Radio and chicken kahuna meets Tony the Tuna

Reenactors bring RF mansion's former owners back to life

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By JOHN RICE

It's not easy to portray an historic figure, especially if it involves wearing wool pants. But there were so many benefits to depicting manufacturing giant William C. Grunow, I couldn't pass up the opportunity. It would not only give me a chance to dress up and ham it up. I'd get to tour the crown jewel of River Forest, Grunow's mansion at 915 Franklin.

Actually, I'd been inside this magnificent structure in 2003. Having seen it once, made me even more anxious to see it again. It's a life-changing experience, like attending a Van Gogh exhibit. The long-range benefit to playing Grunow was that I could also portray him during the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest's "Tale of the Tombstones" tour on Oct. 16. For once I wouldn't get myself and my entire group lost in Forest Home Cemetery.

First came the dress-up part. In walked costumer Joyce Proce from the Historical Society with a hatbox. It contained a gray fedora that belonged to a man with a much greater brain capacity than mine. She stuffed some paper in the lining to make it fit and told me the rest of my outfit was ready.

It had the aforementioned wool pants, a coat with tails and a fancy shirt with an ascot tie. In other words, I looked like I was getting married.

I was scheduled to play Grunow at the Historical Society's tour of the mansion on Sept. 17. All 1,200 tickets had been sold. I was provided a script, which I failed to memorize but I got the gist of it. Grunow became wealthy manufacturing radios and made a second fortune raising chickens. He built the house at 915 Franklin in 1928 for a quarter of a million dollars. I was going to perform alongside an infamous resident of the house, who bought it in 1951â€"Tony Accardo.

What a contrast, the straight-laced industrialist and the notorious mobsterâ€"it was perfect. The weather also was perfect, which must have cost the society a bundle. We assembled early on Saturday morning, dozens of volunteers to act as guides and a volunteer group from OPRF High School to return used booties to the front entrance of the house. I complimented the high-schoolers on their giving spirit. But the Big Tuna warned them that the word "booty" would not look good on their resumes.

We had two men portraying Accardo, a professional actor named Tim Gamble for the morning shift, and Mike Stewart volunteered to be "afternoon Tony." I pored over my script but very little of it stuck. I was just happy to be reacquainted with the incredibly hospitable homeowners. They thought I would be a good Grunow.

I couldn't see why. I looked nothing like the man and had no idea how he talked. Then again, neither would any of the guests. The biggest thrill was meeting the Grunow family. William, Jr., his sister Valerie and William III had come back to see the childhood home. Being such an admirer of the family patriarch, it was an honor to meet his flesh and blood. And to see them chatting with the current owners was really special.

Then a line began forming on the sidewalk in front of the house, and "Tony" and I sprang into action. We decided to each do five minutes of material, with me going first because I had built the place. In contrast to my wedding suit, "Tony" was wearing shades, casual mobster clothes and carried a gold-handled cane. He got a lot of mileage out of that cane when it came to explaining his nickname: "Joe Batters."

Without preamble, I began greeting strangers and regaling them with whatever I could remember from the script. There were no audible reactions to my speech and no applause afterwards. It was going to be a long day. "Tony" talked for 10 minutes but was just developing his shtick and didn't get much response. A veteran of trade shows, he told me our performances would improve with every take.

We'd wait until there were about 30 new people in front, and I'd start shouting at them from the parkway. By trial and error, I learned which one-liners worked and which didn't. After I introduced myself, I'd say, "It looks like I'm getting married but actually I'm rich."

Of course, mentioning that someone made their money from radios and chickens piques a person's interest. I included some impressive statistics about Grunow's Majestic Radio Co., how $3,000,000 worth were sold during the Depression, that they manufactured 6,000 radios a day and that Grunow had the third largest payroll in Chicago.

"After the stock market crashed," I intoned, "I went from making receivers to being in receivership." Then I'd launch into the story of Grunow's second successful venture, raising chickens on his Lake Geneva estate. It was called Vall-O-Will, combining the names of his children, Valerie, Lois and William, Jr. In fact, I told the crowd, "Valerie and William, Jr. are here today."

Meanwhile, Joe Batters was knocking them dead. The more comfortable Gamble became, the more laughs and applause he received. We were starting to have fun. He would end his speech by warning the guests not to get lost in his 24,000-square-foot mansion. And that if they needed any help Joe B. would always be here for them.

New audiences formed up about every 15 minutes. Not only did my speech seem stale to me, I even had his speech memorized. Someone asked him for an autographâ€"I mean, Tony's. "The signature of an imposter," Gamble commented, "I don't get it." Meanwhile, I was having my picture taken with various guests as fake Grunow.

At noon, Gamble went off duty, and we had afternoon Tony. Stewart didn't carry a cane but sported a cigar that was almost the size of one. He had a slightly different approach to the character, and it was nice to hear some new lines.

After giving countless performances over a 6-hour period, the crowds at last died down. Afternoon Tony, the booty squad and other volunteers like me were given the day's final tour. It's one thing to talk about the house's 2-story parlor, 2-lane bowling alley, swimming pool, English pub and pipe organ. It takes your breath away to see it. I understood why many of the guests compared it to Versailles.

Afterward, I helped lug equipment back to the Historical Society. There was a wedding in progress at Pleasant Home and every time I entered with an item one of the wedding photographers took my picture. Wait till the happy couple sees the proofsâ€""Hey look, William C. Grunow crashed our reception!"

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