The Chicago Touch

by Harriet Van Horne

Curator's note: Reproduced below are the text and pictures from an article that appeared in the July, 1951 edition of Theatre Arts magazine. Before you proceed, take note of the following:

The Garroway at Large show was on summer hiatus when this article appeared. Congoleum-Nairn, the show's sponsor, failed to renew for the fall season. Garroway at Large never returned to the air. (Click here to download highlights from this memorable show).

Bill Hobin, the Garroway at Large director whom Ms. Van Horne praises highly, left Chicago in September. Tapped by New York producer Max Liebman, he became director of the classic Your Show of Shows.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie was back to fifteen minutes nightly in November following the departure of a sponsor.

Within a year, Garroway (now left without a television vehicle in Chicago) went to New York to become the first host of the Today Show.

The glory days of the 'Chicago School of Television' were short-lived. They were coming to an end even as Ms. Van Horne's piece appeared.

Of television's total output, a scant five percent originates in Chicago. But it surpasses others for ingenuity, charm and distinctive showmanship.

In Chicago, bless their integrity, they're copying neither the New York stage not the Hollywood cinema. They're evolving an art form that is peculiarly television's own. They started with no great names and no great budgets, either. Theirs was the desperation of the shoestring summer stock company, 'What you ain't got, improvise!'

Chicago improvised first with the cameras. This was the boldest stroke of all. And the best camera you're likely to see on video today is, more often than not, on a Chicago show. Out there in the city Carl Sandburg called 'hog-butcher for the world' they use a TV camera the way an artist uses a brush. It is not simply a cold piece of mechanical machinery, a device for recording the movement. It comes alive. It surveys the goings-on with sly winks, with wide-eyed surprise, and with trembling awareness of the beauty that lurks in shadows as well as the beauty that dances in light.

They don't anchor cameras to fixed spots on the floor, as happens on many New York shows. They roam at will, these Chicago cameras. They glide, they spring, they swoop. And you, the viewer, get a view of the show that transcends description. Do you wonder that people in the trade say the Chicago touch is to television what the French touch is to cooking. It's that je ne sais quoi, that zest plus. You can't define it, but oh what a pleasure to savor it.

Fred Allen reportedly attributes his rather spectacular failure in television last fall to the fact that he didn't obey his impulse to do his show from Chicago. 'They ought to tear down Radio City, rebuild it in Chicago and call it 'Television Town', says he.

Right: Kukla and Ollie Kukla and Ollie

What are these shows, marked with the unmistakable Chicago touch? Well, the first one that comes to mind is Kukla, Fran and Ollie. This is a puppet show, without strings, and with one outrageously talented young man, Burr Tillstrom, providing ten different voices for the little characters he 'wears' like long-sleeved gloves. Only one 'live' person is seen and she is Fran Allison. Fran stands beside the Kuklapolitan stage and converses with Oliver Dragon, Mme. Ooglepuss, Fletcher Rabbit and the other puppet folk. We know that she believes implicitly in them as people. Consequently you follow suit.

Now in their fourth year on television, Kukla and Ollie are so well known to some children as their brothers and sisters. Each puppet has a distinct personality. And you feel quite sure that each one has a busy little life of his own away from the program. Fletcher collects guppies and starches his long ears (one of which twitches when he's excited). Ollie likes to pore over such books as 10,000 Things a Boy Can Build. Mme. Ooglepuss, a lady who wishes she might have been an opera star, practices her scales and plans little musicals. Beulah Witch, a frowsy, shrill little character whose broom is equipped with radar, undoubtedly lives alone in a Charles Addams garret and cooks her wicked brews over a Sterno can.

Though it has been called a children's program, Kukla and Ollie is, in some ways, highly sophisticated. On what other show would you meet a dragon who casually mentioned that he had to take care of his one tooth because it was 'prehensile, you know'?

Fan letters to Kukla and Ollie frequently run between six and eight thousand a week. The puppets have a tremendous wardrobe, much of it sent in by viewers who just can't resist knitting a little sweater for Kukla or stitching up a mink cape for Mme. Ooglepuss. Tillstrom, a slim boyish chap in his early 30's earns $10,000 a week, has more sponsor offers than he can accommodate. The show is seen five nights a week, 7 to 7:30 p.m. in the East. Some of its faithful fans, such as Tallulah Bankhead, never leave the house or even eat dinner 'til the Kuklapolitans are off the air.

Right: Dave Garroway Dave Garroway

Garroway at Large is a half hour Sunday night variety show. It is the essence of quiet, relaxed entertainment. The camera work is unparalleled. And there is no studio audience. 'Television is an intrinsically personal medium', says the spectacled, six-foot-plus Garroway. 'It is a good deal more personal than radio, simply because when you watch somebody perform in your living room you feel much closer to him than when you hear him'.

And since the average number watching any set is only three or four, he continues, it follows that a performer should aim his stuff not at several hundred people in the studio but at that small intimate group in the darkened living room.

'To me,' says Garroway, whose Navy induction tests showed he had a near-genius I.Q., 'this means that television may very well change the whole character of American humor.'

That small group, reasons Garroway, and by extension, the whole Chicago school of television, doesn't want to see pies thrown in the face. They want the 'small laugh,' the quiet chuckle, the inner glow. And this is what Chicago gives them.

Garroway has his own permanent stock company: three excellent singers, a comic sidekick and some fine dancers. The music is unusually fine. And the 'effects,' lighting, sets, odd props, are always imaginative.

Garroway himself is merely the host. He ambles casually over the immense TV stage, the cameras following him with that special Chicago lope. He narrates the musical pantomimes, he introduces the various numbers, he chats agreeably about the linoleum his sponsor makes. Nobody on the Garroway show ever 'punches,' nobody ever talks down to the folks at home. These are pleasant, gentle people. And they've keyed their show to the ideal mood for late Sunday evening, 10 p.m. EDT, NBC. Of its kind, comedy-variety, the Garroway show is far and away the best in television. It makes Milton Berle and his brethren absolutely unbearable.

Right: Chet Roble, Beverly Younger, Studs Terkel
Studs Place

A dramatic show without a script is Studs' Place, on view Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. over ABC. The actors are given a rough outline of the story at rehearsal. They improvise their lines as they go along. And if everyone seems perfectly at home in his part, there's a reason for it. Studs Terkel, the proprietor of this mythical tavern, plays himself. And he grew up in a restaurant operated by his family. The part of Phil Lord, an eccentric old-time actor is played by Phil Lord, in real life an eccentric, old-time actor. Chet Roble, the jazz pianist, plays himself, as does Win Stracke, a guitar player and folk singer.

Charlie Andrews, the clever young man who writes Garroway's continuity, supplies the story outlines for Studs' Place. Andrews, plus a producer named Ted Mills, plus a director named Bill Hobin, who's only 26, comprise the Big Three of Chicago television. Andrews recently set down on paper his philosophy of the 'Chicago School'.

'Unlike theatre-variety thinkers in New York, we could not build a show merely by getting some big names and putting them in front of the camera,' he explains. 'We were virtually forced to find quality in the pan of a camera, the trick of a design, and perhaps most important, careful attention to the show's conception.'

Result of this thinking, Andrews says, is that everyone involved in the show becomes a creative contributor to the program, everybody from the 'producer down to the dolly pusher.'

In Chicago, moreover, pains are taken to see that the total show is more important than the performers. Old technique of getting a big name and building a show around him had to be abandoned because Chicago had no big names. 'The Chicago group built the show first, then cast it,' Andrews goes on to say, 'treating musical and variety shows exactly as they would variety shows.'

Technical equipment came, out of this same necessity, to be regarded as instruments of creative art. It was a kind of compensation. The camera was given complete freedom of movement. It ceased to be a mere reporter of the event. 'Where the camera can swing around a 360 degree arc, cameramen and directors come into their own creatively,' Andrews believes. 'They are no longer mere technicians, as they tend to be in theatre television shows, pointing their cameras at something someone else has created. In a studio, a director like Garroway's Bill Hobin can create something...'

Another great Chicago show, though entirely different from the usual studio production, is Zoo Parade. This Sunday afternoon visit to the animal kingdom is presided over by Marlin Perkins, director of the Lincoln Park Zoo. With the air of a man showing you his Rembrandts and Renoirs, Mr. Perkins makes you acquainted with his monkeys, snakes, bears and birds. So earnest is he in showing you the animals that he recently received a severe snakebite, just before air-time, and spent the next two weeks in the hospital.

In Zoo Parade the cameras are just as wondrous in their workings. You see the animals as close as possible, and always you remark how healthy and clean they look, how content in their public lodging house. Mr. Perkins' love for his charges has a St. Francis quality, and I'm not saying that lightly. You should see the chimpanzees hug him!

Zoo Parade
this year won one of the coveted Peabody Awards, the only award in radio and television that carries any prestige. The others are handed out casually, more as promotion stunts for the donors than tokens of merit for the winners.

Left: The Hawkins Falls set Hawkins Fall set

Curator's note: This photo was taken when 'Hawkins Falls' was produced on the stage of Chicago's Studebaker Theater. NBC leased this facility during the period the Merchandise Mart studios were incapable of handling the daily production load. In the foreground you see the back of announcer Hugh Downs' head]

Chicago pioneered in the radio daytime serial. And it has recently given a fairly good one to video. Title is Hawkins Falls, Pop. 6200. The plot is sudsy, to be sure. But there is some first-rate acting, particularly by Bernadine Flynn. Radio listeners will remember Miss Flynn from a show called Vic 'n Sade. She ws Sade.

Right: Bernadine Flynn and Phil Lord
Flynn and Lord
Park Left: Ben Parks, 'Hawkins Falls' director

Two other Chicago shows deserving mention are Super Circus and Acrobat Ranch, both for kiddies. There's also a science demonstration for children on Saturday afternoons called Mr. Wizard. Once again, it's the best of its kind. Informative, but fun to watch.

All in all, Chicago has the ingenuity, the daring and the taste that will save television from the terrible fate that's been Hollywood's. If the day ever comes when television establishes a true 'academy', a place where the young and hopeful may go to learn the art of television programming, Chicago is the only conceivable place for such an institution.

Introduction and main index to this site
WMAQ radio history | "Amos 'n' Andy" | "Fibber McGee and Mollie" | "The Breakfast Club"
Dick Kay | Television at the Merchandise Mart | 1970 television facilities tour | Channel 5 turns 20
The "Chicago School" of television | "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" | Dave Garroway | Mary Hartline
"Lights Out" | Sound effects | 1930 studio tour | WLS | "Empire Builders" | Barry Bernson
Floyd Kalber | The Queen of Love and Beauty | "Today's Children" | Staff announcers | Carol Marin
Ron Magers | Studs Terkel l "Chicago Tonight" | Channel 5 News scrapbooks |Roger Miller recalls
Zoo Parade | Clifton and Frayne Utley | Val Press | Len O'Connor | Johnny Erp | Bill Ray | Daddy-O
Experimental Television: 1930-1933 | Bob Deservi | Kermit Slobb | Ding Dong School | Quiz Kids
Bob Lemon | The Korshak Chronicles | KYW: The Chicago Years | WENR | O.B. Hanson | Renzo
Jack Eigen | Ed Grennan | The World's Best Cup of Coffee | Glenn Webster | Mr. Piano | Hawkins Falls
Chicago Television for Kids |
Radio Hall of Fame |The NBC News Night Report: 23 February, 1967
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