Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen were desperate as hell when they wandered into the Manhattan studio of “The David Frost Show.” It was late 1971, and the Chicago-based comedy team had been working on their act, with only modest success, for two years. They needed a break. Specifically, they needed to land an appearance before a national audience. “Television,” Ron Rapoport writes in his 2008 book
“Tim and Tom,” “was the holy grail.”
Brushed off by bookers at “The Tonight Show” down the block, the duo stormed the offices of Frost’s talent coordinator like salesmen on a cold call. There stood Ken Reynolds, an African-American from Chicago’s South Side, the duo’s home turf. They’d hit the jackpot. It took just a few minutes of small talk—mostly about mutual friends back home—and a short audition before Reynolds tossed Tim and Tom in front of the camera and let them rip. They killed.
In the days between their set and the show’s air date, Reid and Dreesen hustled like they had never hustled before, passing along the details of their upcoming showcase to everyone they knew in the industry. The former, so confident the Frost spot would generate substantial buzz, quit his day job to focus exclusively on comedy. Then the episode aired … and landed with a thud. No agents called. No club owners sent over contracts. “It was as if nobody had seen it,” Rapaport writes. “As if they had never even been on.”
So went the career of Tim and Tom
, the first interracial comedy team in U.S. history. To say their act was influential, or even popular, would be an overstatement; Reid and Dreesen’s “sure-fire, can’t-miss idea”—built on the simple premise that people should put aside their racial differences and laugh together—more or less failed. But their rocky five-year run was undeniably interesting
, shedding light on race relations and the cutthroat world of show business in the early 1970s. Both members of the unlikely partnership would become bankable performers in Hollywood eventually. First, they had to take a few lumps standing side-by-side.
Though they grew up 850 miles apart—Reid in segregated Norfolk, Virginia, and Dreesen in the integrated, working-class town of Harvey, Illinois—Tim and Tom’s childhoods mirrored each other in fundamental ways: both went to Catholic elementary schools, had parental figures who battled addiction (Reid’s stepfather, Dreesen’s father), and spent time living above establishments (Dreesen a bar, Reid a brothel) they were too young to enter legally. As adolescents, however, their lives diverged sharply. Inspired by a trip to see the March on Washington in 1963, Reid buckled down in high school, put himself through college at Norfolk State by waiting tables, joined the school’s nascent drama department, and landed a marketing job in Chicago with DuPont, one of the company’s first black hires. Dreesen didn’t even sniff college, having dropped out of high school at 16 after his dad’s drinking habit intensified and his family moved into a rat-infested shack (with no hot water) on the black side of town. The series of odd jobs he picked up—as a caddy, a pinsetter—didn’t pay enough to make ends meet, so he followed his older brother into the Navy before stumbling into a job as a life insurance salesman back home, one that required few tangible skills aside from charm.
Their paths first crossed in 1969, after each joined the United States Junior Chamber in Chicago’s south suburbs, Reid because he wanted to be active in his community’s affairs and Dreesen because he thought it’d be a clever way to find potential clients. At the first meeting Reid attended, Dreesen suggested the organization launch a drug-prevention program in Harvey’s grade schools. The pitch—"open the session with music, tell a few jokes to get everybody relaxed, talk to them on their own level” (Rapoport, 67)—appealed instantly to Reid, a former thespian who had spent far too many years living with a heroin addict. After a few introductory conversations, the pair called up some local principals to schedule sessions.
While the field was admittedly thin, it didn’t take long for Tim and Tom to establish a reputation as the hippest anti-drug crusaders in Chicago’s southland; unlike cops or other authority figures, they were laid back, relatable, and shared a natural rapport. Schools requested their services constantly. After one particularly inspired assembly, an eighth grader named Joanne Cerfuka made an offhanded suggestion that caught the men flatfooted. “You guys are so funny,” she said. “You ought to be a comedy team.” It took a few days for the idea to sink in, mostly because neither had any clue how to write a routine. “If we had known how hard it was going to be,” Reid would later tell the Tribune
(October 19, 1980), “I don’t think either of us would have tried it.” But both found the prospect of a career on stage appealing, so Reid bought every stand-up album he could find, they cleared some space in his kitchen, and started experimenting.
From the onset, the two men knew that race would be the predominant theme of their work—it’s what they knew and wanted to lampoon. If the act was going to work, though, they had to deal with each other on even terms—Reid wouldn’t stand for any Amos ‘n’ Andy-style minstrelsy. As one of their friends told Rapoport, “[Reid] could be laughed with, but not at.”
Fortunately, this was an easy problem to avoid; Reid was naturally the more urbane and articulate of the two, so it made sense for him to play the “cool and collected observer of his partner’s antics” (Rapoport, 71), the Dean Martin to Dreesen’s Jerry Lewis. “Black audiences had never seen that,” Reid said, “and liberal white audiences didn’t want to see a black man playing the buffoon.” The pair’s coordinated attire—colorful dinner jackets, formal tuxedos—reinforced the balanced relationship they hoped to project.
Tim and Tom developed material remarkably quickly, some of which they would use for the duration of their run. A lot of it was broad and silly. They invented a superhero named Super Spade who fought crime alongside his sidekick, The Courageous Caucasian. They poked fun at Tom’s Italian heritage. (“Are you sure he’s not with the bossa nova?” Tim would ask of Tom’s father.) In this bit below, one of their most well-known, Reid grows increasingly frustrated with Dreesen’s “anxiety” about hanging out in black neighborhoods:
After just a few months of writing in their spare time, Reid and Dreesen convinced the owner of Party Mart Supper Club on Chicago’s South Side to put them on the evening bill. (Dreesen had no problem approaching complete strangers, a useful quality in an industry that requires one to sell himself constantly.) And in their first professional performance, in September 1969, the nervous pair “bolted through their act as if they were double parked” (Rapoport, 76). An adult audience out for a night on the town, it turned out, was tougher to impress than teens in a classroom.
Yet over time, they grew more comfortable with each other and with performing generally. Their relentless networking helped secure new gigs, too. A popular deejay they met at WBEE, a black radio station in Harvey, took them to Chicago-area jazz clubs, record parties, and charity functions. They hit it off with Don Cornelius and Merri Dee, two luminaries in the Chicago black entertainment business. Within a year, they made a name for themselves on the local circuit, opening for Gladys Knight and the Pips, Dionne Warwick, and Anita Bryant. They were even added to the lineup of the 1st annual Black Exposition, held before 25,000 people in the International Amphitheater and headlined by Bill Cosby. Within two, they were playing some of Chicago’s biggest supper clubs. Their following at home was strong enough that by 1973, Dreesen was able to convince club owner Henry Norton to let Tim and Tom host a comedy night at his bar, LePub, on Monday nights. Improv and sketch were thriving here, but their stand-up showcase was the city’s first.
Chicago, as big as it was, only contained so many stand-up venues and potential fans. To make a living full-time behind the mic, which Tim and Tom hoped to do, the team needed to get out on the road.
Building a national brand proved more difficult than they anticipated. Finding gigs wasn’t the problem; Tim and Tom played rooms big and small, in venues as diverse as the Playboy Clubs and theaters on the southern Chitlin’ Circuit. “Whenever another act fell out, missed a plan or something, boom, we were there,” Reid remembered (Rapoport, 93). “We were the National Guard of comedy teams.” The trick was finding the right gigs. More often than other stand-ups, they’d encounter racially-hostile crowds, folks who came out just to heckle, not laugh. Bookers at top-shelf venues and television shows weren’t so eager to hire an interracial pair either, particularly one whose material was charming but never excellent. (They were relative beginners, after all.) During their five years together, the biggest paycheck the pair ever earned was $750 … split two ways. And the only album they ever recorded, 1973’s “The Classic Comedy of Tim & Tom,” didn’t sell well. Reid’s enthusiasm ultimately waned.
"The thought of a black-and-white comedy team really intrigued us,” Dreesen once told the Tribune (July 11, 1991), “so we went on the road for [five] years and bombed and struggled and bombed.” In show business, you need the right combination of talent and luck to take off. It never coalesced for Tim and Tom.
The duo had an acrimonious falling out in the mid-1970s. Reid’s attention turned to Hollywood, having forged a relationship with the connected singer and actress Della Reese. “I began picturing myself doing what they were doing,” he tells Rapoport (143), about his trips to Los Angeles, “becoming an actor more than a comedian.” In November 1974, after a painful set before four people at the Hyatt Hotel in Houston, Reid flew west for good, effectively ending the partnership. It was a difficult, albeit fruitful, decision; in his first two years, after studying at the Film Actors Workshop in Burbank, he landed a series of bit parts on television shows and movies before securing the lucrative role of Venus Flytrap on the sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati.” He’s been acting and directing ever since.
Dreesen took the breakup much harder. Like his partner, he picked up and moved to Los Angeles, where he struggled to develop a mainstream solo act based on his childhood in Harvey and slept in his car to save money. He sounds downright bitter in a 1975 interview with the Tribune’s Bruce Vilanch, placing blame for the group’s demise squarely on Reid’s shoulders. But Dreesen got back on his feet, too. A talent coordinator for “The Tonight Show” caught his act one night in the winter of 1975 and offered him a spot, the first of 500 television appearances he would make over the next 35 years. He parlayed that exposure into a job opening for Frank Sinatra, a high-profile gig that he held for 14 years. And he’s forgiven Reid, the man with whom he’d tried to change the face of American comedy.
On Friday, I sat at my desk and dreamt that I owned a treadmill.
I’m no Mr. Universe, but I try to stay in shape. So last year, I joined a simple and clean fitness club that let me run comfortably and get my pump on
at a reasonable price. When I left my full-time job and we moved back across town, I had to ditch my membership, and I haven’t found a suitable replacement yet. That means when it snows several inches in one day, as it did late last week, you’re more likely to find me drinking porters and watching the Bulls then battling the elements to burn a few calories.
This lack of will power
makes me feel rotten. I like to work out, and the benefits are self-evident. Just last week, the New England Journal of Medicine released a new study
showing that Medicare Advantage enrollees who were offered new fitness-membership benefits as part of their health insurance plan were demonstrably healthier than Medicare beneficiaries who were not provided free health club access. This study is no outlier
. When we get off our asses and get to the gym, we feel better and live longer.
For the millions of Americans
trying to make good on their New Year’s resolution to exercise and lose weight, we have the fathers of the American fitness movement, Vic Tanny and Jack LaLanne, to thank. You’ve probably heard of the latter, an exercise zealot who stayed in the public eye deep into old age by performing
intense and often bizarre feats of strength.* (To mark his 70th birthday, for instance, he towed a flotilla of 70 rowboats for one mile along the Pacific coastline.) But it’s his transformation from troubled teen into quasi-superhero that inspires weight training buffs. LaLanne was no natural athlete; as a Bay Area adolescent, he was skinny, addicted to sugar, covered in acne, and prone to violent outbursts and suicidal thoughts. One day, his frustrated mother -- a member of the health-focused
Seventh-day Adventist Church -- dragged Jack to a lecture at a women’s club by nutritionist Paul Bragg. As LaLanne tells it, he experienced
a feeling akin to a religious awakening sitting in the audience. When he got home, he ditched the cookies and started experimenting with weights at the Berkeley Y.M.C.A., an activity his peers would never consider. To learn about musculature, he found a copy of the famous textbook Gray’s Anatomy
and enrolled in chiropractic school. Then in 1936, at the ripe age of 21, he procured a space in an old Oakland office building, stocked it with workout equipment (plus a juice bar and health food supplies), and sought out weak teens looking to “turn their lives around.” The first-of-its-kind health studio was born.
On the other side of the country, in Rochester, New York, a hulking first-generation Italian-American named Vic Tanny
(pictured above) was making similar moves. With the help of his brother -- a body builder and former Mr. USA -- Tanny (born Victor Iannidinardo) created a proto-gym in his garage using broom handles and sand bags. Neighbors didn’t take to the idea**, so after four slow years, the pair moved out west in 1940 and rented a space on Second Street in Santa Monica. The location was ideal; vets who first trained with weights during World War II flooded Southern California in the early 1940s, and a slice of nearby shoreline called Muscle Beach -- once famous for its vaudevillian performances -- developed into a meeting ground for a new generation of fitness-conscious strongmen. Tanny, for his part, had the foresight to take the gym out of the cellar. While the few facilities that existed at the time were dank and stuffed with rusty barbells, Vic’s spots used
bright colors, carpeting, background music, and chromium-plated weights to draw in prospective members with more delicate sensibilities. (Later iterations even offered adjacent spas, tennis courts, and swimming pools.) And because Tanny allowed customers to pay their fees on an installment plan, working- and middle-class people weren’t shut out. Armed with a killer marketing slogan -- “Take It Off, Build It Up, Make It Firm” -- and a small army of brawny trainers who were willing to stand in high-traffic areas and give demonstrations, Tanny’s brand exploded. By 1947, he opened several gyms around Los Angeles. Thirteen years later, he owned over 100 locations in North America and grossed $34 million. As one colleague told
the Los Angeles Times
in 1985, “Vic Tanny was to the gym business what Henry Ford was to the automobile."
LaLanne, meanwhile, parlayed his modest success as a trainer into a contract with a San Francisco television station. His idea was simple: host a fitness show that will spread the gospel of exercise to a wider audience and will rely on cheap household equipment like chairs and towels to do so. In 1951, the channel gave the charismatic but untested guru a shot, offering an early-morning time-slot reserved primarily for children’s programming. LaLanne, as he was wont to do, took the challenge in stride, bringing a dog named Happy on set as a way to appeal to kids, who were urged to wake up their moms for a workout. The show was an instant hit. After eight years on the local airwaves, it was syndicated nationally in 1959 and ran 26 additional years, helping popularize the radical idea that Americans can live more comfortably if they eat well and get their heart rates up once in a while.
Unfortunately for Tanny, his empire crumbled just as LaLanne’s viewers started seeking out gyms in which to practice their new routines. Like Borders would do 40 years later, Tanny expanded way too quickly, and the company’s cash supply dried up drastically. To compensate, the executives halted advertising, slashed maintenance and staff budgets, and attempted to sell stock to raise capital, but the ledger never properly balanced. By 1961, the government moved to collect $2.6 million in back taxes. Shortly thereafter, Tanny closed more than half of his clubs -- some so quickly that members weren’t given sufficient notice to retrieve clothes from the locker room -- and sold the rest, many of which had fallen into disrepair because of improper upkeep. Those who had invested in the company, supplied Tanny with equipment, or bought “lifetime” memberships (for $500 up front) lost a combined $15 million in the collapse. LaLanne’s star faded as well, but not until the 1980s, when “a new generation of glitzy instructors promised dramatic results fast” and the long-running television show was cancelled. He stayed active in the ensuing years, hocking
vitamins, supplements, juicers, and inventions like the “Glamour Stretcher
" on infomercials before passing last January.
I urge you to watch this clip of LaLanne, donning his patented workout suit, talking about “sugarholics
.” It’s worth it just to hear the unorthodox patter of his speaking voice. And here’s a demonstration of some goofy “fingertip push-ups
,” with a comic appearance from Happy the Dog.
Now get to the gym!
*LaLanne’s justification for staging wild physical stunts is as hilarious as it is delusional: "Jesus, when he was on Earth, he was out there helping people, right? Why did he perform those miracles? To call attention to his profession. Why do you think I do these incredible feats? To call attention to my profession!"
**Tanny theorized that New Yorkers in the 1930s were “ashamed to admit they wanted to improve their appearance.”
Jewish gourmands are growing tired of lumpy latkes and watery matzo ball soup. Over the last few years, inventive deli owners across the country have reworked
the bloated and unhealthy menus traditionally found at famous institutions like Katz’s and Carnegie, instead prioritizing locally-sourced ingredients and hand-crafted sandwiches. Kutsher’s Tribeca, which opened
in New York City a few weeks ago, is taking the same modernizing approach toward Semitic recipes more commonly cooked in the home. The goal of owner Zach Kutsher is to “make Jewish cooking graceful,” a proposition complicated by the simple fact that the peasants who originally designed those traditional meals were concerned more about cost and religious rules than culinary complexity. “Its essence,” New York’s
Daniel Fromson writes
, is “less in its flavors than its routines.”
Still, if anyone can draw in haute diners for Jewish specialties, it’s probably a member of the Kutsher Klan. For close to 100 years, Zach’s family owned and operated Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club
, an opulent resort situated in the Catskill Mountains about 90 miles outside of Manhattan. On site was a beautiful restaurant where guests, whenever hunger struck, could obtain a heaping pile of knishes or a gooey plate of gefilte fish. “Gastronomic excess,” a New York Time
s reporter wrote on May 9, 1965, “has always been the hallmark.” This was typical of most Catskill hotels of the era, and just one of the features that made the Borscht Belt
, for a 40-year stretch, the most successful and unique Jewish vacation destination in the world.
Like most Sullivan County entrepreneurs, Max Kutsher and his wife Lois did not have grand ambitions when they opened up their first boarding house in 1907. Indeed, the first Jews to set up shop in the Catskills were farmers struggling to cultivate profitable crops in the region’s rocky, arid soil. In need of additional income, those scrappy agriculturalists decided to rent out spare rooms to relatives and acquaintances from the city. In doing so, they inadvertently tapped into a massive new market of potential vacationers; between 1880 and 1924, 2.4 million Jewish immigrants reached America’s shores, and the bucolic and accessible mountain towns just northwest of the Big Apple offered an appealing respite from the pollution, heat, work, and discrimination they too often experienced in New York’s tenements. After the first wave of visitors took the trip, a collection of low-maintenance bungalows sprouted up virtually overnight. A tourist boom followed. In the summers, Jewish immigrants would make the Catskills their home away from home away from home.
Since the accommodations were generally sparse during the 1920s and 1930s, proprietors kept prices within reach of the working class; for around $60, an entire family could rent a two-bedroom semi-detached house, with cooking and food-storage privileges, for a full season. As competition and the purchasing power of second- and third-generation Jews increased, the upscale resorts -- The Concord (seen above), Grossinger's, The Pines -- expanded greatly. A June 7, 1959 article in the Times
titled “The Catskills Revolution” describes how several major hotels spent $8 million in 1958 alone on improvements and new installations like indoor swimming pools and skiing facilities, “modernizing their establishments on a scale the like of which has never been seen in this teeming, summer-minded countryside.” These once-humble cottages became, in the words
of one PBS correspondent, “playgrounds for the privileged.”
What did these wealthier travelers expect on a visit to the Catskills? The open land was ideal for golf, a sport the men -- former handball and baseball enthusiasts -- took up with vigor. Jewish food, as mentioned above, was served in mammoth portions, particularly the cold sour cream and beet soup that provided the region with its snappy moniker. For young people, the Catskills offered
“a springboard to successful careers and marriages,” both for employees of the resorts who used tips to finance their education and connections to find full-time jobs* and the young Jews who met new lovers away from home. And of course, there was comedy.
Like their contemporaries in Las Vegas, Catskill resort operators made first-rate entertainment (and a blowout Saturday night variety show specifically) a major priority. Owners engaged
in a theater arms race, building larger and larger show rooms for the headliners to play for their “eager, well-dressed, well-behaved audiences.” (One room at The Concord eventually accommodated 3,000 attendees.) Early stand-ups employed a machine-gun style, one that featured very few natural transitions or long-form stories, and often traded on Jewish clichés and stereotypes for content. Fickle crowds
and demanding bosses meant comics were never really off the clock; as veteran Phil Foster told The New Yorker
on June 11, 1966 “if a guest checked out, the boss would kill you, so you’d play Simon Says with the guests, or do a strip, or fall down the stairs thirty times, or shave with sour cream.” But the intense concentration of venues was appealing to city comics looking to build their brand while making a quick buck during the summer. Buddy Hackett, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, and Jerry Seinfeld all cut their teeth in the mountains.
One need only to watch Michael Showalter’s brilliant parody
in “Wet Hot American Summer” for evidence that the Borscht Belt comedic sensibility, when not refined and deepened
by geniuses like Allen and Larry David, feels downright dated today. A review of a 2001 “Catskills on Broadway” revival show described the aging comics as “speaking an ancient language understood by a dwindling few.” Similarly, the Catskills fell out of favor with families in the second-half of the century. There was just no way to compete with television, affordable home air-conditioning, and cheap air travel, the latter of which gave Jewish-Americans the opportunity to visit more desirable hotels from they were previously restricted. In the late 1950s, Sullivan County had accommodated 600,000 tourists per year. By the mid 1990s, most of the region’s buildings were totally abandoned.**
Every so often, developers make noise
about reviving the Catskills vacation culture through gambling, though nothing has really come of it yet. Kutsher’s new owner Yossi Zablocki is working doggedly
to “restore Kutsher’s lost sheen as a thriving retreat for kashrut-observant Jews,” but the jury is still out on that effort, too. It might just be the case that a well-run restaurant in TriBeCa is the most powerful and practical way to honor this rich leisure legacy.
*Wilt Chamberlein once worked as a bellhop at Kutsher’s.
**Photographer Heidi Warner put together a neat slide show
documenting their decay.
Gonzo and Fozzie Bear are back, and I can’t wait to see what type of havoc they intend to wreak. Today is the premiere of “The Muppets,” the most anticipated feature
starring the celebrated cast of puppets to hit theaters in 27 years. Jason Segel was intent on reviving the franchise -- essentially shelved since Disney’s 2004 acquisition -- by staying true to creator Jim Henson’s comedic voice and early technical style
. Given the talented colleagues with whom he’s surrounded himself*, not to mention his work with felt dolls
in the past, I’m confident Segel will capture the whimsy and sincerity Henson deployed to charm audiences three decades ago.
Just as Segel cites
Henson as an early comedic inspiration, the Muppets’ mastermind counts Burr Tillstrom
as one of his primary creative muses. There’s a strong case to be made that Kermit and his friends would never have gained a foothold on PBS, much less graced the silver screen, were it not for the innovative (and often overlooked) Chicago-based entertainer. As Henson admitted
in a 1979 profile with the New York Times
, “Tillstrom had more to do with the beginning of puppets on television than we did.”
That man, born on the city’s North Side in 1917, saw puppeteering as his calling. At the tender age of eight, Tillstrom started wiring teddy bears so he could put on shows mimicking Buster Keaton movies for his parents and neighborhood friends. After graduating from Senn High School and briefly attending the University of Chicago, he picked up a job in 1935 with the Chicago Park District managing a puppet theater, an operation that was bankrolled by subsidies from the Works Progress Administration. This financial support gave him the flexibility to try more experimental pieces, choreographing puppet versions of classics like "Romeo and Juliet” and Saturday morning kids shows influenced by European Punch and Judy
plays. Tillstrom was invited to the 1939 New York World's Fair and by the mid-1940s had built a steady, if humble, career
starring in vaudeville revues and at private parties and shows for schools and women’s clubs.
The invention and popularization of television altered the trajectory of Tillstrom’s career dramatically. In 1947, RCA suits came to Chicago to develop a children’s show and asked Tillstrom if he’d perform for an hour, five days per week, on WBKB, the station owned by movie palace tycoons Balaban and Katz
. Tillstrom agreed on the condition that he could have one human actor with him on set. At the suggestion of a WBKB official, they hired Fran Allison, a former Iowa schoolteacher turned radio singer. The pair settled on a simple premise for their show: Allison would play an exaggerated version of herself and would hold normal, improvised conversations with a series of hand puppets manipulated by Tillstrom, including Kukla (described
as “an earnest, strangely bald youngster”) and Ollie (an “irresponsible, one-toothed dragon”). Named “Junior Jamboree,” and later “Kukla, Fan, and Ollie,” it premiered on October 13 and became “in a little over a year and with a cast of only one visible human, one of the most popular of all TV programs.”
What made the series work? For starters, viewers who watched Tillstrom’s puppets perform alone and with minimal sets and costumes for five hours every week developed a deep attachment to the characters. “They ‘lived’ on television,” Tillstrom would later say
. “It went from characters in a play to living people.” And while the humor was “tailor-made for a juve audience” (as one obnoxious reviewer for Variety put it
), adults appreciated that “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” treated its subject matter seriously and its audience with respect. (In a fan letter
, John Steinbeck noted that the "show’s ease and naturalness delight me.”) For his part, Tillstrom was convinced that filming on the Third Coast as opposed to the East Coast set his series apart. "In his opinion,” wrote TV Forecast,
“Chicagoans are fearless, take chances, experiment with new and original ideas, whereas New York is massive, rich, and traditional."
Tillstrom took his show off the air in 1957, 10 years after it launched. Along the way, he earned a Peabody Award and an Emmy for Best Children's Program. Yet he made arguably his greatest contribution to American popular culture in 1960 at the Puppeteers of America festival in Detroit. That’s where he met Henson, a young college graduate who still didn’t quite know what he wanted to do with his life. The two struck up an immediate friendship
. Burr later introduced Henson to puppet builder Don Sahlin, who created Rowlf the Dog (Henson’s first puppet to make regular appearances on network television) and helped hone the Muppet “look.” When Jim and his wife moved to New York in 1963, they rented an apartment in Tillstrom’s building, allowing the two artists to discuss their craft with regularity. Sesame Street was optioned six years later.
For those interested in Tillstrom's career, the Chicago Historical Society houses dozens
of crates filled with his puppets, props, and musical scores in its archive. Rich Samuels has posted a great collection
of KFO links and videos online, too. Before you go see “The Muppets” this weekend, give them a glance.
*Nick Stoller ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall"), Bret McKenzie and James Bobin ("Flight of the Conchords"), Amy Adams.
There are “locavores,” and then there is Sean Brock. The Virgina-bred and South Carolina-based molecular gastronomist is performing, in the words
of Burkhard Bilger, “a grand culinary reclamation project,” farming and preparing heirloom greens and grains that literally have not been cultivated below the Mason-Dixon line in two centuries. At his two Charleston restaurants, the second of which was just named best new restaurant
in the nation by Bon Appetit
, watery grits and fried chicken make way for Sorghum-fried green tomatoes and meat off the fatty, dwarfed Ossabaw Island Hog
. It’s “Southern food as conceived by space aliens,” and it sounds totally delicious.
As a poor teen in Coal Country, Brock was inspired by his grandmother, a woman who spent her life in Appalachia collecting seeds that had been passed down her family tree for generations. And in between chores, the wannabe chef would plant himself in front of the television and watch an unlikelier muse, Yan Can Cook
. “I was fascinated by how fast he could chop an onion,” Brock remembers, “So I’d try to do that and throw that shit in the wok.”
I’m sure Brock isn’t the only culinary superstar who was shaped, in part, by the career of Chinese cook Martin Yan. A pioneer* of the televised cooking show, Yan’s “Yan Can Cook” aired weekly on 240 public broadcasting stations in the late 1980s and early 1990s and, with the help of cable syndication, ultimately reached 90 percent of television viewers nationwide. In 30 years on the job, he’s filmed more than 3,000 original episodes. That’s an astonishing amount of slicing and dicing.
While their cooking styles are diametrically opposed, Brock and Yan both grew up humbly and were unafraid of taking risks. At the age of 13, after the death of his father, Yan’s mother shipped her son (and $20) from their home in Guangzhou to live with a distant uncle in Hong Kong. His kin put him to work at a restaurant, where Yan slept, because “there was no room for me anywhere else." He quickly schemed his way into culinary school, earning a scholarship by purchasing and then lugging back to the school all of the ingredients needed for class each day. In 1969, he moved to California in hopes of continuing his education at UC Davis. With no money (again) to pay tuition, Yan approached the dean of the campus’ extension school and offered to start Chinese cooking classes, a skill few people were teaching in the Western Hemisphere at the time. The administration allowed it and Yan’s demonstrations were an immediate hit.
With a food science master’s degree in hand, Yan ultimately landed in Calgary, where he helped a friend open a new restaurant. On weekends, Yan ran a “lunch and learn” program, allowing diners to observe his process before they ate their meals. A local TV producer participated one day and had a blast, so he asked Yan to come onto his talk show as a guest. “I went on once, and they thought I was a little different," he remembers, in this great San Francisco Chronicle profile
, "so they asked me to come back. After the second time, they asked me to do 130 shows.” After batting around
a few potential names -- Wok with Yan, Wokking with Yan, Yan’s Wok -- Yan landed on “Yan Can Cook,” a title he thought best embodied his populist teaching approach. The rest was history.
What made “Yan Can Cook” so popular? For one thing, it’s just fun to watch someone cook in a wok, the round-bottomed pan found in most every Asian kitchen. “You are hearing the oil when it gets hot, you are watching the food changing, you are smelling the aroma as the food cooks. You have total contact with the food, you are using all your senses,” he told the Chicago Tribune
on August 23, 1984. “It is so much more exciting than putting a pot roast in the oven and setting the timer.” Timing helped, too. Although Americans have been eating Chinese cuisine (in some form
) since Cantonese laborers migrated to California in the 19th century, there was a certifiable Chinese food boom
in the 1970s and early 1980s, prompted by the Nixon-inspired “authenticity revolution" and an influx of Asian immigrants following the abolition
of the Natural Origins Formula in 1965.**
Yan rode that wave, using his natural charisma and honed knife skills to teach Americans the basics about the ethnic food they so enjoyed but had no clue how to fix. Aren’t convinced of his entertainment chops? Watch him yuck it up with the audience and then bone a chicken in a thrilling 18 seconds:
Yan, at 62, still travels 250 days a year, teaching cooking classes around the world. He also opened Chef Martin Yan's Culinary Arts Center in Shenzhen, China, where he’s become a kind of cult hero. According to the St. Petersburg Times (July 15, 2009), it’s his hope that “chefs from all over will come to Shenzhen for an intensive program taught by Asian chefs, and will use that knowledge to bolster authentic and regional cuisine elsewhere in the world.”
In other words, Yan Can Cook isn’t done lighting a fire under a new generation of chefs.
*Along with the Frugal Gourmet and Julia Child.
**There are now more than 50,000 Chinese restaurants nationwide, more than all of the fast-food outlets put together.
Mere steps from my front door sits one of the most opulent buildings in the country. I’ve never been inside, nor have the vast majority of my neighbors. It’s not because we don’t appreciate beautiful things. Quite
. It’s because the local treasure has sat abandoned for over three decades.
Last week, the Tribune’s
Mark Caro wrote an excellent feature
on the Uptown Theater, Chicago’s luxurious and endangered North Side landmark
. Despite the sour economy and hefty price tag ($70 million), Caro found a “newfound sense of optimism” among preservationists and public officials that a full restoration of the structure’s elegant lobby
and 4,400-seat interior
-- badly damaged by flooding and years of neglect -- was a legitimate possibility. "It's like the stars are all in alignment," gushed Chicago Cultural Affairs and Special Events commissioner Michelle Boone.
Whoever ultimately bankrolls the project will earn my enduring admiration. They’ll also salvage the crown jewel of Balaban and Katz (B&K)
, an entrepreneurial local company that transformed both Chicago’s entertainment scene and its visual landscape in one short decade.
Before Lowes or AMC, there was B&K. From 1916 to 1926, West Siders Barney Balaban and Sam Katz developed "chain store organization for movie exhibition within the city of Chicago,” opening more than 50 separate movie theaters, including the Chicago (with its famous marquee
), the Riviera, and the Congress, among many others
. Their explosive growth was a product of the firm’s creative business plan, which Sam and Barney developed to compete directly with theaters controlled by film production studios, which at the time held exclusive rights to air Hollywood’s first-rate fare.* Instead of promoting the pictures themselves, B&K took the “films others did not want
” and sold the experience
of going to the show. As the firm noted in its 1926 book The Fundamental Principles of Balaban and Katz Theater Management
, “we must build up in the minds of our audience
the feeling that we represent an institution taking a vital part in the formation of the character of the community.”
Douglas Gomery, a journalism professor and broadcasting business expert, credits
B&K with several crucial innovations that allowed the small-timers to construct its movie empire. Most notably, Barney and Sam were early believers in transit-oriented development; the firm built most of its theaters in neighborhoods newly served by the L and home to a small but booming population of upwardly-mobile consumers,** a slice of the city overlooked by the existing purveyors of vaudeville and silent cinema. And these movie houses weren’t just holes in the wall. With the help of architects Rapp and Rapp
, B&K erected entertainment palaces, with giant lobbies, comfortable seats, colonnades, marble floors, massive chandeliers, and stained glass windows. The structures also boasted state-of-the-art carbon dioxide cooling systems, a luxury at the time,*** along with impeccable customer service. One advertisement for the company promises that each usher -- generally college-aged men -- is “trained by a graduate of West Point,” “selected with as much care as the cadets at the Nation’s Military Academy,” and “must come from a good family.” “The theater[s] occupied a rare moment of shared democracy,” Lynn Becker noted
a few years ago, “where anyone with a quarter or 50 cents could spend a couple hours steeped in the sort of luxury usually reserved for the ultrarich.”
In 1926, just 10 years after B&K opened for business, the company was bought out by Famous Players Lasky (now Paramount) in a deal that represented $100 million in assets ($1.2 billion in 2010) and consolidated over 500 theaters under the control of one banner. Katz was named president of The Publix theatres group, a subsidiary of FPL, and immediately went about implementing on the East Coast the same strategies that worked so well on the Third Coast. In five years, Publix opened 900 new theaters, all of which were supervised intently by the Chicago boys planted in NYC. Barney Balaban was eventually elected President of Paramount Pictures
, a position he held for 28 years.
The first major cinema wave crashed with the popularization of free television in the 1950s, and the majority of B&K’s local palaces were ultimately demolished. But before business tanked, the execs back home saw the writing on the wall and purchased multiple experimental television licenses. In 1943, using a 400-foot television tower that the Tribune
(April 20, 1941) said “surmount[s] all but the tallest skyscrapers,” they began broadcasting over WBKB (now WBBM
), the first commercial television station in the city. Unfortunately, B&K tried to have its cake and eat it too by televising sporting events, parades, and news reels on its big screens, a promotion that failed to draw crowds. “The high hopes Balaban and Katz officials held a year ago for theater television have crumbled,” read one blunt Trib
lede (March 4, 1952).
For more about B&K’s imprint on popular culture, read this 1993 interview
with Barney’s younger brother Elmer or click through the website
of the Balaban and Katz Historical Foundation. Don’t miss their slide show
, which features some wonderful stills of glamorous theaters and theater-goers.
*The U.S. Supreme Court would eventually declare this type of vertical integration monopolistic
in a landmark anti-trust case.
**Lawndale, Woodlawn, and Uptown.
***In newspapers, B&K usually printed icicles near their theater listings to remind customers that the central air would be pumping.
If you’re into U.S. history and sweeping shots of sepia-toned still photographs
, be sure to leave some space on your DVR Sunday night for the first episode of “Prohibition
,” the latest film in Ken Burns’ quest to document the entirety of American culture in his distinctive, polarizing style. I’m excited for the project because the PBS mainstay “exchanged ideas, research, and sources” with Daniel Okrent, author of the insightful and entertaining 2010 book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
. As dedicated readers of the blog know, I devoured Okrent’s tome this spring and wrote a series of posts exploring a few of the choice, quirky anecdotes he reported but did not have the space or inclination to write about at length. If Burns tells a similarly engaging tale, it should make for worthwhile viewing.
To wet your whistles for the six-hour documentary, I thought I’d repost my work below. If you haven’t read the pieces yet, or don’t remember anything about them, I hope you’ll click through.Did Walgreens' Milkshakes Bring the Boys to the Yard?
: On the explosive growth of Walgreens and the chain’s (possible) connection to bootlegging.The Killer D's
: On Anastassoff Sreben, a Bulgarian-born and Chicago-based scientist who made a fortune during the dry years “redistilling” industrial alcohol.Daddy Du Pont
: On the weird family life of chemical magnate and influential repeal advocate Pierre du Pont.Was Prohibition All Bad?
: On the modest benefits of the 18th Amendment.
-The Brentmeister General
-Fatty Fatty Toad Boy
-Jimmy the Perv
-Fisher Price man
-A big, lanky, goggle-eyed freak of a son
It's hard to believe that Merchant and Gervais concluded their first "series" run 10 years ago this week. Be sure to check out Todd VanDerWerff's summer reviews
for The A.V. Club.
Simply put, “Friday Night Lights” is the best network television drama of the past decade.* If you haven’t visited Dillon, Texas over the show’s (mostly excellent) five-season run, which sadly concluded Friday night, you’re in for a real treat.**
I won’t use this space to wax poetic about FNL’s various virtues; since its debut in 2006, television critics far more skilled than I have consistently praised the show’s creative team for the deft touch it displayed in depicting the “benefits and burdens
” of community and what Heather Havrilesky called
the “harsh continual sorting of winner from loser in American life.” But I will highlight one of my favorite features of FNL, one that gelled tonally with the intimate camera work and the emotionally honest writing and acting: its theme song.
It’s a common misconception that the opening sequence -- a lilting, operatic guitar riff (embedded above)-- was written by Explosions in the Sky
, the Texas-based indie outfit who scored the FNL movie and whose work subsequently appeared in the television series. In fact, it’s the handicraft of W.G. Snuffy Walden
, television’s pre-eminent composer. Walden is a Texas guitarist who relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1970s after dropping out of college and playing in a short-lived blues band. Once out west, he achieved moderate success, touring with Donna Summer and Chaka Khan and even receiving a credit on Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life
. But his career took a strange and fruitful turn in the mid-1980s, when a talent scout searching for musicians for the little screen caught a monthly set he played at a Santa Monica nightclub.
“When they asked me about scoring for film and television, I wasn't sure what it entailed," Snuffy later wrote
, "but I could see the handwriting on the wall for touring, and it wasn't pretty. I kept envisioning Holiday Inn at age 60." Like his contemporaries who set up standing gigs in Branson
, Walden’s desire for stability proved advantageous. From a short 2001 profile in the Dallas Morning News
:He met with the producers of “thirtysomething” and "talked them out of some footage" for the series, which hadn't yet premiered. "Then I just sat and played to what they gave me until something started to happen. The process is basically still the same now. In bands, I was the guy who played the color and brought atmosphere to the songs. That's kind of what I do here. A lot of the time you're talking about pretty ethereal stuff. I kind of have to go away and play my guitar until something works." [...]He's been scoring ever since, mostly for acclaimed series that enhanced his reputation whether they lived long and prospered (Roseanne, The Wonder Years, Sisters) or fought the good fight (My So-Called Life, I'll Fly Away, Cupid, Sports Night). It's enabled Mr. Walden to supplant prodigious Mike Post (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, The Rockford Files, Magnum, P.I.) as the Tiger Woods of TV music.
Walden won an Emmy for the stirring title theme he penned for “The West Wing,” and he continues to take an optimistic approach to his unorthodox craft, one that songwriters (not named Michael Giacchino
) might dismiss as hackish. "I finally realized I wasn't going to be Eric Clapton or a rock star," he told the Morning News
. "So this is really and truly a gift that most people aren't offered in their lives.”
for more on Walden's creative process. And next time you flip on FNL, tip your cowboy hat to Snuffy. Without his musical chops, who knows if the Taylors would have survived for as long as they did.
*Nice try, “Lost.” You too, “The West Wing.” The only other contender would be “Freaks and Geeks,” but it’s tough to compare the two teen shows. And since the Apatow/Feig project started its run in 1999, I won’t.
**The first four seasons are currently available on Netflix Streaming.
At the recommendation of a fellow comedy nerd
whose taste I respect, I’ve started revisiting “Cheers
,” NBC’s long-running sitcom about the titular Boston bar. (Netflix Streaming has made all 275 episodes available, for those with an account.) My folks loved “Cheers,” so it’s one of those older shows that, through the beauty of syndication, I caught fairly frequently as a kid. Watching it now, it’s striking how similar it feels in both tone and style to the network’s latest mainstream success (and one of my favorite shows of all time), “The Office.”
Obviously, the conceit of the “documentary” sets the British import apart from its Thursday night predecessor. That said, the two workplace comedies mirror each other in very elemental ways: each has a talented ensemble with full, actualized personalities; the writers can tactfully veer into absurdist or screwball territory and generate big laughs because the show is generally so grounded; they treat their hilarious cold opens like little set pieces, few of which have any relevance to the storyline of the subsequent episode; and the comedy is never cynical or mean. Bill Carter, in his 1993 “Cheers” obit
, boiled down the show’s core appeal, one that could just as well describe the work of Greg Daniels and Michael Schur (a noted
“Cheers” fan himself):"Cheers" is as much a throwback as a step forward. After "All in the Family" in the late 60's, it seemed almost obligatory for sitcoms to take up social causes, especially if they wanted to score Peabody Awards along with their Nielsens. "M*A*S*H*" was a vehicle for antiwar outrage; "Family Ties" poked fun at Reaganomics and the me-first ethic of the 80's, "Roseanne" takes the measure of class divisions. Every sitcom seemed to want to do "very special episodes" about drug abuse or illiteracy or someone's death and what it taught us about life.On "Cheers," the lessons are incidental, and its subtext will have to be unearthed or imagined by the sociologists of the future. Rather, what the show's creators aimed to do was deliver pure comedy that was sophisticated but not pretentious, "I Love Lucy" as told by Noel Coward.
“Cheers” called it quits after 11 seasons when its star, Ted Danson, decided to leave his post inside the bar. “The Office” is taking the opposite strategy
. Whether or not the creative team can recapture the magic of seasons two through five sans Michael Scott is yet to be seen. Perhaps they should fire up their Rokus for a little inspiration.