Rest in peace, Dick Orkin: The Adventures of Chickenman (1967)

chickenman

(Above: An LP I do not own, have been looking for for some time, and will have a harder time getting now.)

Late Christmas night we got word from Lisa Orkin that her father, Dick Orkin, passed away at the age of 84. The name might not ring a bell for you unless you are a) in radio and b) of a certain age. Dick Orkin was one of the best advertising producers. Ever. If I am pressed to make a list of the work I heard that made me want to choose radio over television, Dick Orkin is in the same breath as Stan Freberg. From a modern-day standpoint, Chicagoans would recognize Orkin’s voice as that of “Dickie,” the man who is helping Grandma avoid getting scammed in the First Metropolitan Bank ads. The ads are clever, funny, and most importantly memorable – the very reason that Orkin’s work at his production firm, The Radio Ranch, was recognized across the country for its excellence.

Orkin was working as the production director of WCFL/Chicago in 1967 when the Batman craze swept the nation. WCFL’s crosstown rival, WLS, cashed in big on Batman.  WCFL, not to be fazed, decided to support its own superhero – and Chickenman was born. By day, he was shoe salesman Benton Harbor, but by night – he was the greatest crimefighter the world has ever known. Punctuated by the voice of WCFL newsman Jim Runyan (“Weeeelllllll!”), the stories were unlike anything I had ever heard as a kid.  (Note: By virtue of my age, like all things cool, I got to Chickenman late.) The situations were so ridiculous, the stories were so hilarious, and the characters were so memorable. This was the sort of thing I knew that I wanted to make, and yet knew that I could not, since it was so… perfect. Many others thought Chickenman was perfect, too – over 1500 radio stations ended up running the bit in syndication. When WCFL-FM premiered in the Chicago suburbs in 1990, we ran old Chickenman bits, and people loved them. (One of the ways I knew we were circling the drain was when Chickenman was abandoned for Gary Burbank’s Earl Pitts character. Popular, sure, but I never thought it was as clever as Chickenman.)

Orkin’s work wasn’t just about Chickenman.  He helped to give WCFL the sound that made it stand out in 1967.  Orkin helped to make a great airstaff even greater. The legendary night jock Ron Britain explained to me once that he was creating long form bits for each hour of his show.  One of his recurring characters, Rex King, was the subject of one of my favorite bits from the period: here, King is interviewed about the world of the hippie by reporter Dick Facetia, played by Orkin.  I think that if I could travel through time and be a part of any airstaff I wanted, WCFL circa 1967 would rank high on that list, and I’d have loved to have worked on a bit with Orkin.

I did get to work with him – sort of.  In the early 2000s I was working as a production director for Clear Channel’s WRLL/Chicago, and was sent to a workshop hosted by Dick and Lisa Orkin on copywriting. I learned a lot, but most importantly got to say “hello” and “thank you” to Dick for everything he had done for our industry.  He seemed genuinely appreciative for the thanks. His passing has reminded me that now – rather than later – is a good time to find the people that influenced and inspired me, and thank them while I still can.  In the last few years, a number of them have passed on, but there’s still quite a few left.  I think, therefore, that in 2018, if you can’t find me, I might be on the phone.

You can read the Chicago Sun-Times obit of Dick Orkin here. Media columnist Robert Feder also offered a tribute.

More importantly, if you are looking to hear the White-Winged Warrior, you can find some Chickenman clips here.

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