Bob Newhart found stardom with his show set in Chicago and the Edgewater Historical Society is honoring his high-rise ‘home’

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Bob Newhart was not married to Suzanne Pleshette. He never had a Michigan Avenue office. He never lived in a Sheridan Road high rise.

That was television, folks.

But Chicago was where Newhart was born and raised and burst onto the entertainment landscape. He has been, for more than seven decades, a vital and admired and impossible to imitate presence in nightclubs, on record albums, in films and, most profoundly, on television.

He moved away long ago but has been part of the local landscape since 2004, sort of, in the form of that life-size bronze sculpture that finds him sitting in a chair next to an empty sofa, now plunked near the east edge of Navy Pier.

Another homage takes place this week. Newhart turns 93 on Labor Day and as an early birthday present of sorts, the folks at the Edgewater Historical Society will install a commemorative street sign in his honor and to acknowledge “The Bob Newhart Show,” which the society says is “arguably the most popular television sitcom ever set in Chicago.”

At 11 a.m. on Thursday, the sign will be placed at 5940 N. Sheridan Road, across from the Thorndale Beach North tower, where Newhart “lived” during the six CBS seasons of “The Bob Newhart Show,” which premiered on Sept. 16, 1972.

During the show’s opening credit sequence, Newhart, as psychologist Bob Hartley, is seen leaving his offices at 430 N. Michigan Ave. and taking a geographically nutty route home. Newhart acknowledged this, saying, “If you’re a native Chicagoan, you know how dumb he (Dr. Hartley) is. He gets on the Ravenswood ‘L,’ he goes past his stop on Sheridan Road, he gets off in Evanston, where the ‘L’ is on the ground, and then he walks back 55 blocks to his apartment. Now, would you want to have that man as a psychologist? A man who misses his stop every day?”

That opening segment was the work of the late cinematographer and newsreel cameraman Bill Birch. His widow, Marjorie Fritz-Birch, is a member of the board of the historical society and says, “Bill always said Bob was a pleasure to work with … funny and collegial and a lot like the guy you saw on screen.”

That is the prevailing opinion. David Marienthal, the producer of the spectacular documentary ”Live at Mister Kelly’s,” interviewed Newhart for the film and says “He was the nicest, most generous person.” (The movie, about the most famous nightclub in the city’s history and the scene of many Newhart appearances, will be screened Tuesday at the Cultural Center).

Bob Newhart was born in Oak Park on Sept. 5, 1929, and grew up in Chicago. He was the only son of George David Newhart, part owner of a plumbing and heating-supply business, and homemaker Julia Pauline. He had three sisters — Virginia, Mary Joan and Pauline — and all the kids attended St. Catherine of Siena grammar school in Oak Park.

Newhart later went to St. Ignatius College Prep and graduated from Loyola University with a bachelor’s degree in business management in 1952. Drafted into the U.S. Army, he served during the Korean War as a personnel manager until he was discharged in 1954. He briefly attended Loyola University’s law school before working as an accountant.

He also worked as a clerk in the unemployment office. He became an advertising copywriter in 1958 for Fred A. Niles, a film and television producer. To kill time, he and a colleague imagined long telephone calls about crazy scenarios. They scripted a radio show which they eventually sold to 13 Midwestern stations.

Dan Sorkin, a disc jockey at a local radio station and Newhart’s friend, introduced him to the head of talent at Warner Bros. Records. The label signed him in 1959 based solely on those recordings.

Newhart recorded an album but later said, “I never thought much would come of (it), to be honest. I thought maybe 25,000 copies might sell. Then it went crazy.”

That debut album, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” became the first comedy album ever to hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, selling more than 1 million copies and earning two Grammy Awards. It changed the face of modern comedy.

Few, I suppose, would argue that Newhart deserves a commemorative street sign, especially since we have so many of them. They began to arrive in December 1984 and have come at us in a steady stream since. It’s not that hard to get one. Basically, a nomination is submitted to the ward office in which the honorary sign is to be located. Aldermen then submit proposals to the City Council. Upon approval, the Department of Transportation gets an order to install a sign at the designated location and then there is a dedication ceremony.

Not everyone liked this new urban decoration. In 2000, by which time more than 800 of the brown honorary signs were in place, my former colleague Eric Zorn called in Tribune for the removal of them all, writing that they had become “goofy, small town and way out of hand.”

Newhart is more than deserving because never in the long, lively history of show business has there ever been anybody like Bob Newhart.

He was recently interviewed by Parade magazine about his career and his 59-year-long marriage to his wife Ginny. Among the things he said was this, “When I first started out in stand-up, I just remember the sound of laughter. It’s one of the great sounds of the world.”

He has also said this: “I think that what comes through in Chicago humor is affection. Even though you’re poking fun at someone or something, there’s still an affection in it.”

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