HAS ANYONE HERE SEEN TWO TON BAKER?
BY GERRI BAADER
Suddenly, I was 10 again, singing "Fuzzy Wuzzy," "Lonely Little Petunia" and "Hey Squawky, Have You Seen Bubbles?" with my childhood idol—"Two Ton Baker the Music Maker." He is very much alive and living in Hazel Crest.
Two Ton* hasn't changed much despite the loss of 75 pounds about eight years ago. His sparkling eyes, bubbling energy, pleasing voice and nimble fingers racing across the keyboard quickly turned back the intervening decades. I felt as though I were in front of the old TV set, watching him sway and hearing him sing, "Has anyone here seen Bubbles, B-U-B-B-L-E-S . . ."
And that's when I learned his fans span several generations. My mother was listening to his radio shows some 35 years ago, and my grandmother may well have dance to his band during the early years of her marriage—Two Ton, now 55, was playing at Polish, German and Bohemian dances back when he was 11.
"IT ALL STARTED when I was three," the veteran entertainer said. "I always stood beside my mother and banged along on the piano when she played church music. Once, when she was out, I was plucking away at ‘Yankee Doodle' and my uncle thought it was her!"
By the time he was four, "little Dick" was accompanying his mother at church, Knights of Columbus and other fraternal doings, playing jazz and popular music of the day.
"I never had lessons," Two Ton confessed, "but the Lord blessed me with a good ear."
A year in a harmony class in high school was his only formal music training. To this day he can only read the top, or melody, portion of musical scores.
"I WAS 11 or 12, living in Berwin, playing with neighborhood orchestras at ethnic doings an fund-raising events when we formed a group called Dick Baker and His Hot Buns," he said. "We played all around the west towns area."
At 16 he was already an old hand at vaudeville, playing piano all over the East and the South with the Royal Ambassadors, a 14-member stage band. Theirs were one-day stands, where they would work at a theater, sleep at a nearby hotel and travel to their next engagement early the following morning.
Somehow, still following this hectic schedule at the age of 20, Baker met and married his wife, the former Ruth Fisher of La Grange, who began accompanying him on the road. They have two children, Richard Jr., who is married, and a daughter, Deborah, at home, who teaches school in Oak Lawn.
It was during Baker's early days in radio that a fellow worker, Irving Wagner, suggested the name Two Ton, "to add a little zip," and "Two Ton" it has been ever since.
"MILK AND BREAD always caused my weight problem," Two Ton said. "I'd come home from a show and down several glasses of milk and a buttered loaf of bread." (He has now switched from his daily gallon of whole milk to less than a quart of skim milk.)
" I loved radio because we were so free and could do so much," he said.
In addition to composing songs, Baker at that time was writing commercials and punctuating them with distinctive piano chords.
Many people remember his 11 years on the 8:15 a.m. WGN Mutual Network show dating back to the late 1930s and early '40s. During these years he often worked in cheap night clubs.
"There were hundreds of them, and there was work for everybody at $25 per week--and we were glad to get it," he said.
"I because very sick with the flue in 1947 and almost had pneumonia, and letters arrived in truckloads from all over the country," he said. "I was still opening some of theme earlier this year."
THAT'S NOT ALL he got in the mail. Layettes flooded in when his daughter was born, and a man from Arkansas sent him a chocolate milkshake when he mentioned on the air how much he liked them. ("Then there was the smelt from Northern Michigan . . .")
When the great polio epidemic struck in 1948, Baker did special shows "to help keep kids off the streets," showing the same civic spirit as when he helped stage U.S. savings bond shows during World War II.
"I remember meeting Dorothy Lamour at one bond show," he said, laughing. "She slid her arm around my shoulder, and I told her I'd never wash it again!"
"About that same time, I finally got up enough nerve to talk to Duke Ellington after listening to his band for years, and we've been like brothers since," he said.
In mid-July of this year, Ellington asked him to moderate a music festival in Wisconsin, asking pointed questions designed to help move the five days of classes along. It was televised for educational TV, and probably will be shown on Chicago TV at a later date.**
CHICAGO-AREA TV audiences have known Two Ton's face since April 1, 1948, when he was the first act as WGN went on the air.
"I did a 15-minute commercial for a television set—the very first commercial WGN ever ran," he said.
Then along came "Half-ton," a carefully carved marionette that looked remarkably like Two Ton. Together, they appeared on WGN's "Wonder House" from 5 to 6 pm.
"But television was live then, and I had too many clubs booked," he said. "So Wonder House had to be curtailed."
[Words missing from copy of article] . . . though, because the show could be recorded in advance.
Finally, the Happy Pirates, complete with Squawky the parrot, and Bubbles, the porpoise, came along at noon on WGN some 18 years ago, and that's when I became faithful fan, receiving a daily "smoocheroo" and joining in the singing about the one grasshopper "jumping over the other grasshopper's back."
"Squawky had spent her life on a Danish merchant ship during the war, and we're lucky she spoke only Danish," Two Ton said. She was 40 years old and considered herself the star of the show.
"We didn't dare release him too soon after the time she flew over Elmer Turner's head just as he was doing the news! But we couldn't stop him from squawking while it was on," he said.
But Two Ton's jazz-loving fingers drew him back to night clubs and personal appearances at conventions and schools. He spent five years at the Ivanhoe in Chicago, and now can be seen five evenings a week at Mangam's Chateau in Lyons. College tours are also being arranged.
The veteran music man also just recorded some 25 of his [words missing from copy of article] . . . Sentimental Journey with Two Ton Baker," with medleys from the turn of the century to the 1950s, including two of his biggest hits: "I'm a Lonely Little Petunia" and "Too Fat Polka."
© The (Hazel Crest, IL) Star, September 7, 1972Next: Two Ton Baker, Music Man, Dies (5/5/75)
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