Almost an hour after the scheduled start-up time, the bleachers in Hanson Park, 5411 W. Fullerton, were still empty. Waiting for the film and production crew of the “Grabowski Shuffle” music video were a smattering of mostly northwest-side locals looking for a shot at the limelight and at the video’s star, Bears head coach Mike Ditka.
It was 7 AM and some folks, like 16-year-old Jason Jensen and his friend Todd Elenberger, 14, had been at the park since 5. “I thought there were going to be 1,000 people here,” said Jensen. “I thought we’d have to push our way through to make it.”
Elenberger looked around at the vast, empty field. “I think they need a thousand people,” he said, shifting his compact teenage body into another position on the uncomfortable bleachers. “I’m stiff, I’ve been waiting so long.”
“Hey, anybody want to do the Grabowski cheer?” asked a perky, blond woman in shorts and a halter, sitting on the steps off the bleachers. The score of extras-in-waiting grunted. “It’s really kind of cute,” the woman offered. Somebody pitched a ball of crumpled paper her way, and though it landed six rows before her, she turned around, resigned to the humorless wait.
Finally, at 8 AM, the video’s producer, Dick Meyer, appeared. A trim six-foot-six, Meyer strolled across the field with every silver hair in place. His mustache was perfect. He wore a sky blue polo shirt, white linen pants, and white shoes and carried a leather briefcase. In short, he was Beautiful.
“This is about an attitude,” he explained. “It’s a very strong concept. It’s something Mike Ditka himself started. It’s about a work ethic, working hard to get what you want. There are a lot of Grabowskis in the world, especially in Chicago. We think we’ll get a really strong response to this.”
Meyer also told the press that Ditka would be in makeup and out and about by 9:30. In the meantime, he would remain ensconced in his air-conditioned trailer.
The way Meyer–who also produced the “Superbowl Shuffle” and a handful of other sports videos–tells it, this homage to the working grunts sprang right out of Ditka’s head. In fact, it was spun by Meyer and his cohort, Rich Tufo, after Ditka’s classic comment about the Bears’ gruff but lovable reputation: “There are Smiths and there are Grabowskis; we’re the Grabowskis.”
Meyer and Tufo took that simple idea and built a song around it, then went out and recruited a group of five “Grabowskis” that is an affirmative action dream: two white males, one black male, one Latino male, and one blond female. (“Mike Ditka didn’t make the selection, but we cast through Ditka’s eyes,” Meyer said.)
“The idea is to take some pretty average people and train them to be something special,” Meyer continued.
“Like the Monkees or the Village People,” added Mitch Berk, Meyer’s publicist. Sporting pearly teeth and a tan, Berk was Beautiful too. He wore white shorts and a shirt opened several buttons down his chest. (During the actual shooting, he spent considerable time throwing a football with a collection of miscellaneous blonds who seemed to have little purpose there but to be Beautiful.)
Around 9:30 AM Berk announced that Ditka wouldn’t be out until about 11:30. He won’t talk to individual reporters, Berk cautioned, but there will be a “controlled” interview opportunity later. In the meantime, the press was invited to watch the Grabowskis at work.
Specifically, the five Grabowskis are George Arauco, a 30-year-old sewer worker who said that being a Grabowski is a natural extension of his life: “I have a hardworking attitude. If I have to dig a sewer hole, I dig it to the best of my abilities”; Augie Deuser, an ex-police officer, who was amazed at his new career when told that Meyer had announced the Grabowskis were to be a permanent singing group, with or without Ditka, that would perform and record other songs; Larry McDaniel, apparently the only one of the bunch with any real musical abilities; Jason Solid, an appropriately named 19-year-old wall of muscle who happened onto the auditions by accident and wants to be the Jim McMahon of the Grabowskis; and Valerie Meyer, the not-too-average daughter of producer Meyer.
“This is not a Bears project,” Berk said. “You’ll notice we didn’t even say ‘Bears coach’ in our press releases, just ‘head coach.’ He could be here next year or he could be elsewhere, as we all know. This is about work ethics; it’s about what makes America great. Mike Ditka just happens to be a celebrity who is in it.”
Not coincidentally, the “Grabowski Shuffle” will make its debut in the record stores in mid-September, sometime around the Bears’ first season game. It will be available as an EP and, of course, a video. “We fully expect exposure on MTV,” Berk said.
Up in the bleachers, about 40 people were trying to duplicate a stadium full of fall football fans. The producers, Red Entertainment Music, Inc., had put out a call for 1,000 extras and actually gotten fewer than 100. As a result, a lot of shots were being framed tighter and much more often. Meyer claimed no problems, but his technical crew was openly grumbling.
Additionally, the temperature was sweltering at over 90 degrees, and the extras were sweating bullets in their autumn flannel-and-wool drag. Over the speakers came the constant pounding of the “Grabowski Shuffle”: “We are the Grabowskis, baby / Don’t do nothin’ halfway / Don’t do nothin’ maybe / Oh no / Baby / Oh no.”
At 11:30 AM, when the threat of a thunderstorm was cooling off the set, Berk said Ditka wouldn’t be out until after noon, and frankly, he wasn’t too pleased about the presence of the press on the set. He then gravely noted the absence of Channel Nine’s cameras (Two, Five, Seven, a Sun-Times photographer, and a handful of radio reporters were present) and nodded approval to an assistant who offered to call the wayward station.
Finding shelter from the heat under the cool concrete bleachers, Jason Jensen and Todd Elenberger, who usually listen to Poison and Motley Crue, were commenting on the “Grabowski Shuffle.” “It’s OK,” Jensen said.
“It’s kind of dumb, actually,” Elenberger confided.
“Well, we just came out here because we were talking about not having anything to do today,” said Jensen, who’s a big McMahon fan.
“You’d think they could pay us, maybe $10 or something,” Elenberger said. “It’s hot out there!”
In fact, only Ditka and the Grabowskis themselves are being paid for performances. (Meyer said the project has a $350,000 budget.) According to one source, Ditka will get $10,000 a day for each day of shooting, plus a percentage of the profits. Nobody else, including the featured extras, which include some former Honey Bears (the Bears’ defunct cheerleading squad) will receive compensation.
“It’s an opportunity for them to get exposure,” Berk said with a smile.
For Kurt Shaeffer, a Grabowski reject who later landed a featured extra role with no pay, it’s just a lark. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’ll be a lot of grins this season to kick back, pop the video in, and get riled up before the Bears beat up on somebody.”
Still, that the “Superbowl Shuffle” was a smash is no guarantee of success. Ditka’s last video foray, “Iron Mike,” in which he outdid Bears safety Gary Fencik’s “Superbowl Shuffle” performance, was a commercial flop.
“But that didn’t have a strong concept,” Meyer said. “It’s all in the concept, you know.”
Finally, around 1, after all the Grabowskis had been featured before the television cameras (except for WGN’s, which never showed), Berk escorted the last reporter off the field. “I hope you understand my position,” he explained, a furrowed brow showing his concern. “I don’t run the show here; you wouldn’t believe how many people have been yelling at me all day. I tried to get Ditka to come out, but I guess nobody told him there would be press here and he’s really pissed about it now. I mean, I understand the media’s needs, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Profits from the “Grabowski Shuffle,” unlike Meyer’s last hit, the “Superbowl Shuffle,” will not go to charity. “We gave at the office,” Meyer said with a wink.