A moment of personal privilege. I listen to at least part of about 150 Chicago Cubs baseball games a year. In part because I love the team, but also in part (even when the team is deeply far out of contention) because I love their radio play-by-play announcer Pat Hughes. In fact, when I watch games with my MLB.TV account I use their "overlay" feature so that I can synchronize the TV video with the radio audio, just to hear Pat Hughes instead. It's not that I don't like the TV announcers -- they're good -- I just love Pat Hughes. The team has had some legendary announcers in the Baseball Hall of Fame -- notably Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray -- and Pat Hughes fits in with them, calling the team's games now for over a quarter of a century.
So, it was a joy to read today that Pat Hughes was named the Ford C. Frick Award winner by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and will be entering the Hall of Fame in July.
As the Hall of Fame announced -- “Known throughout the Midwest for his easy delivery and unparalleled knowledge, Pat Hughes has called some of the biggest moments in Cubs history and has provided the narrative for one of the most successful eras in the history of the franchise. Since arriving at Wrigley Field in 1996, Pat has served as the radio voice for nine postseason teams – matching an ardent fan base with his own passion in every broadcast. His reverence for baseball history and gift for storytelling have made him one of the game’s broadcast treasures.”
I love the charm and humor of his announcing, but also the profound decency he shows on air, dealing with his radio partners, guests and audience.
Upon hearing the news, I immediately put on WSCR (which carries the Cubs games on radio) and caught the end of their live interview with him. His last comment was pure Pat – saying that "Talking about this seems like I'm talking about another person."
I'll leave it at that and just embed a brief congratulation video the Cubs put together in his honor, with some of his great moments -- ending with his most memorable: calling the last out in 2016 when the team won their first World Series in 108 years.
As a bonus, this is a lovely moment from last year. That's when Cubs President of Business Operations came to the radio booth to announce the two player who had been voted into the Cubs Hall of Fame -- and then finally surprising a totally unsuspecting Pat Hughes that he too had been selected. Marquee Sports split the screen so you could watch his reaction and almost tongued-tied comments while watching the play-by-play.
Oh, okay, one more bonus. Here's Pat Hughes' full radio call from 2016 of the final pitch when the Cubs won their first World Series in 2018, synched together with the TV video.
This is the Halloween broadcast of Kukla, Fran & Ollie I mentioned the other day that aired 73 years ago tonight, on October 31, 1949.
It follows up on the episode a few nights earlier, when Beulah Witch was preparing for her fellow alums and teachers from Witch Normal college coming to town for a Halloween convention – but a small crisis comes up that she has to avert. As things develop, the other Kuklapolitans excitedly prepare for trick-or-treating, and sing a bunch of songs along the way – my favorite being Beulah Witch’s rendition of “That Old Black Magic.”
The episode also shows off Burr Tillstrom’s artistry well – though it’s subtle because he does it with such ease.
The first is the opening of the show when music director Jack Fascianato plays the KF&O theme “Here We Are Again,” and he’s joined by two Kuklapolitans accompanying him on toy pianos. It’s amusing and generally just plunking on the keys, except if you listen closely he actually is getting some of the theme music correct. (And made all the better because one of the two is my fave, the lunatic Cecil Bill.) And the other comes later in the episode when Kukla, Fran and Ollie sing a trio – with Tillstrom going back and forth with the two voices. As I said, it’s comes across with such natural ease, but it’s no small trick singing a duet with yourself.
By the way, I noticed a bit of information posted with this video. Over 700 episodes of the show were transferred to digital thanks to funding from the Burr Tillstrom Copyright Trust and fans of the show – as well as, most interestingly, the Jane Henson Foundation. As I’ve written in the past, Jim Henson always said that Burr Tillstrom and Kukla, Fran and Ollie were one of his big inspirations to get into puppetry and ultimately create The Muppets. And his wife’s helping to fund this clearly supports that. Special thanks were given, as well, to the Chicago History Museum for its invaluable help in the process.
And now – trick or treat!
A couple of weeks ago, my bank switched ownership, so I went in to do some paperwork. As I waited, the guy behind me started chatting. It was perfectly normal – I wasn’t particularly interested in chatting, especially since he was a little rude to the staff, complaining about the wait (it was longer than I preferred, but at that point when he arrived it was just the two of us in line!) and a bit of a know it all, but fine, whatever. He was older than me, so he wasn’t a Spring chicken and pretty set him his opinions, some of which were responsible, some more of the role your eyes variety. And it turned out that he was originally from Chicago, so I figured we at least had that as a topic of conversation.
I should jump ahead here somewhat. That’s when I later heard him make some derogatory comment about Dr. Anthony Fauci. I wasn’t sure I could have possibly heard him right (especially since is West Los Angeles, where my Congress rep, Karen Bass (who is now running for mayor won her previous race with 89% of the vote. And I’ve since been redistricted, and my new rep is the even more liberal Ted Lieu), so I listened more closely, and he made an even worse comment about Dr. Fauci, basically that he should be in jail.
I had zero interest in getting into a political debate standing in my bank line – let alone one that was insane – but I didn’t want to let it pass as if it was accepted. So, I said that I didn’t remotely agree with him and couldn’t believe he actually felt that way, but I had no intention of debating it.
Him: I can’t believe you feel that way.
Me: (thinking, “Gee, what a great comeback that was.”) I’m not going to debate it. We just disagree.
Him: He’s the reason we’re in this mess. Everything he’s said has been wrong.
Me: That’s not true at all. But I’m not going to debate it.
Him: I hate that Fauci. I call him ‘Dr. False-y.” He should be arrested.
Me: I am not going to debate it.
Eventually he got the hint. He stopped, and happily it was my turn to go to a teller.
It was also a conversation that, given how our earlier exchange (which I haven’t told yet) had utterly bewildered me, I thought now -- ah, ha, got it! -- in retrospect, was made oh-so much more clear.
So, okay, back to earlier, when we were having our more normal conversation, which I preferred not to have, but okay, so be it.
As I said, he had grown up in Chicago, and when I mentioned that I had, too, he asked which of the two baseball teams I followed.
I starred at him for a moment and thought to myself, “Wait, what?, are you serious??” I tried not to let my reaction give that away, but I have no poker face, so I’m sure the silence was unexpected, as was my scrunched-up expression. And yes, I know you’re probably thinking that he and I were total strangers, so it was a normal question, and there’s nothing wrong with asking it, that I was being unreasonable to think he should somehow magically know my favorite team.
But no, I wasn’t. Because this is how I was dressed.
So, I starred at him a moment longer, trying to figure out how on earth I was supposed to answer him. And finally, I didn’t say anything, but just held up my right index finger and very slowly moved it up to my hat…and pointed. And left my finger pointing.
It took a moment to kick in, but after a few seconds, he finally realized that, oh, right, you’re wearing a Cubs cap, and said, “Ohhhh, right.”
That exchange did two things. First, it got me to move off chatting with him more than was necessary. And second, when he started his rant about “Dr. False-y” and arresting him and putting him in jail and how he was wrong about everything, it put all that in proper perspective for his grasp of reality and the world around him staring him directly in the face, which he wilfully ignored.
Sometimes, life delivers perfect metaphors.
As readers of these pages know, I’m a huge fan of Burr Tillstrom and his show Kukla, Fran & Ollie. One of my great treats was being back home when the Chicago History Museum put together a tremendous exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the television show, which had been produced in Chicago.
As it happens, this is the TV show’s 75th anniversary, and the museum has put together another exhibit in its honor. Alas, I’m not there for it this time and have no pandemic travel plans yet…
Kukla, Fran & Ollie was a phenomenon in its day – and beyond. It first went on the air in 1947 in Chicago, and then later was one of the first TV shows to be national. And the first public show to be in color. When it first went on, this was at a time when few people had TVs, and the program was one of the reasons a lot of families bought a set – for a children’s puppet show, albeit one that was done almost as much for adults. It’s was initially a half-hour every day, later was on for one hour every Sunday, and 15-minutes daily. And it was almost entirely ad-libbed. Burr Tillstrom would have a general outline he’d discuss with Fran Allison, but that was it. The only thing they rehearsed were the songs.
How much a phenomenon was it? At its peak, the Kuklapolitan characters got 15,000 letters a day. Among its biggest fans were Helen Hayes, John Steinbeck, Orson Welles and James Thurber, who wrote that Tillstrom was “helping to save the sanity of the nation and to improve, if not even to invent, the quality of television.”
In fact, a young Stephen Sondheim early in his career was such a fan that he wrote a song for the show. (If you want to hear it, I posted a recording of the song here from when Tillstrom, Kukla and Ollie actually appeared on Broadway in the musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim.) And as a young kid, Jim Henson was inspired by the show, got into puppetry and eventually developed the Muppets.
The TV show was on the air for 10 years, but even after it went off the air in 1957, it stayed around, and in 1970, Kukla, Fran & Ollie went back on television as a regular weekly series on PBS. And they still kept appearing on television and stage after that. In fact, with Tillstrom performing the socialite diva puppet Madame Ooglepuss, "she" actually won the Jefferson Award -- Chicago's version of the Tony Award -- for playing the grandmother in Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music around 1975.
(Also worth mentioning is that Broadway hit musical Carnival! -- from which the song, "Love Makes the World Go Round" is from, and which had seven Tony nominations, including Best Musical -- is clearly inspired by Kukla, Fran & Ollie, all the more obvious when you know that it's based on a short story and novella by Paul Gallico that was dedicated to Burr Tillstrom. The short story concerns a puppeteer in a TV studio with a woman who talks to them. When he lengthened it into a novella, he changed it to a traveling circus troupe in Europe.)
Thanks to my pal Nell Minow, she forwarded an article in the Chicago Tribune about the 75th anniversary exhibit.
(I must point out here, as I have a while back that Nell comes to her love and appreciation of Burr Tillstrom and Kukla, Fran & Ollie with a high pedigree -- her father Newton Minow, who later would become FCC Commissioner under President Kennedy, was Burr Tillstrom's attorney. Moreover, when Nell was very little she would often get to visit the set, and one day a newspaper reporter was there to do a piece on Tillstrom and the show. Seeing the little girl,he asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her answer got in the paper -- "A Kuklapolitan." The story has a happy ending, because much later in life -- it is my firm belief and absolute insistence -- she got her wish.)
I can’t link to the Tribune article by Rick Kogan, since as a special article it’s behind a paywall for subscribers only. But I’ll quote a bit of it --
“But let’s travel back, to 1947 and a man named Burr Tillstrom, who was born and raised here and got his start in theater at Senn High School. In 1935, he dropped out of the University of Chicago after one semester so he could join a puppet theater company run by the city’s parks department and funded by the Works Progress Administration. “That is where he began to create the many characters that would become his Kuklapolitan Players, a gang of such puppets as Kukla, Ollie (more formally known as Oliver J. Dragon), Beulah Witch, Madame Oogelpuss, Colonel Richard Crackie, Doloras Dragon, Cecil Bill and the charming others.”
Side note: Cecil Bill (pronounced "Sess-uhl) was always my favorite. He wasn’t used often, and was quite insane, speaking a language – “ta-toi-toi-toi” – that was totally incomprehensible to anyone other than Kuklapolitans. It was at that 50th anniversary exhibit, too, that I finally got to see Cecil Bill up close, and noticed something I had never realized before. To augment how “off” Cecil Bill was, Tillstrom had painted his mouth on crooked and slightly off-center.
“After World War II, he became intrigued by the relatively new means of communication called television and he thought that the puppets he made and maneuvered would work in that realm. He also felt, as he would later put it, ‘the need for a girl out front, who can talk with the Kuklapolitans, interview guests and sing a song.’
“That ‘girl’ would be Fran Allison, a singer and radio performer who met Tillstrom when they were both on a war bond-selling tour. She would be perfect. As Tillstrom put it, ‘‘she laughed, she sympathized, loved them, sang songs to them. She became their big sister, favorite teacher, babysitter, girlfriend, mother.’
Allison would in later years say, ‘Kukla, Ollie and the others are as real to me as people. I don’t want to see them as mere cloth any more than I want to look at something dead.’
“Junior Jamboree” went on the air here at 4 p.m. on Oct. 13, 1947. There were only an estimated 3,000 television sets in Chicago and most of those were in taverns. Renamed “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” the show was an immediate hit and the following year it was on for 30 minutes, five days a week.”
Kogan notes that ‘s hard now to fully grasp the show’s influence and popularity. He then adds --
“Tillstrom tried, shortly before his death in 1985, saying, ‘We try to maintain a basic honesty and consistency with the characters. They’re all individuals. They have personalities and they all work together. I think that has something to do with the show’s appeal. It’s pure and it represents love.’”
No single video can get across the joy, intelligence, charm and whimsy of Kukla, Fran & Ollie. Without a question, it will come across as old-fashioned to audiences today, especially when seen in clips. (But then, it is old-fashioned, having been created 75 years ago, when only 3,000 homes in Chicago had TVs.) But the humanity still comes through, as does the utter artistry and craft – Tillstrom played all the characters, often singing duets with himself, ad-libbing it all, as well as with Fran Allison’s total belief in the reality of the characters. And from the breadth of watching a wide range of episodes, all of that is still today able to come through.
I thought it best here to post a montage from the show’s very early years, around 1949 through the early 1950s, which might help gives some sense of that, especially in context of when it was done. You’ll note Dave Garroway popping up here, since he created the Today Show in Chicago, and you’ll hear the show's initial announcer Hugh Downs, who went on to a big national career on NBC as a host of the Today Show and newsman. And above all, you’ll get a glimpse of one of my favorite show’s, when the socialite diva Madame Ooglepuss would organize the Kuklapolitan Players to occasionally present some fine art and put on an operetta, in this instance, The Mikado. (Unless something comes up, I'll post a longer clip from the glorious Mikado show tomorrow.)
But for now -- as their theme song said, here they are again.
I came across this video yesterday on the Chicago Cubs website, but it was presented as looking like just a basic "thank you" video for the fans as the home-season ends today, so I didn't watch. But with much thanks to the inveterate Chris Dunn who sent it to me in case I hadn't come across it (which is far more impressive than it sounds, him being a -- dare I even say it -- St. Louis Cardinals fan and all that entails), I took a look. And it's spectacular. Even if you don't care the slightest thing about sports, it's an absolute Must Watch.
The four-minute video is a drone flight around the Wrigleyville neighborhood and through the nooks and crannies of Wrigley Field. But saying that doesn't do it justice. It's not just that it's spectacular, it's great filmmaking -- at times reaching, "Oh, my God, how did they do that?!!" level.
After home games when the Cubs win (which for much of the team's history hasn't always been a lot), the ballclub flies a flag with a big, blue "W" over centerfield. It was done so that passengers on the El train that passes a couple blocks from the ballpark could see at a glance if the team won or not. It's known as "Flying the W." Man, does this ever give new meaning to that.
They clearly did rehearsals -- for instance, when the drone went past a cop who didn't look up and later flew past All-Star outfielder Ian Happ, as if the team would risk injuring him without rehearsal -- but I almost don't know how they rehearsed it. (Even if rehearsed, people still seem unperturbed that a drone is zooming past their ear.) And some things likely couldn't be rehearsed properly, like the finale on the field. (I shall say no more.) But also, how small was the drone?? Moreover, while it looks like one, remarkable take, there are definitely a few edits in the video, which isn't remotely a criticism because even they are so artfully and seamlessly done.
And in addition to the video, I liked how they quietly, not to overpower anything, but to subtly augment it, had audio mixed in at the appropriate spots. The sounds of Ernie Banks and Harry Caray, and current radio announcer Pat Hughes, and the TV guys John Sciambi and Jim Deshaies.
Almost above all, it gave a great sense of the city...but even more (to people who haven't seen such a thing, which today is most everyone) it does a magnificent job showing what it's like having a professional baseball stadium quite literally in the middle of an old brownstone neighborhood.
For what it's worth, as a little side note, my dad grew up about a eight blocks away from Wrigley -- off to the lower right of this image below -- at 3530 Lake Shore Drive, by Belmont Harbor. (For that matter, so did my Aunt Joan, which is how she met my Uncle Richie, and they later married. How convenient.) He would often just walk over to the ballpark when a little kid and just ask some adult to let him walk in with them, because your children that young could get in free. (Man, does all that ever show you how times have massively changed. It was probably in the late 1920s.) Also, because the famous outfield bleachers hadn't been built yet, fans with outfield tickets would stand directly on the field -- where the brown "warning track" is now, that you can see in the image -- blocked off from the game only be a rope. By the way, the Chicago Bears also played their football games at Wrigley until 1971. And back then for halftime they wouldn't have marching bands, but instead the local neighborhood football clubs would have exhibitions against one another during the game-break, and so that's how my dad actually played at Wrigley periodically.
And now, with that bit of personal history out of the way, buckle your seatbelts. Here's Wrigley Field. As it says, like you've never seen it before.
For the past 24 years, the Chicago Cubs have carried on the tradition of when TV announcer Harry Caray would lead the crowd singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the middle of the 7th inning -- always ending with "Now, Let's...Get...Some...Runs!!" What the team has done, after Harry passed away during the off-season, is bring in "guest conductors" to lead the singing. Some are national celebrities, some local Chicago celebrities, and occasionally they just gave a deserving local person the chance. And all continue Harry's tradition of how he began and ended the song.
The team had an online vote by season ticket holders of the Top 10 favorite guest conductors. Though most are national personalities, a few are local so you won't recognize everyone, but they have helpful graphics to put things in reasonable perspective. And performances range from really good to truly terrible to just plain fun. And I've even posted a few of them here on this site.
I don’t want to give away who’ll be appearing, but #4 and #5 are famous in Chicago for being absolutely, horrifically terrible. In fact, half the fun of #4 is watching the reaction of the fans in the stands, as well as announcer Steve Stone in the booth and most especially, showing how otherworldly bad this is, taking away their attention on the game, even the bewildered players in the Cubs dugout, who are used to hearing the singing every game. (As for #5, I actually heard it live, and it was hilarious at the time and remains so.) In fact, I heard several of these live. The only person I'll mention specifically is someone local who you won't otherwise know. It's Gary Pressy, who was the team's organist and accompanied all these "guest conductors" over the years. And when I say "all," I mean all. He played the organ at 2,633-consecutive games and didn't missed a day in 33 years. On the day he retired at the end of the 2019 season, the team had him not just play the organ, but be the "guest conductor" singing.
And I might as well mention Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder, who you can see below. He's a major Cubs fan, who's been "guest conductor" many times -- and when the Cubs made the playoffs in 2015, he was so upset that Pearl Jam had a concert tour set up and he couldn't attend the games that for the next year, he made sure the band had no tour in October -- which was a good thing because that's the year they won their first World Series in 108 years. That's when he was "guest conductor" below (though there's a bonus treat with it. I shall say no more.)
Sing along... A one, a two, a threeeee --
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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