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The Return of Chickenman, Chicago’s Forgotten Superhero

The popular radio series, which influenced a young Ira Glass in the ’60s, is revived in podcast form.

A man dressed as Chickenman (not Dick Orkin in this photo) performs at the Children’s Street Festival in the Gold Coast in 1979.   Photo: Walter Kale/Tribune archive

Beware, evildoers; Chickenman, “the most fantastic crimefighter the world has ever known,” is back.

Beloved comedy radio series The Adventures of Chickenman, created in Chicago in 1966, is now available on iTunes and Stitcher. While 20 episodes are free on those platforms, Stitcher Premium is offering all 260 episodes, thanks to the Earwolf podcast network. To celebrate the move, creator Dick Orkin is also releasing special new episodes on his Facebook page.

The popular series first aired on WCFL-AM, Chicago’s long-lived labor-owned radio station. At its height, it got about as viral as anything could get in the 1960s: It was syndicated to 1,500 stations across the globe, translated into Dutch, Swedish, and German, and broadcast on a Baltimore radio station which had a young listener named Ira Glass. (Glass was an avid fan, and in 1996, featured Orkin in a 1995 episode of This American Life. Chickenman, he told listeners, “was the only thing I ever heard on the radio that made me want to make radio.”)

Orkin, a National Radio Hall of Fame inductee and award-winning radio advertising legend in the subversively silly spirit of Stan Freberg, created the series as a response to the superhero craze while he was production director at WCFL. The Batman TV series starring Adam West was all the rage, and program director Ken Draper encouraged Orkin to create a spoof that could run in serial installments.

“I spent about five minutes trying to come up with an original name, and I found it in Chickenman,” he says, after passing over other options like Sneezing Man. The 84-year-old now lives in Los Angeles, and his delivery (which influenced young Ira Glass) is as deadpan as ever.

Chickens, turns out, run in the family. “When I was around nine years old, my grandfather raised chickens,” Orkin says. “It was my job to go out to the chicken coop, find the chicken, make sure it was tied up, and take it to the butcher for our Friday night meal. I couldn’t think of a better superhero than someone in a chicken suit.”

Of course, like any great superhero, Chickenman is the assumed identity of an everyman: Specifically, a man named Benton Harbor, who sells shoes at a large downtown department store in Midland City. “The white-winged warrior” does not have a Boy Wonder as a sidekick, but he does, at times, get a little help (albeit unwanted) from his mother, Mildred, aka “the Masked Mother” or “the Maternal Marauder.”

The Chickenman voice ensemble numbered three. Besides Orkin, who voiced the titular character, the Police Commissioner, as well as several villains, there was narrator Jim Runyon. Runyon’s wife, Jane, a Chicago theater actress and WCFL’s traffic reporter, portrayed the ever-annoyed Miss Helfinger, secretary to the Commissioner.

Orkin says his portrayal of the Commissioner was modeled after William Lee, then the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, which owned the radio station. According to Orkin, Lee never caught on that Orkin was imitating him.

“He’s everywhere, he’s everywhere,” was the catchphrase of the Chickenman episode intros, and that soon became true as Orkin was asked to make plenty of public appearances. In 1967, according to an item in the Chicago Tribune, he appeared with the other WCFL DJs in the State Street Christmas parade on a “hippie bird float.”

His most memorable appearance, Orkin says, was at the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place. He cannot remember the name of the headlining rock band, but he still remembers being encased in a harness and flown over the audience. “It left me scarred for life,” he says.

Orkin’s company, Radio Ranch, is still producing commercials and audiobooks.

“I had no idea I would still be doing [Chickenman] when the century turned,” Orkin says. “But I can’t get away from the bird.”

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