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Director Mike Nichols and WFMT

Award-winning director and writer Mike Nichols

Award-winning director and writer Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols (born November 6, 1931; died November 19, 2014)

Today the world is remembering the life and work of writer and director Mike Nichols who died suddenly on Wednesday at the age of 83. In a career that spanned over six decades, he won nine Tony Awards and an Academy Award for Best Director for the 1967 blockbuster The Graduate. Around the offices of WFMT, Mike Nichols is remembered for being among the pioneering forces in the early days of this radio station.

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Mike Nichols (with cigarette near his face) seated with the Compass Players

 

 

 

WFMT’s Rich Warren offered this account of those early days at WFMT:

Mike Nichols was WFMT’s first announcer and worked at the station until roughly 1956. He came and went, going back and forth between Chicago and NYC, but was pretty much gone from WFMT by 1955.

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Mike Nichols seated at WFMT’s broadcast console with co-founder Rita Jacobs

In 1953, the first pre-McCarthy folk boom was in full swing and Rita Jacobs Willens thought that maybe WFMT should offer a folk music program. At that time we signed off at about 10:00 pm. She suggested (ordered?) that Mike start a folk music show on Saturday nights when we normally would be off the air. Apparently he had some interest in the music. The original program was largely live in the studio with local Chicago performers such as Win Stracke, Fleming Brown, and Big Bill Broonzy, among others. It slowly evolved into a record show which Mike described as “folk music & farce, show tunes & satire, odds & ends.” Rumor has it that Ray Nordstrand added “madness & escape” to the show’s slogan. Mike left the show sometime in 1954 or 1955, turning it over to Norm Pellegrini. Norm was program director by then. Norm invited a new hire, salesman and part-time announcer Ray Nordstrand to alternate hosting the program with him. Ray remembered Mike coming back a few times, but no one else seemed to recall that.

Ray definitely remembered Mike and Elaine May rehearsing in the WFMT studio in the LaSalle-Wacker building. However, only one tape survives of “Mrs. Horace Maynard Fann,” a put-down of wealthy society matrons. It’s lost somewhere at WFMT. More than one staff member told me the story of Mike overhearing Ray on the telephone with Ray’s mother, and even though Ray was Swedish, not Jewish, it inspired Mike to create the “Mother and Son” routine he did with Elaine. Ray never denied this story. I overheard Ray on the phone with his mother on a few occasions and it’s quite plausible.

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Comedy duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May, 1960

Listen to Marty Robinson wrestle his way through the tongue-tying, multilingual script that Mike Nichols devised as an audition for WFMT announcers:
 

Listen to part of an early comedy bit by Nichols and May:

Born Michael Igor Peschkowsky to a Jewish family in 1931, Mike and his brother were whisked away from their native Germany as small boys. The family successfully escaped the Nazis and settled in New York City. Mike Nichols came to Chicago to attend the U of C in the 1950s, but became more and more involved in local theater, especially comedy. He joined a troupe that called itself the Compass Players, named for a Hyde Park bar, which specialized in improvisational theater (Paul Sills and other Compass colleagues went on to found The Second City). It was 1953 when Mike Nichols started a folk music and variety show on the newly minted WFMT-FM. That show he titled “The Midnight Special.”

Mike Nichols is survived by his wife, ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer, and children Daisy, Max, and Jenny, and four grandchildren.

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