Benton Harbor: A Man For Our Time

Steamship “City of Benton Harbor” Near St. Joseph/Benton Harbor, Michigan Lighthouse

For nearly two centuries, the legacy of Missouri’s Benton family has continued to spread.

Maecenas Benton, United States Attorney (1885-1889) and Congressional Representative from Missouri (1897-1905) happened to be the father of Thomas Hart Benton, American regionalist painter and muralist.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which houses many of his paintings, is located in Bentonville, Arkansas, a town named in honor of his great-great-uncle Thomas Hart Benton, a five-term Missouri senator whose efforts on behalf of Arkansas statehood were substantial.  After the first county in Arkansas was named “Benton” as a tribute to the Senator, the site designated as the county seat became known as Bentonville.

Arkansas wasn’t the only state that profited from Senator Benton’s attentions. Only six months after Arkansas’s [¹] 1836 admittance to the Union, Michigan became the next state to join.  Benton Township was established there on March 11, 1837, and in 1865, one of the first towns in the area, Brunson Harbor, became Benton Harbor: also in tribute to the Missouri Senator who helped Michigan achieve statehood.

While I admire Senator Benton’s role in the opening of the American West, and enjoy Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings wherever I find them, I’m most fond — and sometimes grow sentimental over — Benton Harbor.

Given that I’ve never been to Michigan, let alone to the town of Benton Harbor, my affection might seem odd. But some will understand. Whisper the words Benton Harbor into our ears, and we explode with a cackle and a cluck:

He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!

For generations of devotees, he is Benton Harbor: not a town, but a person — a mild-mannered, crime-fighting shoe salesman from Midland City, USA. Popularized in the 1960s, Benton Harbor became known to thousands of radio listeners as Chickenman.

Chickenman, Guardian of Civilization & Crime-Fighter Extraordinaire

Created by Dick Orkin, Radio Hall of Fame inductee and Production Director for WCFL in Chicago, Chickenman first aired in the spring of 1966 on WCFL’s Jim Runyon show. Runyon served as narrator, and Orkin himself voiced Chickenman.

The two were joined by a cast of characters that included Police Commissioner Benjamin Norton, the Commissioner’s secretary, Miss Honor Helfinger, Chickenman’s girlfriend Sayde Leckner, and his mother, Mildred Harbor.  Also known as The Maternal Marauder, Mildred occasionally helped out with crime-fighting, riding along with her son in his yellow Chicken Coupe and dispensing motherly wisdom while he confronted such foes as the Chicken-Plucker, the Bear Lady, and Big Clyde Crushman.

It was old-time radio for a new day: a combination of comedy, crime-fighting, and drama that recalled the thrill of huddling around the Zenith or Philco for Fibber McGee and Molly, Lux Family Theater, The Shadow, and Dragnet. Story telling in its purest form, it wasn’t meant to be read or watched, but to be listened to — as in this episode, where Chickenman discovers his precious chicken suit has been snagged by a sneaky and stereotypical competitor.

Click to play The Case of the Missing Chicken Suit 

In turn earnest, insouciant, self-effacing, naive, bumbling, and screamingly funny, Chickenman was neither super-hero nor anti-hero. He simply was a guy with a good heart, a trusting spirit, and the best of intentions who happened to believe it was possible to overcome evil. 

That he thought donning a chicken suit and flapping his arms was the best way to do it may seem a bit strange until you consider the perspective of his girlfriend, Miss Sayde, who often said, “If you can get past the clucking and the feathers flying around, he’s actually doing some good.”

For those of us who don’t mind a few flying feathers, the best news may be that the spirit of Chickenman lives.  While most people consider Benton Harbor just another town, and nearly everyone is willing to leave crime-fighting to the professionals,  there continue to be people committed to doing good and being good despite others’ judgments: not to mention setting and meeting their own idiosyncratic goals even when they’re ridiculed or dismissed by an utterly perplexed world.

I learned of one such person a few years ago, after one of my blogging friends enjoyed a weekend ski trip with a group of old friends from high school. Like many of us, she wasn’t entirely certain the reunion would be a good thing. As she said,

I was sure that the weekend would be a recurrence of my worst grade 10 nightmares, when my best friend found a new group of friends and I had to eat lunch in a bathroom stall because I had no one to sit with.

Happily, the weekend was a success, filled with skiing, movies, drinking and junk food. Best of all, one of her friends provided the sort of experience that would have made Chickenman proud, however bemused it would have left the good citizens of Benton Harbor.  Sara wrote:

I spent most of my time skiing with my two friends, one of whom does not have a winter jacket, so he snowboards in a chicken suit.
He had rented a chicken suit in grade 12, partly to promote his campaign for student council, but mostly because he wanted to rent a chicken suit. However, he recently found a chicken suit on Ebay and bought it, because, really, there are too many times in life made for a chicken suit for renting to suffice.
So now he snowboards in a chicken suit.

According to Sara, her friend doesn’t do it for the attention. He doesn’t do it to make a statement, and he’s not doing it on a dare. He just snowboards in a chicken suit.

Having made that clear, and in all apparent innocence, she goes on to ask the one question worth asking: “What would life be like if more of us did the same?”

During the last Winter Olympics, I found the beginning of an answer while watching snowboarding with friends. As Shaun White flew above the halfpipe, there was an audible intake of breath. Someone said, “Oh, my gosh. I’d be so chicken to do that.”  Never one to miss an opportunity, another said, “Sure. But you’re chicken to do anything,” while another added, “Everyone’s a chicken about something.”

In one sense, that’s true. We’ve all been chicken — nervous, hesitant, fearful — about something, and, as a result, remained mild-mannered, unnoticed, and bored. But what if we chickened out in Benton Harbor’s way, donning a chicken suit (if only metaphorically) and heading out to confront life?

With a little less thought and a little more visualization, it’s possible to imagine what life would be like if more of us did the same.  Surely there would be less pomposity, a bit less self-importance, less worry about hierarchies, and far less concern for propriety.  With luck, there would be more spontaneity, more whoops and hollers,  a little more joie de vivre and much more laughter.

With luck, it wouldn’t be long before the Chickenman’s battle cry became our own. If enough of us could bring ourselves to get past our embarassment over clucking, waving arms, and flying feathers, even the good folk of Benton Harbor might look around and say,

“They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere!”


Comments always are welcome.
[¹] For those interested in the choice of Arkansas’s over Arkansas’, see this Chicago tribune article about Arkansas’s legislated punctuation.

94 thoughts on “Benton Harbor: A Man For Our Time

  1. Never be afraid to sometimes make a fool of yourself. It is a great way to be and gives a fair chance of never needing the psychiatrist.

    I haven’t heard about the Benton Harbour or chicken suit snowboarding but think it hilariously funny.

    Can you imagine the annual report of Microsoft being presented in a chicken suit?

    1. I was in college in Iowa when Chickenman hit the airwaves, and no one wanted to miss an episode. I’m not certain, but I imagine it was syndicated, and we picked it up on an Iowa station. Those were the days before internet streaming and such; radio was the only option.

      It seems the series is still being broadcast in Australia. I found this in the Wikipedia entry:

      “Chickenman is well known in Australia, and all of the episodes were broadcast in the 1990s on 5AD (now Mix 102.3 FM) and regional stations 5PI, 5MU and 5SE, South Australia. It is currently heard on weekdays on KLFM Bendigo, in Central Victoria, on Curtin FM 100.1 in Perth, Western Australia. It is also heard every Sunday night on 3AW in Melbourne, immediately prior to the 10:00 news.”

      It seems that Chickenman truly is everywhere!

    1. I went looking, hoping to find a chicken painted by Benton, but the only thing I found were some chickens painted by others “in the manner of Thomas Hart Benton.” Ah, well.

      Here’s another detail you might enjoy. All of the female characters were played by one woman: the traffic reporter at the radio station. They had to schedule their Chickman takes in between the traffic reports and such.

    1. I’m sitting here thinking about Buster. I wonder what he would think if he suddenly was confronted by a big, yellow chicken? It’s probably better not to test the poor chap, but it certainly is fun to think about.

  2. Interesting story.

    I was one of those nervous, hesitant, fearful children who was always scared to do anything as I had an overly critical Mother. Being bullied at school for my extremely thick glasses didn’t help. Then in early adulthood I turned to alcohol to booster my self-esteem and courage. Later in life, 16 years working at an exclusive boys school where ‘everyone toed the line’ (including staff) made me feel like I was working in a cage (or jail) so, in retirement, I feel totally free to be me.

    Maybe a ‘chicken suit’ was what I needed all my life. Which reminds of a New Year’s fancy dress party I went to in my late twenties. I dressed as a pregnant cat which everyone found hysterically funny at the time. Maybe that was a glimpse of the ‘chicken suit’ breaking me free for just one night :)

    1. One of the good news/bad news experiences of my childhood was getting my first glasses (good) but getting them in pink plaid frames (very, very bad). I thought they were icky, but my mother thought they were adorable. We often differed.

      In fact, when I still was around home and Chickenman would come on the radio, I’d laugh hysterically, while she suggested I should be more ladylike. In the end, we reached accomodation, but there were some long years in there.

      I’d put your Halloween costume right up there on the creativity scale. Part of the fun of Mardi Gras or Halloween costumes is being able to adopt a different persona. Sara’s snowboarding, chicken-suited friend just wasn’t willing to wait until official holidays!

  3. Wow… This weave of a tale (or should I say tail) is one of the most unexpected you have ever put together Linda. Absolutely brilliantly woven unexpected connections that shouldn’t but do…

    1. I rarely meet anyone who remembers Chickenman: perhaps because the show originated in Chicago, or perhaps because it’s from fifty years ago! But even after all these years I still remember many of the characters, and some of the great story lines. It was on the air for three years or so, and we made it a point to hear every episode we could. For a while, Orkin took back the rights, and it was hard to find episodes online, but now they’re popping up again.

      This youtube clip with a couple of episodes from Ira Glass’s “This American Life” is great. I didn’t realize the show was so widely broadcast on Armed Forces Radio, too. it’s a wonderful humor — comedy without the nastiness or snark.

  4. I would be pleased to sing you a song. Ready?
    Gray skies are gonna clear up
    Put on a chicken suit
    Brush off the clouds and cheer up
    Put on a chicken suit.
    What do those thumbs down mean? Okay, Hayes, that’s enough. :D

    1. Oh, my gosh, Oneta! Of course I know the tune, and I’m singing right along with you! Nobody would hook you off the stage for that. You’ve given me a happy face with your little song — I wouldn’t give you anything but a thumbs up!

      There’s always room in life for a little fun and laughter — no need to be chicken about that. Thanks for the fun comment.

  5. I’ve lived in Michigan all my life and have been to Benton Harbor many times. (They have a lot of wineries and vineyards in the area. The town was also a major stop on the Underground Railroad.) But I never heard the Chickenman’s story. I’ve seen the costumed skateboarder on the slopes in photos but, I guess, I wasn’t really paying attention. Interesting post!

  6. I didn’t know until I was writing this that Brunson/Benton Harbor got its start with orchards, or that there was a canal dug to help get crops to the shipping point. As far as I can remember, I didn’t even know for a few years that Chickenman’s shoe-salesman name also was the name of a town in Michigan.

    It’s interesting about the vineyards. There’s so much goodness that comes from Michigan — the cherries, apricots, berries, and so on. I’ve not thought about it as a wine producing state, but obviously it is.

    Maybe when you’re just playing, limbering up your brushes, you could do a portrait of Benton Harbor as Chickenman — purely for fun, of course!

    1. A lot of cherry orchards in recent years have been pulled up and replaced with vineyards. I guess they both require the same weather pattern but wine has a better market with less risk.

      My dog has toy that looks like Chickenman. I could paint him holding it in his mouth. LOL

  7. Chickenman is new to me. Loved the way you linked together the various topics to reach your final thought. Such linkage is how my mind often works. When I sometimes verbalized such a highway I was on to my husband he would be annoyed. I find how the mind makes such connections fascinating and have taken pleasure writing a few, but much less complex than what you’ve written here.

    1. Over the years, I’ve written eight posts having to do with the Benton clan: some about the painter, some about the senator. Each time the name came up, I’d think about Benton Harbor and Chickenman. It just took a while for me to put things together in a way that pleased me.

      Sometimes, a highway is a good metaphor for the process, but it can seem too straightforward. More often, I think of the creative process being kaleidoscopic. All the bits and pieces are there, but it takes that extra twist to get them to fall into a different and pleasing pattern.

      The one detail I’ve never been able to sort out is how Chickenman’s real named turned out to be Benton Harbor. When I wrote this, I finally looked at a map, and realized Benton Harbor is just across Lake Michigan from Chicago, where the show originated. That seems as good an explanation as any. Orkin may just have plucked the name off the map.

      1. Ironically I just found Benton Harbor on a map of Michigan as I once again fantasizing about going to Michigan. Benton Harbor looked liked a good place to start. I have a “cousin” there I would love to meet i person. Her grandfather was my paternal grandmother’s brother. I also had family from Michigan and think a few are buried there. On my bucket list to go there. Not on Ben’s! We will see.

        As for Chickenman. Never heard of him! My loss, apparently. Our cell service is slowed for the next week as we have used our allotted non-wifi connectivity…so I can’t listen to the clip. If we go to the nearby town (17 miles) in the next day or so I’ll be sure to listen.

  8. Linda, Linda, I can’t stop laughing. In my younger days, Chickenman suddenly appeared on the radio in Fiji. Yes Chickenman is everywhere! We laughed hysterically over the Chickenman cry and to this day we still remember it in our family, but the rest of the show was utterly perplexing. Now I finally understand Chickenman and his history. Enlightenment has come.

    1. Honestly? The thought that, half a century ago, your family in Fiji and mine in Iowa both were listening to Chickenman is as astounding and amusing as any episode of the show. I hoped I’d surface at least a few readers who remembered that bit of 1960s hilarity — but I never expected the group would include you.

      The cry of the Chickenman is one of the most unmistakable in the world. On a dare, a friend once let loose on a rail platform in London, and despite a lot of perplexed glances, one voice rang out of the crowd: “He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!”

      I still laugh at that, just as I laughed at your comment. I’m so happy to have brought enlightenment.

      1. That is funny. And I doubt the cry of Chickenman will ever leave me. I mentioned your blog to my sister, now living in Cairns, and by her response I could tell she had let out a long cry of Chickenman, in hilarious solidarity. Recently I told Steve S how surprised I often am by the extent of American influence in my supposedly very British influenced childhood. Here, in Chickenman, is another example of American influence.

  9. It shows a good heart to go about like a chicken to do good. BTW, is it in tribute to Chickenman that it has become tradition to do the chicken dance at weddings?

    1. That’s a question I’d never thought of, GP, and I didn’t have a clue, even though I’ve been at some events where the chicken dance was a highlight of the evening. Wikipedia claims that “The song was composed by accordion player Werner Thomas from Davos, Switzerland, in the 1950s.” Apparently it stayed popular in Europe, but never gained a foothold here until the 1980s. Again, from the Wiki:

      “The dance was reintroduced in the United States in 1981 during the Tulsa, Oklahoma, Oktoberfest. They wanted to demonstrate their love through dance in costumes, but there were no duck costumes available anywhere near Tulsa. At a local television station, however, a chicken costume was available which was donated for use at the festival, giving the “Chicken Dance” its name.”

      I went looking for a youtube video to add for anyone who might come by and not know about the dance. Believe it or not, I found a crowd doing it in Bentonville, Arkansas!

  10. He had rented a chicken suit in grade 12, partly to promote his campaign for student council, but mostly because he wanted to rent a chicken suit.

    Utopia is populated by the kind of people who want to wear chicken suits.

    But there is the other angle to consider. For every consumer of chicken suits, there must be a supplier. How exactly does one find their way into the chicken suit business? Do school guidance counselors recommend this as a viable opportunity? I certainly hope they do.

    1. I’m not sure whether chicken-suit-supplier is an approved track, but when I did a search to see how many business in Houston could supply you with a chicken suit, I found — two hundred? Even if that’s off by a good number (like 175) that’s a lot.

      Even better, I discovered that it’s now possible to Rent The Chicken. Yessir, for just $600, you, too, can have a couple of layers, a portable coop, water and feed dishes, a supply of feed, and the pleasure of going out and getting your own eggs before breakfast every day. Their slogan is, “Families helping families to bring one simple food source closer to their table one rental at a time,” and for a limited time, you get a free bag of chubby mealworms with your rental.

      I noticed that neither Iowa nor Minnesota are listed as locations where chicken rental is available. Ah, America.

  11. Thomas Hart Benton (the painter) had a daughter named Jessie (a reprise of the name borne by the wife of the earlier Thomas Hart Benton) who became part of a cult in Boston in the late 1960s. I know about it because one of my two good friends from childhood joined that group and moved with some of its members to a farm in Marshall County, Kansas, in the early 70s. I don’t know what has become of Jessie Benton. The online articles I’ve turned up about her are all from decades ago, like

    It’s a long article, and I’m not suggesting you read it unless you really want to.

    1. By the time I got to your mention of Marshall County, Kansas, I was ready to read all of the article, and very carefully. Do you remember Tom Parker, the Kansas photographer whose work on the project called “The Way We Worked” was highlighted in my blog? He and his wife Lori (whose cousin toured me through the Konza prairie) live in Marshall County, Kansas. In fact, they live in Blue Rapids, which also is mentioned in the piece you linked. The site of the Benton Farm can’t be more than a few miles from their home. It will be interesting to see if a historical plaque has appeared there.

      I’m so glad you mentioned this — it will be worth exploring. In another bit of serendipity, Tom both photographs and writes for the Marysville Advocate, which commissioned a painting from one of the family.

      Speaking of communes, I was interested to read that a group called The House of David was a part of Benton Harbor’s history. Theoretically it still is, although there are only a very few remaining: perhaps a half-dozen, as I recall.

      One thing certainly does lead to another.

      1. House of David triggered a memory from the fifties in Coshocton, Ohio — a friend and I rode horses out into the picturesque boonies she told me about where a few who knew would be welcomed for breakfast served by the group. Never heard about them again anywhere else I lived.

  12. Well, then. I know Benton Harbor is in MI since I grew up in West MI but being born days before the end of 1976, I admit I have not heard of this radio show. But I have now rectified this and am going to tell my quilting friend about it as this humour is something she also will love. Esp the doing something (like a chicken suit) just because. Thanks for such an enjoyable read. I keep thinking that the past decades has a lot that we just don’t have now and even this humour, shows this.

    1. I spent a bit of time this morning listening to more episodes (there are some linked in the paragraph below the Chickenman’s picture) and I enjoyed it so much. I think one of the differences between then and now is that we were less likely to take offense when shows like this were popular, and we were much more willing to laugh at ourselves. I grew up in a Swedish household, and believe me — I heard dozens of Sven and Ole jokes before I was out of grade school. One of the reasons Garrison Keillor’s updates from Lake Wobegon were must-listen radio for years was that their gentle humor was exactly that: gentle, but as funny as could be.

      I hope your quilting friend enjoys the Chickenman, and I’m really glad that you did, too.

  13. Linda you’re a wonderful storyteller. I started reading a straightforward history piece, about a pre-Civil War Missouri politician, and his artist descendant, and the next thing you know, I’m laughing out loud over a guy in a chicken suit. I don’t know, officer, it all happened so quickly.
    When I was a kid, our village park used to have a Chicken Man most Saturday mornings, promoting the barbecue fundraisers. No one has ever admitted to knowing the chicken’s true identity. He hasn’t appeared for years, maybe because he wasn’t a very appetizing sight – I think it was a very old costume, and looked half-plucked or maybe the mange,

    1. It’s easier to be a good story-teller when the story is good.The hardest part of this one was providing enough context to make the silliness of using “Benton Harbor” as a crimefighter’s name obvious, without boring people to death in the first paragraphs. But, hey — a little literary whiplash never hurt anyone.

      Your mention of “half-plucked” reminded me of some friends in Florida who used to go up to Spring Hill for the chicken-plucking contest. It was quite a festival, actually, with a beauty contest (to choose the girls with the best “drumsticks”), a chicken chorus, and so on. The highlight of the day was the chicken-plucking, of course. When I read this, it stopped me for a minute:

      “In 1976, Plucker Emeritus Dorothy McCarthy was a member of the Mother Pluckers, who made it into the 1978 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records as the world record holder for the fastest three-chicken plucking time: 32.9 seconds.”

      I don’t know whether the record still stands. I did find a fellow who plucked a single chicken in 4.4 seconds — in 1939.

  14. Isn’t Bentonville, AR, the headquarters for Wal-Mart? I’ve heard of Benton Harbor, MI, but never been there, and I must confess I’d never heard of Chickenman. I can’t imagine going anywhere dressed in a chicken suit, but especially not snowboarding. If one got into trouble, one would have to be dragged to the nearest hospital wearing feathers and beak!

    1. You’re right, Debbie. It is the home of Wal-Mart. In fact, the Wal-Mart fortune helped to create the Crystal Bridges Museum there. It’s a terrific museum, and well worth a visit if you ever are in the neighborhood.

      When I think of some of the silly things I’ve seen people do, a snowboarding chicken doesn’t seem so strange. I can’t imagine doing it myself, but of course I can’t imagine snowboarding at all — even with more reasonable gear.

      As for landing in the hospital in a chicken suit, there was that day I ended up in the ER after a pogo stick mishap. Given the response from everyone on staff who knew me, I might as well have been wearing feathers and a beak.

    1. Smiles are good. And you know, you don’t even have to lay out good British pounds for a real chicken suit. You can put on an imaginary one, and get about having fun!

    1. Well, there’s no question that we’re all different, with different comfort levels when it comes to craziness. I’d never snowboard in a chicken suit, but going out into wildlife refuges for days at a time with only my camera for company? That seems just fine to me, even though some of my friends think it’s crazy.

      Have you noticed how some people seem to become more timid and reserved with age, while others go the opposite direction? I’m certainly not the shy, retiring person I was, even into my 30s. I’m still a little more hesitant about some things than I’d like to be, but I’m working on it. I’d better — I don’t have that many years left to do some things I want to do!

  15. You find some unusual connections for your writings. I’d forgotten about Chickenman. Last month we attended a family reunion. One evening was dedicated to a costume party of heroes and villains. Melanie was Wonder Woman. I was her enemy Angle Man. Now I wish I’d have remembered Chickenman. Trouble is, the suit would have been way too hot.

    1. Chickenman is one of those phenomena we do tend to forget about, until something brings them back to mind and we suddenly remember how deeply woven into the fabric of life they were. If you’d gone to the party as Chickenman, it would have been great — and Melanie could have been Miss Helfinger. But it would have been a hot costume for you, and there’s no guarantee as many people would have remembered Chickenman as knew Angle Man.

  16. Instead of radio shows, they have podcasts now. My all time fave is “Welcome to Night Vale,” which is not only pretty off the wall, it’s probably a little too liberal and surreal for most folks, but I like it.

    Strikes me that snow boarding in a chicken suit might not be a bad idea. He’d be pretty easy for the ski patrol to spot in case of accidents (Perish forbid!).

    1. The only thing about podcasts is that they’re listened to individually. One of the thing that made old-time radio so much fun was gathering around to listen as a group. On the other hand, the quality of podcasts today is better than most of our contemporary broadcast radio, so there’s that.

      I remember you mentioning “Night Vale” sometime in the past. I’ll give a listen one of these evenings. For some reason, I have a sense it’s a mashup of Dr. Who and Coast to Coast. I could be wrong.

      That’s right, re: the accidents. And all those feathers might help to keep him on top of the snow. On the other hand, artificial feathers might not be as effective as real ones.

      1. I have a collection of Night Vale episodes without all the talking in front — just the episodes. I mean, I downloaded them, put them in an audio editing program and cut those bits out. Otherwise, be prepared for every episode to start out with yacking by one or the other of the two creators. Each episode is around 20 or so minutes long. You can stream them here:

    1. If the kid ever got tired of snowboarding, maybe he could work the rodeo circuit as a chicken-clown. The more I sit here imagining that, the funnier it gets.

      Now, for one more rabbit-hole. I wondered if there were any Bentons in the West. When I looked up bentonite, I found the clay is named after the shale deposits near Rock River, Wyoming. The Benton shale is named after Fort Benton, a small Montana City on the Missouri River, and Fort Benton is named for — yes, ma’am! — Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.

      Tracking these Bentons down is as much fun as wearing a chicken suit — and cooler, by far.

  17. Well, this blog post chicken-scratched around in a number of directions and, as usual, is entertaining. I would have to question Sara under oath: your friend snowboards in a hot chicken suit, designed to attract attention ONLY for the reason that he can. Hmmmmmm

    1. Well, who knows? Motivation’s a mysterious thing, and which of us can swear to the reason we do anything? That’s hard enough to figure out — let alone why someone else does what they do. Personally, I’ll save the cross-exams for figuring out what the postman did with my package, or finding out which kid pulled the fire alarm. (We always can tell when summer is getting a little long around here, and the kids a little bored.)

      You have reminded me of a bit of wisdom I learned a couple of decades ago. When it comes to the question, “Why?” there are two reasonable responses. One is “Why not?” and the other is “Because.” I’m thinking it over, and almost have decided that either one could do for the snowboarder.

    1. Even without a chicken suit, you’ve brought a chicken avatar to my blog, and I’ve never had that before — how appropriate! I’m glad you got a kick out of the story, and I’m so glad you took time to say so. A little humor is good for the soul, and it looks to me as though you understand that already.

    1. Sometimes, I don’t know where I’m going, either. It’s the same with both travel and writing — but that’s half the fun. I can be as surprised as anyone at where I end up.

      The problem with a post like this is that you need some context — otherwise the Chickenman’s name wouldn’t have been nearly to funny or understandable to people who don’t know Michigan/Chicago area geography. But we do what we can — a little fun never hurt anyone.

  18. I have to say your title confused me! Having lived many years in Chicago, we spent a number of weekends in Benton Harbor (St. Joe’s), the place, with friends who had a house there. I honestly never connected that Benton with the Bentonville Bentons and I’ve never heard of this Chickenman! I’m on the road now, so will keep this short, but FYI, I am for sure going to Crystal Bridges later this month – I even made a hotel reservation so I could not change my mind or my route again!

    1. Hooray for you! I’m so glad you’re finally getting to Crystal Bridges, and now “Bentonville” will have a little more resonance for you. Believe me; I had a hard time figuring out a title for this post, but I decided I probably would find at least a couple of people who know Benton Harbor the place, and sure enough, I did — and you’re one of the them.

      Safe travels, and enjoy your time at Crystal Bridges.

  19. “He just snowboards in a chicken suit.” This is the kind of line Ashbery would overhear and slip into a poem without any attempt at further explanation. Love how you weave this tale. You’re always so good at making surprising turns that end up being exactly what was needed, just like the chicken suit on a winter day.

    1. It is an Ashbery-like line, isn’t it? Maybe I’d do better with Ashbery’s poetry if I imagined himskidding through syllables and lines like an out-of-control snowboarder in a chicken suit.

      But I still think the best writer-and-chicken story comes from Flannery O’Connor, who wrote:

      “When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathe News. I was in it too, with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

      Of course the video is available. The chicken-suited snowboarder has some real competition.

  20. Wow! I love Chickenman! It used to come on the radio when I was in elementary school in Mississippi in the 1970s. My Mom, brother, and I would listen to it religiously every weekday morning while I was being driven to school. We may not have been gathered around the Victrola, but we were all in the same car, listening to the same cheap AM car radio, and laughing and having a wonderful time. I actually have a Chickenman vinyl album in my collection. I should dig it out and play it again. My current family would probably think I had finally lost my marbles.

    Thanks for the great memories! Awesome post!

    1. The car radio serves exactly the same function as the house radio, and it had to make the ride to school more bearable. I love that there are people like you who still remember the series and how funny it truly was.

      Since writing this, I’ve pulled up a few more episode from the archive, and been amazed at how quickly it all comes back. In a way, it was Rocky Horror before Rocky Horror was a thing. There are certain lines that we’d slip into conversation even beyond the Chickenman cry: like the “WELLLL…..” of the narrator at the end. Good times.

      I say get out that album and have a Chickenman listening party. Why stop with your family, when you could convince your friends and neighbors you’ve lost it, too?

      Thanks for stopping by, and adding to the memories. ~ Linda

  21. I love learning of the origins of Chickenman … my brother-in-law is called this by my husband and “an adopted brother” … the 3 of them go ’round and round. I never understood, probably because they didn’t share … now it makes sense — sorta! :)

    1. Well, I think if I were your brother-in-law, I’d be honored. What’s not to like about being compared to a mild-mannered and good-hearted crime-fighter? If he’s just a little quirky, that’s all to the good. It not only fits the Chickenman persona, it’s also a lot of fun. See if you can’t find a place to tuck in the call: “He’s everywhere, he’s everywhere!”

    1. It was a phenomenon, that’s for sure. It was short-lived in terms of years, but the impression lingered for decades. After all — what’s not to like about a sweet, bumbling crime-fighter who succeeds almost in spite of himself, and provides a lot of laughs along the way? We could use one or two of those now, I think.

  22. I wondered why the name Benton seemed so familiar to me – and then I realized, the Senator was the father of Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of John C. Fremont about whom I’ve been lately reading in a book on mountain men. Benton’s role in facilitating exploration and settlement all the way to the Pacific are highlighted in the final chapters of the book, A Life Wild and Perilous. The grid of my mental map is getting filled in a little more… Thank you for your enriching stories!

    1. That’s right. As I recall, Fremont’s expeditions took place in the years just before Sibley and his companions set off from northeastern Kansas to survey the Santa Fe trail. I’ve not read much about Fremont, or Stephen Watts Kearney, who got to Santa Fe in 1846, but I think I’ll add them to my list. Senator Benton certainly played a sizable role in opening the west — and the midwest, for that matter.

      You might enjoy my Lewis and Clark photo-and-quotation pairing from my other blog, too. It’s hard to image what it must have been like for them — not to mention how smart and skilled they were.

  23. I don’t know if you intended to make this a pun or not but you ended a reply to someone with, “Orkin may just have plucked the name off the map.” That one gave me a good laugh. Linda you are so clever when you put your stories together. I had never heard of the chickenman but I remember one of the dance crazes that was called the Chicken. For sure it was an odd looking dance but I never danced to that because it was popular past my early twenties and I never went to dance halls or parties anyhow.

    But speaking of the chichenman and how funny he was, must have been some good entertainment. For now chickenman holds no interest for me but the story was sure interesting.

    I had a pet chicken as a youngster and she lived to be quite old. I loved that little hen. I seldom eat chicken and somehow it leaves a foul taste in my mouth- even the best fried chicken.

    And that old adage or saw or saying about don’t be chicken still rings true to this day. I’m afraid I’ve been and continue to be chicken about many things.

    1. I’m glad you noticed that bit of fun I had with “plucking” a name off a map, Yvonne. Sometimes I do those things for my own amusement, never knowing if anyone else will notice or not. It was completely intentional, and I confess I laughed at my own little joke. Now I’m wondering if you didn’t do the same thing — mentioning that you don’t enjoy chicken because it leaves a foul taste in your mouth, rather than a fowl taste.

      I’m not sure if it’s the same dance craze that you’re remembering, but the Chicken Dance still is popular in a lot of places, especially where polkas are played: dancehalls, weddings, and such. As for Chickenman, he’s probably too sweet and silly for our time. The shows only were produced for three years, but as they say, a legend never dies. You can’t listen to a show like that every day for three years and not have it become a part of your memories.

      One of the best traits of Chickenman was his willingness to give doing good a try, even though, at heart, he was chicken about a lot of things, too. We all could learn a little from him about that.

      1. I had no idea that the “chicken” was still being danced and I suppose some folks of a certain heritage view it as amuzing. I’s sure it makes for great fun.

        And yes, I intended to write that pun about the foul instead of fowl.

        I really love puns and I’m not very good at them but I can tell you that Steve Gingold and Rod Sprange are some of the best that I’ve ever seen. I’ve followed their blogs (they hardly ever post anymore) for a long time. Once on someone else’s blog they went back and forth and I can say this- I don’t know who won. I suppose it was a tie.

  24. Delightful as always. You’ve entertained us, and taught us some things. I’m sure I must have seen Chickenman before, because the words “He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!” ring in my head from some distant childhood memory. But could it be the notorious Savoir-Faire that I’m thinking of? (

    Interesting note about the possessive of Arkansas. But why, I wonder, are Arkansas and Kansas pronounced so differently?

    1. Now I’m wondering if Chickenman’s creators borrowed from Klonkike Kat (with the cry “Savoir-faire is everywhere”) or if both drew from a third source for their cries. Klondike Kat came first, in 1963, while Chickenman showed up in 1966. Another interesting difference is that Klonkike Kat was on television, and Chickenman was purely radio. You wouldn’t have seen him, because he belonged purely to the theater of the imagination.

      What intrigues me is that I still remember Chickenman’s cry, and the show’s cast of characters, but I’ve never heard of Klondike Kat until this morning. In the same way, I recall many of the early radio dramas, including their sound effects, but my memories of most television shows are more limited.

      As for the pronunciation of Arkansas and Kansas, it’s etymology to the rescue. This article does a fine job of explaining it. Here’s an related note about the origin of the Konza Prairie’s name:

      “In donating the funds which made possible the purchase of Konza Prairie, Katherine Ordway requested that the area be given an American Indian name. It was decided to name the property for the Kansa Indians (after whom the state of Kansas is named), whose principal village was located at the junction of the Blue and Kansas rivers. The early French and English explorers spelled the name of the Kansa more than 80 different ways. Some felt that ‘Kansa” might be mistaken for a typographical error for ‘Kansas’, and so another frequently used spelling, ‘Konza’ was adopted.”

  25. What a great post, Linda! And yes I do know Benton Harbor well. Well, not THAT well, but it’s a rather big deal in Michigan — a city with extraordinarily high crime and a nosedive economy that used to be “something” and now it’s a shadow of its sister city, St. Joe, just across the river. There were some well know racial disturbances there a decade or two ago. No, more like the 80s. And horrible financial mismanagement — I think they were one of the first Michigan cities to have an emergency manager. Used to be quite the place… that was then. And some famous folk from there too. Do you remember Arte Johnson from Laugh-in or the comedian Sinbad? There was another actor from there too, but can’t recall his name. Whirlpool is headquartered there, just over the river but I don’t think they make them there any more. Benton Harbor conjures up lots of images to those of us in Michigan!

    I much prefer your Chickenman portion better than thinking of Benton Harbor, MI. Now Dick Orkin — he was a genius. I remember learning about him in my radio classes. But I didn’t learn or at least remember anything about Chickenman. Wonderful. Loved the clip and the image. And the Benton connection. (Always found Thomas Hart Benton’s work rather powerful and often rather dark.)

    More than once (and to this day) I’ve been chicken in my lifetime — I think maybe I should look for one of those suits!

    1. The only thing I knew about Benton-Harbor-the-city was that Whirlpool headquarters are there. I wouldn’t have known that had Whirlpool not bought out Maytag, where my dad worked. Suddenly, all of Mom’s pension payments, insurance correspondence, and other such financial details were transferred to Whirlpool’s system, and we learned a good bit about the company.

      I did read about some of the problems there. It seems strange to me that I’d never heard that part of the story. It makes sense that I would have been mostly oblivious in the 60s, since I still was in high school, but I don’t even remember the troubles of 2003. At any rate, it does seem as though thimgs are improving a bit — and they certainly have a heck of a lighthouse.

      It tickles me that you know about Dick Orkin. When I was listening to the original series, I didn’t know a thing about him. In fact, I didn’t even know his name until I began exploring the history of the show. I love that he not only came up with the concept, but also voiced Chickenman. I think he must have had such a good time with it — can you imagine being turned loose to create those episodes on a daily basis?

      As for being chicken — we’ve all been there. Sometimes it’s not such a bad thing — just a silly, negative phrase for appropriate caution. But now and then, one of those suits is just the ticket.

  26. Dang it, now I lust after a chicken suit! Dang you and your friend! Now skiing I usually rent, and when I want to telemark ski, I have to rent demos. I skied one day with my kids 5-6 years ago. The next day I wanted longer stiffer skis. I came out with telemark gear decorated with Genghis Khan and his Horde. My teenage son said admiringly, “Mom, coolest skis on the mountain!” He was on a snow board. We tore it up!!! … at least in our own minds….

    1. Isn’t it fun to be a legend in our own minds? Snowboarding is cool, and wearing a chicken suit would be fun, but snowboarding in a chicken suit takes it to a whole new level. Your kids would be impressed, and you’d be the talk of the slopes. What’s not to like?

      1. Heh. Though a friend gave me a 1980s ski outfit and I have an early ski helmet that is grey and curves out at the lower edges and then put that on telemark gear…. I think it’s already a weird costume. Though feathers would certainly enhance it.

    1. The dear Chickenman was such a part of our lives. Even today, when I think about him being named Benton Harbor, I just laugh. There are so many unusual names used today (Moon Unit Zappa, for example) that it’s hardly worth remarking. But in the 1960s, the name along was enough to make us pay attention.

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