I first became aware of Red Quinlan back in 1999 when I began my research for chicagotelevision dot com. It seemed like wherever I looked, there was his name. When popular TV personality Lucky North left to get married, it was Red who believed in a young Lee Phillip as the person to replace her. Checked out an early article on Bob Newhart…there was Red’s name again. When Studs Terkel found himself at odds with the public, it was Red who stood behind him. As I sorted out the histories of the two WBKBs…Red was there on channel 4 and he was there again on channel 7. At the time I had no idea if he was still active but I had to find out more about him.
In early 2002 I was offered a position at the Museum of Broadcast Communications. It was there that the Quinlan name popped up again. Red was a founding member of the museum. When I mentioned to Bruce DuMont that I wanted to meet Red, Bruce smiled and said, “He’ll talk your ears off!” He was right.
That July, I sat down with Red in his office at Travel Technologies. My plan was to discuss his role in the history of Chicago’s third UHF station WFLD Channel 32.
But that day Red wasn’t all that interested in WFLD. To him, launching 32 was just one more footnote in a long career. Red was in the mood to reminisce about his teenage years riding the freights, going door-to-door offering an honest day’s work for nothing more than a hot meal. We’d chat about some of his earliest careers like writing for The Southend Reporter, canvassing the neighborhoods asking people about what interesting things they’d done. He remembered about the day he answered an ad for crewmember at ‘BKB. It was always “BKB never WBKB. And we laughed as he recalled the story about how he went from Sterling to Red because he was tired of fighting with all the kids in his neighborhood. And yes, he even took time to tell me about Channel 32. But once I realized that this interview was not going to go the way I planned, I sat back and listened as this remarkable old gentleman with an infectious smile beguiled me with his stories of youth, the pain of losing his father and his struggle to come to terms with it, how he witnessed families riding the boxcars, sometimes 90 to a car, and his long standing desire to write “that great American novel.”
So for about three hours Red spoke about those early days. How he worked his way up through the ranks at WBKB, pushing a broom, lighting the stages, running camera, or just about anything else in those pre-union days. Clowning around giving station IDs like WBKB Constantinople just to get a reaction. He would always answer his private line to New York “County Morgue- What shelf?” Then there were the times he’d miss a music cue because he was busy writing for the Capt. Midnight radio series .We spoke about Tom Duggan, Red’s choice to host a new concept in TV entertainment- the late night talk show, a few years before Steve Allen first sat down behind the Tonight Show desk. He remembered the problems with Duggan, whose cozy connections with the Mob forced Red to carry a gun for a while.
Red had no problem pushing the envelope, but there was one idea of Red’s that in hindsight wisely never went beyond a pilot. It was a special titled This Is Your Life- Tony Accardo, a profile of one of Chicago’s infamous Mob bosses. Through the help of the FBI, Red had produced a revealing pilot cutting deep into Accardo’s personal life including film footage of his children outside their school. But it was after a meeting with Accardo himself at the Tradewinds bar that Red decided it was in his best interest to shelve the project.
He recalled with a smirk, the many confrontations with ABC New York and how he insisted on running WBKB his way. And he did. Red usually got his way. And even when he did not, like the time in ‘61 ABC nixed the telecast of a documentary called Chicago: 1st Impressions because it’s footage was deemed too graphic. Red had the last laugh. It was one of the first shows on the air at Channel 32.
When I first met Red he was 85 but certainly did not act like it. As he told me himself, “I don’t feel 85. I’m active. I can move around pretty fast. As long as I feel that way, as long as I feel energy. I just don’t over do it. I don’t need to work but I like to drive downtown. I have a pretty good reputation in Chicago. I could tell people off. And I’ve done that a few times!”
One day Red called me at the museum and wanted to take me out to lunch. So I met him at his office. Leaving there, we walked about a block to a public lot where his car was parked. As we approached the lot, I noticed that where we were there was no easy access, the perimeter surrounded by a three and a half foot guardrail. But that didn’t stop Red, leaping over it like a teenager. He must of read my mind because of the shocked look on my face. “Hey, if I can do it, I am!”
And that sums up how Red lived his life. All aboard Red! The Freight is leaving the station. And that’s how I’ll remember him.
- Steve Jajkowski15 March 07