LINCOLN PARK — As he sits in a checkered suit and Howard Stern-print tie preparing for his day of selling umbrella hats, Carl Bonafede holds his most prized possession.
He beams as he describes the wooden placard Billboard presented him in 1967 when the band that he managed, The Buckinghams, reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It remained there for three weeks.
“I’m a hidden secret on the streets,” he said.
Bonafede, a 71-year-old once known as Chicago radio’s “Screaming Wildman,” now spends his days peddling umbrella hats all over the city. He was once one of Chicago’s rock pioneers in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The always sharply dressed son of Italian immigrants launched his music career at age 14 while living in his parents’ garden apartment in the DePaul neighborhood. That career included simultaneous stints as a dancehall promoter, manager of The Buckinghams and other groundbreaking acts such as The Daughters of Eve, and producer of singles such as The Buckinghams' “Kind of a Drag.”
“There weren’t many guys who could do what I was doing,” he said. “I don’t know how I got it all done. I didn’t sleep.”
Almost no one recognizes him for his musical fame these days, but he occasionally will hear a “Hey aren’t you the Screaming Wildman?” while selling hats from his pushcart on Maxwell Street every Sunday.
Carron Little, whose public performance group Out of Site was performing in Wicker Park Friday, said she had seen Bonafede on numerous occasions, but had no idea of his past fame.
“When I saw him I thought, ‘That person’s an innovator.’ He had this umbrella atop his head,” said Little, who is originally from Scotland. “That’s the fabulous thing about this neighborhood.”
Bonafede has successfully transferred his ability to hawk the latest record on the after-midnight airwaves to the street corner with his “one-of-a-kind” mannequin heads who are shaded by his colorful umbrellas.
He has a license to sell as long as he consistently moves locations and it is not a peddle-free zone, such as the Loop.
“If I could go any place I wanted to, I’d be a millionaire,” he said.
Bonafede said he got the idea to sell the hats from legendary left fielder Lou Brock, who patented the umbrella hat, about four or five years ago.
“It’s got to be the right kind of day, either 85 and sunny or rainy,” he said. “Other guys have tried it and they can’t seem to sell them.”
Bonafede’s latest schtick to pull customers in is using his ever-changing getup, which could include purple shoes one day and sunglasses the next, but he always wears a slick sports coat.
“To see someone walk around like this, they ask me about the tie, the shoes,” he said. “I try to be different.”