Every February we hear about the heroes and heroines of African American history but those personalities are usually African Americans themselves. However, there is one pioneer of African American television history who rarely comes up in those conversations and his name was Sid Ordower. A white man of Jewish heritage, he was a civil rights activist and both the founder and host of “Jubilee Showcase, a weekly gospel TV series that aired on Chicago’s WLS Channel 7 from 1963 to 1984.
In observance of the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking TV show, PBS has been airing an hour-long special on the groundbreaking series since late November 2013. Scores of artists and personalities appeared on the show over the years, ranging from The Staple Singers and Andrae Crouch to Rev. Jesse Jackson. At its height, “Jubilee Showcase” boasted over 250,000 weekly viewers and presented some of the biggest names in gospel. “I always used to pride myself on getting the best soloists, the greatest groups, the finest accompanists in gospel,” Ordower told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. “The idea was to get variety. We didn’t want to feature just quartets or just soloists. We wanted everything that was out there, so long as it was the best.”
Ordower’s son, Steve, has compiled the “Jubilee Showcase” compilation DVD featuring classic performances from the 1960s and 1970s featuring The Staple Singers, The Soul Stirrers, Inez Andrews, Andrae Crouch and Jesse Dixon, among others. “He did so much for gospel singers,” Mavis Staples says of Ordower. “It was during a time when gospel couldn’t even be heard. If you wanted to hear some gospel on the radio you had to get up at 4 a.m. in the morning. And then to put us on television? That was huge. Everybody in Chicago watched it, black and white. [Sid] was the one who let us know all white people weren’t bad. This was a man dedicated to letting our music be seen and heard. Young black people need to know where we came from.”
An Army captain with a double Purple Heart who fought in the Battle of Normandy during World War II, Sid Ordower launched “Jubilee Showcase” in 1963 from an auto dealership on 47th Street. As a white man active in the civil rights movement, Ordower became acquainted with gospel music because so many political activities took place in churches where he came in contact with gospel performers. He became a fan of the genre and created the television show as a mainstream showcase for the artists. Before his death in 2002 (at the age of 82), Ordower donated all of the “Jubilee Showcase” videotapes to The Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. The DVD is available online at: http://www.jubileeshowcase.com.