Years before John Weigel launched WCIU-Channel 26, Chicago's ethnic community was served by a few visionaries such as Bob Lewandowski and Ron Terry. Another man was Rudy Orisek. Back around the early part of the century, I wore the hat of Deputy Archives Director of The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Rudy was there one day to donate the rights to his series "International Cafe" to the MBC. We had lunch and Rudy waxed nostalgic about his long career in Chicago broadcasting. Afterward I kicked myself for not recording it.
Cary O'Dell, who served as Archives Director of the MBC in the last part of the twentieth century, was much more on the ball. Presented here is his interview with Rudy Orisek. The photos are from The O'Dell Collection. The Video Veteran thanks Cary O'Dell for allowing us to present this wonderful story as part of The Chicago Alumni Club
Rudy Orisek—broadcaster, businessman, bon vivant—was multicultural before someone coined the term “multicultural.” The producer/proprietor of the Chicago-based radio and television series “International Café” (among other programs), Rudy Orisek’s shows exist in media history, in the ether and memory, unexpectedly, defiantly, almost apocryphalicly.
On the air over superstation WGN during the late 1950s and all of the 1960s, a time when the nation was simmering or boiling over in racial strife and the citizenry itself was awkwardly adjusting from “separate but equal” to assimilation, Orisek’s shows were an oasis of ethnic entertainment, acceptance and understanding.
On “International Café,” for over a decade, entertainers of every range and shade appeared and performed to a racially-mixed audience, in the studio and at home; entertaining without complaint or conflict. Granted, artists who HAPPENED to be racial minorities have always appeared on television. The likes of Nat “King” Cole, Lena Horne, and others were regulars on “Ed Sullivan,” or even had their own programs, but on these shows, the matter of their race—their very “other-ness”—was treated (for better or worse) as largely irrelevant. By contrast, on “Café,” the ethnicity and nationally of the performers and their material was placed center stage, on the front burner, perhaps, in the process, gently turning up the heat on America’s fabled melting pot.
Of Slovak decent, the son of immigrants, Rudy Orisek was born in Chicago in June of 1924. At the time of Rudy’s birth, his father was a successful businessman owning and running four food stores in the Chicago area. “But,” say Orisek, “came the Depression, and he lost everything with the bank. Gone was his chain of stores.” Later, his father returned to an earlier vocation in carpentry.
Prophetically, Rudy was raised in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, then a multi-ethnic mix of cultures made up of first- and second-generation Americans. “It was a poor neighborhood—only none of us knew we were poor at the time. There were Serbs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Blacks, you name the nationally and we had it there. It was just like a little Europe. In school, we were all in there together, in the same classes.”
Orisek continues, “As a teenager we had taverns all up and down the neighborhood each offering a different type of ethnic entertainment for their patronage. So you had a German tavern and a Polish tavern and a Czech and an Irish. And they all had different types of music.”
At age 18, just nine months after high school, Rudy—like most young men at the time—was drafted into the army. He was sent to Europe, serving with the Third Army under General Patton. In April of 1946, Orisek was discharged, but, back stateside, Rudy, like many returning GIs, found himself somewhat rudderless after the war. “My experience before the war was high school and working after school at an A&P, stocking shelves, to help support the family.
“Unlike some, the service hadn’t really trained me in any sort of trade to go into after the war. And then there were some of us who had some experiences there… I was not a fighting soldier [but] I was part of the headquarters unit, a recon troop and I was with them as we opened concentration camps. The prisoners—Bohemians, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians—were so elated that despite their sufferings they tried to greet us by singing native songs. It was an unforgettable experience for me.”
But despite that life-affirming moment, Rudy states, “I wasn’t good for…ANYTHING right after the war. The horror that I saw. It took me a while to get over that. You are not prepared to deal with this. You are not taught to deal with this. It took me five years to anchor myself again. I was very irresponsible.
“[But] my brother was involved in photography and fortunately he forced me to come to work for him and go out and sell and meet people.”
Working days with his brother, Rudy spent his nights at the Arena, a Chicago-area ice-skating rink. “We would hang out there, talk, meet girls. It was a nice place.” After the rink closed at 11pm, Rudy and friends headed to Charmet’s, a late-night diner. “We would laugh and joke and I guess I was sort of a prankster and one of the girls said, ‘Why don’t you go on the radio? You’re as funny as any of those guys.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’
“But the next week, this girl sent me in the mail the names and addresses of three area radio schools. Well, two of them were two-year courses and I didn’t like that, but there was one that was just a 13-week course and I thought I could survive that. I still had some credits on my GI bill, so I went to school. And 13 weeks later, I was a radio announcer. But I wasn’t a very good one. Whenever I was announcing and I would look up into the booth no one was ever there, they were all on the floor laughing at me!
“I probably could have become an announcer in Podunk somewhere but I didn’t want to leave Chicago. I really didn’t have an announcer’s voice and in those days you had to have some timbre to your voice, a Cronkite-type voice. And I was this skinny kid with a skinny voice so I realized that if I was going to go into broadcasting, I would have to sell myself otherwise.”
So, Rudy struck upon an idea. He says, “Pop music was very dominate [but] I didn’t have any relationship, any identity, with it. I had to look for a different way to enter the radio business.” Though foreign-language programs, playing ethnic music flourished on lower-band radio, they were slowly losing their audience as America’s English-speaking-only second generation came of age. Rudy’s idea was to create a foreign-music radio show without a foreign language. “I knew the kids liked their parents’s music but because they didn’t speak their parents’s language they couldn’t really relate to it. I wanted to become the bridge between them and the music of their heritage.”
Because it was an untried idea, Rudy had to show some ingenuity: “For me to break into [a] broadcast schedule, I had to have some strength behind me. And my strength was a solid sponsor. So I went in and bought the half hour of time, then brought in the sponsor, brought the programming in myself, did the commercials…. I knew, or learned, that the only way I could survive was to buy the time, broker it, get the 15% commission as an agency and then ask for a talent fee.”
Rudy’s first show, “Revelry with Rudy,” was broadcast from 8 to 8:30am. over WTAQ in suburban La Grange, Illinois.
His first sponsors were “every butcher shop, clothing store, and bookstore that I could call upon.” A later sponsor was Centennial Laundry & Dry Cleaning who happily billed Rudy in their ads as “The Musical Laundry Man.”
Later Orisek hooked up with other, perhaps more appropriate, sponsors. One of his longest-running was Balkan Music Company. “It was a tiny, local music store that produced its own records for the Croatian and Serbian community and he sponsored my show for 15 minutes on a Sunday and he did it purely out of the kindness of his heart. He couldn’t afford it but I didn’t know he couldn’t afford it. Nevertheless he bought the time for me. I didn’t get paid any talent fee, just got the time so I could get on the air.
“Well, after four weeks, he found he had a response out of the show, the community was talking about the show and his records.
“I was on the air with him, as a sponsor, for ten years. Even after I had moved to other stations, I continued to do that show for him out of loyalty for what he did for me.”
One of the first “other stations” Rudy was on was WJJD, where he had a daily show from 6 to 6:30am. Now a radio regular, Rudy was soon amassing a devoted listening audience, made up of various early-risers. One especially devoted group were area grave diggers whose early hours coincided with Rudy’s. They often called in requests and dedications.
Besides cultivating a listenership, Rudy was also collecting a huge musical library which would eventually number upwards of 4,500 recordings. He got nearly all of them for free. He says, “When the record pushers would come to town, they’d have all the new pop albums that were popular with other DJs, but they’d always have one or two odd-ball albums that they didn’t know what to do with. Well, there was Rudy! They had the German version of ‘My Fair Lady’ or the Italian version of something. And I’d take them.”
Rudy boasted, at the time, “I have six Bulgarian LPs, the only ones in commercial broadcasting!”
Truly now in the broadcasting business for the long haul, Rudy christened his new company rudio productions, a fun hybrid of the words “Rudy” and “radio.” For further flair, he always wrote the name exclusively in lower-case letters. He also acquired his first office, setting up shop at 50 East Chicago Avenue. To further commemorate his new status, Rudy turned to local caricaturist Len Redman to playfully recreate his visage on letterhead and business cards. Says Rudy, “On the cards, I called myself a ‘radio artist’ for lack of anything else.”
Those cute cards would soon prove invaluable.
Though Balkan Music, and other sponsors, were still on board with Rudy’s radio shows, he could always use more underwriting. New business card in hand, he approached Talman Federal and Loan, then the largest banking firm in Chicago and the ninth largest savings and loan in the world. Rudy relates, “I went to Talman to get their advertising. I spoke with the receptionist and she told me they weren’t really interested in that sort of programming, but I said, ‘Well here’s my card. Please give it to the manager and if he changes his mind, he can call me.’
“She took the card and the next day, the manager, John Pugh, called me from Talman and said, ‘I have to meet the guy who sent his business card in here. If you’ve got a card like that, you’ve got a sense of humor and I want to meet you.’”
It was a very good meeting and Talman agreed to sponsor Rudy for the next 13 weeks. Rudy continues, “In those days, you ran your own board, opened up the mic for the music, dropped the needle, and then opened up the pot for the music. Well, my first show for Talman, I was so excited to have this big sponsor, I was nervous. Later in the day, when I spoke with John, he said, ‘Rudy, that was great music but where were the commercials? There was a minute of silence between all the music. I never knew what you were playing, you never announced it.’ Well, then I realized I never opened my own mic!”
Despite that disastrous beginning, Talman remained a great supporter of Rudy’s endeavors; they would sponsor him, in radio and TV, for the next 23 years.
It was, though, getting Talman to re-up for the next 13 weeks that proved most important and career-altering. Talman was willing to say “yes,” IF Rudy could reach a bigger audience. And that meant moving his show uptown, to some of Chicago’s powerhouse stations.
Luckily for Rudy, with a proven format and, in Talman, a secured sponsor, WLS picked up Rudy’s program, “Rhythms ‘Round the World,” for nightly airing at 11pm. Eventually, “Rhythms” would air, at one time or another, over every major radio station in the Chicago area, WBBM, WMAQ and WGN.
Soon, Rudy’s radio output grew exponentially. While he remained on the air on WTAQ out of La Grange, he was quickly also helming additional shows, over various stations, always with a ethnic bent, like “America is a Song,” “Preview,” “Rudy’s Carnival,” “Isle of Paradise” (which showcased the music of the Hawaiian islands) and “The Bewitching Hour” (which welcomed midnight each evening with the strains of gypsy-themed melodies). Since Rudy was always a freelancer throughout his career, he was never under contract to any one station, allowing him to appear simultaneously over many frequencies at once.
In 1953, rudio launched a radio show called “International Café” over WTAQ. Rudy says of the name, “I was really thinking back to those taverns I grew up around, but the word ‘tavern’ didn’t have the right feel, so I instead called it a ‘café.’” As the name suggested, the program was supposedly set in a café and it presented ethnic music, a different nationality every week, performed first on tape, then live in the tiny radio studio. To add to the illusion of a real-life sidewalk café, sound effects—clinking glasses, low conversations—were added to the background. So believable was the artificial ambience that the station’s switchboard regularly got calls asking for reservations or directions to the café. (It was a problem that would continue when the show later moved to television.)
By this time, Rudy Orisek’s daily and weekly live broadcasting schedule kept him on the air, somewhere throughout Chicago, throughout most of the day and most of the week. It also often had him driving, breakneck, from one station to another in order to get each show on the air on time.
With his radio workload constantly increasing, Rudy eventually found it necessary to engage a partner. A friend recommended a young writer, then employed in the creative writing department of the Florsheim Shoes company. His name was Hal Stein. And in 1955, Rudy and Hal formed a business partnership. It was a relationship that would last for the next 23 years.
One of Stein’s first suggestions was in regard to radio’s “International Café.” Stein said, “Why don’t we do that as a television show?”
While Hal began to write up a couple of sample scripts, Rudy turned artist (an act that would prove prophetic) and drew up a primitive pencil sketch of what the set of “International Café” should look like: a street café with small tables where audience members would be brought onto the stage to act as patrons and with a platform, spacious enough to accommodate musicians, but with enough space in the foreground for people to dance along if they wished. Once the set was built, checkered tablecloths and candles in bottles, burning and dripping wax, would complete the look.
Rudy remembers about the launching of the show, “We went around to a couple of TV stations but WGN was the only one that was strong enough at that time to be really interested. And they went for it. We would bring in the sponsor and talent and everything else.”
At first, Rudy remembers, “The program manager [at WGN] wasn’t convinced that I was going to be the best host for the show, so I was only supposed to be the host until they found a replacement. But they never found a replacement.”
That Rudy remained as MC and ambassador of the program was, perhaps, one of its greatest strengths. Lanky, horn-rimmed and charmingly geeky in appearance, he looked a little like your high school social studies teacher and his on-screen hosting was, in the words of one critic at the time, “unpretentious.” And though the program had, of course, educational underpinnings, it was not the program’s main focus. With an unassuming manner and a McLuchanian coolness, Rudy kept the emphasis not on instruction but on entertainment. Rudy says about the program’s mission, “The key was to make the music palpable to a wide enough group of people, not to take an esoteric position….
“Though I do believe the show is serving a kind of moral purpose. When one group understands the talent and artistry of an unfamiliar tradition, then peoples and cultures begin to understand each other.”
The weekly, televised appearances of course soon made Rudy a local celebrity. “I was never a major star, of course…[but] if we went to Greek Town, my wife and I would be showered with food and drinks because they were thankful for what I had done for Greek music. And the same thing happened when we went to other areas around the city.”
The first shows of the television incarnation of “International Café” were done live (and recorded on kinescopes) out of the WGN studios, then located on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Orisek recalls, “[It] was a nice auditorium with about 300 seats. Well, the station, in order to fill the theater for a show, always issued twice as many tickets as there were seats to make up for all the no-shows.” But for “International Café,” when showtime came on that first Saturday evening, nearly 600 people turned out for the program. Rudy recalls, “We had to put up extra chairs in the aisles and in the sponsor’s booth. Even after we pulled people to be on stage during the show, we still didn’t have enough room.”
Described by at least one reporter as an “ethnic barn dance,” each weekly, hour-long episode of “Café” was thematic, each presenting the music and other performing arts of a particular nation or group. The first “Café” (not surprisingly) was Slovak-Croatian in theme. Later broadcasts showcased the musical artistry of Greece, France, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Sweden and others.
Much of the talent for the show was drawn locally, “ironically,” says Orisek, “from those same nightclubs, those taverns from my youth, and we brought the live music from their stage to our stage. It was sort of a complete circle for me.”
Orisek and Stein were fortunate as well that at the same time they were producing their program with their own blend of multi-national folk music, America was rediscovering its own musical storytelling roots. Thanks to small coffee shops and artists like Judy Collins, Arlo Guthre and others, music was turning low-tech, away from heavily-produced pop and towards a more troubadour style of performance. “International Café” was soon able to tap into the talent from this resurgent genre, and the WGN program became an important stepping stone for many emerging stars. Over the years, Rudy welcomed to the “Café”: James Taylor, Miriam Makeba, Carolyn Hester, Theodore Bikel (an often returning guest), Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, and the Trio Kitara, among others.
Hal and Rudy’s rapport with talent, local and otherwise, would prove invaluable when the duo, in 1963, “inherited” the famous Gate of Horn nightclub located on Chicago’s Rush Street.
A well-known Windy City hot spot, the Gate got closed down and was taken away from its founder after comic Lenny Bruce brought his controversial, profane act to its stage and the Chicago police staged a raid.
Rudy remembers, “So the club was put up for sale but the only person who could obtain it and the licenses you needed to run it had to have a squeaky-clean reputation…. Well, guess who that was?”
While the Gate of Horn fulfilled an artistic bent for the partners, it was also a very smart business investment: the club was the perfect breeding ground for musicians to put on their TV show while appearances by the artists on television spurned better attendance to the nightclub.
Orisek and Stein owned the club for two years.
For the second TV season of “International Café,” beginning in the fall of 1956, the show moved to new studios located on the 43rd floor of the Daily News building in Chicago. The broadcasting always took place on Saturday or Sunday. Unfortunately the freight elevator in the building didn’t operate above the fortieth floor on the weekends, requiring Rudy and his crew to haul their equipment and instruments up several flights of steps each and every broadcast.
By this time, the program had garnered a popular, almost cultish, following, both in terms of viewers and broadcasting professionals. Says Orisek, “Engineers would come in on Saturdays—when they would normally be off. Stage hands would steal Pepsi-Cola from other shows during the week and bring them in so we had something to drink during the show. Cameramen always wanted to work on the show because they had a chance to be expressive.” Longtime, esteemed Chicago director Sheldon “Shelly” Cooper often directed the shows—but was always credited under an alias so as not to tick off his WGN bosses.
Despite Cooper’s double life however, there was never any hard feelings between WGN and the “Café” cartel. Says Rudy, “We were part of the WGN family even though we weren’t staff there. Everyone thought we were employed by them but we weren’t. In fact though when WGN did their anniversary they included a clip of ‘International Café’ which I thought was very nice because we were the only independent show then on their station.”
By 1960, “International Café” was being videotaped and it allowed rudio productions to market the show for syndication. Its pilot was favorably reviewed by “Variety” who called it “brisk, diverting, and always eye-filling, thanks largely to Anton Kalman’s [a.k.a. Sheldon Cooper] peripatetic camera and his keen eye…. Refreshing television.”
A later review said of the show, “’International Café’ was, and remains, a distinctive Chicago origination—novel, good looking, lively and melodious.”
Further accolades arrived in October, 1962, when Rudy welcomed to the show, for their first Chicago television appearance, the Jose Molina Spanish ballet troupe. The appearance of the dance company required a couple of alterations to the “Café”: the dancers would not only dominate the show for 40 minutes of its hour-long airtime but, in order to get the most out of the troupe’s heelwork and zapateado, a new floor, costing hundreds, was put down in the studio.
Dance critic Ann Bazel, in a review of the program at the time, said, “[It was] one of the most exciting presentations of dance television ever done. Everything was right—Orisek’s short and literate introductions,… the respect and consideration shown to the dancers…and the direction and the camera work….”
In 1963, “International Café” moved studios again. This time to WGN’s new studios at Bradley Place and, for the first time, the program would be brought to all of the Midwest in breathtaking color.
The success of “Café” soon sprang rudio-produced spin-offs. In short order WGN was airing such self-explanatory shows as “Polka Party” and “Folkfest,” each with Rudy acting as host. The programs were vintage rudio, with local and national talents, a laid-back atmosphere and a bit of audience participation. In one episode of “Folkfest,” the show closed with the audience, entertainers and crew spontaneously breaking into a rendition of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”
As if all this activity wasn’t enough, in coming years, Orisek and Stein would also launch other, highly popular Chicago-area shows including various children’s shows like “Junior Auction” and “The Dick Tracy Show” featuring Chicago kidvid veteran Ray Rayner, and a daily talk show starring local legend Jim Conway.
Their final series, titled “Around the Town” and shot on location in New York City, featured a wide assortment of talents, including a rare television appearance by the legendary Nina Simone.
The increased workload, on both TV and radio, ultimately required the hiring of additional staff. By the time the late ‘60s rolled around, six additional producer/writers had been brought on board to handle all the various series.
“International Café” had always been the company’s flagship show and would air over WGN-TV between 1956 and 1970. The program was revived a few times after 1970; the final time, an all-Greek music special, again with Rudy as host, appeared in 1973. By this time, as Rudy recalls, “Syndicated came in stronger and local stations didn’t need to fill the timeslots as actively with local shows as they did before. They could fill the timeslots a lot cheaper and some of the syndicated shows were coming in already sponsored which is like gilding the lily.”
Further complications arose with rudio’s long-standing sponsor, Talman Federal after they went public and welcomed a new president, one with a new agenda which didn’t include underwriting television and radio. Additionally, as well, Rudy and his long-time partner, Hal Stein, began to develop different interests. And when WGN decided not to renew “The Jim Conway Show,” that was the final blow for rudio productions. Says Rudy, “In about a year’s time, it was like we got one, two, three punches in a row and we couldn’t carry on.”
To add insult to injury, Orisek found his options in commercial broadcasting, post-rudio, limited—he was just too identified with his former sponsor. He says, “Everyone I went to said, ‘Yeah, but you’re the Talman Guy.’”
At the age of 50, Rudy Orisek found he had to start all over. He said, “My wife and I had a house, three kids and two cars and we wanted to keep all of them.”
In order to move forward he quickly formed a company he christened Concept Communications. He says, “It was a nothing name that could mean anything to anybody. I printed up business cards and opened a post office box.”
His 12 year-old son’s tinkering with stereo speakers made out of tin cans eventually led Rudy to a radically different career for the second half of his life. Father and son soon patented the little speakers and began to offer them at trade shows and sell them as promotional items to Kraft, Wrigley and other companies.
Rudy continues his story, “Through some trade shows I met a gentleman who did a lot of promotional work for a lot of companies, especially Amoco.” That man presented Rudy with an interesting challenge.
By the 1970s, the giant energy crisis and high gas prices had caused many service stations to switch from full-service to self-service in order to bring down the price at the pump. But many motorists, especially women, didn’t like the smell of gasoline on their hands after they filled up.
“I was told, ‘If you can come up with an idea to fix that,’ he told me, ‘The account is yours.’”
After discussing the predicament with his wife, Arlene, Orisek struck upon an idea for a mitt, like an oven mitt, for dispensing fuel. With the help of a local plastic fabricator (found via the yellow pages), Rudy sewed up 50 samples and then went off to meet the Amoco chiefs.
Rudy walked out of that meeting with an order for five MILLION mitts.
The invention of the mitt was followed by the development and trademarking of both the “gas shield” and the “dispos-a-funnel,” the latter being “the easy way to change your oil.”
Today, Concept Communications, from its 50,000 square-foot warehouse in suburban Chicago, sells over 1,400 products (from the original Gas/Diesel Mitt to coffee dispensers to gumball machines) to over 140,000 service stations and convenience stores (known as “c-stores” in the industry). Says Rudy about his latter-day career change, “I’ve always been a salesman. And selling radio shows and television shows isn’t much different from selling any other ideas.”
And as if the transition from TV producer to service station supplier magnate was not iconoclastic enough, Orisek has further expanded his talents into the visual arts. A talented, self-taught watercolorist, Orisek’s paintings have been hung in various galleries as well as sold to an assortment of art patrons. “Right now,” he says, “I’m thinking about expanding my art business into the internet. For me, [painting] is just a different creative bent since I’m not in front of a microphone anymore. It’s a different type of creative expression.”
Perhaps, though, one shouldn’t be too surprised at the professional progress of Rudy Orisek from producer to painter—diversity has always been what Rudy Orisek has been about. And in his diverse radio and television career, remarkably, Rudy cannot recall one racially-based complaint, letter or confrontation; no hate mail, no station or sponsor censorship. He says today, “I can’t explain it. Part of it might have been that many people couldn’t pinpoint my background: the Greeks thought I was Greek, the Serbs thought I was Serbian.” Still, once “Café” came to TV, no one could have mistaken him for being African-American or Asian. Rudy continues, “I still can’t explain it, but I don’t remember any problems. Maybe because, for the show, we always placed artistry over politics.”
Which of course is not to say that Orisek was not aware of the role he and his programs were playing in terms of interracial understanding. He said in 1963, “I feel I’m making a contribution by making the folk music of America and other lands familiar to more people. When an Italian-American hums an Irish tune and is aware of its origins, that is the beginning of tolerance. Few people who like the blues harbor anti-Negro feelings. You can’t do a good job of loving and hating at the same time.”