My TV Childhood: Channel 9 (WGN)
When I would make my way around the analog dial as a kid, the first three channels I’d hit were the big three networks: 2 (CBS), 5 (NBC) and 7 (ABC). If nothing there caught my fancy, I’d enter the mysterious world beyond network television–the uncharted territory of… local channels. And no channel got much more local than Chicago’s Very Own, channel 9 (WGN).
Even though it was one of the original “superstations” broadcast to cable subscribers nationwide, WGN was unmistakably a Chicago brand through and through. The call letters drew inspiration from the Chicago Tribune, aka the World’s Greatest Newspaper, whose then parent company, Tribune Media, also owns WGN–for now, at least. (The newspaper today falls under a spinoff company called tronc; it’s all sort of a mess.)
But as WGN falls prey to the current trends and tragedies of modern media, the brand for me will always be a gateway into the past, a fulcrum of my nostalgia not just for how I was introduced to television, but to the city of Chicago itself.
Looking back, I can trace many milestones of my pop culture perspective to shows and moments that ran on channel 9.
The Bozo Show
For the children of Chicagoland, being in the audience for a taping of The Bozo Show was the grade school equivalent of getting tickets to Saturday Night Live. The wait list for The Bozo Show was eight years long. Eight years! The demand was so high that when a couple learned they were expecting a baby, their first step wasn’t to create a registry, but to send away for tickets to The Bozo Show.
My grandmother had done just that when my mom was pregnant with me, and a few years later, her foresight paid off. We would always watch The Bozo Show before school while we ate breakfast, eagerly awaiting the day we’d be in that audience, and now the day had arrived. We were going to The Bozo Show! I think I was around 7, which would put my brother around 3. My mom drove us into the city to the WGN studio, which was probably even smaller and cheaper than I remember.
I do vividly recall my mom commenting on how funny it was to see the actor who played Bozo, Bob Bell, smoking a cigarette in full costume during commercial breaks. (The voice of Krusty the Clown, by Chicago native Dan Castellaneta, was based on Bell.)
We sat on wooden bleachers and hoped we’d get picked to play the show’s highlight segment, the Grand Prize Game. It’s funny to think back on how legitimately thrilling it was to watch 6-year-olds throw Ping-Pong balls into buckets. But it was all in the hopes of winning childhood’s version of “The Price Is Right” pulling the curtain back on a new car. If you hit bucket number 6, you would win… A NEW BIKE!
Nobody won the grand prize that day, and the rest of the show was largely forgettable. But that didn’t dampen the excitement that we had been there live, which also meant WE WERE GOING TO BE ON TV. They told the parents what date the show would air, and we started counting down. Because the studio was so tiny, we knew we got on camera at some point.
The morning arrived. The show started. We didn’t see ourselves, so we kept watching. Then the Grand Prize game started. Wait, these aren’t the same kids. Then one of the contestants won the bike. Our kid didn’t win the bike.
This wasn’t our show.
Did we have the date wrong? Maybe? My mom called the station.
She hung up furious. They told her there was a mix-up at the station, and our episode got taped over. Which meant it was gone. Forever.
We of course were crushed, but I think my mom took the news the hardest. And now as a parent, I understand why. This was a moment she’d been anticipating for years, to give her children a memory of a unique, growing-up-in-Chicago experience. And now because of a mundane clerical error, she could never get that moment back.
The experience became family lore for decades to come. And in a way, that probably made it more special than if we’d actually seen our episode. My mom never quite gave up her grudge with WGN, but fortunately for me, they quickly won me back over.
Throughout my childhood, WGN was the exclusive local TV and radio home of the Chicago Cubs. Harry Caray and Steve Stone narrated many of my summers, calling the games in their trademark styles: Harry with his bombastic, drunk enthusiasm and Steve with his nasal voice of reason.
My Cubs fandom hit its peak in 1989, when the team won the NL Central division. I was between 7th and 8th grade, which meant I was too young to have a summer job, but I was too old to be out riding my bike around the neighborhood. As a result, I spent many bright, sunny afternoons parked in front of the TV watching the Cubs.
Looking up WGN’s opening titles from that season on YouTube took me right back to my old family room, an awkward preteen putting off the complex and inevitable task of growing up by immersing myself in the simplicity and structure of baseball.
“It Sounded Like a Freight Train”
Midwestern children in the ‘80s were taught to fear two things: strangers and tornadoes. For the latter, our schools would subject us to twice-yearly drills, sending us into the hallways to crouch among the dusty spiderwebs under our coat racks. We were well-versed in the difference between a tornado watch (conditions are right for a possible tornado) and a tornado warning (a funnel has been spotted). And, of course, we had seen the classic meteorology documentary The Wizard of Oz.
Once we got cable and had access to this remarkable new concept called The Weather Channel, my brother, Drew, became fascinated with weather. Specifically, weather videos. He would watch any coverage of storm chasers, hurricane trackers, you name it. So when WGN produced a whole hour just about tornadoes, Drew set the VCR. Which is why for a few weeks in 1991, I became very well acquainted with “It Sounded Like a Freight Train.”
The show was hosted by WGN’s–and arguably Chicago’s–most respected meteorologist, Tom Skilling. I think at one point Drew basically wanted to be Tom Skilling when he grew up.
Skilling is still working and a few years ago, Drew submitted a question to his Chicago Tribune weather column. Skilling published it with his answer and I think for Drew it’s pretty much been downhill from there.
One of the great legacies of local stations is the hours and hours of airtime they filled by running old movies. I’m sure I watched countless movies on WGN over the years, but two will always stand out.
If I had to trace my interest in comedy to one moment, it would be the night my dad and I were flipping channels and found Airplane! on channel 9. “Oh, this movie’s so funny. Have you seen it?” I hadn’t, so we stopped and watched. It was right in the middle of this scene, when the flight attendant plays a song and keeps knocking out a sick girl’s IV as she swings her guitar. It had just started, and I remember my dad starting to laugh anticipating the joke, and when that first swing hit I was right there with him. Even once I knew the joke was going to repeat, the scene is so expertly timed and performed that by the end, I was crying laughing.
To this day, Airplane! is one of my all-time favorite movies, in large part because it triggers such a happy memory of sharing that moment with my dad, the type of happy accident that’s quickly fading from the way we all watch TV today.
On the far less humorous side, WGN used to have an annual showing of Amadeus. As a young piano student, I had learned about Mozart and thought it’d be fun to watch a movie about him. Of course, Amadeus is a dark, dramatic portrayal of Mozart and his rivalry with Salieri–and it quickly became my favorite movie. You know, like most 10-year-olds.
I taped the movie one year and watched it so many times that if I come across the full version now, I know exactly where WGN inserted their commercial breaks. (I’m super fun at parties.)
When I became interested in obsessed with Second City around 1990, I was thrilled to find out WGN ran repeats of SCTV. The catch: They were filler, so they ran at odd times overnight. So every week when we’d get our new TV Guide, I would scour each night’s listings for channel 9 to find exactly when SCTV was running that week. Then I’d set the VCR–MANUALLY, mind you–for each night’s episode.
Nick at Nite also occasionally ran SCTV, but for some reason I had a stronger connection with those WGN reruns. I think it’s not only the Chicago connection, but because SCTV was about a low-budget local station, not too dissimilar from WGN. The show poked fun at local programming and personalities and satirized many of the old movies and movie stars I saw first on channel 9.
Which brings me to…
The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon
As a kid, I was introduced to Jerry Lewis two ways: 1) Martin Short’s impression of him on SCTV and 2) the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon.
I had no idea who Jerry Lewis was. I thought he was just a guy who hosted this telethon each year. And being such a huge fan of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, I thought Ed McMahon’s presence on the telethon each year was a really good get. This event must be really special if they got Ed McMahon.
In truth, it was a really special event. Despite Lewis’ not-so-amicable split with the telethon in 2011, the decades he spent prior hosting–many years for the full 20+ hours–make up a remarkable philanthropic legacy. I remember getting legitimately choked up when they would do a leaderboard tally and reveal a new record-setting amount of money raised. My mom usually gave in when Jerry himself got emotional every year during his trademark “You’ll Never Walk Alone” closing song.
Back during the '80s, it wasn’t common to see children with special needs on TV. Because of the Jerry Lewis telethon, I realized how many families were living with incredible challenges and how very lucky I was. While he will be remembered first and foremost for his comedy, I’m thankful to Jerry Lewis for introducing me to caring and compassion.
Today, social media has made disability awareness and charity fundraising part of daily life. The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon was simultaneously a throwback to the old days and ahead of its time. This Labor Day weekend, the first since Lewis’ death on August 20, I’ll be remembering both his legacy of giving and the experience of watching the telethon on channel 9 with my family. It was another moment when I had a touchpoint to my parents’ youth, watching a star they grew up watching, too.
I sense there won’t be many moments like that with Archie, many more entertainers like Jerry Lewis, or many more stations like WGN. Unlike any other number on the dial, channel 9 helped shape who I am, both in the programming and in how it connected me more deeply to the people around me: my parents, my brother, my city. WGN is part of the reason that no matter where I live or how far I am from home, I’ll always be one of Chicago’s very own.