Toned down 'Today Show' hits Chicago

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Big picture, not much went right for the “Today Show's” planned broadcast from Chicago this week. 

First, terrible, significant news happened in Oklahoma, meaning stars Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie would never make it to the live location in front of The Bean, or to the city at all. 

Then, Wednesday, the scaled-back local broadcast was greeted not only by the expected cheesecake, deep-dish pizza and Luvabulls, but by a persistent Chicago-style rain soaking the crowd and adding a touch of drippy surrealism to the reflections of the city seen in Anish Kapoor's iconic sculpture. 

But, although the surprisingly dense crowd got just 60 minutes of show after 9 a.m. — instead of what was to have been the full, three-hour telecast — did its members still whoop and holler, both on their own and at the frequent exhortation of “Today” stage manager Dave Auerbach?

You betcha. 

Did “Today” final-hour hosts Willie Geist and Natalie Morales hear their first names called roughly 7,438 times by people angling for a photo or just a beam of celebrity attention?

At least that often. 

And are area Walgreens and CVS stores now out of posterboard because live-morning-show devotees needed to tell America things such as “Willie 4 President” and, curiously, “I'm from Chesterton”?

They probably are. 

Charities (The Cara Program) and commercial ventures (Fannie May) alike angled for whatever publicity bonanza a background sign on a morning show brings. But the clear winner in the sign sweepstakes was Bulls mascot Benny, who toted one that read “I'm holding a sign.” 

Though the red furry was an invited guest, his was a crisp satire of the up-at-dawn, crush-of-the-crowd fanaticism these shows still attract, to the puzzlement even of people who like watching the shows on TV. 

Why get up early to be a living, hollering backdrop, the very picture of unreserved, perhaps unquestioning enthusiasm?

Payback, explained Jillian Forsty, a 28-year-old restaurant manager from the North Center neighborhood perched up front against the metal railing. 

“They wake us up every morning. We figured we could repay the favor,” she said. 

And for Forsty, the relationship runs deep. “Willie Geist and ('Weekend Today' anchor) Lester Holt are the only men allowed in my bedroom, other than this man right here,” she said, indicating her patient and perhaps less enthusiastic fiance. 

“We want to meet Willie,” said Ali Richard, 27, a marketing manager from Streeterville.

She and roommate Amy Vorel held the “4 President” sign, and another that read “Big Willie Style.”

Why? “He's funny. He's got great hair “ said Vorel.  

Geist also has local ties: He was born in Evanston while his father, Bill, now a correspondent for “CBS Sunday Morning,” was a standout writer for the Suburban Trib, this newspaper's former sister publication. 

Another ex-Chicagoan, Holt, the longtime WBBM-Ch. 2 anchor, was supposed to be on hand at Millennium Park but got called away to report and host for NBC from Oklahoma, as Lauer and Al Roker were doing Tuesday and Wednesday. 

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