Written By: Lindsey Peterson, WCCO Radio Assistant Program Director
Saturday morning we’ll pay tribute to a man at Canterbury Park. I’ll be in a group of friends, acquaintances, radio listeners, hanger-ons and some of his former “nuts at night” that Dark Star entertained with complete confidence and irreverence for 25 years on WCCO and 66 years through a remarkable life.
Dark Star died a week ago, alone in his apartment in Minnetonka of heart failure. He was the only child of two only children. How many people do you know that don’t have a cousin? But Dark Star was far from alone. No person I’ve ever met had more phone buddies or could round up 30 people to go to dinner with. His family was the close circle of friends he had in town, the group of guys he worked with at WCCO (and later at KFAN) and the guys at the track. Not to mention the endless people Dark depended on. From Pizza Delivery guys to the guys who cut steaks for him and on and on. He knew everybody. And everybody knew him.
Dark was raised in Ohio and later Long Island New York. His real name is George Chapple. The name Dark Star comes from a horse that won the Kentucky Derby in 1953. Supposedly, Dark took the name when he was handicapping horses at a track in Los Angeles.
I think a lot of Dark’s life is a mystery to those of us who knew him in Minnesota. He came to town in 1979 from L.A. with both his parents. Before that I don’t know much about him. Randomly, you’d get a story from him about something that happened years ago. The time he met Chuck Berry, the time he was at a Laker game and Wilt Chamberlain did this or that. You just never knew what to believe.
In 1985, he famously called in to a sports show on KSTP with Pat Reusse and Joe Soucheray where he broke the news that Bud Grant was stepping down as the Viking head coach (a tip Dark picked up while drinking with Viking GM Mike Lynn’s brother at the Lafayette Club). From there, he started handicapping horses in the Pioneer Press and eventually ended up doing track reports with Cannon on WCCO.
Dark was a friend of mine. We talked almost every day when he worked at ‘CCO and every weekend after he left. We played golf, I would go up to Brainerd to see him and go fishing and I always looked forward to Dark buying me lunch (nobody is allowed to pay for a meal when Dark is there).
I first met him in 1999. I was 23 years old and just starting as a Producer at WCCO. I worked with Moose Miller, Tim Russell, and Mike Max … and on Sunday afternoons, with Dark Star and Bob Lurtsema on Viking Postgame shows. It was lovingly referred to by Dark as “Pro Football Feedbag”. He hated when the Vikings would win (Lurtsema seemed to feel differently). The calls were far better when the Vikings were losing.
My first Sunday with the Darkman, he made sure to tell me that if we started running late “not to worry about making up any of the commercials … we don’t have to do that.” That wasn’t true as the Program Director told me the next day in a not-to-happy tone.
I was a huge Viking fan. I would rattle off stats, plays that happened and every single detail of the game. Dark hardly paid attention. He just wanted to talk to the crazy fans. So when someone would throw a question at him he couldn’t answer, I was quick to talk into his headphones and tell him what to say. He’d say it like he came up with it, look at me and laugh. Dark wasn’t always easy to win over. That seemed to do it for me.
Dark was notorious for the food he’d bring in studio. He’d come in two hours before his show, sometimes during a Wild game, and bring enough food for an army. He’d hang out in the studio watching the game, shoot the bull with us lowly Board Operators at ‘CCO and meticulously take down his meal. For two hours. Sometimes, he’d come in to start his show, hand you a bunch of cash and say “so-and-so will be here in 30 minutes with the food. Make sure you give a big tip.” Then you’d have to fill a cup with ice for his grape soda.
In 2004, I got a chance to move into management as the Assistant Program Director. It was the job of my lifetime, I thought. Nobody was more supportive of me than Dark. I knew he was a challenge to manage but I knew Dark would always be honest with me. Well, too honest I guess.
My phone would ring Monday morning. I’d have to recap for Dark how many vacation days he had left, how many sick days he still had, etc. Then it was looking up the Monday Night Football schedule. Then I needed to print off scoresandodds.com for him. Then back to sick days. He had a “procedure” the next Monday night (Giants at Cowboys, New York a 3 point favorite at home) and needed a sick day. Work schedule, football schedule, “procedures” and gambling all working hand-in-hand. That was Dark.
He also would call to ask if I heard his show. He’d tell me I had to go back and listen to this guest, or that caller. He also couldn’t wait to get my reaction from some zinger he said on the air, appropriate for WCCO or not. He’d chat on the air with whoever was working in the newsroom and throw totally inappropriate (for WCCO) comments and topics at them hoping to throw them off. It usually worked.
I saw him throw lit matches at someone reading news … on their first day. Steve Murphy of the WCCO newsroom loves to tell the story of when Dark sprayed him with silly string during his news. Anything for a laugh.
Tom Kelly was one of Dark’s best friends. To the dismay of Sid of course, who still can’t understand why someone would talk to Dark more than Sid. They played golf every week. Tom walked, Dark rode in a cart. If a round took more than 3 hours, Tom was mad (2 ½ was preferred). Dark would get out of the cart, take the world’s worst swing this side of Charles Barkley and motor on. Quickly. If you started playing slow, Dark warned you. Hurry up or Tom will get mad. Don’t waste time looking for your ball. Just drop one. Tom and Dark’s mother were the only people I heard call him George. And Tom was the only guy I saw Dark defer to.
I got a chance to play with them a few times. Dark would invite me and tell me to bring a friend. The first time I played with them, it took me 3 or 4 holes just to calm down. Then you realize Tom is just another guy, wants to coach you, tell you what a putt does and be your friend.
My friends didn’t handle it as well. Playing with those two would make the shanks, yips and any other golf malady appear. One friend on the first tee completely missed the ball and dug about a six inch trench next to it. We had to fill the hole and apologize for destroying their nice golf course. Tom walked over, put his arm around the guy and tried to get him to call down. Dark sat in his cart, laughing and smoking a Kool cigarette enjoying every second of it. Now I knew why were invited. Dark’s amusement. I should have known.
The first time I brought a friend, they had to go to the clubhouse with Dark and he’d buy them a shirt. After golf, Tom would go home. That was it for him. But Dark wanted to treat us to lunch. It was mandatory.
One lunch in the clubhouse led to Dark biting into an onion ring that was just short of molten lava. He tried to breathe in and whoosh, the onion is down his throat and he’s choking. Hacking, coughing and making a scene, he spent at least two minutes trying to dislodge the onion. Finally, spitting it out into a napkin, Dark turned to me and my friend and said as only he can, “sorry you boys had to witness that little outburst.” Through a great, big grin, he was back at the onion rings like nothing had ever happened. I didn’t notice but I could picture the guy behind the bar telling the 911 operator that it was OK to cancel the ambulance. The evil onion had given up. Dark was too much for it.
In 2000, Mike Max asked me to help produce “The Sports Show.” It was a chance to spend my Sunday nights with Mike, Sid Hartman, and Pat Reusse. And, of course, Dark. I was thrilled. I’ve done the show ever since. Watching Sid and Dark interact was like a soap opera every week. He lived for needling Sid. But after the show, it was right back to “How are you feeling?” or “Want to grab a bite to eat?”
Well, most of the time.
I had a former girlfriend that Dark used to just adore. She was Filipino and Dark called her Jinkee after Manny Pacquiao’s wife. She loved that. One Sunday, she brought her father to the taping of “The Sports Show” so he could meet the guys. Dark took extra time to talk to him, thank him for being there and made sure everyone signed a photo for him. It sat on his mantle above the fireplace (and still does).
When the news of Dark’s passing hit the news, my former girlfriend was the first person who called. She wanted to know if I was doing OK. Then she told me that her father was very upset and wanted her to help post something about Dark on Facebook. One 10 minute meeting with Dark Star and he had touched someone that much.
Bigger than life.
In the last couple of years, Dark always wanted to know if I heard him on KFAN. He still wanted to know if I thought he sounded good. He was worried he wasn’t relevant anymore, didn’t sound good or should hang it up. I told him a few years ago that he loved being Dark Star but he REALLY loved being Dark Star of WCCO or KFAN. That was true. He was bigger than life but he was even bigger than that when he had an audience.
As we’ve looked back on him the last week, many stories have been shared by those that knew him and worked with him. Some have been told on the air, many will not see the air for various reasons. He was just plain funny and amusing. But what I’ll always remember is how kind and giving he was.
We had a Board Operator at WCCO who worked nights with Dark. He was a young guy who always seemed to have money problems. Dark would always slide some cash over to him to help get him to the next paycheck. He never expected to get anything back, just knew that he needed help. Another Producer told Dark he wanted to start playing golf but he didn’t have clubs. Where can he buy some? The next night, Dark brings in a bag with a full set of Ping clubs. “All yours” he told him, no questions asked. This type of thing happened every week and I’m sure way more often than any of us really knew.
We’ll miss Dark Star. But we’ll pay tribute to him Saturday knowing we are so much better for having had him in our lives. If he can see us now, I guarantee he loves the attention.