THE VIDEO VETERAN
THE VIDEO VETERAN
Television has seen many changes over half a century and the habits of the viewer have changed with them. Just as cable struggled to gain respect among the old guard broadcasters in the late 70s through the 80s, stations who operated on UHF fought what, to some, must have felt like a hopeless situation.
Since 1951, after the lift of a ban on new license applications, the FCC had opened up channels 14 through 83 in the Ultra High Frequency band. Unfortunately few television manufacturers built sets that were capable of receiving anything other than channels 2 through 13 and weren't in any great hurry to change. So if you weren't the lucky one on the block with an 82 channel television, such as one built by Philco, you had to make due with the dreaded UHF converter box. These tuners, looking like old tabletop radios, worked like radio tuners, without click positions, making it difficult to fine tune a station. This undoubtedly attributed to, among other things, why UHF had an especially difficult time attracting viewers...and stations. In fact, none of the construction permits issued to Chicago UHF stations during the decade ever saw the light of day.
In 1964, the government had ordered television manufacturers to include UHF as a standard feature on new sets. At first, the tuners may have been more accessible but they certainly weren't easier to use. They still operated like radio tuners and didn't inspire the viewer to make anymore effort to locate stations than the converter on the top of the TV did. This would change by 1966 as televisions were introduced with UHF tuners that locked into each channel the same way VHF tuners had done from the beginning.
John Weigel signed on his WCIU on February 6, 1964, instantly grabbing the distinction of being the first UHF station, channel 26, in Chicago. Knowing that the station would have to offer an alternative to the five VHF stations, WCIU brokered its broadcast day. Radio personality and former host of WBKB's Polka Go-Round, Bob Lewandowski bought time early on with the station, first with a fifteen minute Polish language newscast and later and much longer, as host, producer, writer, and performer of The Bob Lewandowski Show variety hour.
Unless you were of Polish descent or just simply enjoyed polka music and all things Polish, you probably don't remember Bob Lewandowski. In fact, a common response I heard while researching was many remembered his name, but only because, being so long, stood out in the TV guide listings! But to Chicago's vast Polish community, Bob Lewandowski was to them what Fahey Flynn, Len O'Connor, and Lee Phillip were to Chicago's mainstream viewing audiences, all rolled into one.
The Video Veteran recently sat down with the pioneer Chicago broadcaster at his home overlooking beautiful Lake Michigan. Sitting in his office, where the paneled walls were adorned with photos of Lewandowski hob knobbing with presidents and other political bigwigs, we talked about his early days at channel 7.
It's Polka Time! was ABC-TV's prime time polka variety hour produced at WBKB's 190 North State St. studios and aired over the network. It was hosted by Lewandowski's good friend Bruno "Junior" Zielinski. When Zielinski wanted out, Lewandowski was doing a Polish radio show over WSBC. He got a phone call from the vice-president of ABC, an avid Polka lover, to come by and audition as host of a new Polka series called Polka Go-Round.
Lewandowski was no stranger to the Chicago airwaves, having arrived in Chicago from Detroit in 1950. In the motor city he played second banana on a popular Polish radio show Polka Dot, where he learned the ropes of radio and the English language from his mentor, Eugene Kostantynowicz, whom he still respectively refers to as Mr. Kostantynowicz. At that time, there were no Polish radio broadcast coming from Poland, Lewandowski wrote his own. After a year and a half, the mentor felt the apprentice was ready to work without a net...
He came up to me and said 'Bob, you are a complete idiot!' And I said 'Why do you say that? I thought we were friends?' And he says 'It is because we are friends that I say this. Why do you work for me? For what? You can open a show yourself, here in Detroit.'
Lewandowski began to think. He knew it would be foolish not to jump at the chance of hosting his own show but he was uncomfortable with the idea of competing with his mentor who was twenty-five years his senior. Armed with this new found confidence, he decided to pack and move to Chicago. This was 1950.
I came here to Chicago. There were a lot of Polish radio programs on the air. The only place that I felt would sell me airtime was a station owned by Congressman Richard Hoffman, WHFC. And I had a conference with him and I said 'I have no money, no nothing, but I'd like to make a show on this station.' He says 'The only time I can have is 2:00 in the afternoon.' So I said 'Fine but I cannot buy it. I don't have money. But I am a good fellow so why don't you try and give me three or four weeks...?'
Hoffman considered Lewandowski's offer and rejected it, instead insisting that he couldn't be bothered for less than half a year! Lewandowski was in. His new show quickly gained popularity and had no problems getting advertiser support. Airing during the same year, both in the mornings and in the evenings, were two other Polish programs. The host of both programs had died suddenly. Also during this same time, Hoffman was hospitalized and summoned Lewandowski to his bedside...
He called me over and said 'I don't want to have to do anything with anybody! You want those two shows? Take it!' And the morning program I didn't take but the evening program I took over.
Lewandowski continued his afternoon program for a while in addition to his new evening duties. He stayed on the station until it was sold and became Chicago's first black oriented station WVON- the Voice Of The Negro. However, Lewandowski was not out of work for long. He was approached by the owner of WSBC, another AM outlet that brokered its airtime and also shared its frequency with two other stations. Lewandowski signed a contract and stayed at the station for over thirty years.
In 1958, Lewandowski got a phone call from the program director at WBKB, Dan Schuffman, about hosting a polka variety hour on his station. After about four interviews, the director asked whether Lewandowski was able to stand up in front of an audience and tell jokes...
...And I said to him 'Why don't you sit here and I'll stand there and I'll tell you jokes. But not now! I'm trying to get a job from you! And he said 'O.K. that's enough' and we went upstairs to the studio and he said 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is your new master of ceremonies' and I started Polka Go-Round.
Polka Go-Round aired over the ABC-TV network from June 23, 1958 to September 28, 1959. It continued to be broadcast locally over WBKB for several years afterward. The network version aired on Monday nights in both hour and half hour versions. The show featured Tom Fouts and The Singing Waiters, The Polka Rounders, and the Chaine Dancers. Other regulars included Carolyn DeZurik (who had also been on It's Polka Time!), Lou Prohut and Georgia Drake. Lewandowski hosted the show in English, sang, and became the glue that held the show together. Due to ABC, Lewandowski was now a coast to coast celebrity.
Taking advantage of his new found status, Lewandowski embarked on a new broadcast venture, a new show called Press International. The news program, also aired over WBKB, featured around forty newscasters who read the news from various media of the world's nations. The entire show was Lewandowski's creation. He wrote, produced, and anchored the show. One of its later producers was Norman Ross.
Early 1964, a new Chicago television station becomes the first on the UHF dial at channel 26, WCIU. Owner John Weigel, hungry to fill timeslots, brokers his station in a way similar to what WSBC radio did a decade before. He quickly signed Lewandowski for a fifteen minute afternoon newscast. Shortly afterward he began his self-titled hour variety program that enjoyed a Sunday evening timeslot well into the 80s. His show became WCIU's earliest and best success stories. If there was any doubt that a UHF station could make an impact, The Bob Lewandowski Show proved it could.
Lewandowski also benefited from Weigel's other station in Milwaukee, WDJT, channel 58, which aired his program at the same time. When the Polish Solidarity Movement began to attract national attention, veteran newsman Bill Kurtis appeared on Lewandowski's show several times to discuss the event. Anybody who was anybody in Polish politics appeared on the program.
Lewandowski's Chicago celebrity status was well deserved but he didn't realize the impression he made until he and his wife wanted to move into Chicago's Marina City apartment towers, at the time, one of the most elite places to live in the city...
...I went to Marina City and told the owner I wanted to live here. He says 'Bob, of course I'll give you the apartment, but you have to wait two years! We have a waiting list!'
Disappointed, Lewandowski walked back to his office until he realized he knew people who had been involved financially with Marina City. After a short conversation, Lewandowski got a phone call from Marina City telling him two apartments had just become available!
By 1995, age was catching up with Lewandowski and he decided to retire. His variety hour had spent its last year and half at Weigel's low power station on channel 23 WFBT, still entertaining and informing the Polish community just as he had done since 1964 at WCIU. Basically the same program, the major difference was that it was no longer produced from WCIU's Board Of Trade Building studios but from WFBT's Polvision studios on Belmont Avenue.
In addition to his pioneering efforts in Chicago television, Bob Lewandowski has also been active in social work. He is the national director of The Polish-American Congress and, at their request, the national director of the Jewish-American Council. He is also actively involved in the Polish Language Theater of Chicago where he produced several plays. In his native Poland he was a popular actor in Polish films.
Bob Lewandowski took a chance with a brand new television station and both parties enjoyed tremendous success during those heady days of UHF!
All content copyright 2000 Steve Jajkowski