I'm Tired of Writing Obits

by Jon Gallagher

These last two weeks have been a real downer for me. I'm getting tired of writing obituaries. But in addition to Martin Litvin's (which appeared last week), I've got two more to write this week.

First, Doug Henning, the long haired, bib-overall-clad, buck-toothed magician, who starred on Broadway in The Magic Show, and who captivated live TV audiences back in the 70s with such feats as walking through a brick wall and escaping Harry Houdini's water torture chamber, died this past week at the ripe old age of 51. Henning, although more of a showman than an artist, brought magic back to the limelight, well before David Copperfield started making the Statue of Liberty and jets disappear. He always wore a smile and seemed genuinely astounded with his feats, often punctuating the climax with a ''Whooo!''

I started dabbling in magic in my pre-teen years and began doing actual shows in front of real live people just after I graduated from high school. As Henning's popularity increased, so did the number of requests for my own performances. People would request different ''tricks'' that they'd seen Henning do on TV, and I was able to do a few of those feats, albeit a bit toned down from his psychedelic tie-dyed T-shirts and hot pink bibs. In fact, in cooperation with Prairie Players, I produced a magic show for their Losey Street Theater which featured me re-creating Henning's walk through a wall (and let me tell you, a door in the wall makes things a whole lot easier, but that wasn't an option during this show).

Many of the magician types that I hung around with in those days scoffed at Henning, and I suspect that was just out of jealously. While it was true, Henning was not a craftsman in the true sense of the word (relying mainly on glitzy outfits and hype rather than slight of hand), he did revive magic. He was the reason that most of us who performed magic were working rather than sitting at home in front of a mirror, trying to fool ourselves.

I went to see Henning in concert once in Davenport and he brought with him an array of illusions worthy of the Las Vegas stage. He screwed up a couple of times, but still put on an enjoyable show. He refused to meet with fans or fellow magicians afterwards, but I still respected the man for bringing magic back out of the vaudevillian dark ages.

In recent years, no one had heard much from him and he'd quit performing for the most part. He'd gotten involved with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the little troll with real long hair and a permanent smile who inspired the Beatles to write some of their most incoherent songs, and was in the process of opening some sort of theme park (a theme park for transcendental meditation?!?!).

Doug's death at age 51 due to liver cancer came as a surprise to me. I was more surprised at the number of people who could not recall him.

A second death had much more of an impact on me and will leave more of a hole in my life.

Bob Collins, the morning-drive-time host on WGN radio was killed this past week in a plane crash. Uncle Bobby, as he was known to literally millions of listeners also influenced a good portion of my life.

I first started listening to Uncle Bobby back in the late 70s. I had turned over to WGN while driving to listen to my Dodgers play the Cubs and got ''talk radio'' instead. There must have been a rain delay or something but Bob Collins was on the air with his folksy, down-home style. I had to check my radio dial to make sure that I had tuned in to WGN and not some little station by mistake. Uncle Bob didn't sound like the stuffed shirt, professional announcers that were associated with major market radio.

Uncle Bob would grow on you. His laugh, more of a cackle than anything else, was genuine and it made people smile or laugh along with him. He wasn't afraid to let out a huge guffaw on the air, especially after flubbing a commercial, or engaging in banter with other on-air staffers. His brand of humor was different, but something that everyone could laugh with.

His show was different too. He'd do things never attempted before on the radio, such as the ''Tyrone F. Gendlemen, Don't Call Us, We'll Call You, Radio Amateur Hour.'' This was a segment where fans would call in with ''special'' talents that would make Uncle Bobby howl with laughter. I can't tell you the number of times I had to pull off the road while driving and try to compose myself after fits of laughter. There was the famous Fertif Family of Fine Frogs, an act described by a listener as a family of frog performed aquatic tricks in a bathtub. Another caller had a talent of ''calling dogs'' and when Bob gave him the chance to show off his talent, the caller immediately picked up a phone and dialed his favorite dog.

In 1984, Bob took over the coveted morning drive time slot at WGN which had previously been ruled by legendary Wally Phillips. Bob didn't change a lick, bringing his down-home humor to the early morning. While other morning hosts relied on dirty and profane ''humor,'' Bob continued to entertain and delight his audience with a charm that captivated. While other hosts made fun of body parts and body fluids, Bob used clean humor to pull in a 10.4 share of the Chicago audience. This means that for every 100 radios turned on in Chicago, ten of them were tuned to Bob. His nearest competitor had a respectable 5.1 share, and the hundreds of other stations in Chicago split the remaining listeners. His morning audience was estimated at over one million.

Over the past 20 some years, I probably spoke with Bob a dozen or so times on the air. Most of our conversations were frivolous with me relating a humorous story or anecdote and Bob responding with his famous from-the-gut guffaw. He once asked where I was calling from and I told him ''Knoxville,'' and he responded, ''Not exactly the end of the earth, but you can see it from there, huh?'' I said, ''Hang on a second. Yeah, it's still there,'' which brought out his trademark chuckle.

Bob had been a rock-and-roll disc jockey prior to coming to WGN and one of his talents involved being to name the artist of any rock and roll song that made the top 40 between 1955 and 1970. He called himself ''The Phantom,'' and he would have listeners call in with three song titles, trying to stump him. He was rarely beaten, but those who did got a prize based on the number of times he couldn't come up with the correct answer. When I began my own radio show here in Galesburg, I took the routine from him and did it once a week as well.

His tastes in music ran from classic rock and roll to flat out, plain awful music such as ''Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road,'' ''Cow Pattie,'' and ''Short People.'' He made a list of these bad song which he called his ''Carl Grayson Memorial Song Book and Record Album.'' Again, when I took to the airwaves in Galesburg, I tried always to include some ''bad'' music, and in fact put together a top twenty bad songs of all time show. I once called in a suggestion for his list, Neil Diamond's ''You're So Sweet, Horseflies Keep Hangin' Round Your Face,'' which he played, and for some reason, rejected. Oh well.

Uncle Bobby was as down to earth as you could get. He never let his fame go to his head. He was on a first name basis with Governor Jim Edgar, yet he would take the time to personally reply to letters from fans. I received several such replies and at a time, had an on-going correspondence with him.

Although I never met him in person, I always felt Bob was a friend. That was the way that anyone who listened to him felt. He made you feel like he was talking to you personally over coffee. Bob kept me company when I was on the road as a salesman, and later when I became a teacher. Often I'd walk into my school in the morning with a big smile on my face to greet my students, courtesy of Bob Collins. It got to the point where students would come up and ask, ''Okay, Mr. G, what'd Uncle Bobby say this morning that was so funny?''

In the past week there have been many tributes to him, but I think Paul Harvey summed it up best. He said, ''Someone will take Bob's job, but no one will ever take his place.''

Thanks, Doug and Bob, for all the memories, and for helping to shape me into the person I am today.

WGN's website, www.wgnradio.com, is dedicated to the memory of Bob Collins. Some of Bob's most memorable moments can be heard on audio clips there.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online February 15, 2000

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