In 1953, a 22-year-old announcer named Mike Nichols started “The Midnight Special,” a weekly program of folk music on WFMT FM 98.7, originating from the ballroom of the shabby Hotel Guyon in West Garfield Park.
Nichols went on to become half of a legendary comedy duo (with Elaine May), an Academy Award-winning director, and the husband of ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer. And “The Midnight Special” went on to become a broadcasting treasure. It’s still going strong, from 9 p.m. to midnight Saturdays on the Window to the World Communications classical station.
To mark the show’s 60th anniversary, WFMT will ring in the New Year with four hours of live folk music from the station’s Grainger Studio at 5400 N. St. Louis. (Tickets are sold out.) Starting at 9 p.m. Tuesday, “The Midnight Special 60th Anniversary New Year’s Eve Celebration” will feature performances by Spuyten Duyvil, Garnet Rogers, Brother Sun, Bonnie Koloc, and Kim and Reggie Harris.
Under the devoted stewardship of WFMT patriarchs Norm Pellegrini and Ray Nordstrand (with the added inspiration of Studs Terkel), “The Midnight Special” evolved into an eclectic and irreverent mix of folk, Celtic, bluegrass, show tunes, novelty songs and comedy. To this day, the station bills it as “folk music and farce, show tunes and satire, madness and escape.”
Current host and producer Rich Warren, 63, who’d been a fan of the show before he joined the station in 1974, has been keeping the spirit alive as its sole host since 1996. He also hosts the concert series “Folkstage,” which precedes “The Midnight Special” at 8 p.m. Saturdays.
“If I went to any radio station with a proposal for ‘The Midnight Special,’ I would be laughed out the door,” Warren told Dave Hoekstra for a Sun-Times piece on the show’s 50th anniversary in 2003.
“What makes ‘The Midnight Special’ unique is to find a John Gorka song about whistling, then play ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ by Stephen Sondheim and then the comedy routine based on [the whistling] ‘The Colonel Bogey March’ from ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai’ that [British satirists] Beyond the Fringe did,” Warren said. “Suddenly there’s something going on.”