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In Chicago, The Show Never Ends
By Marc Fisher
The Washington Post
Sunday, September 14, 1997; Page E04

What: Museum of Broadcast Communications, Chicago

Where: Michigan Avenue, downtown

When: You have a couple of hours to kill between planes or appointments

On one wall, those hilarious ESPN promos (the sports celebs pathetically begging to be on SportsCenter) air in a continuous video loop. Across the way is the Advertising Hall of Fame, a turgid, solemn tribute to a slew of anonymous men who must have written some awesome detergent slogans. And around the corner is a display of vintage TV sets that will transport you right back to Grandma's living room.

The Museum of Broadcast Communications is a quirky collection, tucked into the hallways and formal rooms of the former Chicago Public Library, now restored as the Chicago Cultural Center. The museum isn't as slick or wealthy as New York's Museum of Television and Radio, but it's a charming place, well worth an hour or even half a day.

One large room purports to tell the history of broadcasting, mostly by showing nifty old microphones and radio sets. Here's the xylophone that NBC sound effects men used to hand-ring the network's famous chime ID in the early 1930s. Here are some of the first cathedral-style radios, shaped in tribute to the churches that owned many early radio stations.

Parts of the museum are as hokey as a 1950s TV chat show. A tribute to the "Chicago School of Television" features loving salutes to Don Cornelius (Mr. "Soul Train"), Siskel and Ebert, Studs Terkel and Marlin Perkins. Precisely what their link was, other than having set foot in Chicago, is never made clear, but no matter.

Around the corner is the Radio Hall of Fame, which also does not seem to adhere to particularly rigorous standards. Don Imus and Casey Kasem share membership with the Lone Ranger, Orson Welles and Charlie Osgood. And neither Vin Scully nor Red Barber has made the list.

But this is not a museum for curatorial achievement. Funded by donations, it's a trip down memory lane, a journey best made in the museum's archives, where more than 70,000 radio and TV programs are available for listening and viewing for just $2 for the day. You sit at a desk, watching the great moments of the TV era on a Toshiba monitor or listening on an old Radio Shack cassette machine to radio accounts of anything from the Hindenburg disaster to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

And for $14.95, budding anchors can pop into the Kraft Television Center, don a blue blazer, sit in front of a fading photo of the Chicago skyline, and read off the TelePrompTer.

Mike, 22, plunks down his money and tapes his tryout. Just before airtime, he has a question for the camerawoman: "When it says `Stop,' " he wonders, "what do you do?"

Mike gets to keep the tape of his moment of glory.

-- Marc Fisher

The Museum of Broadcast Communications is in the Chicago Cultural Center, Michigan Avenue at Washington Street. Open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Free admission. Information: 312-629-6000.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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