Reporting Dave Wischnowsky
There are shapes now moving,
Two Ghosts that drift and glide,
And which of them to tackle
Each rival must decide.
They shift with spectral swiftness
Across the swarded range,
And one of them’s a shadow,
And one of them is Grange
– Grantland Rice
By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) The Ghost hasn’t galloped in Champaign since 1925.
But come August, Red Grange will be back. In spirit, at least.
But also in character. And just for one night.
On Friday, Aug. 23, downtown Champaign’s most historic stage venue will play host to a one-act play entitled, “Red Grange: The Galloping Ghost returns to the Virginia Theatre,” put on in conjunction with the Champaign Park District and the University of Illinois. Tickets go on sale on Friday, with all proceeds from the show benefiting the future upkeep and preservation of the 92-year-old Virginia Theatre, which recently underwent a $7 million restoration to return it to its original glory.
For 80-year-old Grange historian Charlie Finn who wrote the play, the show is a culmination of a lifelong fascination with the athlete who was voted the Big Ten’s greatest icon by the BTN in 2010 and more than a decade of research.
Finn, of Champaign, said that the play will not only focus on the life, times and triumphs of the Illini and Chicago Bears football legend, but also will transport the audience back to the Roaring ’20s with an array of Vaudeville acts, Wurlitzer organ music and an ice cream social set up outside the theater.
The chance to finally depict Grange’s life story has been a long time coming for Finn – although he originally hoped to do it on screen rather than on stage. Two years ago, I spoke to the gregarious former Illinois football student manager from 1951-54 about a Grange feature film project that at the time he already had spent nearly 10 years working on.
“I tell my wife, I hope the movie can be made before I croak,” Finn said with a laugh in January 2011.
Well, here in June 2013, Charlie is indeed still kicking, although the film project unfortunately died last year after Hollywood nibbled on it, but wouldn’t bite. This past December, however, Finn switched gears on his project and pitched an idea to U. of I. president Bob Easter about adapting his film idea into an hourlong stage play honoring the man who arguably had a bigger impact on Illini football – and the NFL – than anyone else.
It was back on Oct. 18, 1924, when Harold “Red” Grange of Wheaton first galloped into history – and the American consciousness – when as a halfback for Illinois he touched the ball six times in the first quarter against Michigan during the dedication game at Memorial Stadium and scored four touchdowns on 262 yards rushing.
The performance, unlike anything seen before or since, earned Grange his nickname, “The Galloping Ghost,” and instantly made him America’s biggest sports star.
It’s that aura and mystique that Finn’s production will be trying to embody on Aug. 23. The evening will feature Jim Turpin, the former Illinois football and men’s basketball play-by-play announcer and current radio show host for WDWS in Champaign, as emcee for the event. Four actors will then play the roles of Grange, legendary Illini football coach Bob Zuppke, Grange’s agent Charlie Pyle, and Bears football coach George Halas.
As Finn explained, during the early 1920s, college football was king in America, while pro ball was on the brink of bankruptcy drawing only 10,000 fans a game. That changed in 1925, however, when Illini superstar Grange and his colorful agent Pyle – nicknamed “C.C.” for “Cash and Carry” – signed with the Bears. The team then embarked on a nationwide barnstorming tour that drew crowds of 70,000 and legitimized the NFL.
In his efforts to make a film about Grange, Finn did produce a short DVD “movie trailer” that includes an interview with Bears board member Pat McCaskey about Grange.
“I think he saved the league,” McCaskey said on the DVD. “Grange elevated the game to a whole new level … If it wasn’t for him, NFL teams might still be playing with leather helmets and have 16 players on a team.”
Grange eventually suffered a downfall after he and Pyle got greedy and left the Bears to start the first American Football League, which failed after just one season, during which Red was injured. He later found redemption, however, when Halas invited Grange back to the Bears.
Sounds like a Hollywood story, much of which will play out on stage in Champaign.
Current Illini football coach Tim Beckman is already scheduled to attend the show, along the senior class of the 2013 Illinois team. Finn also plans to invite about 20 former Illini football greats such as Dick Butkus, Jim Grabowski, David Williams, Howard Griffith, Dana Howard, Simeon Rice, J Leman and Mikel Leshoure.
VIP tickets for the event will be on sale for $100, with downstairs tickets going for $20 and upper-level tickets for $10. To purchase tickets, visit thevirginia.org or call the Virginia Theatre at 217-356-9053.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.