Saturday, July 29, 2006

Chancing upon a Chicago Television Legend: A Vignette

I met my dad at the nursing home this afternoon to take my grandpa out to lunch. When I arrived, Grandpa was waiting at the door, ready to go, eager for lunch at Gramma Sally's Pancake House, where he always gets the same thing--strawberry crepes. The servers there know my dad and grandpa by now, as this is their Saturday ritual, and so when our waitress set a heavy-laden plate of crepes covered with a mess of strawberries in front of Grandpa--at least twice the regular serving size--she gave Dad a wink and explained that she asked the kitchen to throw in a little extra today. Grandpa, oblivious to this exchange, just picked up his fork and got started. Honestly, I think they're just amazed at how much food my grandpa can put away at his age (which is 97 1/2). Who knows, maybe the cooks and bus boys are back there in the kitchen placing bets on whether or not whether or not Grandpa will clean his plate that day. What I do know is that anyone who bets against my grandpa's appetite is a fool.

Anyway, on the way back to the nursing home Grandpa tells us that he has a new roommate who will draw pictures of us. My dad and I aren't entirely sure what this means. (Grandpa remains lucid, but sometimes he leaves out the details that make things make sense.) Grandpa asks us to talk to his roommate and find out exactly who he is and what he's all about, since with his hearing loss he's only been able to catch a few things here and there.

So, we get back to Grandpa's room and meet Bruce Newton, the new roommate. We shake Bruce's hand, pull up some chairs, and he begins to tell us bits and pieces of his story. Born in Michigan. Fought in WII. Occupied Japan after the bomb was dropped, got cancer because of the radiation, and in a paradox of medicine, underwent 48 radiation treatments to beat it. Attended seven different colleges in order to learn about radio, television, stage design, and puppetry. Moved to Chicago. Got his start with a morning show on WGN, Chicago's home town station. Met his wife. A few years later, handcrafted the puppet that would become Garfield Goose, co-star of a children's show with a 25 year run. (I learned my dad grew up watching Garfield Goose and his contemporaries on an 11" TV my grandpa won in a 10 cent raffle at the barbershop.) Went on to work for several other TV stations, working on various kids' shows and creating additional puppets that live on in the nostalgic memories of my parents' generation. Played the role of Shorty in "Shock Theatre," a program that aired horror movies from the 30's and 40's. And...did a lot of other stuff, including design the very first set for Soul Train.
He tells us all of this with the air of someone used to reciting his story. He is not arrogant, though, and humbly accepts the fact that I am young and not at all familiar with his famous goose or any of the other characters he crafted, controlled, or played over the years. He points to his bedside table, where there's a picture of his wife, Claire. "She died three weeks ago," he tells us. "We were together every day. It hurts so much to be apart." And he starts to cry.

Regaining his composure, he reaches for his sketchpad and says, "Here, I'll draw you. It helps take my mind off my wife." He begins a caricature of me, while I begin to look through a red album with the word "Memories" on the cover in black felt letters, where the "s" has come loose and curls a bit to the left. The book holds an assortment of yellowed newspaper clippings, invitations to Chicago events, employee IDs, certificates of commendation, photographs of his home and family, a document stating his service in WII, and scattered throughout, the autographs of people he met while working in television. Humphrey Bogart. Fred Astair. Shirley Temple. Ed McMahon. Mae West. Along with a host of other names I don't recognize or can't make out. My dad fills me in their role in American celebrity-dom, repeatedly surprised that I don't know who the people are.

Bruce finishes his drawing of me, adds Garfield Goose on the left with "Hello Suzanne" in a speech bubble floating between us, finishes the whole thing off with his signature ("It'll get you more on E-bay that way," he tells me with a wink), hands it to me, and starts in on my dad. When he finishes and my dad has received his Bruce Newton original, we say our goodbyes to Bruce and grandpa leads our exit parade down the hallway to see us out, shuffling his feet to make the wheelchair go. "So," he asks my dad as we near the lobby, "what part did he have with Garfield Goose?"


Bethany said...

Wow... that's pretty amazing. Can't wait to see the charicature!

allison said...

I'm with Bethany...when do we get to see the charicature? :) love you! Happy Friday!

Anonymous said...

Very Cool story.I have just attended an auction of the Newton Family Today in Yorkville Illinois.& am proud to say I now own a few bits & some pieces of their past..I also grew up watching Garfield & friends.