Thursday, April 18, 2024

Flashback 1991: Win Stracke dies — folk singer was a pioneer in kids' TV

Win Stracke

   I'm reading Mark Guarino's excellent "Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival" — more about that in my column Friday — and when he got to the founding of the Old Town School of Folk Music, and Win Stracke, I found myself thinking, "Wait a sec ... I think I wrote his obit." Thirty three years ago. As to why that would stick in mind, I'm not sure. His unusual name, maybe. Or the fact that I spoke with Studs Terkel about him. I would draw your attention to the name of the contributing writer at the end: Mary A. Johnson. That was the future Mary Mitchell. 

     Win Stracke, 83, troubadour  and co-founder of the Old Town School of Folk Music, died Saturday at his home in the North Shore Hotel in Evanston.
     For decades, Mr. Stracke, a big, deep-voiced, gentle-humored balladeer, was an important presence on the Chicago folk scene, performing his music on radio, television and the stage.
     Born in Lorraine, Kan., in 1908, he was the son of a German Baptist minister, Robert Stracke.
     The family moved to what became the 43rd Ward in 1909, and the elder Stracke served as minister at the church at Willow and Burling.
     Later, Mr. Stracke immortalized the ward in a ballad about its wild politics and colorful politicians.
     Win Stracke began singing at his father's church and soon became a soloist at other churches.
     During World War II, he served in an Army anti-aircraft battery in Europe, carrying his guitar through six overseas campaigns, playing his folk songs for troops.
     With the advent of television, he performed in what were known as Chicago School TV shows. He had a running role on the "Studs Place" show, the "Hawkins Falls" soap opera, "The Garroway Show," and his own children's shows, "Animal Playtime" and "Time for Uncle Win."
     Mr. Stracke's soft wit and gentle presence made him ideal for children's television.
     "Let's see," Mr. Stracke told his audience in an early "Animal Playtime" show, which made its debut in March, 1953. "Let's sing about animals that we like. What kind do you like?"
     Pausing for a second, he gazed directly at the camera and at his young viewers. Then he brightened. "Dogs? Why sure, we all like dogs, don't we? Now. . . ," and he began strumming a simple song about dogs, one of thousands of folk songs he composed.
     "He pushed other people into loving music," said Dawn Greening, who helped Mr. Stracke start the Old Town School of Folk Music. "He shared his love for the music with everybody, I just remember where I first heard him sing; one of the places was the Gate of Horn. I just thought he was really wonderful."
     When "Animal Playtime" was canceled in 1954, thousands of mothers — who appreciated Mr. Stracke's mixture of lively songs with lessons about animals — mounted an angry crusade that led to the show's reinstatement.
     "You can say Win was Chicago's Bard because of the songs he sang," said Studs Terkel, who called Mr. Stracke his "oldest friend."
     "Win was a friend of blues singers, folk singers, everybody. He sang in picket lines when the CIO was organized. He was there whenever there was difficulties at picket lines. He was a stalwart."
       Mr. Stracke "was the figure that brought together social action, the love of tradition and really good fun," said Stuart Rosenberg, a local musician, songwriter and WBEZ radio show host.
       "There is a whole generation of singers and songwriters who looked to Win for their first inspiration. He was a unique figure in that he related to everyone."
      In 1957, Mr. Stracke began the Old Town School of Folk Music with Greening, Frank Hamilton and Gertrude Soltker. Begun with one teacher and 20 students, the school helped make Chicago a center of folk singing.
     "The whole idea is to give people who love folk music a chance to participate rather than to just listen," Mr. Stracke said at the time. "This interest in folk music by city people betrays their search for the basic realities which they don't find expressed in commercial popular music."
     Mr. Stracke was a member of the Civil War Round Table and the Chicago Historical Society. He wrote the words to "Freedom Country," a 23-minute cantata celebrating the Illinois sesquicentennial in 1967.
     For the last 20 years he had been retired, living for seven years in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, then returning to the United States to live in Fort Collins, Colo., until three years ago, when he returned to Chicago.
     Survivors include two daughters, Jane Bradbury and Barbara Pavey, and two grandchildren.
     Services were pending.
     Contributing: Mary A. Johnson

      — Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 30, 1991 


  1. Win Stracke began his folk singing career in Chicago in the early 30s,, on the WLS National Barn Dance program. He was later a member of a progressive theater group that performed plays that were pro-union and antiwar, and he began working with his lifelong friend, Studs Terkel, who would later interview Stracke about his WWII experiences in "The Good War."

    I'm actually old enough to remember Stracke's TV career in the early 1950s. My father was an early adapter, so we already had a TV when the decade began. He appeared on one of the first-ever network TV soap operas, "Hawkins Falls"...which I actually the age of four and five.

    He was also Uncle Win on his children''s program--"Animal Playtime" (on NBC)--and "Time For Uncle Win." I remember them. He had a duck named Roger. His shows were both entertaining and educational, sort of a prehistoric PBS-type kiddie show.

    But it was also the heyday of Joe McCarthy, and his shows were cancelled by NBC, as part of the Hollywood blacklist, Stracke was pro-labor, and supported progressive causes (but he was never a Communist). Just being sympathetic to those causes was enough to get him blacklisted.

    Win Stracke did commercials after that, for Pie Oh-My, Dean's Milk, and other products. I can still hear that deep voice in my head, singing the jingle for "Pie Oh-My...[pause] Pudding Cake!" Gone a whole third of a century already? Wow.

    1. Well, Grizz, you certainly beat me out with this one: while you were watching and appreciating Win Stracke, I was watching "Howdy Doody" and listening to Ma and Pa Kettle on the radio. And don't remember anything worth remembering on TV or radio.


    2. Listened to a radio soap called "Family Skeleton"...even though I was only six. And when the plug was pulled one evening (for "Tennessee Ernie" Ford), I was pissed. Watched "Howdy Doody" too...and drooled over Judy Tyler, who played an Indian princess, before starring in "Jailhouse Rock" a few years later.

      Judy was afraid of flying. She was killed in a horrible car wreck at 24, along with her husband, while driving from California to New York. Her co-star, who was two years younger, had a serious crush on her. Elvis was so upset by her death that he would never watch the completed film.

  2. The power of EGD (and its readership) I sent the Win Stracke column to a journalist friend now living as an expat in San Miguel de Allende. He will repost it on a community blog for expats, maybe hitting those who remember Stracke’s time in San Miguel.

  3. I got to know, and always enjoyed hearing, Win Stracke sing various tunes (many I suspect of his own composition) as a listener to "The Midnight Special." Memory is undependable as I approach my senility, but I think it was Win who sang a tune (probably his own composition) about how God invented baseball.

  4. I lived at 1649 n Howe and then 1917 n. orchard between 1977 and 1980 a block or so from that church. I frequented the old town school of folk Music and for many years after. Was a big fan of that generation of folk music , but today was the first time I remember hearing the name Win Stracke . Seems a bit before my time.

    Look forward to perusing his discography and getting to know his work. thanks for this piece.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.