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Geoffrey Baer Takes Us From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

By Joanna Miller in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 28, 2006 5:09PM

Chicagoist has been watching Geoffrey Baer’s tours on Channel 11 for a while now, but when we sat down to preview his latest tour of the Fox River Valley and Chain O’ Lakes, we weren’t sure what to expect. We haven’t spent much time in this area, and we weren’t sure we cared much about it. But, true to form, Baer kept us interested all the way from the rowdy Blarney Island bar to Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House.

2006_11_28baer.jpgWhen we spoke to Baer about the tour, he called it a trip “from the ridiculous to the sublime,” and we’re inclined to agree. “We start at a bar in the middle of a lake with Jimmy Buffet playing, guys with tattoos, women in bikini tops and drag racing,” Baer said. “We end the tour 60 miles later at one of the most sublimely beautiful, transcendent pieces of architecture — Farnsworth House. It’s an amazing minimalist jewel along a tranquil river.”

Other stops along the tour include an Antioch factory that makes fine china for Air Force One and U.S. Embassies worldwide, Fermilab, two castles, the largest Hindu temple in North America and a ski jumping club/Olympic training center. You’ll learn about how gangsters, business tycoons and politicians once came to the Chain O’ Lakes to play, and how an eccentric Geneva millionaire used his Geneva estate for research on levitation and secret codes embedded in Shakespeare’s writings.

Baer said he and his production staff try to find little-known facts about each area he tours, things that people who have lived there for years never knew. “I would presume to say that these shows are meticulously researched,” he said. “I’m pretty concerned about making sure that we aren’t continuing to spread urban myths.”

Viewers usually enjoy learning new things about their communities, he said, even if it’s not something positive. “People appreciate that I’m not doing a valentine to their town,” Baer said. “We’re telling the seedy side of the story too, the true history, and people really like that. As much as they like you to paint it as the best town in the world, they like to hear the real story.”

Baer has been telling these stories on Channel 11 for 11 years, although he’s worked there for 17. He started as a producer and gave tours as a Chicago Architecture Foundation docent in his spare time. Former WTTW Chairman of the Board John McCarter (now president and CEO of the Field Museum) was on one of Baer’s boat tours and, afterward, asked him to try one for TV.

“We thought, ‘Hey, let’s stick a camera on the boat tour. How hard could it be?’ But it couldn’t be more different,” Baer said. “The boat tour is done in one take. The boat leaves the dock and, 90 minutes later, you’re done. Doing it for TV takes 26 days of shooting.”

Researcher Susan Godfrey spends three months researching the tour, and Baer then spends three months writing it. “The challenge is to make it feel as live and spontaneous as the live tour would feel,” he said. “It’s also what’s fun about it. One person responded to the boat TV tour, and the comment let me know we were successful. He said, ‘You had a nice, sunny day for that tour.’ We’d been shooting for weeks.”

Baer is currently working on a southwest suburbs tour that will air in March 2007. He said ideas for future tours include Chicago by bike, an expansive tour of Chicago neighborhoods and hidden Chicago. He’s also thought about a tour of Milwaukee Ave., starting at Lake Street and continuing up into Morton Grove, Lincolnwood and Libertyville.

"The Fox River Valley and Chain O’ Lakes with Geoffrey Baer" debuts tonight at 7:30 on WTTW11.

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