Red Grange show ready
CHAMPAIGN — Nine college football games took place at Soldier Field before Red Grange and the sport collided at the Chicago landmark.
The Illinois legend never played at the stadium during his college career.
And when he was with the Bears for five games in 1925 and then again from 1929 to ’34, the team played its home games at Wrigley Field.
Yet Grange suited up for a historic college football moment at Soldier Field in 1934.
The first College All-Star Game was played that year between standout seniors and the previous season’s NFL champions. Grange had helped the Bears win the 1933 NFL title.
The idea of college football as superior to professional football was a common perception at the time. Grange’s success in the NFL, not to mention his breathtaking career at Illinois, helped transition the game into the colossal force it is today.
Charlie Finn knows this. He’s researched Grange after idolizing the Wheaton native while he grew up in Gibson City during the 1930s and 1940s.
Now the 80-year-old Finn is hoping to capture some of Grange’s mystique and keep his name relevant nearly a century after he revolutionized college football at Illinois, where he was a three-time All-American.
Finn, a historian of Grange, is helping put on a one-act play called “Red Grange: The Galloping Ghost returns to the Virginia Theatre.” The event, in conjunction with the Champaign Park District, the restored Virginia Theatre and the University of Illinois, is set for Friday, Aug. 23.
The play focusing on Grange’s life will be the focal point, but several vaudeville acts, an ice cream social in front of the theater and a Wurlitzer organ program are part of the festivities as well, which tentatively are scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.
All proceeds from the evening will benefit the Champaign Parks Foundation for future maintenance and preservation of the Virginia Theatre.
“We pitched it to them last December,” Finn said. “They said, ‘Yeah, it sounds like a good idea.’ They agreed to it, so we started working on it. The park district is going out on a limb, and everything is volunteer, so we’re real thankful for all they’ve done.”
Finn has tried for several years to make a feature film about Grange. He even wrote a screenplay about the iconic Grange, with News-Gazette sports writer Bob Asmussen contributing to the project. Finn made a nine-minute DVD previewing what he hoped would result in a film. Illinois coach Tim Beckman shows the brief video to potential recruits now.
The project never caught on with Hollywood, however. Finn is optimistic for a large turnout in Champaign.
“I think it will be a lot of fun for the community,” Finn said. “They’ve got 1,500 seats at the Virginia. I want to fill up the place.”
Suzanne Aldridge, head of the Centennial drama department, and Jeff Goldberg, a former football letter winner at Illinois in 1976, will help direct and produce the evening’s activities.
Lou Liay, who is on the Champaign Parks Foundation’s Board of Directors, also has played a pivotal role in making the event a reality.
“He’s the guy that’s really responsible for this,” Finn said. “He presented it to the board.”
Finn wrote the screenplay two years ago. In two days.
He said Jim Turpin, the former Illinois football and men’s basketball play-by-play announcer and current WDWS radio show host, will emcee the event. Four actors will fill the roles in the play, portraying Grange, Illinois coach Bob Zuppke, Grange’s agent Charlie Pyle and Bears coach George Halas.
“I had a lot of recall for Grange because I had studied him for years, so I knew the subject,” Finn said. “I didn’t take too many liberties with it.”
Finn has met with several high-ranking University of Illinois officials regarding the project, including Chancellor Phyllis Wise, President Bob Easter and athletic director Mike Thomas, among others.
“I knew the university was going to be involved, and I needed their support,” Finn said. “They were all very supportive.”
Beckman is set to attend, too, along with senior members of the Illinois football team. Finn plans to invite nearly 20 former Illinois football greats like Dick Butkus, Jim Grabowski, David Williams, Howard Griffith, Dana Howard, Simeon Rice, J Leman and Mikel Leshoure, among others, for the night.
“I don’t how many I’m going to get, but I’ve got a couple commitments so far,” Finn said. “If we could get half a dozen back, that’d be great.”
Finn has long-standing ties to Illinois. He was a student manager for the Illinois football team from 1951 to ’54, which included two Big Ten titles and a 1952 Rose Bowl victory against Stanford, before graduating from the school in 1955.
“That 1951 football team was the best I’ve ever seen,” Finn said.
His I Fund pin is easy to spot on his sport coat. Illinois football is one of his passions. So, too, is Grange, who was voted the Big Ten’s top icon by the BTN during a 2010 special. Finn hopes younger generations pay attention to what Grange meant to college and professional football. This play is one way.
“He was a real humble guy,” Finn said. “He could turn it on when he had to when the game was really big. If you look at the record books, he’s still all over the place.”
Oh, what a night!
The exploits and history of Red Grange are coming to the restored Virginia Theatre on Friday, Aug. 23. Charlie Finn, one of the event organizers, said tickets should go on sale in about 10 days for the evening, which will feature a one-act play focused on Grange, along with vaudeville shows, an ice cream social and a Wurlitzer organ program. VIP tickets are $100, downstairs tickets are $20 and upper-level tickets are $10.
Call the Virginia Theatre at 217-356-9053 or visit www.virginiatheatre.org for information.