Darkest Hours

Once, Ed Schwartz reigned as the king of Chicago late-night radio, pioneering a show based on intimacy and helping others. But changing tastes and ill health brought him to the point at which he himself needed help

From a bed in a second-floor room of Ballard Nursing Home in Des Plaines, Ed Schwartz-a.k.a. Chicago Ed, the former king of late-night radio-announces visitors as if they were guests on his old show. His delivery is slow, breathless, and squeaky, a Schwartz trademark. “I have here, standing before me, two nurses,” Schwartz pronounces. And a while later: “And now, my physical therapist, is standing in my doorway, with a smile.”

On most days, Schwartz’s playful introductions precede four hours of kidney dialysis and one more of physical therapy to strengthen his atrophied muscles. Then it’s back to his tidy room, an unofficial single. Not long after he checked in last November, the hospital staff realized that Schwartz was nearly impossible to pair with a roommate. Even after the most exhausting treatments, Schwartz tends to keep busy well past 2 a.m. He studies the newspapers, watches television, takes the occasional call-basically acting like any broadcaster who is trying to stay connected to the outside world. Other patients can’t stand it. “I’m a night person,” he says. “I’ve always been.” Ultimately, Schwartz plans to return home and get back to work-on the radio, he hopes, or at least with the newspaper column he wrote before, as he puts it, “I got completely wiped out.”

Schwartz, 59, once hosted the top late-night show in Chicago, reaching as many as 380,000 listeners every week in 1992. He launched one of the city’s largest food drives and became an unlikely local celebrity through his startling generosity, on and off the air. His audience ranged from politicians and police officers to truck drivers, nurses, late-night drinkers, and, of course, insomniacs. “Ed connected with his audience, in part, because he understood loneliness,” says Robert Feder, television and radio columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. “He understood it in his own life and he understood that a large portion of his audience were lonely people. Those are lonely hours late at night, no matter what you’re doing. Ed understood that, and he was a friend.”

Now, the same man who built a career taking care of strangers, rescuing them from all sorts of trouble, has been beaten down by problems of his own. When he checked himself in to the hospital, Schwartz weighed nearly 400 pounds. He was alone and practically destitute. After a few tests, doctors diagnosed Schwartz with renal failure, predicting that, without treatment, he had two weeks to live. “I was feeling fine, and doing my thing,” Schwartz recalls. “It was a complete shock.”

Schwartz says he has little money beyond what insurance will give him. His savings from more than 30 years working in major-market radio are gone-spent, he says, on relatives who needed money, donations to assorted causes or people, and medical expenses for a series of health and weight problems. His only immediate family, a sister and a brother, have difficulties of their own, Schwartz says, and can’t help him. “I have not told most of my friends and former colleagues about this because I just don’t know how,” Schwartz says.

In December, a few friends persuaded Schwartz to let them plan a fundraiser on his behalf. Had it not been for them, Schwartz’s grim dilemma would have been his and his alone. “The irony is that they’re doing this for Ed when he did the same thing for so many people,” says his agent and attorney, Don Ephraim. “Ed is not a spendthrift. But the illnesses he’s had would drain a person of greater means.”

Over the course of his late-night career, Schwartz signed on no earlier than 11 p.m. and, for many years, worked until 5 a.m. every day but Sunday. His slot was generally considered the worst shift in radio. Few professionals want the life that comes with those hours-the potential audience is tiny compared with day broadcasts, and the broadcaster is, as they say, “on an island,” relying mostly on his wits for material. Practically speaking, few people are willing to give an interview at, say, one in the morning, and aside from murder and mayhem, there’s little or no significant local or national news to report or react to.

But Schwartz had a stubborn notion that he could use those sleepy hours to his advantage. “He took a miserable shift and turned it into a program that was as good as, or better than, morning drive radio,” says Cheryl Morton Langston, a former Schwartz producer, now a Columbia College instructor. “He broke new ground.” Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Schwartz had better ratings than some afternoon shows, and in his heyday he was a local celebrity. His birthdays and rare public appearances ran in gossip pages. He had dinner with the likes of Bill Cosby and Muhammad Ali, drinks with George Burns-and joined Bobby Vinton on vacation. Schwartz’s move from WGN to its rival WLUP made front-page news.

Schwartz broadcast a classic variety show, built around the idea that he could solve listeners’ problems. Working the phones with his high voice, he’d call an alderman at midnight, for example, asking why the man couldn’t fix the pothole in front of an old lady’s house. Then Schwartz might connect the two parties, just so the woman could vent and listeners could hear the alderman squirm. On other late nights, Schwartz would hold discussions on racial injustice, poverty, and health problems, connecting callers with experts and creating a self-help scenario that might make Oprah Winfrey proud. “I know a lot of people who miss hearing him on the radio,” says Mayor Richard M. Daley, Schwartz’s first guest on WLUP. “Eddie treated his callers with respect and created a real sense of community with his listeners.”

Schwartz also understood that the program had to be entertaining. On Christmas Eve, he would call Cardinal Joseph Bernardin before midnight Mass, interviewing the cardinal as if His Eminence coached the Bears and was giving a pregame news conference. “Hey, Cardinal,” Schwartz might say. “What can we expect out of the Mass this evening?” Schwartz cold-called ships at sea, dialed commercial airplanes and interviewed the pilots, and connected pen pals who had never before met. On one particularly frigid Chicago evening, Schwartz interviewed a teacher inside a one-room schoolhouse in the Bering Strait, mostly so listeners would realize Midwest weather wasn’t that bad.

When overnight news broke-crime, catastrophe, or otherwise-Schwartz would dial up authorities at home or work no matter how late the hour. As Schwartz likes to say, he “brought listeners along,” chasing down answers in real time so the audience could piece together what had happened. Although many on the receiving end of the calls would hang up on Schwartz, he frequently struck pay dirt when a local official offered a scoop or an explanation. Schwartz’s former colleagues say the good responses came because many of his sources had worked their own graveyard shift, at one time or another, and appreciated Chicago Ed’s show. “Eddie set the agenda for the morning news market,” recalls WBBM-AM’s Pat Cassidy, a morning radio mainstay and former intern for Schwartz. “His sources were incredible.”

Schwartz’s black book reached into the dens, basements, and vacation homes of politicians, public figures, and big-time celebrities. “The paparazzi would kill for it,” says the veteran Chicago broadcaster Clark Weber. Celebrity interviews were a Schwartz staple, ranging from Jay Leno and Billy Dee Williams to George Carlin and Ron Howard. Many of them arrived for in-studio conversations, despite the hour, or gave Schwartz extensive time on the phone, talking to him from home, a Las Vegas dressing room, even while having a postshow cocktail. Former colleagues say the access was due in no small part to Schwartz’s knack for spotting potential and his willingness to promote an up-and-comer’s work before he or she became a star. One popular story describes a young Bill Cosby taking a call from Schwartz while the comedian was in town for a show at the old Mill Run theatre in Niles. Schwartz tried to introduce himself, but Cosby knew all about the broadcaster who early on had played Cosby’s comedy records. “I owe you my thanks,” said Cosby, who off the air gave Schwartz his private number. Years later, Cosby again showed his gratitude by inviting Schwartz to dine with him and Muhammad Ali.

Ed Schwartz grew up on the Southeast Side, a grocer’s son and chubby Jewish kid, raised in a mostly Serbian and Mexican neighborhood near Trumbull Park. Years later, during a WGN show with the actor Dennis Franz, he told his audience: “I knew more swear words in Serbian than I did in Jewish, in Hebrew, in Yiddish.”

Schwartz traces the beginnings of his radio career to his childhood, as far back as the portable radio his grandparents bought him when he was nine. He remembers falling asleep to the Jack Eigen show on WMAQ and joining the amateur radio club in the neighborhood, using a two-way ham radio to talk to other operators around the city. “I had a fascination with radio technology,” he recalls.

In 1964, Schwartz graduated from Bowen High School and enrolled at Columbia College, intending to study radio production and eventually find a technical job. But his goal changed during his senior year of high school, when he was working a part-time job at a big-and-tall clothing store on Clark Street. One afternoon, Schwartz’s boss asked him to deliver a suit to Dex Card, the afternoon WLS-AM disc jockey. Schwartz arrived at the station, suit in hand, and stood in a lobby where only a window separated him from Card’s broadcast studio. “He waved me in,” Schwartz recalls, “and he let me sit for a few minutes and watch the show. Well, oh, boy, that was quite a thrill.”

He landed a gofer gig at WLS in 1966, and two years later moved to WIND-AM, where he eventually worked his way into a broadcasting job, becoming a producer for music and public affairs shows. He wasn’t hosting yet, but Schwartz was already agitating for a spot. “Eddie had the tenacity of a bulldog and he kept asking to get on the air,” recalls Clark Weber, who was working at WLS when Schwartz interned there. “But he had this unlikely voice, and they kept saying, ‘No, no, no.’ Finally-just to shut him up, I think-they said, ‘OK.’ Well, Eddie endeared himself to his audience fairly quickly.”

After some part-time hosting, Schwartz replaced the WIND late-show host Larry “The Legend” Johnson on September 18, 1973. Nine years later, Schwartz moved his show to the larger WGN, and the pairing brought Schwartz even more listeners and notoriety. (WGN is owned by Tribune Company, which also owns this magazine.) The ongoing success of his Good Neighbor Food Drive, launched in 1982, also raised his profile. The idea came to Schwartz, literally, in a fit of on-air outrage over Mayor Jane Byrne’s decision to spend $100,000 on fireworks and lighting for city bridges when Chicago’s food pantries were scrounging to feed the hungry. The first food drive was a grassroots effort with Schwartz broadcasting outside, asking listeners to drop off food and donations. Ultimately, the effort grew so successful it wound up at Daley Plaza, annually raising between $100,000 and $200,000 and collecting tons of food for pantries. (The event lives on, though in slightly different form, as the Good Neighbor Radiothon, broadcast today by WBBM-AM.)

By the mid-eighties, Schwartz was also donating thousands of his own dollars to formal charities and absolute strangers. Sometimes it happened on the air: a guest on the show might mention a down-and-out organization, for example, and Schwartz would cut it a check. Other times, he would read a tragic story in the newspaper and send an anonymous check to help the victim. Schwartz once paid a poor family’s rent for months and helped a single mother buy clothes for her children. “It just seemed like the right thing to do, and it made me happy, so I did it,” Schwartz says. He also supported his grandfather until his death and gave a close relative nearly $100,000 to battle a contentious divorce. “You don’t ask relatives to pay you back,” he says.

“Eddie has never really wanted much for himself,” says longtime broadcaster and Schwartz’s friend Dave Baum, now on WSCR-AM. “The situation that he’s in now, the deteriorating health, is because Eddie never took care of himself, and whatever he had he gave to family and friends. I’ve always thought of Eddie as being the Kriss Kringle of all-night radio.”

Schwartz started out in a radio-friendly era, when entertainment options were a fraction of what they are today. Many television stations still signed off at midnight, for example, and by 1 a.m., many Chicagoans still awake had few choices; among them was Schwartz. “There’s a relationship between an all-night host and an audience that you don’t ever get in any other time period,” says Weber. “Most of the audience is alone; they can’t sleep because of work or something else, and they need someone.”

As it turns out, Schwartz needed them, too. “Radio was his life,” says his former producer Mitch Rosen. After most shifts, Schwartz would leave the studio, go for an early morning drive or stop for breakfast, and return home for some sleep. He’d get up in the early afternoon, study the newspapers, and call his producers countless times with ideas for the upcoming show. Schwartz napped before work, typically from 9 to 10 p.m., and arrived at the studio with a grocery bag filled with press clippings and notes about things he wanted to mention on air.

Professionally, it made for a productive routine. The problem was that Schwartz rarely changed it. “The trick is: once you get into the pattern, you have to stay in the pattern,” he says. “I had the same schedule on my days off.” At WIND, his boss forced him to take a vacation. “But where was he going to go?” asks Baum. “You have this very big man and, basically, his whole world was radio.”

Success also brought detractors. He became a target for radio personalities who didn’t even compete for his audience: Steve Dahl, Garry Meier, and Kevin Matthews, all daytime hosts at WLUP. Working in the aggressive style that was quickly becoming the norm, the trio spent years viciously ridiculing Schwartz on the air, ripping him on everything from the upbeat content of his program to his voice and his weight. “I used to listen to Eddie every night and was quite entertained by it,” Dahl recalls. “He was like a 600-pound Boy Scout with a microphone at a campfire. It was an easy target. I don’t think I was in his target audience, since WGN appealed to a much older and sedentary person, so it was just a great source of natural comedy to me.”

When Schwartz jumped from WGN to WLUP in 1992, Feder, the Sun-Times columnist, called the move “the most stunning and bizarre talent raid in Chicago broadcasting history.” Schwartz was leaving WGN, the undisputed talk-radio powerhouse, at a time when he was known as the king of late night, drawing what Feder called “an incredible” 14.5-percent share of all listeners at midnight. But just as shocking, Feder said recently, was the fact that Schwartz was moving to a station where Dahl, Meier, and Matthews had dedicated hours, over the years, to insulting him. Schwartz’s listeners were just as perplexed. In a letter to the Sun-Times, one local Schwartz fan said the move was “like Beaver Cleaver’s mother working in a massage parlor.”

Today Schwartz insists the switch was a matter of respect. He was due a raise; WGN refused, and “the Loop,” perhaps looking to stick it to its rival by snaring a top talent, doubled his salary to roughly $200,000. “When I left WGN, it was considered heresy,” Schwartz says. “Nobody ever left there, but I was promised a raise and they wouldn’t budge.”

Schwartz’s producer at WGN, Mitch Rosen, maintains that the move had little to do with money. (No one in the current WGN management goes back to the Schwartz era.) WLUP’s interest seemed to flatter Schwartz far beyond typical professional courtship. “When he said he was going to ‘the Loop,’ it was like he was accepted by the cool guys in high school,” says Rosen.

Schwartz’s first guest on WLUP was Mayor Daley, and his show remained much the same at its new home. But “you could begin to see the beginning of the end,” says Weber.

By the early nineties, talk radio was shifting toward the shock-jock school, and in 1993, Schwartz’s audience fell to about one-fifth the size he had pulled at WGN. Meanwhile, his health was becoming a problem. That same year, Schwartz suffered a respiratory ailment and couldn’t host his December food drive. In 1994, he fell on the floor of his bathroom and was too weak to get up. At the hospital, he was diagnosed with life-threatening pneumonia; he returned to radio later that year, having lost 135 pounds. He missed another food drive with more respiratory problems. The newspaper columnists who had once quipped about Schwartz’s show and his exploits were now documenting his trips in and out of the hospital.

When WLUP changed formats in 1995, health problems and the new market officially knocked Schwartz off the air. “Stations were worried about his condition,” says Ephraim, Schwartz’s agent and attorney since the eighties. “If you’re going to put somebody on your station, you need to make sure they’re going to be there to do the job.”

Schwartz’s friends couldn’t imagine what he would do without a show: “It was his lifeline, his social life; that program was everything to Eddie,” Weber says.

For a time, Schwartz made occasional radio appearances and wrote a weekly freelance column, “Chicago Ed,” for Lerner Newspapers, earning between $60 and $100 per piece. His editor, Jack Bess, says Schwartz wrote the way he spoke and covered everything from childhood memories to his safety concerns over the closing of Meigs Field. “Eddie didn’t care about the money,” says Bess. “He did it for the exposure and the chance to communicate with people.”

Schwartz filed stories for six years, until January 2005, when new management canceled the column. Bess says that his superiors had decided that “Chicago Ed” wasn’t relevant to suburban readers because it wasn’t “local news.” (The papers, now owned by another company, cover the downtown and North Side neighborhoods.) Schwartz was stunned. “I knew he was sad; I knew he was angry,” says Bess.

Cut off from an audience, Schwartz did some media consulting and made what he calls “a serious run” at another column with a different local paper, and a few new radio shows. “I was feeling fine,” Schwartz says, “doing my thing.” But friends say it seemed as if Schwartz had disappeared. “He had no way to reach the public, and that is what Eddie is all about, communicating with people,” says Baum.

And then came the fall day when a routine blood screen alarmed Schwartz’s doctor enough to suggest that Schwartz get more comprehensive tests. He checked himself in to Rush North Shore Hospital and promptly learned his kidneys were failing. Stunned, Schwartz asked his doctors every question he could think of. “I was in the radio business for 30 years,” he says. “When something bad happens, it’s my nature to ask questions.” Then the doctors left Schwartz alone. “I honestly didn’t know what I could do,” he says. A week or so later Schwartz was transferred to Ballard Nursing Home, where he is under 24-hour care. The plan is for Schwartz to go home once he has adjusted to life on dialysis and regained enough strength to get around.

Schwartz says his treatment is covered by insurance, but everything else, from mortgage payments to groceries and gas, remains uncertain. That’s why his old friends and colleagues have stepped in. Feder wrote an item in a November column, and readers responded with letters and donations; about $7,000 was collected within two months. Schwartz was the subject of Eric Zorn’s Tribune column in mid-January. Baum, Rosen, Weber, and several others have established a trust fund and launched plans for a radio fundraiser, similar to the ones Schwartz once did (at press time, the event had not yet been scheduled). Even Steve Dahl, the radio man who once tormented Schwartz in an on-air broadcast war, is helping out, pledging to create a CD of his “Eddie bits” and on-air conversations and give Schwartz all proceeds. Behind these efforts is an admiration for Schwartz and the feeling that he’s been beaten by a perfect storm of bad luck, bad health, job trouble, and his own goodwill.

Schwartz is flattered and grateful. “Somehow,” he says. “I’m going to find a way to answer the letters.” But he’s also quick to point out that the Feder story and the fundraising effort were not his idea. “I was the one used to raising money for things and helping people,” he says, adding that he almost asked his friends to forget about an appeal on his behalf. The irony was already brutal enough. “It’s a complete and total change of life.”

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