Sunday, April 19, 2009

MASH' fans keep looking for the Chicago restaurant Hawkeye called from Korea, and guess what they find?

Legendary radio, television, stage and screenwriter Larry Gelbart knows what's funny and what's not funny. The recipient of three Emmys and three Tonys, among other awards, the Chicago native has demonstrably proven over the years that he knows how to tickle someone's funny bone.

Perhaps best known as one of the creators of "MASH," Gelbart had a hand in either producing, directing or writing 134 episodes of the iconic series during its 1972-83 run on CBS. "To have the life span that it has enjoyed is amazing," a proud Gelbart recently said from California.

Of those episodes, one is arguably the most rib-tickling of them all.

"There's a place in Chicago near the Dearborn Street Station, I don't know the name of it, they served ribs, the best in the world. ... The gods on Olympus, when they got tired of pizza, they sent out for these ribs." -- Hawkeye, in the "Adam's Ribs" episode of "MASH"

"Adam's Ribs," first aired on Nov. 26, 1974, revolved around the complications that ensue when Hawkeye (Alan Alda), who's fed up by the "river of liver and an ocean of fish" he's been served in the mess tent for 11 straight days, suddenly has a craving for barbecue spareribs. According to Hawkeye, while attending medical school in Chicago, he used to go to this phenomenal rib joint near the Dearborn Street rail station. The only problem is, he doesn't remember its name.

Informed that the number of the station is Dearborn 5-7500, Hawkeye telephones the station from Korea intent on placing the ultimate takeout order. While on the phone with the stationmaster, who thinks he is a war correspondent, Hawkeye learns the restaurant is called Adam's Ribs. He then convinces the stationmaster to look up its phone number: Dearborn 5-2750.

The screwball surgeon gets the stationmaster to transfer him to the local operator, who then patches him through to the restaurant. He proceeds to order 40 pounds of spareribs and a gallon of barbecue sauce.

To a legion of "MASH" fans, Adam's Ribs is a hallowed shrine. Among the pantheon of famous film and TV locations in and around Chicago, Adam's Ribs is right up there with the Billy Goat Tavern and the "Home Alone" house in Winnetka.

People of a certain age have long assumed that Gelbart and the late Laurence Marks, the episode's writer, modeled the rib joint after a real-life eatery -- just like the producers of "Cheers" modeled their fictitious restaurant after the Bull & Finch Pub in Boston. Indeed, entire threads in the blogosphere have been dedicated to trying to figure out what restaurant served as the inspiration for Adam's Ribs.

But when asked about it recently, the 81-year-old Gelbart acknowledged for the first time what so many have long suspected: namely, that Adam's Ribs never existed.

His acknowledgment also included the surprising revelation that, not only wasn't Adam's Ribs a real place, but it wasn't inspired by any restaurant, either. Instead, both he and Marks concocted it out of their own fertile, comic imaginations.

"Part of it had to do with the city's 'hog butcher for the world' reputation," Gelbart explained, "but it principally was just a conceit, a loving homage, to a place that I can never forget."

Among "MASH" fans, the episode has taken on a cult-like status. "I think it's an extremely funny show," Gelbart said. "I guess the lunacy that your taste buds could be driven so crazy that you'd go to such extremes just clicks with people."

Gelbart's explanation is echoed by Joseph Stern, who guest starred in the episode as Master Sgt. Tarola. At an air base, he resists giving Hawkeye and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) their package -- until he figures out it contains Adam's Ribs. Turns out Tarola is from Joliet. "I'd walk to Chicago on my knees in a snowstorm for a takeout order," he admits.

Now the producer of the Matrix Theatre Company in Los Angeles, the 68-year-old Stern went on to be the executive producer of all 138 episodes of "Judging Amy" and produce some 65 episodes of "Law & Order."

"I've developed a lot of scripts over the years," says Stern, "and I think one of the most compelling scenarios in either drama or comedy is obsession. And this episode was all about Hawkeye's obsession."

"Across the street from the station, down the block, there's a five-and-10, and right next to that there's a dry cleaning and dyeing place, and right next to that there's this place that sells ribs ..." -- Hawkeye, later in "Adam's Ribs"

" 'MASH' was a show so grounded in reality that tiny little things like the location of a restaurant could get instantly legitimized," said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "It seemed so real to the audience because of all the detail. The episode was so specific. We were given a real place and two seemingly real phone numbers. Whenever you get that level of specificity, it's like the producers were issuing a challenge, an invitation to the audience to check it out for themselves. The episode practically begged viewers to try to find the place."

Rob Manderson thought he was up to the challenge. Three summers ago, on a family vacation to Chicago, the 54-year-old software engineer from Scottsdale, Ariz., slipped away from his wife and stepson at a museum exhibition and headed off to find Adam's Ribs.

"I figured I could find it because Hawkeye gave such incredibly precise instructions, I took it as gospel that the restaurant really existed," Manderson recalled. "I wouldn't have had any other interest in it if it was just another restaurant and not the famous Adam's Ribs."

Of course, no such restaurant turned up, but Manderson wasn't disappointed. "I pretty much set off with no expectation of finding it," he said.

According to Tim Samuelson, cultural historian for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, there were enough incongruities in the episode for someone from the city to know that Adam's Ribs couldn't have been a real place.

"In the time frame of the 'MASH' storyline, the area immediately surrounding the Dearborn Station was mostly industrial, but the principal nearby residential areas were mostly hotels and rooming houses of dubious reputation," Samuelson noted. He added that, even in the 1950s with a local telephone book in hand, "it would be hard to find the telephone number for the fare collector's booth in a subway station, since the stations really didn't have a full-time manager to deal with telephone calls."

Besides, Samuelson continued, though "there actually was a telephone exchange that started with 'Dearborn,' it would have been 'Dearborn 2,' not 'Dearborn 5.'"

Actually, the Dearborn Station closed in 1971 -- a full three years before the episode even aired. While its landmarked "head house" still survives, the station itself, at 47 W. Polk, was converted to retail and office space in the mid-1980s.

Inconsistencies notwithstanding, Thompson believes that there's a more profound explanation for the episode's popularity.

"Hawkeye spoke about the ribs in a reverential way that went way beyond food and the need to satisfy one's gastronomical self," said Thompson, who was born in Hinsdale. "There's a purity to that episode that I believe has gone largely overlooked, and that is a remembrance of things past. Clearly, Gelbart understood the notion of longing for a piece of home."

Gelbart wondered how many contemporary restaurants call themselves Adam's Ribs, or some variant of that name, because of the episode. One need not look farther than Buffalo Grove for an answer.

When the owners of the former Cy's Crabhouse, on Milwaukee Avenue, were thinking of names for their restaurant's reopening last year, they wanted "something catchy that would help business," according to Frank Nodahar, the eatery's director of operations.

The result? Cy's Crabhouse was rechristened as Adam's Rib and Ale House.

Though posters from the 1949 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movie "Adam's Rib" adorn the restaurant's walls, Nodahar is quick to concede that "we're always getting customers coming in and talking about the 'MASH' episode, and all of us will always have a good laugh about it."

The episode, he says with a grin, is that good a conversation piece.

Douglas J. Gladstone is a free-lance writer based in New York.

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