Sunday, February 08, 2009

RIP Chicago Eddie Schwartz

In the 1970’s I used to be a big AM radio listener. With my little black transistor with the white earplug I would for hours scan the AM dial seeing how far of a signal I could get. Chicago AM radio consisted of news on WBBM, and rock music on WLS and WCFL, or country on WMAQ. On WIND was what we would today call Talk Radio. This was before talk radio became synonymous with right wing political talk. Talk Radio then had a quieter, less confrontational demeanor. (No matter what your politics, I don’t know how anyone listens to Limbaugh or Hannity or even some of the Air America hosts. Everyone is so constantly angry.) Radio was much more intimate, and the listeners relationships with the hosts much more personal.

The biggest name in Chicago in the 70’s was Eddie Schwartz. An unlikely radio show host who was an obese man with a wheezy, high reedy voice. Chicago Eddie Schwartz, as he was known, did overnights on WIND. His show was a combination of light conversations about the goings on in the city, show business interviews and hours of him playing tracks from his comedy album collection. It was great at that hour of the morning when there was ‘nothing’ else on. This was also at a time when television stations would go off at 2 AM, so when I say ‘nothing’, I mean nothing! If you had insomnia, it was Schwartz or a hot water bottle and a good book.

Growing up I must have logged hours and hours of time listening to Eddie as I would sneak my transistor radio under my pillow and lay with my plug in my ear. My biggest memories of listening to him were his comedy albums; it was the first time I heard Stan Freberg or Allen Sherman. It was exciting listening to Eddie during big snow storms as he would take calls from reporters treating our Chicago winters like they were the crash of the Hindenburg. Big stars like Bill Cosby and Phyllis Diller would routinely call if they were in town to promote their local shows. Believe me in 1974, this was a huge deal at 2 in the morning.

I have such crystal clear memories of Eddie’s frequent guest Richard Crowe, a local ghost hunter. This was a good 15 years before the advent of Art Bell or Coast to Coast radio. Eddie would dedicate usually a full six hours of talk about ghosts and local hauntings. I would sit and listen completely utterly petrified, unable to move as I listened to the callers tell of how their brother’s wife’s cousin actually saw Resurrection Mary. I recall that I was in my room listening on my transistor, while in the basement I had a reel-to-reel going at the slowest possible speed. However, even at the slowest speed the tape would run out around 3:15 in the morning. I had to gather all my 14 year old courage and go downstairs and turn the tape over. Even now I don’t know how I did that… (See download below)

As the years progressed Eddie became more popular and he moved to the bigger and more prestigious station WGN. During the 80’s he was a Chicago legend and easy fodder for the new shock jocks who were taking over the FM dial. Steve Dahl and Gary Meyer were merciless in their taunting of Eddie and his weight, high pitched voice, and old fashioned style. The odd thing was that Eddie made a decision to leave his cozy AM radio WGN and move to FM and the WLUP where all the young shock jocks were on during the day. It didn’t work for him; Eddie’s audience was older and conservative and I’m sure would never even think of tuning into an FM station.

It was around this time that my friend Randy, whom I’ve mentioned before, got a job as Eddie’s producer. Randy and I had spent many a summer night listening to Eddie. I couldn’t believe I was one degree of separation from this local icon. Randy found the experience less than glamorous. Eddie was bitter and extremely obese. During the day the shock jocks would mock him, including Danny Bonaduce. One jock Kevin Mathews even did a daily character based on Eddie and called him Ed Zeppelin; He continued doing the character for years after Schwartz had left the airwaves. At night Eddie would come on and continue to do his regular AM show with interviews with aldermen or has-been celebrities. Randy’s job consisted of pulling together the guests and making sure that Eddie had his cart with various stomach acid aides. “Go down to the Walgreen’s and get me more TUMS and some Diet Coke.” I would hear his daily horror stories about working the overnight show; how creepy Bobby Vinton was in his crushed velvet jumper hitting on the female interns; or once when I got a phone call in the middle of the night, “I’m putting you on-air in 30 seconds. Ken Barry is on the show and we are dying. No one is calling… Ask him a question about Mayberry R.F.D.”

I would listen in my roach infested studio to Eddie berating Randy for not having the cart to a commercial ready or some other on-air mistake. It was surreal. My favorite Randy/Eddie story was when Bob Hope was in town for some benefit. Eddie wanted Bob on the show. Randy worked for weeks to get Bob’s manager to give him ten minutes on the air over the phone. Randy personally delivered flowers to Bob the day of the broadcast as a thank you. That night I made sure I was listening. Eddie’s voice at this point I would describe as wheezy, slurred and a little unintelligible. Bob was probably in his early 90s and I think more than a little hard of hearing. The interchange went something like this:

Eddie: Mr. Hope I’m so happy you could join us... (garble, garble, wheeze)

Bob: Wonderful…love Chicago

Eddie: You are in town for the Heart Association Benefit. Have you been involved (garble, wheeze, wheeze, cough) with them for a long time.

Bob: Wonderful…

Eddie: Will you be doing anything else while you are in Chicago?

Bob: I’m at the Heart Association Benefit… Wonderful organization…”

Eddie: (cough, wheeze) Is that in the suburbs?

Bob: Wonderful love Chicago.

I got a call from Randy… “Are you listening to this…? Are you listening…? Bob can’t understand Eddie at all…”

Randy ended up leaving the show and going back to his airline job after not getting a raise. I think he was only making $17K a year as his producer. So much for show business.

The last few years of Eddie’s life were sad. He left WLUP with low ratings and broken spirits soon after Randy left the show. I don’t know if Randy leaving the show had anything to do with the end of his radio show; Randy was trying to produce the show like the ones we used to listen to in the 70’s with lots of celebrities and lighter topics. After he left the shows were mainly Eddie complaining about local politicians. And he never did regain his initial loyal listeners who were probably still listening to whomever was on WGN overnights on their transistors to AM radio.

Eddie wrote for a while on a local paper but his health and weight finally caught up to him. He spent the last few years of his life in a nursing home virtually penniless and recluse. As an ironic twist all the shock jocks who mocked him for years threw a big fundraiser for him when they learned that he needed money to pay for his medical bills.

I was truly sad when I heard he was gone. Another piece of the city I knew growing up was gone forever.

The links below is the full Eddie Schwartz show from some hot summer night in the mid-70s. It runs about 3 ½ hours.


David said...

John, I used to listen to Eddie on WIND when I a kid too. Yikes, it was sad to read about the stories of your friends experience with him. I had no idea he spent the last years of his life in a nursing home. SAD.

BC said...

I listened to him in the mid eighties. Kevin Matthews would call him a lot from his show. He was a little mean to him, but man was it funny.