Off air and out of print, O’Malley looks back on two great careers
The last time most people saw Kathy O’Malley it was in a puffy-faced, tearful photograph on the front page of all the newspapers. She’d just ended 20 years as co-host of The Kathy and Judy Show on WGN-AM (720) after the numbskulls who ran the Tribune Co.-owned station forced her and partner Judy Markey off the air long before they wanted or expected to retire.
It says something about the power and popularity of “The Girlfriends” (as they were known to their fans) that the show’s cancellation was such big news in Chicago. Or that now, more than two years later, there still are at least six Facebook pages — including The Unofficial Kathy and Judy Show Fan Club — keeping their community-in-exile alive.
But those who know O’Malley (pictured left) only for her extraordinary radio run with Markey don’t know half of what made her such a shining star in the Chicago media firmament — or why she looks back on her career today with a combination of gratitude and amazement.
Starting in 1979, O’Malley was an integral part of one of the Chicago Tribune’s best-read and most influential franchises — first as assistant to the late gossip columnist Aaron Gold and later as a full-fledged co-writer of the newspaper’s INC. column. In its day, INC. was an indispensable source of scoops, gossip and take-no-prisoners sass about local and national celebrities across the board.
“That was the best possible time to do that job, and it was great,” O’Malley, 65, recalled the other day. “But you couldn’t do that now. There is no way that you could have a daily gossip column and have it really be very timely because secrets don’t keep anymore. Everybody’s on Facebook or they’re texting and tweeting now. If there’s a good secret, it won’t keep till the next day. INC. was a dinosaur.”
For the better part of a decade, O’Malley shared her byline on the column with a combination of collaborators, including Michael Sneed, Cheryl Lavin, Hanke Gratteau, Dorothy Collin and Mike Conklin. The only friction with any of them came in 1986 when Sneed jumped to the Sun-Times but neglected to inform her partner. O’Malley learned of the breakup only after Sneed’s move had been announced in the Sun-Times newsroom.
The lead of her column the next day was an instant classic: “Dontcha just hate it when you write a gossip column and people think you know all the news about what’s going on and your partner gets a new job and your column still has her name on it on the very same day that her new employer announces that she’s going to work for him?” Twenty-five years later, all O’Malley will say is that it was “a graceless move and embarrassing for her.” (Sneed has said she regretted not telling the news to O’Malley herself.)
Of all her former colleagues, O’Malley remains closest with Markey, who lives in Highland Park and is busy these days working on a public radio project of her own. The two will reunite next month when they accompany 45 former listeners on a seven-day cruise to Greece and Turkey.
Since leaving WGN, O’Malley sold her condo in Lakeview and now lives outside of Princeton, Illinois, an idyllic town of 7,000 about 120 miles southwest of Chicago. The grandmother of four spends much of her time tending to her “ridiculously large garden” (for which she uses a riding mower) and working as a volunteer for Princeton’s tourism board. “I’m settled, I’m happy, I’ve made some wonderful new friends — and kept the old ones,” she said.
O’Malley also recently completed producing a video history of the town, featuring excerpts of hour-long interviews she conducted with 30 senior citizens who grew up there. We Rememberwill have its first public screening tonight at the Princeton Public Library. Sales of the DVD will benefit the Bureau County Historical Society.
Her latest venture is a video production company she formed with her daughter, Colleen O’Malley. Past Present Videos will specialize in recording personal interviews and preserving them as family histories for future generations.
“I have been so lucky with everything,” O’Malley said. “I was in the right place at the right time so many times. At both Tribune companies when it was really fun to work there. And even now, to be retired here in Princeton. I know I’ve been very, very lucky.”