Monday, April 16, 2018

The Legend of Chickenman


Chickenman was an American radio series created by Dick Orkin. It spoofed adventure books and comic book heroes. The series was created in 1966 and originally aired on 1000 WCFL-AM, in Chicago, IL. It began as part of the Jim Runyon Show.  The show's protagonist, Benton Harbor, (presumably named for the Michigan town) was a shoe salesman who spent his weekends fighting crime. He also he hangs around the Police Commissioner Benjamin Norton's office and annoyed the Commissioner's secretary, Miss Helfinger.

CHARACTERS:

  • Benjamin Norton, Police Comissioner, -  Dick Orkin
  • Miss Helfinger, Comissioners assistant  - Jane Roberts
  • Chickenman, Benton Harbor - Dick Orkin
  • Chickeman's mother, Mildred Harbor - Jane Roberts
  • Trooper 36-24-36 - Jane Roberts
  • Narrator - Jim Runyon

Each episode began with a four-note trumpet sound from the song Thunderball and Chickenman's Buck-buck-buck-buuuuuck" chicken call. Orkin expected to run with the gag for two weeks. The original series eventually lasted over 5 years! That original 1966 series was released in 2003 as The Original, Complete & Unexpurgated Story of Chickenman, all 273, 2.5 minute episodes in a 14-CD set. Yes it is that popular. This was presaged by the 1966 LP The Best of Chickenman, released first on Spot records then ATCO. More here. Many LPs and posters read "exclusively on..." then a set of local call letters. There was nothing exclusive about Chickenman. By some reports, at it's peak the program was syndicated on 1,500 radio stations.

While the series was the brain-child of Dick Orkin he needed people to voice the parts.  Jane Roberts, a Chicago theater actress who worked at WCFL as the traffic reporter voices almost all the female parts in the series. Dick handled most of the men, Jim Runyon was the narrator. Jane's background was mostly in theater: Kraft Suspense Theatre, and a stretch at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Runyon has already been a DJ on WBHT, WHTN, WLW, WLWT, WTVN, WLWD, and KYW before he made it to WCFL.

Orkin began his radio career on WKOK in Sunbury, PA as a teenager. He worked part-time at WGAL while attending Franklin & Marshall college  He graduated in 1956 with a BA in speech and theater and headed for the Yale School of Drama to earn an MFA. He returned to Lancaster in 1959 to be the news director at WLAN. [SOURCE]  He headed off to KYW (back when it was in Cleveland) in 1963. He remained there until In 1967 when he moved to Chicago to work on WCFL. Runyon had already been there for 2 years. Runyon went back to KYW (then WKYC) in 1969. The two had worked at both stations together.

In 1973, Orkin began producing 52 special weekend episodes called Chickenman vs. the Earth Polluters. In 1976, a special LP was created by Orkin and ad man Bert Berdis: Chickenman Returns. This was followed by 65 episodes of an updated radio show in 1977, Chickenman Returns for the Last Time Again. In 1995, for the 30th anniversary of the series, Orkin brought Chickenman out of retirement for a tribute episode on This American Life. This was all in addition to the original 195 episodes. The man was nothing if not prolific.

Weirdly Chickenman never really went away. It is still played on a number of stations regularly AFRTS, 99.3 KPCH in Ruston, LA; 103.3 WFJV in Crystal River, FL, 101.1 WVRE in Dubuque, IA; 1430 WION-AM, Ionia, MI... a couple Canadian stations, and inexplicably several stations in Australia. For these feats and others, Dick Orkin was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2014.