The last time I was in Chicago’s WGN studios was on my 7th birthday. My mother had somehow secured six tickets – the maximum allow by clowny law – and threw me a great birthday party under the bigtop I watched on TV every day. We woke up very early that day and made the trek to downtown Chicago from the ‘burbs to the only other address my 7 year old brain had memorized: 2501 W. Bradley Place.
We were going to BOZO’s CIRCUS! And I was going to get lucky and be selected by the [tips and the tips only of the] Magic Arrows. I’d bound down out of the thousands of spectators, join Bozo, Cookie and Oliver O. Oliver on the floor of the Big Top and win a bucketful of silver dollars, a brand new Schwinn bicycle and Numode Hosiery with the no-bind top…what ever the Hell that was.
Expecting the giant tent to be visible from blocks away, I was stunned when my mom parked our Chevy Townsman wagon in a regular parking lot next to a gray, non-descript building in a housing development. All us kids just looked at each other… we must be lost.
But Mom led us inside to a loooong hallway – and shockingly, it was crammed with kids! THIS WAS BOZO’S CIRCUS?
Whiny kids on their best behavior were lined up against the painted cinder block wall, yelping a steady stream of ‘is it starting now’ questions. We waited for what seemed like weeks, until the GIANT STUDIOS DOORS finally swung open – like in Oz – and uniformed pages led us into Chicago’s Magic Kingdom.
The cavernous TV Big Top and it’s “Casts of Thousands” was nowhere to be found. Instead, we saw a tiny TV studio with PAINTED red curtains and maybe 150 in the bleachers. No wonder it took so long to get tickets… I remember feeling a bit gypped… until the clock struck noon. In an instant, the drab, lifeless studio erupted with cheering, music, color and frenetic activity – on both sides of the camera.
Then Ringmaster Ned asked the magic question: Who’s your favorite clown? And the bleachers screamed BOZO!!!! And out from behind a curtain – a real curtain this time- came Bozo himself. The rest of the 60 minute live show was a blur. Music, comedy, variety acts, the Grand Prize Game… that I didn’t get picked for. And after it was all over, we got to pose for a picture with the A Team- one that hangs in my house today. As kid birthdays go, it was tremendous.
Now, years later, I’d returned to 2501 W. Bradley place, under very different circumstances. For one, it was still dark outside. Secondly, Studio 1 was now just an empty shell. A few old Bozo scenery flats were stowed in the back of the tiny room, but all the other evidence of what had happened on this floor for 40 years had been erased, removed or painted over. Everything except those doors. I recognized them instantly, battered but open, guarding the end of the hall.
I caressed them like an old friend, then headed down the hall into the Morning News studio to talk with Val, Dean,Larry and Robin. We talked about the book, and some of the less delicious recipes inside it. They lavishly plugged my weekend book signing and Hosting event at the Travel & Adventure show, and we also solved a 103 year old problem:
Thanks to everyone at WGN for bringing me home again.