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New broadcast museum to open — minus historic dress

Mary Hartline Super Circus. Special Collections Mass Medi  Culture University MarylCollege Park.

Mary Hartline, Super Circus. Special Collections in Mass Media & Culture, University of Maryland, College Park.

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Updated: August 23, 2012 9:53AM

After a decade of fits and starts — and financial troubles overcome by a state bailout — the Museum of Broadcast Communications finally has new digs on State Street.

On Wednesday, TV stars Betty White, Hugh Downs and John Mahoney and folks who put up cash to build it will cut the ribbon on Chicago’s new $27 million temple of TV and radio history.

“It’s finally happened,” said museum founder Bruce DuMont, best known for his “Beyond the Beltway” radio show.

Much of what you can see there was on display at the Chicago Cultural Center before the museum closed in 2003 — Ray Rayner’s jump suit, Bozo’s drum and “Grand Prize Game,” and the camera used to broadcast the Kennedy/Nixon debates, for instance.

But what you won’t find at the museum is a certain slice of Americana — a handsewn, blue-sequined, above-the-knee dress worn with white boots by a thin, buxom blonde named Mary Hartline on the hit show “Super Circus,” which was broadcast live from the Chicago Civic Opera House and aired on ABC from 1949 to 1956.

That dress, once on display at the Cultural Center site, helps tell the Chicago-centric story of the early days of the ABC network that helped Hartline become television’s first sex symbol and a pioneer of TV show merchandising. The “Super Circus” sweetheart was the face of Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks. And a popular doll in her likeness sold at Marshall Fields and around the country.

“Those days were wonderful, of course,” said Hartline, 84, who lives in her childhood home in Downstate Hillsboro. “I loved all of it. We had tremendous fans. And to have somebody to think so much of you that they made a doll, it was really nice.”

And she loves that people remember the live show, the part she played and that so many people still remember her. And that iconic dress, well, she was honored that a museum wanted to put it on display.

But Hartline didn’t want it in a box somewhere getting “eaten by moths.”

With the museum’s future uncertain for so many years, she asked for the dress back and wore it to grand marshal a parade in Hillsboro a few years back.

“I’m proud to say the dress still fit,” Hartline said. “I even had to take the waist in a little. Not that I keep really close track, but I still weigh 116 pounds.”

Hartline planned on sending the museum another dress — a red-sequined version that doll makers mimicked — but she never heard back from museum staff. She assumed the museum would never re-open.

Hartline’s blue dress was sold on eBay to antique dealer Sue Powers, who put it on display at Colonial Antique Mall in Woodstock as a showpiece to attract attention to her doll collection. Hartline, herself, signed a notarized letter verifying the dress’ authenticity.

“Mary wanted the dress to be somewhere people could see it,” Powers said. “She was happy I had it on display.”

But it didn’t last. The economy tanked and Powers pulled her doll display. The photo of Hartline’s dress remained online, where former Museum of Broadcast Communications librarian Cary O’Dell spotted it earlier this year.

Just by looking at the picture, he knew it was the one-of-a-kind dress Hartline donated to the museum in the late ’90s. So he bought it for $1,300 and had it shipped directly to the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland as a donation.

“It was my way of caring for and preserving an authentic piece of American history,” said O’Dell, who now works at the Library of Congress. “I wanted the dress to be somewhere I know has the experience and facility to take care of it.”

So, the Museum of Broadcast Communications opens Wednesday without a tribute to Hartline and the “Super Circus.” Without the dress, DuMont says, the museum’s collection of Hartline dolls and other artifacts isn’t enough to anchor its own exhibit.

Hartline said Monday that she was surprised to hear the museum would open to the public this week and even more shocked that she wasn’t invited.

“Isn’t that strange,” she said. “Fact of the matter, dear, is that there was no reason to send them a dress if it was going to sit in mothballs. I try to do everything possible to do everything for everyone. But there was no communication.”

But if she does get a call, Hartline wants DuMont to know that she’s still willing to send a red dress she wore on “Super Circus” to the Chicago museum.

“We would be delighted to do another event with Mary,” DuMont said. “‘Super Circus’ was a very important show … Mary was one of the first sex symbols and a blond bombshell that every boy of my generation remembers.”

Then DuMont asked for Hartline’s phone number. He said he plans to give her a call — the one she’s been waiting for.


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