History on Display: The Museum of Broadcast Communications
By John C. Alsedek:
With the field of broadcast communications now nearly 120 years old, it’s had plenty of time to build a rich history . . . and therefore plenty of material for museums, which means there are a number of broadcast/media museums nationally. The best known is probably the Paley Center for Media, located in Manhattan and with a branch in Beverly Hills. There’s also the National Capital Radio & Television Museum in Bowie, Maryland; the Museum of Radio & Technology in Huntington, West Virginia; the Pavek Museum in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. And then there’s Chicago’s famous Museum of Broadcast Communications, located at 360 North State Street not far from Lake Shore Drive.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC) was founded in 1982, though it didn’t actually open till five years later. It was the brainchild of Bruce DuMont, nephew of Allen B. DuMont, founder of the DuMont Television Network and one of television’s early pioneers. Bruce DuMont was already an experienced hand in the broadcast medium, having started as a producer for WGN 720 AM back in 1968 before moving in front of the microphone first with WLTD and later on his own syndicated program, Beyond the Beltway.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications’ first home was in the River City condominium complex at 800 South Wells Street before moving to the Chicago Cultural Center in 1992. In 2003, the museum went into a hiatus as its move into a brand-new building (originally planned for 2005) was held up by interminable construction delays and issues with financing related to $6 million in state funding that had been promised but was delayed. The partially constructed new museum building was nearly sold in 2008, but in the end the funding came through, and on June 13th, 2012 (25 years to the day from its original public opening), the MBC opened the doors at its current location. DuMont resigned from his position as the museum’s president in August 2016 and officially retired on December 31st, 2017.
The stated mission of the Museum of Broadcast Communications is “to collect, preserve, and present historic and contemporary radio and television content as well as to educate, inform and entertain through our archives, public programs, screenings, exhibits, publications, and online access to our resources.” And the MBC has done an excellent job of that to date. The most heavily used of the MBC’s resources is their online archives, which contain nearly half a million videos. But, of course, it’s the physical exhibits and displays that make a trip to the MBC (in non-COVID times) well worth it.
As I mentioned last time, the original psychedelic Svengoolie casket prop is on display there, along with a mockup of the set and a variety of other items. You’ll also find items such as "Oprah’s Door," through which she made her entrance on her TV shows; costumes from a wide variety of music stars, including Joan Jett and Lady Gaga; Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, and Effie Klinker ventriloquist dummies. There are early television cameras, radio microphone setups, and a working weather desk complete with green screen.
My personal favorite exhibit (surprising absolutely no one who knows me) is the Radio Hall of Fame, which dates all the way back to 1991; it’s both an actual Hall of Fame and also a display space for all manner of old-time radio memorabilia. Another long-standing exhibit is "Bozo’s Circus," devoted to the world-famous clown who hosted shows (Bozo’s Circus, Bozo, The Bozo Show, The Bozo Super Sunday Show) on WGN-TV from 1960–2001; the exhibit includes set pieces, costumes, wigs, and props.
But . . . if you’re planning to head there for arguably the best-known of the exhibits, "Saturday Night Live: The Experience," well, you already missed it. Originally opening in the fall of 2017 and set to run through 2018, "Saturday Night Live: The Experience" was so popular that its stay was extended well into 2019. Spread over two floors and 12,000 square feet of the MBC, the exhibit was set up like a production week for the iconic television series: the first room (Monday) was a replica of the show’s original 1975 set and included producer Lorne Michaels’ desk; the second room (Tuesday) featured videos of the show’s writers talking about the creative process; and so on through to the final room—a reproduction of the show’s Studio H. The exhibit included dozens of props and costumes, including the Wayne’s World couches and the Weekend Update Desk.
Anyway, if you find yourself in the Windy City once COVID restrictions finally lift, the MBC is a unique tourist destination. For more information about the Museum of Broadcast Communications, please visit www.museum.tv.
I mentioned earlier that MBC founder Bruce DuMont is the nephew of the founder of the DuMont Television Network, which we covered here many moons ago. One of DuMont’s early successes was The Morey Amsterdam Show, but today we best remember Morey Amsterdam for a show named for someone else. We’ll be looking at The Dick Van Dyke Show next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.