WTTW's guides to the urban jungle include host Klinger (standing) and intrepid correspondents Cassy Harlo, Brad Perry, Mindy Bell and Suzy Nakamura.

WTTW's Wild Chicago
A comic guide for those curious about a big-shouldered city

Originally published in Current, Dec. 18, 1995

By Stephanie McCrummen

It's another edition of Wild Chicago, the speed-of-light half-hour ''anti-newsmagazine'':

If such segments lack the intellectual appeal of most programs on WTTW, they have made Wild Chicago one of the most popular local shows in the city. This fall it earned a 5 rating and 10 share at 10:30 on Sunday nights, beating most of Sunday-night cable as well as every other local WTTW production.

Since the show's start in 1988, the budget has become bigger, the production slicker and the pace a bit slower (six or seven segments per show versus 12 or 13 segments when original producer John Davies was in charge). Yet, current producer Harvey Moshman has maintained what Davies regarded as the virtue of the show: its success depends not on ''a host with blown-dry hair'' but upon the people of Chicago. ''You don't have to have done anything 'great' to get on the show,'' says Davies. You just have to be authentic.

Typical segments have featured a basement collection of antique surgical tools, the singing poet of Chicago and a man who creates full body casts. Field correspondents conduct interviews in the khaki-and-pith-helmet mode of Ben Hollis, the original host. His successor, Will Klinger, says he just wears a ''wild tie, out of respect for Ben.''

Since 1988, Wild Chicago has become ''almost an institution,'' says Andy Yocom, v.p. of broadcasting at WTTW. Attempts to copy the show on other Chicago stations have fizzled. While the show was not originally envisioned for public TV, Moshman says that in the beginning, the lack of pressure to win over local advertisers gave them time to develop an audience.

Yet lately, despite steadily increasing ratings and numerous awards, the show has had to compete for funding and resources against more lucrative national productions.

Persuading Chevrolet to underwrite the show last year, says Moshman, virtually rescued it from going off the air. Now, says Moshman, he can imagine how Chevy would be the perfect underwriter for a national ''on the road'' version of the show, though step-up costs to go national are high.

Yocom says Wild Chicago is ''an important component'' of WTTW's local schedule, though the success of the show that has featured the Merry Gangsters Literary Society and a local ostrich rancher has, perhaps, been peculiar for the generally upright WTTW.

''I think that the station is embarrassed by it,'' says Davies. ''It bothers them.''

For better or worse, however, Wild Chicago takes seriously its role as a unique source of information and civic pride for the Chicago community. Correspondents ask the interviewee to give a phone number at the end of each segment, and the producers solicit ideas at the end of the show. Moshman has installed interactive phone lines at WTTW that take messages from viewers. Chicagoans have responded with a steady barrage of mail and phone calls, suggesting nearly all the program's topics.

''A late show that won't cost anything''

The general idea for Wild Chicago was planted when John Davies, now an executive producer with Hearst Entertainment in L.A., was driving with his wife along Milwaukee Avenue in downtown Chicago and passed a sign that read: ''Irma's Body Rub, Rib Shack and Faith Healing.'' They had to know more. ''That was the germ of the idea--to go places people were afraid, ashamed or reluctant to go.''

When WTTW programming executives asked Davies to develop an idea for ''a late night show that wouldn't cost anything,'' he was ready. At the time, Davies was an editor at the station. He pitched his idea and was offered use of WTTW's production crew to shoot a pilot during the crew's down time.

When senior managers at WTTW saw the pilot, they gave Davies a deal. The gist of it, he says, was: ''If you can continue to produce the show using none of the substantial station resources required of a serious project, we can do this.''

The program largely did without underwriting--and also without spending money. Staffers who weren't busy could work on the show without incurring any extra costs for the station, says Moshman. But today the station would be unlikely to make the show without underwriting.

Strict parameters--no studio, no personnel and no money--dictated the show's makeshift style, says Davies. With Hollis, a local comedian, signed on as host, the two producers decided on the ''anti-PM Magazine'' format.

''We would ask, 'Would PM Magazine do this?' And if they would, we wouldn't,'' says Davies. ''If PM Magazine would go to Mrs. Field's Cookies, we would go to Ms. Garbonzee's Shrapnel Cookies.''

In the early days, the show had a rough production quality and stobe-light editing. Hollis decided to wear safari garb, deliberately invoking the image of Jim Fowler, Marlin Perkins' sidekick on Wild Kingdom, another legendary product of Chicago broadcasting.

''It was guerrilla TV,'' says Klinger. The show was subtitled ''Your TV Guide to the Urban Jungle.''

Chicago Sun-Times TV critic Robert Feder recalled early Wild Chicago as a very ''cinema-verite kind of show that was like nothing else on the air ... a delightful visual treat, which was made even better by the fact that they were exposing you to things around your community that you wouldn't normally know about.''

Not everyone enjoyed the show's breakneck pace. One local critic said that the camera movement was so fast, and the editing so choppy, it made him seasick.

''I wanted to use that as the promo,'' says Davies. ''Anything you would cut out of serious pieces, I would want. If the mayor said, 'Wait, I don't have my hairpiece,' I said, 'Roll!' Sad and overweight person? I say, 'Put on a wide-angle lens and shoot down.' ''

''In the beginning,'' says Moshman, a onetime production staffer for Candid Camera, ''we were breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules--it was a style-over-substance effort; when I took over in the fifth season, we took it down a notch in the frenetic look of things...we thought we had more to say; we were doing more substantive pieces.''

While some may not find a substantial difference between Hollis exploring a skull collection and Klinger visiting a stainless-steel appliance collection in the suburbs, Moshman's more traditional approach and slicker production style may have expanded the audience beyond its original cult following. ''To compete,'' he says, ''you have to stylistically keep up.'' Audience stats have the show at 150,000 viewers a night, beating out most of Sunday-night cable.

To thwart people who would fake eccentricity just to get airtime, the Wild Chicago crew always arrives on scene unannounced, with camera rolling. ''Almost without an exception, people are anxious to be on TV,'' says Klinger, ''and sometimes I think they think Wild Chicago is going to be like their own public relations firm, and they are surprised that we are not there to provide them with a three-and-a-half-minute commercial and they are rudely surprised when they don't come off the way they want.''

On the other hand, a recent segment featuring Perry's Deli in downtown Chicago turned out rather well.

''It was great,'' says the proprietor Perry, in a gravelly Chicago voice. ''We knew they'd be here that day, but not the exact time.'' Perry was undaunted by the onslaught of cameras and crew. ''They just came marching in--took over the place. They did it in the middle of lunch, so we just incorporated them. I didn't stop making sandwiches, though, because they were there. I'm in business to make sandwiches ... I normally have more hair than I did that day, though,'' he jokes.

Perry said that the three-minute segment ''gave a big spark to business'' and brought in customers from the suburbs.

Indeed, the problem that some people have with the show is that WTTW plays to a suburban audience and presents the city as a ''freak show,'' where suburbanities don't go, says Lee Sandlin, TV critic for the Chicago Reader, a local newspaper.

Moshman regards the show as a consumer service for the suburbs and Chicagoites in general. ''We function best when we go where you wouldn't be caught dead, to a place you may drive by on the expressway, and think, 'I wonder what that is?' ... We are telling people [what's] in their backyard.''

''Wild Chicago goes into parts of the city where no one goes unless something terrible happens,'' says TV critic Feder, ''I think it celebrates what this whole urban area has to offer.''

Davies, a Chicago native, explains the appeal of the show this way: ''Chicagoans are very parochial ... they want to know the local angle of everything--Wild Chicago is all the Chicago angle.''


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