No scientific test proves the Most Currently Famous Guy in Evanston actually deserves that title. How could you prove it? But a leading candidate figures he’s earned dibs because his two daughters—10 and 12—remain mortified by his quirky television celebrity and punish him gently but relentlessly for it.
They remain dismayed that strangers recognize Geoffrey Baer’s pleasant smiling face which shows up ubiquitously on Chicago public television. He tells this story with a wistful sigh. Fame as a TV chronicler all of things historically Chicago is, as his youngest daughter explains to him, soooo awkward and humiliating.
“She used to say, ‘Let’s watch some TV … but not daddy.’ When we’d go for walks, they’d both be on the lookout for people who looked like they might walk up and shake my hand. The youngest would throw fake tantrums so people would just turn and walk away.”
But Baer nonetheless is a celebrity even in Evanston where neighbors are generally unobtrusive but admiring. He fits here.
“I’ve been doing television for so many years, but it still catches me off guard when people stop me on the street (for an autograph),” he says.
So Baer, his wife—Amelia Kohm, a brilliant researcher in child policy at the University of Chicago, plus their two mortified daughters—share an ordinary 2,400-square-foot Arts and Craft-style 1904 Evanston bungalow, on an ordinary Evanston street. “Yes, we love the park down the street. I take the girls there,” he says.
Lake Michigan’s water and coast lure him. “I just love Evanston,” Baer says, and Evanston seems to love him back.
He even has a cogent explanation for why the Baers have lived here for six years and not Chicago where his TV reputation is cemented. Evanston is a city of neighborhoods that elevates diverse cultural acceptance and honors sustainable urban traits. He craves both.
He dislikes unnecessarily massive yards, civic sprawl, and dry cleaners that produce more plastic trash than clean clothes.
“I came to see that Chicago is not just a city; it’s a region,” Baer says.
Ever since his “Tours of Chicago” series began 20 years ago on WTTW-Channel 11, he has been the face of that public television franchise. “But I’ve been a (Chicago Architecture Foundation) docent for 30 years,” he counters.
First he was a “theater kid” who grew up in Deerfield and Highland Park and yearned to shape performances by others, not be a performer.
He was a talented but comparatively anonymous producer, writer, and editor, but lurched into WTTW’s bright lights only by luck. WTTW chairman William McCarter “discovered” him in 1995 doing his docent gig on the river. McCarter was enjoying Baer’s architectural boat performance, and didn’t even know Baer already was working at his station.
Baer’s eagerly awaited third iteration of his seminal “The Chicago River Tour with Geoffrey Baer” re-debuts at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, November 27.
The show that launched his fame in 1995 was reforged in 2005 and now sails into reborn downtown again. But there’s more. His “10 (Fill in the Blank with Large Architectural Objects) That Changed America” series soon will hit full stride nationally. Baer could become as famous across America as he is on the streets of Evanston and Chicago. “Oh, I hope not,” he says with sudden alarm. “On the other hand, maybe it’s better for the show if people know who I am than don’t know.”
The Chicago River documentary retake was virtually unavoidable. “These (river) shows are run a lot, and they’re popular,” Baer says. “But in a city so dynamic at the river’s edge, the shows become obsolete. By now there have been so many dynamic changes, the big one being the Riverwalk. That didn’t even exist in 2005. Then there are there big new buildings at Wolf’s Point near the Merchandise Mart, plus (28-acre) Lakeshore East.”
By April, there were 52 high rise projects under construction. “In 2005, we were still calling it Sears Tower,” he says.
Baer’s popularity has raised at least $6 million for the station, but it’s a conundrum. He’s still not sure being a public star is what he was built to do. Baer recognizes that he is a performance celebrity playing a stage-crafted role, though he admits colleagues insist the TV Geoffrey stands very close to the domestic Geoffrey.
The affable on-air Baer seems an encyclopedic storehouse of historical facts, which is a minor illusion. He does retain a mountain of facts. “But my wife tells me I have a compartmentalized mind,” he says. “I’m constantly embarrassing her. If she asked about Daniel Burnham (Chicago’s 19th-century architectural laureate), I have lots of facts. What I can’t remember is which set of parents goes with which kid in the neighborhood even though I’ve just met them two months ago. I’ll forget that right away.”
Luckily, he compensates as a handyman with an old house—“it’s drooping”—that needs his handiness. “I do the electrical stuff,” he asserts confidently as if his wife will not hear the news. “When things break, I’m usually the one to fix it.”
Despite misgivings about fame, Baer at least earned his stardom the old-fashioned way—hard work, stage presence, and a very nimble mind, all of which he shares with viewers as if they are his friends.
He has become Mister Rogers for adults, but without the prop cardigan.
If he becomes even more publicly beloved, maybe his daughters eventually will forgive him. He’s hopeful. True, he’s not Bruno Mars. Or even Kermit the Frog. He’s just Dad. But it’s a start.