There’s an old adage that you should never meet your heroes because they’ll disappoint you. You know, like if you run into Tom Hanks at the airport and he’s screaming at a ticket agent.
Luckily, that wasn’t true with Bill Kurtis.
It’s safe to say the overflow crowd who came to see the Chicago TV news legend Sunday at the Civil War Museum was not disappointed.
Kurtis — who opened his free program by saying, “This is my favorite museum” — was there to support the traveling exhibit “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights.”
Doug Dammann, education coordinator for the Kenosha Public Museums, was surprised by just how popular this appearance was, though I’m not. This is Bill Kurtis, who so many people in this area — including me — grew up watching on the Channel 2 News.
“We planned for about 50 people,” Dammann said, looking out over the crowd filling the room and the hallway.
I leaned against a window at the back of the room; others sat on the floor or, if they were smart, hovered near the cookie table.
Kurtis, who started his 30-year career with CBS in the early 1960s, showed clips and talked about his coverage of events during the civil rights movement, including his interview with an elderly Rosa Parks — a story he called “The Dream Fulfilled.”
He also showed raw CBS news footage of state troopers turning fire hoses on peaceful marchers in Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965. Other clips were from the riots in Chicago surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in the city.
While these big events in the movement took place decades ago, the battle for civil rights, he emphasized, “is not over.”
Talking with the crowd
Kurtis stayed after his talk to take questions from the crowd, which drew comments about everything from violence in Chicago today — “I don’t know the answer to that crisis,” Kurtis said — to a man who asked Kurtis how the “mainstream media” could regain the trust of the public. “A lot of people think we’re the last hope during this administration,” Kurtis replied.
There was a lot of emotion in the room, evident in the number of audience members jumping up to speak.
Through it all — including the woman who got way off topic to complain about Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, not thanking Jane Byrne — Kurtis was polite and engaging.
Though the Q&A could have gone on for several hours, museum staffers wrapped it up after 60 minutes. Kurtis then stayed in the room while a long line of fans waited to chat with him and pose for photos.
We learned a few things during our afternoon with Kurtis:
Not all his jokes land. He opened by cracking wise, “I would have been here sooner, but my wife (sitting near him) was driving.” That got more groans than chuckles, prompting Kurtis to say that on National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!” he can get away with those comments. He serves as the scorekeeper/announcer for the long-running comedy quiz show.
Though he’s also known as the narrator for the goofy “Anchorman” movies, no one brought that up Sunday. One woman, who was thrilled to get a photo with Kurtis, said she was surprised no “Anchorman” catchphrases had come up, probably because his program had a serious topic. OK, here’s just one of his lines as the “Anchorman” narrator: “He had a voice that could make a wolverine purr and suits so fine they made Sinatra look like a hobo.”
Even at age 78, that commanding Bill Kurtis voice — immediately recognizable — hasn’t changed. Must be all that anchorman training.
See? Sometimes you can meet your heroes and walk away feeling good. And don’t worry about Tom Hanks; that opening line about him losing it at an airport was just an example. I’m sure he never flies commercial.
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