Nichols with Rita Jacobs, who owned the station with her husband Bernie.
Here's what The Midnight Special's website has to say about it's history --
Bernie and Rita Jacobs began what could be claimed as the first alternative radio station in America. In the conservative 1950s, at the height of the Joseph McCarthy hysteria, WFMT played not only classical music, but political discussion, theater, and folk music. Mike Nichols and Norm Pellegrini formed the nucleus of station personnel.
It wasn't just the classic Nichols and May sketches that the station regularly played on The Midnight Special, comedy classics that so many fans now know. But when he worked at the station, Nichols had free access to the studios and recording equipment, so periodically he would bring his friend Elaine May in, and they'd record sketches that they were working on. And so WFMT had this treasure trove of hidden early gems that they would occasionally bring out and play.
(Nichols and May originally teamed up with a group called The Compass Players, that largely got its start at the University of Chicago. This eventually morphed into Second City.)
Side Note: Watching an NBA game tonight on TNT, I learned something I had never known. If you watch ESPN, you know of one their reporters, Rachel Nichols. It turns out that she was Mike Nichols' daughter-in-law.)
I should note, as well, that The Midnight Special that Mike Nichols created is still going strong on WFMT, 61 years later. That is quite a remarkable long run. The host is now Rich Warren, and in addition to the regular "madness and escape" they often have live folk acts in-studio. If you're interested in such things, or simply what to hear What Mike Hath Wrought, it's syndicated around the country, though in a slighted edited-down form, I believe. Here's a list of local station that carry it. You can likely listen to most of them online -- or just listen the the show online from its home here at WFMT, broadcast Saturday nights from 9 PM to midnight, Chicago time. Adjust your clocks accordingly..
While most of the tributes to Mike Nichols have understandably been about his multi-award-winning direction on Broadway and in the movies, touching on his comedy career before all that with Elaine May, it's his comedy with her that I always think of first. There are so many great Nichols and May sketches to choose from, so I can only dip my hand in and pick one here, for the moment. Here's one of their many Mother and Son sketches.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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