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Museum of Broadcast Communications

December 10, 2017

  • 360 N. State Street
  • Chicago, IL 60654
  • (312) 245-8200
  • Website

There’s not a lot of things that I drag J to because I really want to go.  We’re not going to WWE events or rodeo’s or monster truck rally’s just because it’s something I would want to do.  We make sure our very limited entertainment time without the kids is something we both want to do.

I don’t even remember how I found it but back in October I saw an article in a Chicago newspaper about Saturday Night Live: The Experience opening in Chicago and immediately bought tickets.  J watches SNL most weeks so I just assumed she would like it and if nothing else, it would be some time in the city for just the two of us.

I’m not gonna lie.   I love SNL as much today as I did growing up in the 80’s and 90’s.  It’s still one of the highlights of my week and while not every show is a winner, there’s still a sketch or two from every episode that makes me chuckle.  I’ve seen a good chunk of the episodes including a lot of the early years both with and without Lorne Michels as the Executive Producer, so I was really excited for this exhibit.

The Chicago exhibition is taking place at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in downtown Chicago.  It’s on the corner of State Street and Kinzie Street.  It’s in a four story building that almost didn’t get finished.  The construction had a lot of funding issues and it took about seven years for the building to be completed.  The museum opened in June of 2012.

The first thing I gotta say, I’m pretty comfortable driving in Chicago and I had an interesting time getting to the museum from Lake Shore Drive.  You have to drive on Lower Wacker and Lower Michigan then take a tight turn on to Kinzie.  As soon as you come out from underneath the upper roads in the area, there’s a parking garage immediately on your right.  You have to go around the corner on State Street to get to the entrance but this garage is right across the street from the museum and they validate (if, unlike me, you remember to get it punched).

We bought our tickets online so we could bypass the line when we got in.  There’s a small ticket counter right inside the door and a large flight of stairs that bring you up to the second level where the entrance to the SNL Exhibit starts.

At the top of the stairs is a small waiting are where our tickets were scanned.  On the wall are pictures of all of the actors who have been in the cast since the show began in 1975 as NBC’s Saturday Night.

The exhibit is a walk through exhibit that you can go through at your own pace but entrance into the exhibit is timed.  The first thing you do is watch a short movie about the history of Saturday Night Live in a room that is recreated to look like the elevator lobby of 30 Rock.

The movie is maybe five minutes then the doors at the front of the room open and welcome you in to Studio 8H.  There’s a red carpet and pictures of some popular characters from the past that line the walls.

Like any good museum, Saturday Night Live: The Experience starts at the beginning.  Exhibits walk you through the days of the week leading up to a live show and mixes in a bunch of the history of the show throughout the different rooms.  On Monday, Lorne Michels meets with the host and head writers to go over the plans for the week.

The first room has one of Lorne Michels two desks.  He has one on the 9th Floor overlooking the studio which is on the 8th.  His actual office is on the 17th Floor.  It’s the 17th floor desk that is on display here.  There’s also copies of the scripts from the first show and even the outline for the show that Michels used to pitch the show to NBC executives.  The centerpiece of this room though is the Home Base Set from the 1975 season.

Home Base is the centerpiece set that never changes.  In the early days, this was a functioning set that was used for sketches.  Today’s Home Base is the set used for monologues and the band.

The other amazing exhibit in this room is one of my favorite sketches from the first season.  Two of the costumes from the Killer Bees show just how quickly some of the early stuff was thrown together.  The bees were meant to be a one-off gag, but Michels got notes from the Network to never show them again….so of course, he did the opposite.  The two costumes literally look like they took a white onesie and painted the stripes. The lines bleed into each other and the fabric is frayed around the edges.  Not much survived from the first season, but fortunately, these two costumes somehow stuck around.

The next room goes in to script writing.  There is a large glass case with copies of the scripts to show what a sketch looks like on paper.  There’s also a short video on the wall where four SNL writers talk about what happens on Tuesday and how scripts are written.

From writing on Tuesday to table read on Wednesday.  The next room has a replica table from the writers room at 30 Rock and another video presentation on how the table read works.  There is also pictures, videos, and information projected on the table which you can sit at while the video is playing.

On Thursday the sets start getting built at 6 AM at a warehouse in Brooklyn.  The next room has some information on the original sets built in 8H as well as the blueprints from some of those early sets.  This room then leads in to a bigger room with more videos on how sets are built and transported back to Manhattan in a little over a day so the cast and crew can start rehearsals for the show.

This room has a couple of the props built for the show that you can take pictures with.  The entire Wayne’s World set is on one side of the room while podium’s from Jeopardy and Black Jeopardy are on the other.

One thing I’ve kind of been glossing over is that in all of these rooms there are costumes and props used throughout the series. In this room, the costumes and props from Wayne’s World were on display alongside the top ten board.

Each of these glass cabinets have an info card explaining the history and what pieces the costume consists of.

The next room starts to get in to dress rehearsal and show time.  There’s a really interesting movie that talks about all the prostethis and wigs they use on the show and how they’re made.  The cast has molds made of their heads when they start on the show so the crew can make what they need without making the actor sit for a mold every week.  This area also has a large collection of the popular costumes over the years.  The Spartan Cheerleaders, Opera Man, Hanz and Franz, Coneheads, and even Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump.

Of course, Justin Timberlake has a few of his sketches immortalized here too.  First, there’s the costumes from Liquorville sketch but right at the very end of the room are these two guys from the insanely funny Dick in a Box Digital Short.

This is the end of the second floor exhibit which runs through the days of the week ending with the dress rehearsal.  There’s an elevator to the fourth floor which runs through the show.  Not part of this exhibit but part of the museum is the Paul & Angel Harvey Studio.  This is right before the elevator that takes you to the fourth floor.  Paul Harvey is a legendary Chicago radio newsman and, as J pointed out, this is a fitting place to hop on the elevator to get the “rest of the story.”

We were met on the fourth floor by a docent, the first one we had seen since the ticket taker at the beginning, who welcomed us to “Studio 8H.”  There’s a quick section of dressing rooms, costumes, and cue cards leading in to the control room.  If you’re not familiar with television production, the control room is where the show comes together.  All of the cameras, video sources, graphics, microphones, and anything else that makes it on TV goes through the control room.  They had a replica set up with a mock switcher.  There’s a video that plays that shows describing how the show gets on your TV with the director’s track playing in the background so you hear the director giving his commands.  You can also see all of the sources he was looking at so there are five cameras and four tape machines that he’s calling up…you see the actor’s moving around off camera in the camera shots that aren’t on TV at the time.  I’ve worked in a lot of live TV in my life out of rooms like this and out of production trailers pulled by semi’s so this was really cool to see.

The next area was another hallway.  This one is what you see on TV whenever they leave the actual studio during the cold open.  They have the scaffolding for the seats that line the path.  Right outside of the control room is Lorne’s position during the show with a monitor and a desk.  A little further down is the cue card area with stacks of the cards used during the show and a replica of the desk used by the crew that has to write thousands of these cards every year.

The last room is a big open space where they have a replica of the current Home Base set as well as the stage for the music guest and the Jeopardy set.  There is another docent here who gets people seated then starts another big multi screen video.  It starts with Tina Fey coming out and doing a monologue specifically for this exhibit.  The screens on the other two sets show one of the sets being built while she’s doing her monologue and the other screen shows the view from a side camera.  It’s about a five minute video that wraps up The Experience pretty nicely.

The rest of this room houses a gift shop with a number of collectibles and apparel.

There is also a previous version of the Weekend Update set that you can take pictures on then have one of about a half dozen previous Update anchors super imposed into the picture.  I didn’t see pricing on it since it was something we weren’t really interested in doing.

Along with admission to this exhibit, which will be at the Museum until the end of 2018, you also get access to the third floor which is more of  a local broadcast history museum.  We didn’t stop on the third floor on our way down because we wanted to get to dinner across the street before the Saturday night dinner rush, but they have a lot of cool stuff if you’re familiar with Chicago broadcast history.  There’s a lot from old WGN shows, Svengoolie, and even a few things from Oprah’s days in Chicago.

As for the SNL exhibit, it was pretty awesome.  The only thing they didn’t have that I would have liked to have seen was the muppets used for The Land of Gorch.  The sketches were always super awful, but it still would have been something cool to see.

We made a special trip to Chicago just to check out this exhibit, but we have family in the south suburbs so it also gave us an excuse to see them as well.  This exhibit is worth the trip from Southwest Michigan if you’re a fan of Saturday Night Live.  I would still like to check out the third floor, but J made the right choice.  We got the last table at the restaurant we went to so another thirty to forty minutes going through that floor would have really set us back.  The Museum of Broadcast Communications is a really cool museum if you’re into television and radio history and Saturday Night Live: The Experience is such a great walk through whether you’re a huge fan of the show or just someone who thinks it was better ten years ago.

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