By Charles Hallman
Over the course of three decades, the late Sid Ordower brought the greats and some-to-be greats in gospel music each week on local Chicago television. The likes of Albertina Walker, Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples — along with her sisters and their father, James Cleveland, and Otis Clay routinely appeared on Jubilee Showcase, a half-hour long show that ran from 1963-1984.
Beginning November 30 and throughout the month of December, PBS will air a 50th anniversary commemorative television special on Jubilee Showcase, said his son Steve Ordower in a recent MSR phone interview.
“He was an owner-operator [of his shows], which was pretty rare back in those days,” he explains. “Unfortunately, the first 13 episodes were erased, and he was livid. I’ve heard a rumor, and I never asked him [about it] before he passed, that the Blind Boys of Alabama did make an appearance on one of those episodes. Supposedly somebody either at the station or the advertising agency wanted to recycle the tapes and erased this precious footage. Thank goodness a hundred of these half-hour shows have been preserved, a little under 50 hours of footage.”
He grew up on Chicago’s South Side but as a youngster, Steve Ordower recalls how his father was reverently received whenever he visited a local Black church but didn’t really know why. “Being a young boy going to churches, I just thought it was normal that everybody’s father was called up to say a few words and referred to as ‘Brother Sid,’” he admits. “But when I began to manage his archives when my father fell ill, then I really started to understand the impact, the weight and the responsibility of managing this — I began to understand what he was able to do.”
Steve Ordower began reviewing the historic shows a year before his father’s death in 2002, and began updating them with interviews with many artists who appeared on the shows. “But when I began to manage the archives when my father fell ill, then I really started to understand the impact, the weight and the responsibility of managing this — I began to understand what he was able to do. Once I started to really realize, it was pretty inspiring,” he notes.
“I’ve been developing a documentary on Jubilee Showcase for years now,” continues Steve. “I’ve interviewed several artists from the show. But also interviewed people who were not on the show but really understand gospel and other aspects of the story that I want to tell. The show was widely accepted, not just by gospel fans but by a lot of other types of people that really wouldn’t listen to gospel watched the show. My father [also] was involved in electoral politics, and he was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
“He always made sure that the artist was presented in the best light, in a dignified way. I met many people outside of the gospel and political circles that my father touched in that way,” notes his son.
Could a show like that make it in today’s television: “I don’t know. I doubt it. But maybe. I think that for a show like this to really take hold, it would have to be able to be on in a consistent fashion over time so that the audience could find the show. That’s something that a lot of broadcast outlets aren’t willing to do… they don’t have time to allow an audience to find the show,” admits Steve.
He surmises that the Jubilee Showcase documentary isn’t as much about his father, “but I will be using his life as a narrative device. Here is a man who really crossed racial and social boundaries and I hope that is really inspiring for people to see that. I have so much respect for what he did. I really think that he became so respectful and so bold in what he wanted to say… he was really loved by all of the gospel artists that I talked to that are on the show.
“When I look at the archives, it’s just breathtaking. Even if you are religious or not, you can’t deny the authenticity of what people are feeling when they are singing the music. That’s speaks volumes.”
Jubilee Showcase aired locally on TPT Channel 2.1 Wednesday, December 4th at 5:00 am, and will be repeated on Sunday December 8th at 3 pm. The show also will be shown thrice on TPT Life Channel 2.3 on December 10 (12 midnight and 6 pm) and December 11 (3 am).
“One of the promises I made to my father was to share it responsibly. I am really trying to do that, and I think PBS is a very appropriate outlet for that,” concludes Steve Ordower.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org