Written by Dick Orkin
Starring Dick Orkin, Jane Roberts, Jim Runyon
By the 1960s, radio had fully evolved away from dramas and comedies to DJs playing music. But the urge to put a story on the air continued in small pockets, often on individual stations as a part of their programming. Probably the most successful of these was Chickenman.
The show as created as part of the success of Batman. Chicago radio station WCFL thought it might be funny to create a superhero spoof to run in among the top-40 hits. Dick Orkin, the production director at the station came up with the concept.
Chickenman was actually Benton Harbor (Orkin), who fought crime on weekends by donning a chicken suit and going after criminals. He was assisted by the befuddled Police Commissioner Norton (Orkin) and his highly competent secretary Miss Helfinger (Jane Roberts). When unable to fight crime due to his job as a shoe salesman, Benton’s mother Mildred (Roberts) would help out.
The segments ran under three minutes, but had a wonderful deadpan sensibility. Even the most absurd developments were played perfectly straight. Here’s a selection:
The show was just planned for a two-week run on WCFL, but it quickly took on a life of its own and continued. After a few months, it was syndicated and was played across the country and for the Armed Forces radio.
Orkin created his own production company to syndicate it and eventually took full control from the radio station. The episodes ran through the mid-70s, at which point Orkin – with his partner Bert Berdis – created a second show for radio: The Tooth Fairy, with Orkin as the title character.
The team went into advertising and produced a series of successful ads, following closely in the footsteps of the great Stan Freberg. They won several Clio awards for the best in the industry.*
Orkin died on December 24, 2017, well remembered in advertising and radio (he was in the Radio Hall of Fame). His Chickenman is still available on CD, and is still a delight.
*As an aside, in 1991, the Clio award ceremony was probably the greatest fiasco in award show history. The MC was a no-show and the event’s caterer was pressed into service, but there was no script or winners list. He walked off. The next presenter was drunk and, after giving out a few awards, staggered offstage. Then people started mobbing the stage, grabbing the statuettes, and making off with them. Their sponsor soon went bankrupt.