Topeka Capital-Journal – August 25, 2000
There’s a connection between Bud Wilkinson and a song called “Chicken Fat,” but I never expected to be reminded of it this week when I was in Oklahoma being interviewed for a TV biography of the late Sooner football coach. But it was there, in the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman, on the same morning I faced the camera.
Some background is in order. In 1961, soon after President John F. Kennedy took office, he asked one of his aides, Ted Reardon, to figure out what he should do with the fitness program inherited from the Eisenhower administration.
Eisenhower was concerned because American children lagged far behind Europeans in strength and fitness tests, so he created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness.
To lead it, he named an orator, Shane McCarthy, who went around the country extolling the merits of a strong mind in a strong body, and attending a lot of meetings and seminars on what should be done to get American youngsters leaner and tougher.
Reardon studied the problem, then wrote a memo to the president, saying what the program needed first was a sports personality who presented an image of both physical fitness and personal integrity.
Reardon would tell me later that as he dictated the memo, the next sentence just rolled off his tongue without him having to even think about it. “What the program needs,” he said, “is someone like Bud Wilkinson.”
A day or so later Kennedy read the memo and immediately called Reardon and asked, “Would Bud Wilkinson take this job?”
Reardon said he replied, “Most men will do most things if they get a call from the White House.”
And the president said, “Call him.”
A few days later Wilkinson was in the White House being named the president’s special consultant on physical fitness and sports. They dropped the “youth” in favor of “physical,” and added “sports.” I became the administrator of the program.
The Daily Oklahoman said this week that Scott Drayer, a bond trader from New Jersey, had created a video version of “Chicken Fat” for his children. It seems he had worked out to the recording of the song when he was younger, and wanted his children to be inspired by the video.
Fair enough, but the story also said President Kennedy had “commissioned” Meredith Willson, who created the hit musicals “The Music Man” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” to write a fitness song. Sorry, but that’s not the way it happened.
Willson volunteered his services. He called the fitness office in Washington one day and said he was writing the song, but said he needed someone to demonstrate the exercises so he could fit the words and music to them. We immediately dispatched staff member Ted Forbes to Willson’s home in Los Angeles.
He lived there a week, and then one day Willson called and asked if I’d do him the honor of coming out to hear the finished product, and see Forbes demonstrate it. I was met at the airport by Willson’s uniformed chauffeur, and later thoroughly enjoyed the rousing tune, and the demonstrations by a weary, but happy, Forbes.
You may remember some of the words. It’s easy for me, because I have the original sheet music, given to me by Willson:
Touch down ev’ry morning — 10 times! Not just now and then.
Give that chicken fat back to the chicken and don’t be chicken again; No, don’t be chicken again.
Push up ev’ry morning — 10 times! Push up starting low.
Once more on the rise! Nuts to the flabby guys!
Go you CHICKEN FAT, go away, Go you CHICKEN FAT go!
Willson wasn’t finished. He got one of Hollywood’s top orchestras to record it, and even persuaded Professor Harold Hill (Robert Preston, the star of “Music Man,”) to sing it. Then he prevailed upon Dinah Shore to build a production number around it for her weekly television show.
The song became something of a hit in schools, and it is even likely it helped a few children, and maybe a few teachers and adults, to shed a few pounds. Drayer’s video has sold about 10,000 copies and he makes about a dollar per sale. His web site: http://www.chickenfatkids.com.
President Kennedy was the only outspoken critic of the song. One night when the fitness staff was among the hundreds of guests at a White House Christmas party he told us he didn’t like the title, and in very unpresidential language he said that every time he heard “Chicken Fat” mentioned he thought of chicken (bleep).
He suggested we ask Willson to change the title and we said we would, but of course we never did, because it was perfect.