Roy Leonard, the legendary Chicago talk radio show host, who covered Chicago’s cultural scene for more than three decades, died Thursday evening. He was 83.
Mr. Leonard passed away at Evanston Hospital where he had been receiving treatment for a severe esophageal infection.
Mr. Leonard, a fixture on WGN radio and television for over 30 years, retired from the AM station in 1998, one of the last of his on-air kind: the host of a phone-in radio talk show.
A 1998 Chicago Tribune story put Leonard’s career in perspective:
“Maybe a lot of people like it because people have a voice. I miss informative radio. I miss music on the radio.”
Leonard, who announced a week ago that he will say goodbye to a storied 31-year career at WGN-AM 720 on Dec. 26, mainly as midday host–he is not alone in his sentiments.
Fewer radio stations, even strong, clear-channel independents like WGN, can afford to be all things to all people anymore. The sheer growth of radio stations over the last several years has forced AM and FM to stake their claim to a fractured listening audience.
And call-in shows have become easy and popular ways to keep people tuned in longer. Pick a subject, and let the people have their say.
Movie reviews? Forget it. Commentary on the newest production at the Victory Gardens Theatre? Unlikely today on commercial radio in Chicago.
While there is no question WGN can be as middle-of-the-road as radio gets at times, it also happened to be the place that introduced thousands of Chicagoans and points yonder to entertainment and culture, mainly through Leonard.
Though his approach was non-confrontational, he caught many pop stars on their way up–whether it was Burt Reynolds after posing in Cosmopolitan, or Stevie Wonder in town for a concert early in his career, or John Travolta talking about his upcoming movie “Saturday Night Fever.”
The theater scene in Chicago has been a Leonard specialty (he was a theater major). He was perhaps one of the first to introduce Chicagoans to the Steppenwolf Theatre on commercial radio.
He is a jazz nut, but introduced listeners to Bruce Springsteen in the ’70s.”
In a phone conversation late Thursday night, Mr. Leonard’s youngest son, actor Kelly Leonard, said his father passed away peacefully, surrounded by his family.
“We were at the hospital — all six of us brothers, our wives and a few of the grandchildren — and it was getting so somber. So my wife brought in dad’s favorite Dave Brubeck album, because dad was such a huge jazz fan. We called Sig Sakowicz’s son Greg, who is a priest at an Evanston parish. He arrived, gave dad Last Rights, we all said the “Our Father,” and at the very conclusion of that prayer, dad passed. It was so moving, so lovely and so peaceful.”
Kelly Leonard described his father as an eternal optimist.
“He never said a cross word. He was very happy all the time. Right up till the very end.”
While Mr. Leonard became a Chicago icon, Kelly said it was difficult to “share his father with the world” when he was growing up.
“It’s hard when you’re young,” Kelly Leonard said. “I mean we’d be out for pizza at [Lou] Malnati’s and people would keep coming up to the table to say hi, or shake his hand or ask for an autograph, and we’d get mad about it because this was our time with our dad.”
Of his late wife, Sheila, who passed away in 2012, Mr. Leonard in an interview with the Sun-Times stated:
“We had a wonderful life,” he said after his wife of 58 years died in March 2012. “We loved each other and we were good friends.”
He met Sheila Finn in Framingham, Mass., in the 1950s. She was casting director of a theater company that drummed up publicity by giving deejays roles in its productions.
“She cast me in a play, ‘The Curious Savage,’ ’’ Roy Leonard recalled. “I had a lead role, and she was in the play, too. She was so much fun to be with.”
He wooed her with his cooking, inviting her to his apartment for lamb, French green beans, and avocado-and-grapefruit salad.
He introduced her to jazz, and as they grooved to Dave Brubek at Boston’s Storyville nightclub, “I turned to her and said ‘Let’s get married.”
While Mr. Leonard interviewed hundreds of celebrities throughout his career, Kelly said his two favorites were most likely legendary mime Marcel Marceau, and American singer-actress Pearl Bailey and her husband, famed drummer Louie Bellson.
“We had Marcel Marceau over for dinner one night, and he didn’t shut up the whole night,” Kelly said, laughing. “Pearl Bailey and Louie Bellson remained lifelong friends of my mom and dad. He was a drummer with Gene Krupa back in the day.”
Kelly, who just celebrated his 25th year at The Second City, said his father’s celebrity connections were a treasure trove of Hollywood, politics, literature, the New York stage and more.
“He introduced Chicago to Harry Connick Jr.; he was one of the first [on radio] to play his music. Years later, when Connick came to play the Chicago Theatre, he knew my dad was in the audience and he stopped the show to introduce him and got the whole theater to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him.”
Theater remained Mr. Leonard’s greatest passion; he championed many a theatrical troupe in Chicago, from the smallest to the grandest, with equal aplomb.
“My dad wanted to be an actor,” Kelly Leonard said. “He would have been very happy every night going to the theater. It’s funny, but five of his sons never wanted to go into show business. Until son No. 6 [Kelly] said ‘I want to go into theater.’ And he was the only dad in America go say, ‘Thank God!”
Mr. Leonard is survived by six sons Kip, Kerry, Kolin, Kent Kyle and Kelly, their wives, and 8 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Source: Chicago SunTimes