Madonna Misconstrued In Bay City

Madonna became the first person from Bay City to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Monday, March 10, 2008. Inductees were honored with a video montage leading up to their induction, and listed below Madonna's name was Bay City, Michigan. It was certainly no accident that Bay City was placed under Madonna's name. The question is why? The city has never treated Madonna with very much respect.

If you google Madonna's name on the Internet, you will find Bay City mentioned within the first two or three sentences in all of the biographies included on the hundreds of sites listed under her name. No one has ever provided Bay City with as much publicity or attention as Madonna. Yet if you travel throughout the city, you will find no signs or any type of official recognition of Bay City's most famous native. The only places in town that feature Madonna's images or information about her are large mural on the side of the former City Market building on Adams Street that was painted in the fall of 2020 and the recently opened Madonna displays that are part of the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame exhibit at the Historical Museum of Bay County on Washington Avenue.

It's baffling that Bay City has failed to market itself as the birthplace of the most successful female in the history of popular music. It has passed up many millions of tourist dollars over the years because a controversy that started almost 38 years ago, and it sparked a still-simmering debate concerning nudity, exploitation, local politics, and an "insult" fabricated by a Bay City Times editorial.Madonna Fortin 1951Madonna Fortin 1951

Let's start off with a little Madonna history. In what should have been an incredible stroke of good luck for my hometown, Madonna Louise Ciccone came into the world in Bay City, Michigan, on August 16, 1958. Her mother, the former Madonna Fortin, was born and raised in Bay City and graduated from St. Joseph High School in 1951. After her marriage, she and her husband, Silvio 'Tony' Ciccone, lived and raised their family in the Pontiac area.

While visiting her family in Bay City that summer, Madonna's mother went into labor and was taken to Bay City's Mercy Hospital where she gave birth to her first daughter and namesake. Although young Madonna would be raised in both Pontiac and Rochester, Michigan, she often visited her grandmother at her home on Smith Street in the Banks Area, and as a result, Bay City became an important part of her early life. Madonna Like A VirginMadonna Like A Virgin

Fast forward to July of 1985. Madonna had emerged as the hottest female artist in the music industry. During the preceding nineteen months, she had charted seven hit singles, including two that reached # 1 ("Like A Virgin" and "Crazy For You"), a string of popular videos on the brand new MTV network, and charted her first # 1 album, also titled "Like A Virgin".

In addition, Madonna received very good reviews for her performance in the hit film Desperately Seeking Susan, and she had performed at two sold-out shows at Detroit's Cobo Hall as part of her first concert tour. Bay City's mayor, Tim Sullivan, then announced his plan to honor the popular singer with the key to the city.

The first serious bump in the upward trajectory of her career, however, came with the July press announcements that nude photographs of Madonna, taken in 1978 when she was still a struggling artist, were sold to two of the world's most popular men's magazines, Playboy and Penthouse. The media frenzy caused by the news stories was further titilated by Bob Guccione of Penthouse who claimed the pictures were of "Madonna alone, fully nude, very explicit, with everything in full view". Madonna early nude photo.Madonna early nude photo.

Bay City politicians quickly latched onto the nude photo story as an opportunity to do some serious grandstanding. According to the Bay City Times' front page story of July 9th, "When Mayor Timothy G. Sullivan heard the bare facts about Madonna's unveiling in Penthouse magazine, he did what he could to enforce moral standards - he reneged on his offer to give her the key to the city". The Times quoted Sullivan as saying "No key to the city for Madonna. We'll give her a warm welcome, but the key represents the citizens of the community, and it would not be in good taste to give her the key given certain circumstances".

Sullivan had originally wanted Madonna to come and perform a free concert in her hometown. But the nude photos had what he called "a chilling effect" on his plans. "I think it's best for all concerned if some distance and time is placed between this disclosure and Madonna's visit. She's certainly Bay City's most prominent export. Don't mind the pun but these are the bare facts".

The mayor's quotes had the desired effect of spreading his name throughout the country via newspapers, radio stations, and the national television networks. Riding the wave of publicity, Sullivan had a new quote prepared on July 10th. "We have a nice gold pin to present to Madonna if she returns - the second highest accolade awarded by the city. Of course the gold pin requires that she have something to pin it onto. She's a native of Bay City and I'd be happy to welcome her to the city, but I still don't think a key to the city is appropriate".  Tim SullivanTim Sullivan

Not content to let Sullivan get all the headlines, Patrick Ryon, his mayoral opponent in the upcoming November election, responded by calling Sullivan "prissy". Ryon went on to say that only a very select few people would be concerned over whether Madonna posed nude, and "the vast majoriity of people don't care one way or the other. He has made a mountain out of a molehill". Ryon went on to state firmly, "If she were to come to Bay City, I would give her the key".

Advised of Ryon's comments, Sullivan wrapped himself in the cloak of morality and noted that he had recently presented a key to a nun from the St. Stanislaus parish - and it just wouldn't do to give the same token to Madonna. Sullivan said that "he doesn't condone the exploitation of women by pornography and that the mayor's office has a moral responsibility not to support exploitive maneuvers". Sullivan then went on to make this rather bizarre statement: "I guess Mr. Ryon feels that a moral standard in the community is wrong. Then maybe his daughters ought to consider posing, if he feels there should be no discretion, no moral standards at all".

Ryon then countered: "If there was any exploitation it was done by Mr. Sullivan in the first place. And my daughters or the moral standards of the community are not related to Mr. Sullivan's attempts to get publicity for himself in the midst of a political campaign".

In the middle of this war of words between Bay City's mayoral rivals, newspaper editorials also had their say in the matter. The Detroit News in a July 11th editorial titled Like A Virgin said that "the vacillating mayor of Bay City has created a political problem for himself over the Madonna issue". It went on to say that Sullivan's statements suggested that he didn't understand Madonna's mystique, "making him more naive than the average 13-year-old in Bay City". Bay City's KeyBay City's Key

The Bay City Times editorial took a more tongue-in-cheek approach. They went on to describe the key in detail (eight inches long and made of a gold-finished metal) and implied that Madonna would not be interested in the honor anyway. The Times didn't really criticize the mayor's position other than indicating that although the the keys "don't open anything, they do symbolize the open hearts - and sometimes the open minds - of the officials and citizens of Bay City".

It's interesting to read the letters that came into the Peoples' Forum in the Bay City Times during the controversy. By a slim margin, there were a greater number of letters that supported the mayor. C.J. Klida commented: "Our hats off and praise to Mayor Tim Sullivan for his gutsy decision and stand for decency and moral responsibilty". Thelma Kirk opined: "I feel our honest and conscientious mayor was doing the right thing". Mabel Cowgill stridently proclaimed: "Madonna is a porn-rock singer who according to C.B.C. has appeared in a porn movie". Name With-held expressed a similar position with: "Her poses were not done for an art class, they are pure pornography". G.E. Gelpke offered this broadside: "Are we to feel compelled to champion ladies of dubious virtue? It is unclear whether we are to extend this honor for public nudity, or perhaps for her vocal talent which, in truth, merits neither a gold key nor a wooden nickel". And finally this was Theresa Rye's opinion of the controversy: "If Bay City is to honor nude people, I don't want any part of it".

Some of the letters of those opposed to Sullivan's actions included these comments. Kim Cristie's opinion of the mayor was: "His pompous attitude is certainly a bad reflection on our city". Mary Piotrowski commented: "I think it was very unfair of Mayor Tim Sullivan. After all, she has done nothing to be ashamed of". Jeff Kerr's letter expressed this feeling: "I am amused at the selfish behavior of our inexperienced mayor. He not only made himself a national fool but he dragged Bay City with him". And Brenda Walsh expressed this thought: "How dare Mayor Tim Sullivan speak for the entire community". Quite a few of the letters that were critical of the mayor also stated that Madonna wouldn't want the key to the city anyway. Madonna at Live AidMadonna at Live Aid

For her part, Madonna refused comment on the controversy. Her spokesperson, Liz Rosenberg, said that Madonna didn't feel that she had done anything she should be ashamed of, and that Madonna had previously acknowledged that she had posed nude for art classes. She had also briefly appeared nude as a rape victim in a low-budget film called A Certain Sacrifice. Meanwhile, while Madonna's lawyers were trying to block the publication of the photos, she performed for a world-wide audience at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia on Saturday, July 13th.

Unfortunately for Madonna, she had signed a standard model release that gave photographer Herman Kulkens the right to sell, print, publish, or disseminate the photographs. And Kulkens did just that, selling Penthouse some of the photos for $25,000. But when Playboy offered $50,000 for the rights to the photos, Kulkens turned around and sued Penthouse for $2 million dollars. I guess he felt he was getting short-changed.

On July 16th, the first of the Madonna pictorials appeared on local shelves in the form of a ten-page spread in the September issue of Playboy. According to the Bay City Times report the next day, there seemed to be some disappointment with the featured pictures. Ron Volders, a clerk at a city store that sold Playboy, described them thusly: They're mild, real mild. She's got dark hair. She looks like she's about 18. It doesn't even look like her". What? No air-brushed or provacative poses in full-color with the flattering lighting and backdrops that we expect with all nude presentations in the magazine? As a result, there was not as much local interest in the Madonna issue as there was when Vanessa Williams (then-Miss America) was displayed in Penthouse.

Although the topic was still being discussed around town, the newspaper coverage and the quotes by the candidates had pretty much run out of steam by the end of the week. The world-wide media focus soon shifted to Madonna's upcoming marriage to popular actor Sean Penn. The negative publicity didn't seem to hurt Madonna's career after all. Her next album, "True Blue", was an even bigger hit than "Like A Virgin" and it contained five more hit singles including three that reached # 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The Bay City Times ended up endorsing Sullivan's November re-election bid, but showed they didn't completely understand the ramifications of what had happened when they stated that the Madonna affair was "patently political and in the end almost funny". Although the Detroit News had predicted political problems for Sullivan back in July, he defeated Ryon easily in the mayoral election by carrying 74% of the vote.

Everybody's happy, right? I think not. I was surprised how many people, including Madonna's supporters, didn't think that she would have had any interest in being given the key to the city. They all seemed to buy into the "I don't care" aspect of Madonna's public image.

I believe that she would have come to receive the award and here's why. Bay City held a special place in Madonna's heart for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it was the birthplace and home of her mother. What better way to honor her late mother than to receive the city's highest honor in her name? Secondly, many of Madonna's relatives from her mother's side of the family still resided in Bay City including her beloved grandmother, Elsie Fortin, with whom she spent several summers after her mother's death. They would have all shared in Madonna's triumph. Lastly, I think that everybody enjoys recognition from their hometown. Even though she was an international celebrity, I believe Madonna would have relished the chance to shine here, a place that held many of her childhood memories.

Instead, when Madonna was catching flak from all sides regarding the nude photos and probably feeling more than a little threatened, her hometown, through the actions of its mayor, turned its back on her. Sullivan had the chance to be her knight in shining armor, but he chose to exploit the controversy for his own gain just like everyone else in the media. His pun-laden little quips about Madonna's nudity begged to be quoted, and he milked the morality stance for his own political benefit while choosing to back down rather than defend a Bay City native.                                 Grandmother Elsie Fortin 1985Grandmother Elsie Fortin 1985

A golden opportunity like that might only come along once in a lifetime, and the mayor totally blew his big chance by not going ahead with his original plan to present Madonna with the key to the city. After all, the key was to be presented for Madonna's achievements in music and had nothing to do with a series of photos that were taken six years previously. If those photos had never seen the light of day, would that somehow make Madonna more worthy of the key?

Unfortunately, this controversy served to damage the relationship between one of the world's biggest stars and the city of her birth. It got much worse, however, following an interview wiith Jane Pauley in 1987 on the Today Show.  When Pauley asked Madonna where she was from, she answered "a smelly little town in northern Michigan." She was referring to the Dow Chemical refinery and cracking plants located near her grandmother's home in Bay City that dispensed an unpleasant chemical odor to the neighborhoods in their vicinity.  When Pauley asked her if her comment was meant disparagingly, Madonna answered: "No, no, I have great affection for Bay City".  For anyone watching the interview, it was clear that Madonna's comment was a childhood memory and not intended as a put-down of Bay City. Bay City Times EditorialBay City Times Editorial

Most people in town, however, did not see the actual television interview.  They got their  information from the front page story in the Bay City Times titled That's Cold, Madonna, published that very afternoon. The story, which contained no by-line, took Madonna's comment out of context and stated that Madonna characterized her birthplace as smelly on national television because the mayor didn't give her the key to the city.  The fact that neither the key nor Mayor Sullivan were mentioned during the interview did not prevent the author from jumping to that conclusion. The story also accused Madonna of mistaking Bay City for the city of Midland without bothering to mention the since-removed Dow Chemical plants that Madonna was referring to.

While the various codes of journalism had some differences, most shared common elements that included the principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability. By comparing the That's Cold, Madonna story to the actual Madonna-Jane Pauley interview, which is now available in its entirety on YouTube, one can easily see that the newspaper managed to violate most of those principles

If the slanted Bay City Times story was intended to create a controversy, it was highly successful. Many community leaders and private citizens in Bay City, who had obviously not seen the actual broadcast, called the newspaper, radio shows, and television stations to express their anger and outrage over Madonna's comment.

Madonna was alerted to the firestorm her words were causing in Bay City by family members who attended her Silverdome concert the following day with 42,000 fans. Although she must have been somewhat mystified as to how her words could have been so badly misconstrued, she was woman enough to stand up and say that she was sorry. Six songs into her concert appearance, Madonna publicly apologized for her comment: "I didn't mean the people of Bay City stink, just the Dow Chemical plant located near my grandmother's house". She went on to state that she didn't want to cause a commotion in Bay City, and she closed by saying "I'd better keep my mouth shut now". Silverdome 1987Silverdome 1987

Would Bay City's officials or the editors of the Bay City Times seize the opportunity and reciprocate? Once again they dropped the ball. Rather than use the occasion to accept her apology and further heal the wound by offering an apology of their own for their exploitive actions and the hurt they caused her, Bay City's governmental and newspaper leadership chose instead to remain silent and wear Madonna's perceived insult with a sort of demented pride for the next 30 plus years. Madonna's remark was to be periodically trotted out and repeated over the years by various officials, press pundits, or uninformed citizens when they somehow felt the need to discredit the star or indirectly blame her for the city's decline. Of course none of these "experts" ever chose to investigate the misleading and unfair editorial that was the root of the controversy.

One has only to visit Bay City's Wikipedia page to get a sense of how relentlessly the town has tried to distance itself from Madonna.  You will find no mention of one of the world's most famous women until near the end of the entry under a section titled "Culture". After reading about the River Roar and St. Stan's Polish Festival, the Bay County Library System, and even a mention of the Bay City Rollers, we find one sentence about Madonna.  It reads: "Madonna was born here and once referred to Bay City as 'a stinky, little town in Northern Michigan' on national television." It's difficult to determine what is more pathetic about this sentence; the fact that the writer couldn't even get wording of the perceived insult correct (mistakenly substituting "stinky" for "smelly"), or the fact that city would want that sentence to represent its connection to the most successful female artist in the history of popular music.

This is the real tragedy that is Sullivan's legacy as well as that of the unnamed writer in the Bay City Times. How many small cities can claim to be the birthplace of a world-wide superstar like Madonna? And if a city was lucky enough to be the birthplace of such an attraction, how many would continue to ignore or alienate that celebrity? No one, not even Madonna, was as controversial as Elvis Presley was in the 1950s. Elvis had his critics in both Tupelo, Mississippi, where he was born and in Memphis, Tennessee, where he lived for most of his life. Both cities were wise enough, however, not to be ruled by his critics and other forces of negativity. Tupelo and Memphis have embraced Elvis, and his legacy has in turn benefitted both cities.

The same could have happened in Bay City. Sullivan's actions and the Times' story, however, effectively sabotaged any meaningful relationship between Madonna and her hometown. Although I'm sure he would never have admitted it, I think even Sullivan, who has since passed away, probably realized the enormity of his blunder. I spoke with his older sister, Kathy, at Bay City State Park several years ago. When I questioned her about her brother's role in the Madonna controversy of 1985, she said that Tim had told her that he decided not to give Madonna the key because he felt that she was an inappropriate role model for Kathy's two young daughters.

This sounds to me like the former mayor was attempting to rationalize the gaffe that he knew he would always be remembered for. Are we to believe that Sullivan actually thought his nieces were going to be led down the path of degradation if Madonna received the key to the city? Did he really think they were going to run away to New York and pose nude because of Madonna? What next, did he fear that young ladies all across Bay City would be running around and baring their breasts in random acts of Madonna solidarity?

At the end of our conversation, Sullivan's sister challenged me to do something about it if I thought her brother was wrong. Hmmm. How do you even begin to start to clean up Sullivan's mess and the insult that wasn't after all this time? I'm no politician but I do believe in karma, or the idea that what goes around comes around. So when it was announced that Madonna was going to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, my wife Lynn and I decided to drive down to Cleveland to watch the ceremony on closed-circuit TV inside the Hall. Hall of Fame 2008Hall of Fame 2008

Granted it was a symbolic gesture, but we felt that someone should be there to represent Madonna's hometown. And I'm here to tell you that it was pretty thrilling to watch her induction in that atmosphere and then to be cheering when we saw Bay City, Michigan, flashed up on the screen along with her name. Madonna will never know that we were there, but I believe that doing something positive, no matter how small, will lead to other positive events.

A few years back, Charles Brunner, Bay City's then-mayor, wanted to address the situation that had been festering for over two decades. He told me that he tried to reach out to Madonna through her father, Tony Ciccone, who had been to Bay City to promote some of the wines from his Ciccone Vineyard & Winery located in Sutton's Bay, north of Traverse City. Brunner hoped to reconcile the situation with Madonna by inviting her back to receive the key to Bay City. Unfortunately, Brunner was out of town when Madonna's representative called to offer him free tickets to her concert in Detroit.

Unlike Sullivan's ham-fisted idea of a free concert in exchange for the key, Brunner's proposal was to let Madonna decide exactly how and when it could be done. Although it was certainly a case of too little, too late, Tony Ciccone told Brunner that if the mayor wrote a letter to Madonna concerning his proposal, he would make sure that it got to her. Brunner said that the most important message he wanted to impart to Madonna is that "We're very proud of you in Bay City". If only we'd had a mayor with enough backbone and common sense to convey that same message 37 years ago. 


I wrote the above story15 years ago. I've updated it, but little has changed in in terms of Bay City’s leadership during those years although a small sign was recently allowed to be placed near the site of the old Mercy Hospital where Madonna was born. But Zach Neumeyer’s award-winning Smelly Little Town documentary, filmed in 2019, showed that many in Bay City still believe that Madonna insulted the town, and a good number also incorrectly believe that it was the sugar plant on S. Euclid Avenue that Madonna was referring to. Sadly, it appears that the whole insult affair has become Bay City’s “Big Lie,” a falsehood that has been repeated so many times over the years that it has become accepted as truth.

Watch the entire Madonna and Jane Pauley interview by clicking below.  Her comments about Bay City start at the 11 minute mark.

Watch the video for Madonna's first # 1 hit single "Like A Virgin" by clicking on