Doctors to the Stars; Harry for a Day | Media | Chicago Reader

Doctors to the Stars; Harry for a Day 

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Doctors to the Stars

There was silence on the set at LaSalle and Van Buren streets when Steve Martin pulled up his shirt. Dr. Alice Brandfonbrener listened to his heartbeat.

"They wanted me there as fast as possible," said Brandfonbrener, who is director of the Medical Program for Performing Artists at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Martin had been coughing. "When people on a movie set catch a cold, they hold up thousands of dollars of other people's money."

It ain't the money Brandfonbrener cares about--unless it's for funding research in performing-arts medicine. She cares about the actor's bronchitis, the bassoonist's elbow, the dancer's hip. She's developing exercises for double-jointed musicians, and figuring out what medicines work best for entertainers who plead "I can't go on like this. What am I gonna do?" Antihistamines, for example, are generally not prescribed to those who use their voices. It dries the cords out. "That can render them speechless," said Brandfonbrener.

The two-year-old performing-artists program is a team of 15 doctors, including a dentist, who treat the infinitely varied maladies of performers. The Chicago Theatre, Ravinia, Lyric Opera, many Chicago Symphony members--all call Brandfonbrener first. She also edits the quarterly Medical Problems of Performing Artists, a fascinating collection of papers by doctors on subjects such as hearing loss in musicians, plus essays written by artists themselves. For example, in the first issue, March 1986, pianist Gary Graffman wrote: "Nobody wants a wounded pianist. There is an oversupply of healthy ones. Admitting difficulties is like jumping, bleeding, into piranha-filled waters."

Graffman also pointed out that "the twisting of an overworked neck to accommodate the ill-placed chin rest of a viola, or even the height of the seat of a cellist's chair may also cause bizarre and remarkable symptoms." That's why Brandfonbrener insists that musicians bring their instruments to her office. "You look for everything that could possibly go wrong," she said.

That includes the artist's nerves. "A lot of people see these people as neurotics, pariahs. Most of them are neurotic for real reasons. It has to do with perfectionism. It has to do with the reality they can't take time off.

"The stress is chronic and ongoing. They're not terribly mutually supportive of each other. There's a lot of backbiting. We have a more than superficial understanding of what goes on backstage or in the pit," said Brandfonbrener.

"Performers who find us say where have you been all our lives?"

Harry for a Day

Nobody forgets Harry. WGN TV plays a tape of Harry Caray singing "Take me out to the ball game . . . " every seventh inning. The cameras pause on Cubs fans holding up huge "Get Well Harry" signs he can see on cable TV in Palm Springs, where he's healing from a stroke.

And until he's back, Steve Stone, Caray's partner these five years, has masterfully been leading comedians, actors, newspaper columnists, and sportswriters through grueling afternoons of "Harry for a day."

Did we say grueling? "For people who have never done it, it's close to unfathomable," said Stone, a former pitcher for the Giants, White Sox, Cubs, and Orioles who won the Cy Young Award in 1980 before retiring with a bad elbow. He told us he's lucky to have a second career in broadcasting. Then he showed us it's not as easy as it looks.

Stone's black Porsche pulled into Wrigley Field's parking lot more than an hour before a Giants game last week. Fans came up with baseballs, bags, and bubblegum cards for him to autograph. Then he led us through the Cubs offices and out onto the field. "This is the work," said Stone, pulling out a Cuban cigar. "This is how you make the show. You want to give viewers something they can't get in the newspapers."

We were on the visitors' side of the ballpark, and the lawn was full of Giants stretching and squirming through warm-ups. Clean, perfectly coiffed, their uniforms gleaming--they looked like they'd been bred in hothouses. The sun sparkled off their gold chains. Stone approached one player about a sinus infection. "It got, like, if I ran, my teeth hurt. My gums hurt," said the player. Stone went up to another. "Are you running better than I saw you running last year?"

Stone collected a litany of injuries. "I don't take notes when I talk to players," he told us later. "I just talk. I don't want them to be threatened when they talk to me. A lot of guys get embittered by the press over the years and they don't talk to them."

Stone keeps their secrets. "I'm not a journalist," he says. He was no more honest with the press about his injuries than players today are about theirs. "If I have a bad arm, I'm going to try and play through it. People are always trying to take your job." He told us about Wally Pipp's hangover. The Yankees got some guy named Lou Gehrig to take his place that day at first base. Pipp never played first base again for the Yankees.

Up in the broadcast booth, Sun-Times sports columnist Ron Rapoport was filling in for Harry. Rapoport wanted to start out as color man, then switch to play-by-play in the third inning. A play-by-play announcer has to immediately identify things like jump step, line drive to left field, sinking fastball, quick-breaking slider, and bounding ball left side deep short.

Rapoport did an inning of play-by-play on TV and an inning on radio. He kept getting behind and he went back to color. "I guess it was a good thing to me in terms of humility," he told us later.

Color is explaining why things happen. Last Sunday, Tribune columnist Steve Daley said during a replay, "Well, it looks like he missed the base." Daley told us later a good color man would have said, "He didn't look at the coach to tell him to stop or go"--the kind of observation that offers insight. "I know Chico Walker is in left field," said Daley. "But I cannot remember his name."

You never talk during a pitch. Then there's timing--when to talk about the game, when to talk about lunch, when to argue if Pete Rose was better than Rod Carew. "Keeping the audience when the score is 10 to 1 is Harry's genius," said Stone.

All the guest Harries have gotten things wrong. The wrong score. The wrong hitters. The wrong direction of the ball. Every mistake conceivable. We fans at home don't see the nudges, notes, and signals that pass between Stone, Harry-for-a-day, and sports editor Jack Rosenberg, assistant director Joe Cornejo, and director Arne Harris in the booth.

"We try to make it as easy as possible for these fellas," said Stone. "We want 'em to have fun. They've all been nervous. They all want to look good. They all have their friends watching. They have their tapes going at home--and they'll keep them for life."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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