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.