I met Yuri at the Kingston Mines Theater Company on Lincoln Avenue in 1969 or 1970. Or maybe it was nearby, at Johnny Weiss’s Belden Tavern, over a hard-boiled egg and a 30 cent stein of beer. I listened to him boast of his sexual escapades during his time in the military, when, as an Army private, he successfully seduced the older wives of his superior officers. Still in his twenties then and several years my senior, Yuri couldn’t boast good looks; but he was supremely confident, charming and totally shameless when it came to women (and just about everything else).
Yuri and I acted in a few Kingston Mines shows together, most notably the still-remembered production of Catch-22, directed by Gary Houston. We were also in Del Close’s improvisation workshop at the Body Politic (now the Greenhouse Theater Center), and Yuri also acted in Turds in Hell with the Godzilla Rainbow Troupe.
Only he wasn’t Yuri Rasovsky then, he was Ira Rasoff, his given name. Always a showman, sometime around 1972 he decided to Europeanize his name and become the mad Russian he would have been back in the Old Country, if he’d been born there. Think a Jewish Rasputin; that’s who he would have been. He also decided to Europeanize my name. He took to calling me “Johann” and referred to me as “a Sephardic Galitzianer” because Abarbanel is an ancient Spanish Hebrew name (a Sephardic name) but my grandparents came from the Ukraine, which made them Galitzianer Jews.
All the time, we talked radio, radio drama, radio plays and radio theater which simply didn’t exist in the United States any more, not since all the soap operas switched to TV. In my case, I’d lived in London as a student and studied with producers and directors of radio drama there (it’s still a big thing). I don’t know how or why Yuri loved it. Eventually, we both began to experiment seriously with producing radio plays, and we both ended up with WFMT as a partner.
I was there first, producing at wide intervals a half-dozen radio plays in the early-to-mid 1970’s. I produced plays by Ray Bradbury, Tom Eyen, Lonnie Carter and Robert Patrick among others, working on the cheap with a couple of small Illinois Arts Council grants and donated studio time at the old Streeterville Studios (we could work all night, when the studio generally stood empty).
Yuri followed a few years later, as WEMT was eager to have a unique radio drama presence. Eventually, his Chicago Radio Theatre became the great success of National Radio Theatre because Yuri had one ability I did not have: He could raise money. He persuaded national sponsors to bankroll his weekly drama series and was able to pay himself a living salary. Hey, confidence and shamelessness have their advantages.
Somehow, I thought that if I proved the merit of my work, WFMT would come up with money. Yuri knew better. WFMT appreciated that what we did was special, and loved the awards we won, especially when National Radio Theatre won the highest honor in American broadcasting, the Peabody Award (previously, one of my productions had won a Prix Italia— although not first place—one of Europe’s most prestigious broadcasting awards). Yuri and I were producers in the true theatrical sense: We raised the money and put on the show, too. He was much, much better at it than I ever could have hoped to be. I greatly admired what he did, and I was jealous as hell!
Now the Mad Russian has gone to the Great Transmitter in the Sky, where he can talk radio with the real greats of the field: Marconi, Sarnoff (whom Yuri will call Sarnovsky), Ed Murrow, Jack Benny, Franklyn MacCormack and Studs Terkel (whom I wanted in one of my radio plays, but WFMT firmly said “No!”). I can’t say goodbye to this long-ago colorful and creative colleague and friend, so I’ll just say, “Until next time … this is Jonathan Abarbanel signing off.”