Spoon me! Courtesy of Bill Linden
December 20, 2012—-
Global warming has put a chill in the air of community.
It is five days before Christmas and we haven’t had a drop of seasonal snow in Chicago. Few strangers offer a welcoming nod. They cannot be in a dour mood from dibbing parking spots on a one-way street. But then where I work some guys don’t even look up to say hello in the halllway.
Most people have stopped sending Christmas cards—-I did get one from my parents where the shaky cursive broke my heart. It takes time to get it right. The rapid growth of technology (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.) has made our space more personal, defined and solitary.
But this isolation is not about me.
It is about all of us.
Next month will be four years since I drove from Chicago to Washington, D.C. to follow the promise of the inauguration of President Obama. My friend Ted Frankel put me up in his whimsical Baltimore home. I still remember what he told me over dinner and I’ve used his comment a couple times since:
"I’m going to do what makes me happy," said Ted, who founded the quirky gift shop Uncle Fun in Chicago. “If I’m happy, all the people around me should be happy. And if they’re not, they can find other racetracks, other places to go.”
Bill Linden makes me happy.
He makes a difference.
I became friends with Bill when I started work at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1985. Bill was an art director and graphic designer for the Sun-Times. We drank at Riccardo’s on Friday night, we threw a few parties together and had a couple late night breakfasts where I watched him affix a half dozen spoons to his noggin’. His record for hanging spoons off his face is 11, set at Riccardo’s. He was in a zone.
Bill is retired now. He quit smoking. And drinking. He writes gags for the popular “Shoe” comic strip as well as “B.C.” and “Wizard of Id.” . He spends a lot of time on Facebook. Bill’s posts make me smile every time I read them.
I am not alone.
Just a couple hours before we met for lunch at the historic Exchequer Restaurant & Pub in Chicago’s Loop, Bill posted this joke: “My cousin Alan is homophobic…he’s deathly afraid of his home.”
Bill at work at the Sun-Times
William John Linden III was brought up in a happy home in Humboldt Park on the west side of Chicago. His father William John Linden II was a body and fender man, his mother Josephine was a housewife. Bill is the eldest of three boys.
“I was a happy kid,” Bill said over an Exchequer hamburger. “I told jokes. I think I get my sense of humor from my Mom. My father was German, set by the rules. My Mom was Italian—-DeMarco—which turns out is the same name of Momo Giancanna’s mistress. I remember the first joke I ever told. I was eight years old. I had just come from the bathroom and told my mother I sprung a leak. She told me not to talk like that. So it was in there.
“To hear people laugh is where I got my love of entertaining people,” and Bill’s eyes were still wide after six decades of wonder.
Bill was a 1965 graduate of Lane Tech High School —-quite appropriately adjacent to the Riverview Amusement Park on the north side of Chicago. After graduation Bill found work at an art studio in downtown Chicago next to the old Playboy building, 232 E. Ohio in Chicago. It was a great neighborhood for an artist who later would become known as “Captain Fun.”
“I stayed there for two years and got drafted,” Bill said. “I went to Dugway, Utah. I had nine months left and was sent to Vietnam. I thought I was going to die.”
Bill ran a social club in Quinn Yan Vietnam.
The U.S. Army knows how to pick ‘em.
Bill on the last night of Riccardo’s in Chicago, Aug. 25, 1995
“I almost died there from a self inflicted bow and arrow wound,” Bill explained. “I had the bottom barracks all to myself for the service club. One night I heard a rumbling. I looked behind some boxes and there was a big white rat.”
Captain Fun grabbed a bow and arrow. He leaned over and shot the arrow at the rat. The arrow ricocheted off the cement floor and zoomed back to Bill’s face. It stuck in the wooden ceiling of the barracks. “I ducked and it hit the ceiling,” he said. “I can still see that arrow coming at me. My old man would have been so pissed with his son coming home in a body bag from a self-inflicted bow and arrow wound.”
Bill was 20 years old during his nine month stint in Vietnam.
He had a tough audience of a couple hundred soldiers.
“I was friendly to people,” he said. “I made sure people got what they wanted. If they needed a chess set, somehow I would find a chess set. I would show movies in an outdoor theater. We rigged up a parachute so if it was raining the guys could watch the movie without getting soaked. I showed the movie out of an ammunition locker that was baking in the sun all day long. We’d have to wait until night time because it was so hot.”
He made something out of nothing.
Bill returned to the states in 1969. “I didn’t have a job,” he said. “Even though I was a VETERAN. It was a tough situation to come home to. I didn’t want to go in the first place.
“People weren’t very friendly to us coming home.”
* * *
One day out of the always blue skies, Bill saw a want-ad in the Chicago Sun-Times looking for an artist. “I loved the Sun-Times my whole life,” Bill said. “I applied and got it. I was there for 26 and a half years. Jim Hoge hired me. Handsome man, as you know.”
Bill started Dec. 4, 1969 at the Sun-Times. He didn’t have to look it up.
He keeps it close to his heart.
There were between 12 and 14 people in the Sun-Times art department when Bill started. “Graphics didn’t exist then,” he recalled. “We set linotype. The paper cost seven cents. I was actually one of the first graphic designers to make the fashion and food page look like something. Then computers came in and ruined my life. Anyone could be an artist.”
Many of the vintage Sun-Times “T.V. Prevue” covers were designed by Bill. “We didn’t have any money back then,” he said. “Shades of today. I would use my friends or co-workers as models. I loved working with people. I would come up with an idea and Downsy (his best friend, former Sun-Times artist John Downs) would draw it. I loved it. For a kid to not have a college education and walk into a newspaper job as an artist? I put all of me into it. I loved the newspaper business. When there’s a big story now and I’m not involved in it, it still hurts.”
Bill loved the Sun-Times so much he stole a Sun-Times truck. But he returned it.
Bill Linden (left) and John Downs
In a phone interview Downsy said, “From a working point of view, he is very creative and probably one of the best designers around. No question about that. But his creativity goes way beyond design. It goes into writing, his humor and his sensitivity. It makes for a big, brilliant package.
“And the social side of him is just as great because he has the ability to take any kind of a situation and create something unique out of it. That’s what he’s doing today as a gag man for ‘Shoe’ and a number of other cartoons. I’ve always enjoyed being someplace where people don’t know him and watch how people gravitate to him. By looking at the smiles on their faces you can tell they enjoy his presence.”
Downs began his newspaper career in 1962 at the Chicago Daily News. He was brought to the Sun-Times in 1978 after the Daily News folded. Downs took a Sun-Times buy out in 1994.
With a forgiving smile Bill recalled, “In the late ‘70s I got mad at the Sun-Times. The National Enquirer wanted a graphic designer. They flew me to Lantana, Florida (their home office). I was there for a Thursday and Friday. The job was for art director and headline writer. They’d give you a test story and you had to come up with a headline. It was a story about this woman who was blind and could see again. I wrote ‘MIRACLE, blah blah blah.’ They looked at it and said, ‘That’s very good. We’re very good at mircales here.’ They paid well, better than the Sun-Times. At five they would bring around this catering cart with free booze and hors d’ ouvers. (The late Generoso) Pope owned the Enquirer then. He would take a chicken wing and bless the table. And everybody would have this great big party.
“Then Carol Burnett won the lawsuit from them (in 1983) and the parties stopped.
Bill on Rush Street, north of Riccardo’s circa 1978-79
Bill was always friendly to people in the newspaper business.
Again, he had a tough audience.
“Journalists have always been cynical,” Bill said. ‘Even in the ‘Front Page’-Ben Hecht days. That’s part of the territory. But I really started to see it change in the late 1980s. One by one they stopped drinking. We lost sense of community.”
* * *
Bill left the Sun-Times in 1996 when his wife Karen took a job as marketing research director for Paramount studios in Los Angeles.
I went to their wedding on Dec. 31, 1996. We sat at the Jerry Lewis table. That’s where Bill and Karen placed the “most insane people.” There was a Judy Garland table and Bill’s future mother-in-law didn’t want to sit a the Guy Lombardo table so she was moved to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers table.
The Jerry Lewis Table, me upper left, Downsy upper right.
Bill and Karen get remarried every New Year’s Eve.
They have been remarried by a rabbi, priest, minister, Elvis Presley impersonator and Dudeist Priest Boyd McDowell as a nod to the cult 1998 film “The Big Lebowski.”
Bill has two children from a previous marriage: William John Linden, IV, 39, who is a switchman for the Montana Railway in Billings and a Cubs fan at heart. Brandi Linden McKoy, 38, is stationed in Norfolk, Va. and has served more than 20 years in the United States Navy. She recently returned from a 10 month tour of Dijabouti, Africa.
One time I went to visit Bill and Karen in their ranch house in Hancock Park in old Hollywood. Bill reminded me, “You and I went to the Janis Joplin hotel (she suffered a fatal heroin overdose at the Landmark, now Highland Gardens Hotel). Forest Lawn cemetery. I met John Fogerty with you. We went to the original Bob’s Big Boy. We got a lot done in one day.”
Bill never forgets a good time.
When Bill and Karen returned from Hollywood in 1998, Bill snagged a part time job at the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. He once assisted former Sun-Times publisher Marshall Field with his hunting license.
Karen had been friends with the third wife of three-time Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist Jeff MacNelly. MacNelly died in 2000 at the age of 52. He had been suffering from lymphoma.
“The four of us would go out on dates and I’d write a couple of jokes for ‘Shoe’,” Bill recalled. “I got paid $25 per joke back then. I have the first collaboration (July 29, 1985) , pen and ink. They don’t draw anymore. They use computers. Then they got divorced and that made all of her friends verboten. I’d still go upstairs of Riccardos’s with Jeff for reubens. He loved my sense of humor. He was a great artist. He looked like Phil Donahue, which we teased him about all the time.”
The first Linden-MacNelly collaboration
One time MacNelly made a cartoon inspired by a moment when he and Bill tried to steal a trophy fish off the wall of Shaw’s Crab House on the near north side of Chicago. Bill recalled, “It was nailed down and we we were soooooo offended that ‘nobody trusts nobody anymore’, we stole a bar stool instead.”
Here is how MacNelly remembered that night (Bill lower left):
After MacNelly died, Bill was brought back on board in the “Shoe” camp as a writer.
Bill sends the “Shoe” group 85 gags a week. He calls it a “shut out” if he scores seven strips in a week.
“I write like a mini-screen play,” he said. “Scene: the office. Panel one, Shoe is happy. I only write one or two panels. If it is a Sunday, they pad it out. I have a million joke books. I’ll look at a joke and go, ‘Why is this funny? What is the point of the joke?’ Then I’ll rewrite it. I have million of jokes. Like the ‘homophobic’ joke. When you see a word, then you say where can I go with this? You take the scary word which makes it seems like you’re treading. And then you make it something innocent. Humor is always a twist at the end, or the ‘bump’ as we call it in the gag writing business. You do your 90 degree angle on the set up. The ‘homophobic’ joke has nothing to do with homosexuals whatever. A big part of comedy writing is how you have to surprise them.
“Timing is the most important thing in telling a good joke. Always the shorter the better. Sometimes I see people telling a joke and people’s eyes are glazed over. Get in and get out. I listened to George Carlin albums. Woody Allen. I was lucky enought to see Woody Allen do his stand up at Mister Kelly’s (now the site of Gibson’s steak house in Chicago) in 1967. I asked a question from the audience and he answered it. He wasn’t stand up too long and he went right into the movies.”
Bill stands up for his 881 friends on Facebook.
He puts the yuck in Zuckerberg.
Bill makes a minimal six Facebook posts a day, generally starting with a “Shoe” cartoon that he wrote, a couple of good jokes and a wacky news story. “I’m on Facebook to amuse, entertain, inform, appall and delight,” he said. “I only try to make fun of a bad situation and turn it around to a lighter thing. Facebook is my water cooler.”
Bill designed the invite for my birthday party at Jimmy Wong’s in the Loop. Like Riccardo’s, Jimmy Wong’s now belongs to the ages.
Earlier this month, 166 friends attended Bill’s virtual “Four Years on Facebook Anniversary Party.” There were long punch lines. His annual “Bean-A-Palooza” in Millennium Park was born from the virtual party. “I wanted to physically meet my friends,” he explained. “We’re going to have the fourth one this summer (June 8, 2013). I get more people every year. People meet each other. It’s become a great thing.”
Bean-A-Palooza is always on the Saturday afternoon of the Chicago Blues Festival.
The bluesy timing is the sweetest of contradictions for a man who makes everyone smile.