It was at Chicago’s Symphony Center that The Midnight Special’s new host was introduced to folk music. “When I was 12, [my older brother] bought tickets for the whole family to go to Orchestra Hall to see Judy Collins in concert,” recalls Marilyn Rea Beyer. Then for Christmas that same year, her brother gave her LPs by Judy Collins and Joan Baez. “That really was the beginning.”
Though not a musician (“I have sung on stage; we all regretted that,” she confesses), Beyer has always been drawn to music, dating back to her childhood on Chicago’s southeast side and in the south suburb Lansing. One early music opportunity came when her junior high school’s band director chose her to be a concert moderator. Her charge was to find interesting and unusual stories about each program’s music to share with the audience. In other words, the band director “kind of taught me how to be a music announcer.” She also grew up listening to The Midnight Special.
In the ‘70s, when she was teaching drama at a high school in Oak Forest, she discovered Chicago folk legend Steve Goodman. “I became a devotee. He was so amazing on stage.” She even brought her students to see performances, telling them, “This is the definition of a performer.”
Years later, she’d moved to Boston and began to explore its music scene with her new friend, folk artist Gail Rundlett. One day, Beyer recounts, “[Gail] calls me and says, WUMB [Boston’s folks and roots radio station] is taking auditions for show hosts. Within about 18 months, I was the music director of the station.”
After more than a decade, Beyer departed the station for a role in public relations. But despite liking her new career, “it was never really kind of like where I lived. I always felt [music] was where I should be.”
Ahead of her move in 2019, Beyer emailed Rich Warren to let him know that she was returning to town. His response: “We have to talk.”
“He said, ‘I want to retire from The Midnight Special. And if you’ll take over, I can do that with peace of mind.’ I was knocked over.”
It’s no wonder; by Warren’s own count, his final show on Saturday, July 25, was his 1,277th Midnight Special. The question of who to pass the baton to would have been a big one. So where Beyer will steer the program?
Starting off, she says, the shows will sound “very familiar to everyone,” but as time goes by, she plans to widen the programming to include more international music, more contemporary musical theater selections, and blues — “I grew up on the southeast side; blues has always been the music that I like.” She adds, “I’m also a poet and spoken word artist, so there will be plenty of that.”
One thing that will always hold true for The Midnight Special is a sense of pride and loyalty to Chicago. Beyer, beaming, says, “Radio is… rooted in a place. Even if you’re listening to it streaming, you get a sense of where this is coming from. Not only do you keep your direct connection with your listening audience in your home region, but when people around the country hear it, that’s the sound of Chicago.”
There’s no doubt that that proud ambassadorship will continue; Beyer is all smiles as she reflects on her plans for the program and shares a story about the city’s most legendary chronicler.
The night before moving away from Chicago in 1986, Beyer was feeling overcome. She went for a walk on Michigan Avenue and ended up at a bookstore on Magnificent Mile.
“I saw an old guy in a red and white checkered shirt,” she recounts. Recognizing him, she asked if she could say a few words. “I was very choked up because I was ambivalent about leaving Chicago and I was so thrilled to meet him. I was crying and he reached out and he wiped the tear away from my face. And then Studs Terkel said: ‘You’ll be back. I’ll be here.’”
Even Studs would have been surprised at just how true his prediction would turn out to be.