Ron Britain, a gifted radio performer with a brilliantly creative mind and a sensitive soul, left a legacy of laughter for generations of Chicago listeners.
“King B,” as he was known to fans around the world, died Sunday at home in Louisville, Kentucky, according to his son, Mark Magel, who confirmed that Britain took his own life. He was 86.
Friends said Britain was inconsolable after losing his wife and constant companion of 62 years. Helen Louise “Peach” Magel, 83, died October 19 after falling ill at home. Her burial will be today.
Over a radio career that spanned more than 50 years, Britain worked at 21 stations in 11 cities. But he found his greatest success and most lasting fame in Chicago, where he first joined the former WCFL in 1965.
At the peak of the Top 40 radio rivalry between WCFL and WLS, Britain was in a class by himself, creating a nightly theater of the mind unlike anything heard before. From his fertile imagination sprang such characters as singing weatherman Rex King, philosopher Marco Marcoco and hairdresser-turned-crime-fighter Tab Mathis, and such catch phrases as “Wella Wella,” “Tulu Babes” and “Chico Buddies.” Not to mention “The Green Hairnet.”
He brought a little psychedelic culture to our transistor radios.
On Sunday nights Britain hosted “Subterranean Circus,” a seminal underground music showcase that introduced listeners to progressive acts ranging from Jimi Hendrix to The Moody Blues.
Growing up in Louisville as an only child, Britain told me, he used to “dress up in different uniforms and imagine being all sorts of characters.” By age 10 he began playing disc jockey at home, with a microphone and record player in his room and a thermometer outside his window to provide accurate temperature reports.
“I clearly can trace my earliest influences to Ernie Kovacs and the radio antics of Bob and Ray,” he recalled. “Around the same time I discovered ‘The Goon Show’ on the BBC, and it made me realize that people wanted to laugh, especially to things presented in a slightly different way. This was something I wanted to do on radio.”
Young Ron Magel made his first appearance on radio at age 14 as host of a hometown show for teens called “High Varieties.” After earning a fine arts degree from the University of Louisville and serving in the U.S. Army, he began his radio odyssey — and lifelong disdain for authority — in earnest.
At the suggestion of a program director in Cincinnati, he changed his named to Ron Britain in 1960.
“You have to remember, this was before the British Invasion,” he told Chicago Radio Spotlight’s Rick Kaempfer. “It seemed a little unusual at the time. I drove a Jaguar, which I still do by the way, and I dressed like an Englishman. [The program director] said, ‘Well let’s go with Britain, like the country,’ and from that point on it was my name.”
In addition to two stints at WCFL, Britain also worked in Chicago at WIND, WLS-FM, WJMK, WTMX and Satellite Music Network.
In 2003 he came out of retirement to help launch Real Oldies WRLL. After only four months he stormed out in a dispute with program director Tommy Edwards, who was pressuring Britain to keep his comedy bits under one minute.
“In clear terms to help you understand, can you imagine what the world would have missed had Picasso’s creative expressions been restricted to painting on postage-sized canvases only?” Britain wrote in a letter to Edwards that he shared with me. “I may lack the acclaim given to Picasso, but I do relate as an artist, and my mind does not respond to writing within a 60-second time frame.”
Even after moving back to Louisville, the Britains kept their apartment at Marina City — above the former studios of WCFL. It’s where they stayed on their visits to Chicago. Over long lunches at Smith & Wollensky next door, Britain would regale friends with hilarious stories of his radio adventures and observations about the absurdities of life.
“I’ve always been a lot harder on myself than other people,” he once told me. “A lot of people have said, ‘You’re your own worst enemy.’ I’ve gone through just about every bad experience in radio. But you live through it. You survive. And you understand it’s not the end of the world.
“People probably think I’m too sensitive. Of course, sensitivity can be construed as thoughtful or as weak. I think of it as being thoughtful — sensitive to other people and their feelings. Going through some depressing times does make you appreciate the good times when they’re there.”