Buddy Guy, Superfans steal bicentennial gala

Pritzker, Rauner also look to future in celebrating 200th birthday for Illinois

 Blues artist Buddy Guy was the headline act at the Illinois bicentennial celebration. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Blues artist Buddy Guy was the headline act at the Illinois bicentennial celebration. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

A scaled-down celebration of the Illinois bicentennial went off without a hitch Monday night in the Grand Ballroom of Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Gov. Bruce Rauner and Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker got separate but equal opportunities to address the crowd. Both saluted the past, but also looked to the future.

“Today we celebrate all that’s been born and built and grown in our state,” Rauner said. “We not only created nuclear fusion. We created the Twinkie."

After running a divisive and dismissive campaign in his bid for re-election, Rauner called for unity across the state, saying, “Tonight we come together not as Republicans or Democrats, or conservatives or liberals, or Chicago or Danville or Decatur. Tonight we come together all as one people, as one state, to celebrate our wonderful achievements, and to work together to have a better future for all of us.”

 Eli’s Cheesecake President Marc Schulman and Gov. Rauner pose after cutting the bicentennial cake. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Eli’s Cheesecake President Marc Schulman and Gov. Rauner pose after cutting the bicentennial cake. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

“Our best days are yet to come in Illinois,” Pritzker added immediately after. Calling Illinois “the heart of America,” he pledged to put Illinois on the path to become the greatest state in the union over the next 200 years.

Pritzker expressed “deep gratitude” for the roles Rauner and his wife, Diana, filled the past four years, adding, “Thank you for your service to our state.”

Rauner said, “It’s been a true privilege for us to serve you the last four years,” calling it “a humbling honor.”

Comedians George Wendt and Robert Smigel later jabbed, however, that to find two Illinois governors in the same place at the event was the “only place outside of a federal prison” that could happen.

Riffing on the Bears, coach Mike Ditka, and Chicago stereotypes in their characters of Da Superfans from “Saturday Night Live,” Smigel and Wendt pretty much stole the show with their 10-minute-plus performance.

With beers and Italian-beef sandwiches set in front of them, they called Pritzker “our kind of governor.”

“For once I feel like I got something in common with a politician,” Wendt said, calling Pritzker someone “who like me enjoys his linked meats and battered creatures of the sea.”

“I don’t think we’re ever gonna see a soda tax coming from this guy,” Smigel added.

 Gov.-elect Pritzker poses with the bicentennial Eli’s Cheesecake before the birthday event. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Gov.-elect Pritzker poses with the bicentennial Eli’s Cheesecake before the birthday event. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Looking out on the crowd estimated at 2,000, Smigel said, “Half the people in this room are running for mayor” of Chicago, a reference to the upcoming municipal election, in which 21 people have filed to succeed Rahm Emanuel.

Wendt said he was one of them, and that he’d add a fifth star to the Chicago flag “honoring the day they traded for Khalil Mack,” the linebacker who has spurred the Bears’ revival this season.

They agreed that the greatest event in state history was not the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, but the recording of “The Super Bowl Shuffle” by the Bears in 1985.

Buddy Guy, the enduring dean of Chicago’s great electric blues artists, finished the night with a brisk three-song performance, starting with his recent hit “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” and finishing with “Sweet Home Chicago.”

That followed an extended acoustic set by Kevin Cronin, lead singer of REO Speedwagon, recently voted the top musicians in state history in the “Illinois Top 200” online balloting. Cronin said the audience was the best-dressed crowd he’d ever performed for.

Miguel Cervantes, star of the Chicago production of the hip-hop musical “Hamilton,” performed a “Gettysburg Rap” quoting from President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, joined by high-school musical-theater award winners from across the state.

The gala ran smoothly, led by an honorary ceremony for 200 of the state’s top military veterans. They stood as martial theme songs played for each of branch of the military as members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the U.S. “Armed Forces Medley.”

“Bravery is one guy standing for the Coast Guard,” cracked TV news anchor Bill Kurtis, acting as host of the event.

He got jabbed too, as Smigel and Wendt later joked that he’d been the moderator for the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The event of just over two hours had to be moved from the United Center when only about 2,000 tickets were sold, but otherwise left those in attendance satisfied, in part thanks to a massive Eli’s Cheesecake in the shape of the State Capitol served in slices to everyone.